Hanussen, Erik Jan (1889-1933)

views updated May 23 2018

Hanussen, Erik Jan (1889-1933)

Extraordinary stage clairvoyant who made a great reputation in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, combining blatant trickery with the most astounding mental phenomena. Because of the accuracy of his predictions he became known as "the Devil's Prophet." Born Heinrich Steinschneider on July 2, 1889, he was the son of a synagogue caretaker. At an early age he left school to join a circus, where he became a knife thrower, fire eater, and professional strong man. He served in World War I, and when his company was cut off from water supplies Hanussen demonstrated a weird talent for water witching without apparatus. He was eventually transferred to headquarters to entertain troops.

After the war he built up a reputation as a strong man at the Ronacher Circus in Vienna and demonstrated stage clairvoyance at music halls. During one routine performance he suddenly foretold details of the discovery of a local murderer before they were printed in newspapers. At the same demonstration he privately informed an elegant woman that she was the baroness Prawitz, unhappily married, and that within a month she would leave her husband and become his mistress in Berlin, although the affair would eventually break up.

Meanwhile Hanussen found himself on trial in the Czech town of Leitmeritz, charged with extracting money under false pretenses by claiming to forecast the future. With arrogant poise Hanussen correctly told the state prosecutor the contents of his pockets, the judge the contents of his attache case, and gave other information about court officials. When the judge protested that this was just music hall telepathy, Hanussen retorted that he would give further proof of his powers. He stated that at that moment there was a man standing on platform 2 at the Leitmeritz railway station who had just burgled the Commercial Bank and had the money in his briefcase, and that the train was due in four minutes' time. Police rushed to the station and found that Hanussen was right! The bank robber was arrested and Hanussen acquitted.

This case made Hanussen famous, and he became a star at the Scala Theatre in Berlin during the 1920s. The baroness Prawitz also felt an irresistible compulsion to join him as his mistress and was further humiliated by being obliged to dress in a revealing costume and act as his stage assistant "Jane."

In 1929, at a Scala performance, Hanussen told a banker that there was a short circuit in his strong room, which had 360,000 marks in the safes, and there were just over three minutes left to telephone for the fire engines. It happened just as Hanussen predicted. There was no evidence of fraud or collusion, and an electrical fault in a secure strong room of a securely locked bank would have been difficult to fake.

In spite of such sensationally accurate predictions, Hanussen also cold-bloodedly engaged an assistant to ferret out information and gossip for his regular stage performances to avoid having to rely solely on clairvoyance.

With the Nazi rise to power, Hanussen obtained a favorable status as an honorary Aryan, but overreached himself at a séance for party members at which his medium predicted the burning of a large building as a signal for revolt. With the burning of the Reichstag, Hanussen became an embarrassment to the Nazis, and in March 1933 he was taken for a car ride and murdered by three Nazi party members. As it happens, he had earlier told one of his mistresses that he felt his end was near.

Although little known outside Europe, Hanussen was a celebrity in prewar Germany and Austria, and in 1955 a German film company made a film about his life in which this strange charlatan and clairvoyant was represented as an anti-Nazi martyr. In 1989, he was the subject of another movie in the United States.


Hanussen, Erik Jan. Meine Lebenslinie. Berlin, 1930.

Tabori, Paul. Companions of the Unseen. London, 1968.

Steinschneider, Heinrich

views updated May 17 2018

Steinschneider, Heinrich

Real name of famous clairvoyant and stage performer Erik Jan Hanussen (d. 1933), who established a reputation in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s.

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