In a long life which has touched every side of humanity, Houdini is far and away the most curious and intriguing character whom I have ever encountered.
–Arthur Conan Doyle
One of the most ironic facts of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life is that the creator (or, as you will, Literary Agent) of Sherlock Holmes—the ultimate empiricist in literature—believed in Spiritualism with a religious fervor.
Doyle had dabbled in Spiritualism as early as the 1880s when he first began writing Sherlock Holmes stories. But it wasn’t until 1919 that he became fully converted, when a medium allegedly contacted Kingsley, Doyle’s son who had died in World War I.
The great magician and showman Harry Houdini was first drawn to Spiritualism for much the same reasons. After his mother died he became fascinated with the idea of contacting her beyond the grave. Despite knowing, and often gleefully exposing, the tricks of so-called mediums, Houdini held out some small hope that there could be a person with true psychic powers out there.
The friendship of—or perhaps more appropriately, the battle between—Doyle and Houdini began when Houdini learned Doyle was interested in the Davenport Brothers, a pair of stage mediums from the past. Houdini forwarded Doyle a copy of his book The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, which summarily explained and exposed the Davenport Brothers’ act.
Doyle wrote to thank Houdini for the book. He then went on to explain that Houdini hadn’t convinced him of any fraud on the part of the mediums.
Most people would throw their hands up at this. But Houdini continued to approach Doyle with remarkable sensitivity, given his predilection for appearing at séances and shouting, “I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!”
At one point, Houdini invited Doyle to his home for a private demonstration. He performed some typical Spiritualist tricks, leaving Doyle stunned and impressed. Then he told Doyle:
I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion…I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along those lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily ‘supernatural,’ or the work of ‘spirits’ just because you cannot explain them.
Instead, Doyle left the house convinced that Houdini had psychic abilities of his own. He must simply have been denying them so that he could maintain his career. In a letter he stated, “Is it not perfectly evident that if he did not deny them [his psychic abilities] his occupation would have been gone forever?”
Doyle truly believed that Houdini accomplished some of his biggest feats of escape by turning into ectoplasm.
Despite fundamental differences in opinion, Doyle and Houdini managed to remain friends for a few years. This fraught relationship balanced on two main points: First, it seems that Houdini did remain open to the possibility of communication with the dead—though he had yet to see it proven. Second, Doyle remained convinced that Houdini himself was a talented psychic.
A break was inevitable. But it was ushered in, despite their care, by two of the women dearest to the men.
One day Doyle invited Houdini to a private séance, in which the medium would attempt to contact Houdini’s mother.
The medium was Doyle’s wife, Jean.
Over the course of the night, Houdini’s mother wrote (through Jean) nearly 15 pages of messages to Houdini. Doyle was elated with his victory.
Three main problems, though.
- Houdini’s mother was Jewish, so she would never have started the contact with drawing the sign of the cross, as Jean did.
- Houdini’s mother did not speak English, but the entire message was in fluent English.
- The day of the séance was his deceased mother’s birthday. However, there was no mention of this during the entire session.
Houdini had not been convinced. But what to say when it is your friend’s wife who is the fraud? He left it alone.
Until quite a different occasion that ironically did not directly involve the author and his wife. Houdini wrote an article in which he stated,
…in the twenty-five years of my investigation and the hundreds of séances which I have attended, I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me that there is a possibility of communication with the loved ones who have gone beyond.
After that Lady Doyle was, according to her husband, “rather angry” with Houdini.
From there the friendship spiraled into a series of public provocations and private semi-apologies, until Doyle finally refused to answer another letter from Houdini.
Why was Houdini so determined to explore Spiritualism? Why did he press for a friendship with Doyle, a fervent advocate for the very ideas he had gone great lengths to expose? Did he truly want to believe, somewhere deep down?
You will note that I am still a skeptic, but a seeker after the Truth. I am willing to believe, if I can find a Medium who, as you suggest, will not resort to ‘manipulation’ when the Power does not ‘arrive.’
This seems like an open-minded statement, but Houdini knew all the tricks in the book. He died never having found that Medium.
As for Doyle, he toured both America and Australia lecturing on Spiritualism and raising money for the cause. He wrote a number of books on the subject. He was a deep and sincere believer. How could the creator of Sherlock Holmes be presented with contrary evidence time and again—by an expert in the field, such as Houdini, no less—and still believe? Doyle answers this question in a letter to Houdini:
It wants to be approached not in the spirit of a detective approaching a suspect, but in that of a humble, religious soul, yearning for help and for comfort.
Through a medium, Arthur Conan Doyle believed he spoke to his dead son Kingsley more than half a dozen times.
Sources and Further Reading
- The two sources I relied on most heavily for these details, particularly the quotes, are Stashower’s Teller of Tales: The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1999) and The Secret Life of Houdini by Kalush and Sloman (2006). Both biographies are excellent and highly recommended.
- If you’d like to explore further, there are two great books written specifically on this unusual friendship: Final Séance by Polidoro (2001); and Masters of Mystery by Christopher Sandford (2011).