The End of a Beautiful Friendship: Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle

It seems strange that a man best known for creating the quintessential detective, who based his deductions solely on reason, would also be one of the biggest proponents of Spiritualism around the turn of the last century. Equally strange is that a man who based his career of performing illusions and magic tricks was one of the most stringent disbelievers of the same religion. Perhaps strangest of all was the friendship of these two men, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

Good Beginnings

Houdini met Doyle while doing a performance tour in Europe. While the magician did not believe in Spiritualism, he had a strong interest in the subject and said many times that he did desperately want to believe, as he truly wished to speak to his beloved deceased mother. Doyle was already well-known for his support of the belief by this point, and was considered by many to be a saint of Spiritualism. When he met Houdini, he went about bringing him to some of the best mediums in Europe in an attempt to convert the magician. At this point, Houdini attempted to lead Doyle to believe that he was very open to the idea, but just undecided. He did enjoy hearing about the religion from a person he considered to be on the same intellectual plane as himself and not an entirely gullible person. Still though, the magician was able to see through the parlor tricks used by the mediums that Doyle brought him to. The more of the mediums he saw, the less convinced he became. While he did not yet begin exposing the frauds, he did record their methods and become increasingly frustrated with their taking advantage of people’s trust.

At Cross Purposes

Soon enough, Houdini started to begin his famous crusade against fraudulent mediums. He eventually even became part of a Scientific America committee offering a massive reward to anyone who could prove their methods were authentic --of course, no one ever managed to claim the reward. As his fame grew for these acts, Houdini even started attending séances in costume, taking with him a reporter and a police officer. Funny enough, Doyle actually supported these efforts at first, because he was afraid the fakes would damage the religion’s legitimacy. Although Houdini offered to show Doyle how to spot the tricks used  by mediums, Doyle insisted that the mediums he knew were extremely honest and would never cheat their followers. As Houdini started to push Doyle even further to admit the people were acting dishonestly, Doyle soon converted to the belief that Houdini himself was one of the most powerful mediums around. Doyle and other Spiritualists who held this belief claimed the magician actually dematerialized himself to make his famous escapes. They believed he was working to discredit other mediums so he could gain publicity and take his act even further. Doyle expressed many of these beliefs in his last book, The Edge of the Unknown. Houdini, unfortunately, was caught between a rock and a hard place with these accusations. He couldn’t actually reveal his tricks, but by not doing so, the Spiritualists still had ammo to claim he was a medium. While he simply stated that his escapes were all performed by physical means, these tales haunted him until his death.

Attempting to Convert Doyle

In an attempt to prove to Doyle that his performances only involved trickery, Houdini offered to perform a special trick for his friend. The two men were joined by the Bernard Ernst president of the American Society of Magicians for the test, which started with a room filled with a slate, five cork balls and some white paint. Doyle was instructed to choose one of the balls at random and then place it in the container of paint. He was then given a pencil and a piece of paper and was told to go wherever he wanted to write a message of his choice on the paper. Houdini and Ernst stayed in the room, while Doyle left the house, walked three blocks away and then wrote a message on the paper. He then folded the paper, put it in his pocket and returned to the house. Upon his return, Houdini instructed Doyle to pick up the ball and put it on the slate. The ball then began to roll over the slate, where it spelled out the words Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin, the same words Doyle wrote on the paper. While Houdini devised this test to show Doyle these methods all involved simple tricks, Doyle was convinced more than ever that Houdini was a medium.

Attempting to Convert Houdini

The two continued to be friends and spent a vacation together in Atlantic City shortly after Doyle’s speaking tour in New York. During the vacation, Doyle’s wife, lady Jean offered to perform a séance for Houdini. He accepted, trusting her sincerity and honesty, and tried to completely accept the realism of the experience. As stated earlier, Houdini wanted to believe, he still had not found anyone who was worth believing in though. He was particularly excited about the séance when Jean announced that she would be try to contact his mother. Houdini said, “I had made up my mind that I would be as religious as it was in my power to be and not at any time did I scoff during the ceremony… with a beating heart I waited, hoping that I might feel once more the presence of my beloved mother." Lady Jean entered a trance during the séance and her hand started moving, scribbling words across paper, which Doyle then handed to Houdini. The message detailed his mother’s pleasure in finally getting to contact her son. They started off saying, “Oh my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I'm through. I've tried, oh so often -- now I am happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy -- my own beloved boy -- friends, thank you, with all my heart for this." After the séance, Houdini wrote a small note on the bottom of the paper, saying, “Message written by Lady Doyle claiming the spirit of my dear Mother had control of her hand -- my sainted mother could not write English and spoke broken English.” A few months after the Doyle’s returned home to England, Houdini went public about the incident. He said there was no chance his mother had been summoned in the séance based on her poor English and the fact that she never learned to read or write. He said he believed the Doyle’s did not deceive him intentionally, but were victims to their own gullibility. Doyle tried to argue against these claims by saying that language is universal to the dead. He also said Houdini was too nervous about the encounter to accept that it was his own mother speaking to him from the beyond.

The End of It All

After this, the pair tried to maintain some level of strained friendship, but the final blow came when Houdini began publicly attacking Mina “Magery” Crandon. His Scientific American panel was fervent in discrediting Mrs. Crandon after she came forward to claim the prize. Doyle was a huge supporter of Crandon, even praising her in his later book The History of Spiritualism. “The commission is, in my opinion, a farce," he wrote, "and has already killed itself." The two began privately quarreling, but by 1923, the were exchanging criticizing letters to one another via the New York Times. After they publicly feuded when their tours happened to cross in Denver, they stopped talking for good. A few years later, Houdini died. When his wife, Bess began clearing out his property, she uncovered a huge collection of books on Spiritualism and she opted to send them to Doyle. The author wrote back to her, stating his reluctance to accept the gifts though, because he thought Houdini harbored bad feelings against him up until the time of his death. Bess wrote back and said that Houdini had, in fact, held out hope of contacting his mother up until his death and even told her so on his death bed. She assured Doyle that Houdini carried no resentment towards him and that the press had greatly exaggerated the feud between the two. She best summed up Houdini’s thoughts by writing, “he was deeply hurt whenever any journalistic arguments arose between you and would have been the happiest man in the world had he been able to agree with your views on Spiritism. He admired and respected you --two remarkable men with different views.” Source #1, #2, #3, #4

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I have to take exception to one line, "Equally strange is that a man who based his career of performing illusions and magic tricks was one of the most stringent disbelievers of the same religion." I think it's natural - if you pull tricks, you recognize tricks. James Randi became a leading skeptic spokesperson because he is a magician.
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