With Halloween upon us as well as a new television program based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writings, it’s worth revisiting his spiritualist leanings and his contentious relationship with Harry Houdini.
You probably think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a buttoned-up sort of chap, the epitome of a Victorian English clubman with his richly tinted complexion and luxuriant waxed mustache.
Conan Doyle was all of these things and more. Apart from creating Holmes, he was also a historian, essayist, practicing doctor, pioneer amateur photographer, political candidate, paleontologist, motorist, athlete, spirited banjo player, and arguably the first man to popularize downhill skiing. In later years, Conan Doyle broke violently from the established church and became the proprietor of a popular freak museum that he opened, provocatively, next door to Westminster Abbey.
There was another side to Doyle that makes a striking contrast between the rational world of Holmes and the more shadowy one of Ouija boards and spooks. As a young provincial doctor in the 1880s, he’d regularly “consulted the cards” and attended séances. He described himself as “thrilled” when a dozen fresh eggs once apparently materialized in front of him out of the ether. Before long he was conducting experiments in mesmerism and telepathy, and over the years he became a firm believer in levitation.
Conan Doyle’s spiritualist beliefs eventually led him to endorse the claims of 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her 10-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths when they announced they had gone for a walk one day in the northern English village of Cottingley and returned with photographs of little people. The girls produced five such pictures, which Conan Doyle made the basis of his 1922 book The Coming of the Fairies. Sixty years later, the then-elderly cousins admitted that the whole thing was a hoax. They had cut out illustrations from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, in which Doyle himself had published a story, and propped them up in the grass with hatpins.
Across the Atlantic, Harry Houdini cast a more skeptical eye on the various phenomena produced by the 1920s’ growing ranks of mediums and clairvoyants. He had known too many of these supposedly gifted performers when they were struggling vaudevillians to think otherwise.
For example, there was the Washington, DC husband-and-wife team of Julius and Ada Zancig, who convinced Doyle that they literally had a meeting of minds. After visiting the Zancigs, Doyle wrote that
The wife was able to stand with her face turned sideways at the far end of a room, and then to repeat names and duplicate drawings which I made and showed to her husband.
Houdini in turn visited and reported that the Zancigs
did a very clever performance. I had ample opportunity to watch their system and codes. They are swift, sure, and silent, and I give them credit for being exceptionally adept in their chosen line of mystery. Telepathy does not enter into it.
In April 1920, Houdini met Conan Doyle. They were arguably the two most famous entertainers on Earth, and each man quickly identified something he needed in the other. Houdini was then 46, had ambitions to be a writer, and never missed a chance to rub shoulders with the literary elite. Conan Doyle, 60, saw “the little chap” as a possible high-profile recruit to the spiritualist ranks.
A wary friendship began. Doyle announced that he was in regular touch with his son Kingsley, who had died in the Spanish flu pandemic two years earlier. On one occasion, he said, the family had been sitting around a table in a darkened room, “and I heard a very intense whisper say, ‘Father!,’ and then after a pause, ‘Forgive me!’”
Conan Doyle, who assumed Kingsley was referring to his earlier doubts about the paranormal, ended his account by saying that he had felt a strong hand press down on him, followed by a kiss on his forehead. “I am so happy,” his son assured him. Houdini listened politely but later remarked in his diary:
As a rule, I’ve found that the greater brain a man has, and the better he is educated, the easier it has been to mystify him.
Things went downhill from there. Within a year, the two men had become rival stars on the American lecture circuit and regularly clashed in the press. Houdini told the Boston Herald that he felt “very sorry” for Conan Doyle. “It is a pity that a man [should], in his old age, do such really stupid things.”
On June 18, 1922, Conan Doyle and Houdini met in a room at Atlantic City’s Ambassador Hotel. Doyle and his wife claimed that they sat around a séance table and that Houdini had produced 15 pages seemingly full of spirit writing by Houdini’s late mother. Doyle went on to write about this “wonderful revelation” in a series of press articles, while the “little chap” initially did nothing to contradict him. But then came one of those sudden reversals that constitute the basic fabric of the Conan Doyle-Houdini relationship. Apparently indignant at seeing his mother’s intimate words to him splashed across The New York Times, Houdini denounced the whole thing as “a flim-flam.…There was not the slightest idea of my having felt my sweet mother’s presence.”
He went on to add a routine to his stage act in which he showed how “Doyle-like séances” owed more to a series of sliding panels, trap doors, bed sheets, and other props than they did to the feat of “spectral assistance and materialization” advertised. He mocked the idea that his dead mother would have communicated with him in fluent English, a language she had never spoken.
Conan Doyle in turn wrote:
I feel rather sore about it. I know by many examples the purity of my wife’s mediumship, and I saw what you got and what the effect was upon you at the time.
From then on it was war. Conan Doyle told the press that Houdini was denying what his own eyes had seen, and Houdini told them that Conan Doyle was senile. They soon began a fight-by-proxy over the claims of a Boston housewife named Mina Crandon that she could channel her late brother’s spirit. Houdini went to Boston and reported that the brother’s voice that had seemingly come through in the séance room was no more than a “mildly accomplished ventriloquism act.” Back in England, Conan Doyle stubbornly defended the woman he called “the most gifted psychic alive” from her “Hebrew critics.” Houdini told an audience from the stage of the Princess Theatre in Montreal that
Arthur Conan Doyle is just a writer of detective stories, and intellectually not a genius. If he were here in front of me, I would tear him to ribbons.
Houdini died on Halloween night 1926 after taking an ill-judged blow to his stomach from an admirer. Doyle immediately pressed Houdini’s widow to let him know the moment the “little chap” returned from the grave, although it seems he never did. At Conan Doyle’s own funeral service in 1930, a medium leapt to her feet to shout, “He is here! He is here!” while pointing to an empty chair in the hall. “Sir Arthur gave me a message—a personal one, which I gave to Lady Doyle,” the medium later told the press. “I saw him distinctly. He was wearing evening dress.”
Since both men have long since entered the afterlife, it’s hard to determine which one’s views on the supernatural were more accurate. It’s also difficult to tell whether they are still feuding in the spirit world. Neither Doyle nor Houdini responded to repeated interview requests for this article.
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