Houdini was the greatest magician in history…few realize that one of his best friends was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! They quickly bonded over their interest in Spiritualism but that was only the beginning of the story…
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It was dark and quiet, and everything was so still that the candles in the curtained room scarcely flickered. The Hungarian-American illusionist watched intently, his mesmerizing blue eyes, flecked with brown and as hard as the lapis lazuli they resembled, were scarcely blinking. His compact frame was very, very still. He often had this intensity when he observed a spiritualist at work, but this was different. This was the one that mattered.
The woman across from him suddenly jolted as if electrocuted, and then began shaking violently. She called to the spirits for communion and after grasping, and groping, she managed to get her trembling hands around a pen, and in wild fury she wrote, and wrote, and wrote. His older friend, a small and delighted smile hidden behind his magnificent grey moustache, gently handed the papers to Harry Houdini. At the top of the first page was a cross, and the text began, “Oh my darling, thank God. Thank God, at last I’m through…”
Harry Houdini, perhaps the most famous illusionist and escape artist in history, was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest, the son of a Rabbi. The family emigrated to the United States, filled with hopes for a bright future, when Harry was just four years old. His father lost his job within a few years of emigrating and had little luck finding gainful employment thereafter. The family lived in poverty, but young Erik was determined, athletic, and gifted: above all, he was in love with the magic of the spotlight. He began his career as “Ehrich, prince of the Air”, a trapeze artist, at the age of nine. As he found his footing in the world of professional performance, he experimented with card tricks and sleight of hand, worked in side shows, and there found his two great loves in life: Bess Rahner, whom he would marry, and escape artistry.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of super-rational super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes and author of the Jurassic Park antecedent “The Lost World,” was born into a Catholic family and educated by Jesuits. He was a physician by trade, and served as such in the Second Boer War in the early 1900s. When he wasn’t saving lives or writing genre-defining fiction, he played European football, cricket, and boxing competitively; he worked on cases of suspected wrongful conviction, leading two the exoneration of two men, and dabbled in architecture, if one can be said to “dabble” in the design of buildings that are still standing today. His early years were spent in poverty, due in large part to his father’s alcoholism, but he was bright and promising, and he was sent to school by his wealthy uncles and from there he prospered into adulthood.
It wasn’t their shared experience of childhood poverty that initially brought these two famous men together, though, nor even their status as self-made men. There was much for each man to admire in the other and over the years of their friendship they’d form something of a father-son bond. The trigger for and cement of their friendship was, of all things, spiritualism. It would also be the thing that drove a wedge between them.
Spiritualism – the belief that the spirits of the dead are not only able to communicate with us, but are eager to share their wisdom with the living world. Spiritualism began in the 1800s, however many spiritual holdouts abandoned the movement after the Fox sisters admitted their act was a sham. Yet, it was still alive and well in the early 1900s when Doyle and Houdini were active and their friendship was forming.
Houdini and Doyle first began their correspondence in 1920. Houdini, ever the rationalist, was a tremendous fan of Sherlock Holmes and had read much of Doyle’s work on Spiritualism. He had sent Doyle one of his own books, “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin,” an exposé on the techniques of the French illusionist from whom Houdini took his name. Doyle in turn came to watch one of Houdini’s shows while he was in England, and the two men became fast friends.
Doyle, after a period of agnosticism in his young adulthood following his time at school, found himself drawn to spiritualism. It was very much in the zeitgeist of the time, and his wife’s good friend Lily Loder-Symonds was herself a medium. He began his quest into spiritualism in earnest in 1916. The tragic death of his son Kingsley, who survived one of the most brutal battles of the second world war, that of the Somme, only two years later served to intensify his interest and perhaps gave the movement deeper meaning for him.
Houdini, for his part, had been very close to his mother, and he was devastated by her loss. He wanted nothing more than to communicate with her even one more time, and so he sought out mediums and spiritualists and any lead he could find, and all he found in the end were tricks. Things that he himself could, and could probably do better. He had spent years and years by this point around illusions and trickery; no one knew better than he did how easy it was to fake a miracle. Harry Houdini wanted a real miracle.
Both men were seekers, but Doyle was a lot more naive than Houdini in a lot of ways; more of a Watson than he was a Holmes. He had publicly, as a great thinker of his time, supported a number of things that eventually would be proven to be hoaxes, including but not limited to: the Cottingley Fairies, the Piltdown man, and the very much intentionally faked spirit photography of magician William S. Marriott, who had specifically set out to prove to Doyle that these things could be faked more easily and convincingly than he thought. He also believed that Houdini’s gifts were, in fact, spiritual, and refused to hear otherwise. His intelligence was never a question, but neither was his gullibility when he wanted to believe.
Doyle’s second wife, Jean, had discovered – somewhat conveniently, as Doyle’s interests became more and more obsessive – that she was herself a medium and an automatic writer. Automatic writing, described by skeptics as the ideomotor effect in a dissociative state and as a form of spirit communication by believers, is the practice of writing by hand words that come from the spirit world while the writer is in a trance state. It was a mainstay of spiritualism, along with physical seance and spirit photography, and the Doyle’s believed very sincerely in Jean’s gifts.
Jean Doyle announced to Houdini in 1922 that she had been contacted by Houdini’s mother, Cecelia, and urged by her to conduct a seance with him. With Houdini’s agreement, they proceeded with that seance in a hotel room in Atlantic City. Jean, while allegedly possessed by the spirit of Cecelia Weisz, furiously wrote 15 pages. Her husband handed those pages to Houdini. They believed that he believed.
The Doyles were horrified – and perhaps a little embarrassed – later to discover that their feeling that they had convinced the skeptical escape artist were very, very wrong. The resulting public exchange on Houdini’s “conversion” to Spiritualism – a claim publicly made by Doyle and equally publicly refuted by Houdini in various publications, began to erode at the foundation of their friendship, which would end in 1924.
Houdini cited many reasons for his skepticism of this seance in particular: the automatic writing was in very good English, a language that his mother only spoke stumblingly. Bess had warned Houdini that Jean had been asking her questions about Houdini’s mother privately the day prior. And the devoutly Jewish Cecelia Weisz certainly would not have wished her son a Merry Christmas, nor opened her writings to him with the sign of the cross. Houdini was saddened and disappointed, but no less determined that the truth be shown, even if the spirit in question was that of his own mother, and the medium in question was the wife of one of his dearest friends.
Houdini, whose impending doom had been foretold by angry Spiritualists for many years, would die within the two years following his break from the Doyles, after a series of aggressive blows to his stomach by a fan aggravated his undiagnosed appendicitis, rupturing it. He died six days after those initial blows, after the sort of battle with death that only a Houdini could wage, beloved wife Bess at his side as she had always been.
Despite everything, despite their incredible frustration with one another and what they each saw as the other mans’ stubbornness and rigid set of beliefs that would entertain no other explanations than the one they wanted to believe, Doyle mourned the early loss of his once dear friend. The truth is, there had been some true affection there that lingered even as they waged their war of opinion. Houdini had played with the Doyle children and talked with them; the two men worried over one another. Their wives had been friends.
In the end, in response to his letter of condolence, Houdini’s widow Bess gifted one book to Doyle, bringing so many things full circle for him, a book of sketches by Doyle’s father, Charles Doyle. Charles Doyle had been talented, but drunken and ill. Houdini had procured it years prior, and had insisted that it not be sold at any price, and so it was not. It was not in a form that Doyle had sought and studied, but it was nevertheless a priceless gift from beyond.
For a decade after her husband’s death, Bess held a seance to contact him every year, waiting with bated breath to hear the pre-arranged code that she and her husband had long since chosen, one bit of irrefutable proof that there’s something beyond. While seances are still conducted in Houdini’s honor each year even today, Bess herself gave up long ago, commenting that “10 years is long enough to wait for any man.” She died in 1943, never having found a medium who could produce her and Houdini’s secret code.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for his part, lived on for six years longer than his young friend, passing of a heart attack in his 71st year, mourned by his family, friends, the spiritualist community, and the literary world.
Both of these men were remembered for so much; their names are still household names even today. It’s strange that their friendship, demolished by the very force that brought them together, is so little known. They both had meant to change the world, and change the world they certainly did. One can hope that, if Doyle was correct in his beliefs, they’ve survived in some manner to see the impact that they would ultimately have.
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