A Magician Among the Spirits: The Improbable Friendship of Harry Houdini & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Harry Houdini really wanted to believe in the spirit world like his good friend Arthur Conan Doyle devoutly did, but he too often found charlatans in his midst. Irked by their fakery, the magician began a public crusade to expose these 'spiritual magicians.'
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Houdini Photo

Houdini in chains. (Photo: "Famous Players - Lasky Corporation.", US [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Eighty-eight years ago today, Harry Houdini, the foremost magician and escape artist of the 20th century, found himself in a situation he couldn’t escape. It was the situation that no one escapes – his last day on earth. Houdini’s final bow just happened to occur on Halloween.

The timing might have amused the famous illusionist had he been in a position to appreciate the irony. When he wasn’t escaping from straitjackets while hanging upside down from a skyscraper, Houdini spent a considerable amount of his time debunking stories of supernatural phenomena, particularly the belief in spirits. To die on the celebration day of ghouls, goblins, and ghosts would have been high comedy indeed to the man who had sometimes been perceived as possessing supernatural powers himself.

That very notion – that Houdini was not a mere trickster, but a medium genuinely capable of transcending the corporeal – was disseminated by a man whom Houdini considered a very good friend, the author Arthur Conan Doyle. The relationship between these two men is one of the more curious footnotes of the post World War I world, an era when Victorian fancies were giving way to modern skepticism.

On the face of it, the mystery writer known primarily for creating that paragon of logical thinking, the detective Sherlock Holmes, would seem to have much in common with Houdini. After all, both were manufacturers of illusion who loved to entertain, the one through on-stage stunts and the other through stories that reveled in final-act reveals. However, the two men held vastly different views on a subject that keenly interested them both: the supernatural. Houdini, ever the empiricist, sought tangible proof of spirits in the world; Doyle, an ardent follower of Spiritualism, accepted wholeheartedly that the dead dwelled among us long after their demise. It would be this very divergence of opinion that would eventually sunder their friendship entirely.

Arthur Conan Doyle Photo

Arthur Conan Doyle (Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection, The Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The backgrounds of the two men made them seem unlikely friends.

Houdini, the son of a Hungarian rabbi, arrived in America at the age of 4. An athletic kid, he took to stunt performing early and had a trapeze act before he was 10. By the time he was 20, he was performing magic and card tricks in sideshows and carnivals without much success. He soon found that escape tricks garnered more attention, and by the turn of the century, doing business as Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, he was a success both in the U.S. and abroad. Eventually, his escapes became more and more dramatic as he emerged from straightjackets, crates, milk cans, and a metal tank filled with water. His reputation and renown increased with each feat.

Arthur Conan Doyle, meanwhile, was already a knight of the realm by 1902. Although Doyle’s family was poor, his wealthy relatives made sure he went to college. Unlike Houdini, whose formal education ended with the third grade, Doyle studied medicine and became a practicing physician. However, a sideline as a writer proved more satisfying as well as more lucrative for the doctor after he created Sherlock Holmes, one of the most popular characters in all of literature. Not satisfied with being a crime fiction writer, Doyle killed off the character in 1893 to pursue more serious work. A book written about Britain’s role in the Boer War earned him a knighthood from King Edward.

As serious as Doyle was about his work, he was equally serious about his deepening belief in Spiritualism. His interest began casually in the 1880s, when he was in his early 20s. The movement had been founded 40 years before by the Fox sisters, three young women from upper New York State who convinced the public that they could communicate with the dead. Other psychics soon began to crop up with similar claims. Fascinated, Doyle began to attend Spiritualist lectures and participate in séances. Although his interest in the supernatural would seem to run counter to his scientific-minded education, Doyle was not exactly operating on the fringe; members of the British Society for Psychical Research, which Doyle joined in 1893, included many well-known statesmen, philosophers, and scientists, including a future prime minister.

Watch one of Houdini's famous tricks:

In America, the movement also had its adherents. Some were quite prominent, like William Cullen Bryant and James Fenimore Cooper, while others were more obscure. One of these was Harry Houdini, who at age 18 attempted to establish contact with his recently departed father through a medium. Wanting to believe that it was possible to contact the dead, but sorely disappointed by the transparent fraud of the medium, Houdini began to view spiritualists with a skeptical eye.

Spiritualism suffered a major blow when the Fox sisters admitted in the 1888 that the movement they began was a sham, based on trickery and simple illusions. But by this time, the idea of communicating with the dead had stretched deep roots into world culture, and it would bloom again over time. When the bloody death toll of World War I left so many bereaved, Spiritualism experienced a revival. People who had never been able to say goodbye to those they loved flocked to mediums in hopes of re-establishing contact. One of the key figures stirring the revival was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle began to lecture actively about Spiritualism during and after World War I. The war cost him his son Kingsley, who died of pneumonia while recovering from war wounds, as well as his brother Innes. Nine other of his relatives also died in the war. Convinced that a medium had contacted his son during a séance, Doyle became a proselytizer for Spiritualism. He began to write books about it, including two in 1918 alone, and became one of the public leaders of the movement.

Houdini Wife & Mother Photo

Houdini (center) with his beloved mother Cecelia (left) and wife Beatrice (right), circa 1907. (Photo: McManus-Young Collection, Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Houdini also experienced loss around this time, although not from the war. He was very devoted to his mother Cecelia, who died suddenly of a stroke in 1913. Devastated because he was out of the country when she died, Houdini visited many mediums and attending many séances in hopes of communicating with his departed mother. Contemptuous of frauds and fakes as he was, Houdini desperately wanted to believe in things undreamt of in his philosophy, but he was continually disappointed. His time at the carnivals had made him aware of many of the tricks used by unscrupulous mediums, and his experience as an illusionist made it easy for him to disprove them. He began to resent how he, and bereaved people in general, had been bamboozled by sham-artists who preyed on vulnerability, and he grew active in exposing them.

By the time Houdini and Doyle met for the first time in 1920, Houdini had already sent Doyle a copy of his book The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, which included a debunking of several mediums that Doyle had admired. Rather than feeling offended by Houdini’s myth busting, Doyle initially supported it. He felt that Houdini was rooting out the rotten mediums so that the mediums with true ability could thrive. When Houdini toured England, Doyle caught his show and was amazed by Houdini’s seeming ability to dematerialize during his act. He began to think of Houdini himself as one of these true mediums.

Spiritualism Photo

A couple with an alleged female spirit, circa 1920. (Photo: National Media Museum [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)

Houdini was pleased to make the acquaintance of Sir Arthur, although he tried to discourage Doyle’s notions about his supposed supernatural powers. Following the magician’s code, Houdini could not reveal his methods, but he assured Doyle that everything he did was an illusion. Houdini also tried to prove to Doyle that most mediums used trickery, but even when Doyle himself experienced what would seem like obvious fakery (for example, he once embraced a ghostly form of his mother during a séance and was surprised to feel manly shoulders), he countered that just because fraud existed didn’t mean that all mediums were frauds.

Despite their differing attitudes, Houdini and Doyle liked each other and stayed in touch after their meeting. Their correspondence is full of good humor and gentle disagreement. Despite the fact that many critics disparaged Doyle for his gullibility, Houdini respected the man and his achievements. Their relationship would not take a downward turn until the spring and summer of 1922, when Doyle and his family came to New York for a series of lectures.

The lectures, seven of them held during a warm week in May, were standing room only, as thousands of people came to hear the erudite and genial author speak and show alleged photographs of spirits. Doyle was a convincing speaker, so much so that his talks created a few deadly ripples in the community (several people committed suicide, apparently eager to enter the more attractive spirit world as soon as possible). Haunted by bad press, Doyle was happy to accept an offer from Houdini for dinner at his New York apartment. He had such a nice time that when he and his family went to Atlantic City for vacation, he invited Houdini and his wife to join them. The assembled crew enjoyed several days on the beach together.

Sir Arthur’s wife Jean was herself a practicing medium, and Doyle had full confidence in her ability. Although Houdini was more and more convinced that most mediums were con artists, he still longed to reach his greatly missed mother. When Lady Jean offered to hold a private séance for him, Houdini suspended his disbelief and participated eagerly, hopeful that at last he would have a true experience of communicating with his dear mother.

The Doyles sat around a table with Houdini in their darkened hotel room. Sir Arthur said a prayer, and Lady Jean entered into a trance. Soon, she was writing speedily across sheets of paper, exhibiting “automatic writing,” the term Spiritualists used to describe the written communication of the dead through the hand of the living. Before the séance was over, she had filled 15 sheets of paper that were handed to Houdini one at a time. The sheets of paper didn’t say much of substance, only that Houdini’s mother missed him, was full of joy to speak with him, and that she was grateful that the Doyles had helped them. Sir Arthur felt proud of his wife’s success. Houdini didn’t say much during the episode. He looked pale and tired, and he left the hotel soon afterwards.

Arthur Conan Doyle & Wife Jean Photo

Arthur Conan Doyle with his wife Jean, circa 1920. (Photo: National Media Museum from UK [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)

Houdini wasn’t pale because he had just communicated with his dead mother. Instead, he was faced with a dilemma. It was clear to him that the communication was phony. It was in perfect, rolling English; his mother spoke very broken English when she spoke it at all. The letter began with a large cross at the top of the page; his mother was a devout Jew. That day was his mother’s birthday and she didn’t mention it, and when his mother “read his mind,” she failed to record what Houdini had been thinking. Houdini, a bit hurt by the insensitivity of his friends, wondered if he was duty-bound to expose them as charlatans, or if he should simply accept their actions as well-intentioned but clumsy.

Houdini kept mum about the episode for the remainder of the Doyles’ stay in New York and for many months afterward. That December, however, he stated in an article in the New York Sun that he had yet to validate any medium’s claims about communicating with the departed. Doyle saw the article and felt affronted. Convinced that his wife had delivered a message to Houdini from his mother, he sent Houdini an ill-tempered letter. At that point, Houdini expressed his qualms to Doyle about the episode in Atlantic City. Doyle felt puzzled about what he considered denial of the true facts and offended by what he considered public betrayal, while Houdini tried to tiptoe around the fact that he felt ill-used by people he considered close friends.

The relationship between Houdini and Doyle would never recover from this episode, despite pained communication both in private and in newspaper columns. Houdini stepped up his exposure of dishonest mediums. He wrote a book called A Magician Among the Spirits, which revealed the secrets behind floating handkerchiefs, “spirit hands,” and messages from the beyond. Doyle branded Houdini a publicity hound who felt compelled to discredit others to make his own gifts seem more unique (Doyle never ceased to believe that Houdini had special powers, an opinion he maintained even after Houdini’s death.) The last straw for Doyle was when Houdini targeted a woman named Mina “Margery” Crandon, a somewhat brazen medium that Doyle supported. He felt personally attacked and ceased to answer Houdini’s letters.

In the subsequent years, Doyle continued to promote Spiritualism on tours in America and Australia, and he wrote over a dozen books on the topic. Until his death in 1930, he never ceased to believe that he had communicated with several of his dead relatives. Houdini, on the other hand, remained a disappointed would-be believer. Hopeful that he was wrong about life after death, he arranged secret code words and handshakes with his wife and some trusted friends well in advance of his untimely passing on Halloween in 1926 from a ruptured appendix. No medium was ever able to reproduce them in ten years of attempts. Houdini’s wife famously remarked that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man” and stopped the séances in 1936.

In the years following the deaths of Houdini and Doyle, Spiritualism fell into disrepute, once again the province of carnival fortune tellers and con men. The world, faced with the Great Depression and then the outbreak of fascism and World War II, seemed to have less time to fret about spirits when the world of the living was in such turmoil. The dawn of the Age of the Atom brought a new spectre to the fore that has yet to recede. Still, current-day reality TV shows persist in presenting visual “evidence” of hauntings, and ghost hunters aim to convince readers that restless spirits are still communicating with us. The battle between the viewpoints of Houdini and Doyle continues, just in slightly different clothing.

Every Halloween, at least, as even Houdini would have to admit, the advantage goes to his old friend Doyle.