Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, that arch investigator and enduring character of detective fiction. Harry Houdini is equally well remembered as a mesmerizing magician and escape artist nonpareil.
In 1920 a curious relationship began between these two individuals that lasted six-and-a-half years. The first three of those years were cordial. The latter were marked by contention, which occasionally played out in public. The subject that brought them together was Spiritualism, a religious doctrine in which communication with the dead was avowed to be a demonstrable fact. Author Christopher Sanford tells this story in his absorbing and entertaining “Masters of Mystery.”
From the start, Houdini and Doyle were an odd match: “In some ways they were almost comically different. … Even physically the two cut a sharp contrast. Houdini was short and lean, with the physique of a flyweight boxer, and was often described as ‘wound up like a coiled spring’; Doyle was big and raw-boned, and is remembered as once playing in a match … at Lord’s cricket grounds, ‘breath[ing] heavily, the sweat beading his thick moustache, while he lumbered amiably around the outfield.’” One journalist stated they “looked like Pooh and Piglet” when next to each other.
In literature, Sherlock Holmes reigns supreme as a cool methodical analyst, a doyen of detection capable of unraveling baffling conundrums of crime. The fictional Holmes had no time for the supernatural. In Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” Holmes avers: “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
It is ironic that Doyle himself — in stark contrast to his relentlessly logical creation — would become a devoted leader in the Spiritualist movement ever willing to accept all sorts of mediums and practitioners of occult arts. He would even write an ingenuous book, “The Coming of the Fairies,” inspired by photos purporting to be authentic images of sprites and pixies. Today these photos would be perceived as quaint if not utterly amateurish fakes.
In his early career Houdini conducted some intense stage demonstrations of mind reading and Spiritualist experimentation. In 1897 he appeared in Garnett, Kansas, where he and his wife, Bess, were part of a traveling show. Prior to the show Houdini strolled through the local cemetery with the town’s oldest inhabitant and took notes. Thus he wowed the crowd that night with messages for specific persons from departed loved ones. Bess joined him on stage and, while in a trance, was about to name the unknown murderer of a local woman.
As tension mounted, she fainted before revealing the name of the perpetrator.
Houdini, the consummate showman, was not one to shy away from performances that could captivate an eager audience. From locked trunks, sealed milk cans and jail cells, to straitjackets and his amazing Upside Down Water Torture, Houdini’s escapes were stunning. Eventually moral qualms led him to relinquish deft displays of mind reading and conveying greetings from the dead. In his “A Magician Among the Spirits” he wrote: “At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed.” He went on to call for a law that would ferret out fraudulent mediums and “prevent these human leeches from sucking every bit of reason and common sense from their victims.”
In 1922 in Atlantic City, Houdini and his wife spent a weekend with the Doyles. Sir Arthur’s wife, Lady Doyle, had conducted séances and Houdini was invited to a sitting, where Doyle hoped “to see if we could get any evidence or consolation for him.”
Doyle had wished that Houdini would convert to Spiritualism. Ever the skeptic, Houdini was open to the possibility of such communication if it was truly evidential. He would be especially pleased if he could authenticate contact with his beloved mother. The method Lady Doyle employed was automatic writing. Houdini was unimpressed and later told Doyle, “I was heartily in accord and sympathy at the séance, but the letter was written entirely in English, and my sainted mother could not read, write, or speak the language.”
Until his death on Halloween 1926, Houdini remained the scourge of all mediums who “ring bells, move handkerchiefs, wobble tables and do other ‘flap-doodle stunts.’ ” The widowed Bess would make occasional attempts to reach him in the beyond. On Halloween 1936 she engaged in her last séance, but again her husband was silent. That was it for Bess: “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”
In 1925 Doyle opened his Psychic Bookshop dedicated to Spiritualism and the occult. He remained a true believer to the end of his life in 1930. For a great read filled with alluring characters and intriguing factoids, Sanford’s book will not disappoint.