In an era when social media was a handwritten letter, Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were internationally famous celebrities. The illusionist who could vanish an elephant and the writer who created Sherlock Holmes were also the unlikeliest of friends. The only commonality was that both had a profound interest in life after death.
The two met in 1920 — had that first encounter occurred 45 years later, Neil Simon would have cast them as leads in his Broadway production of The Odd Couple. Doyle, a portly, patrician six footer, towered over the diminutive, wiry Houdini. Born in Scotland, educated by Jesuits, Doyle’s relatively comfortable lifestyle contrasted sharply with the dire poverty Houdini was raised in — by the age of 12, Houdini ran away from home and was largely self-educated.
Doyle, a licensed physician, was 15 years older than Houdini – the former was self-effacing, the latter, an outgoing showman. Even the cornerstone of their relationship, an obsession about the afterlife, found them on opposite sides of the fence. Doyle was a confirmed spiritualist, Houdini a skeptic who became more skeptical over time.
Spiritualism, the belief that death destroys the body but not the spirit, was in full flower in the early 20th century. More than 11 million Americans were believers; practicing mediums numbered 30,000. Séances had been held in the White House. Contacting deceased loved ones was a thriving business.
Doyle circled spiritualism for much of his adult life, starting in his twenties when he served as a physician on a whaling expedition to the Arctic. Ever the keen listener, the ghost stories sailors told made a powerful impression that stayed with him the rest of his life. After years of wavering, he publicly embraced spiritualism in the fall of 1917 when he was 58 years old — his second wife, Jean, joined him in the “conversion,” ultimately becoming a medium herself.
Houdini came at the paranormal from another direction. While claiming to have an open mind, and at times implying that he had mystical powers, he hired investigators like Rose Mackenberg to discover the tricks of mediums — and then during his popular performances, would expose the mediums onstage as fakes. For years, his act was titled, Three Shows in One: Magic, Escapes and Fraud Mediums Exposed.
Doyle and Houdini enjoyed each other’s company and appreciated their mutual accomplishments – they debated spiritualism, but in a friendly, removed fashion.
The annual banquet for the Society of American Magicians held on June 2, 1922 at the McAlpin Hotel in New York was an evening that illustrated the nature of their friendship. Houdini was the master of ceremonies: during the program, he borrowed Doyle’s dinner jacket, slipped it on, was then tied in a large sack, locked in a trunk and hidden inside a tent. The tent was quickly removed, the trunk unlocked, the sack opened and out popped Houdini’s wife, Bess, wearing Doyle’s jacket. No one in the audience enjoyed the trick more than Doyle.
This rapport was to abruptly end a few weeks later — appropriately enough, over a disagreement about a séance.
This breach began when Houdini and his wife joined the Doyle family for a weekend vacation at the Ambassador Hotel in the then glamorous Atlantic City. Initially, everyone got along splendidly: Houdini entertained the Doyle children with tricks, including a demonstration of how long he could hold his breath underwater at the hotel pool.
But when Sunday came, the mood changed. Doyle invited Houdini to attend a private séance aimed at contacting Houdini’s much beloved, deceased mother. Doyle’s second wife, Jean, then in prime possession of her powers of “automatic writing,” produced several messages from Houdini’s mother during the séance.
Houdini remained poker faced, but he was not persuaded. His late mother was not fluent in English and she certainly would not deliver messages in the language — nor would she include the symbol of a cross in one of the texts. Houdini’s parents were Jewish, his father, in fact, a Rabbi. The cross was out of place.
Jean Doyle’s “automatic writing” was highly suspect.
Although Doyle and Houdini remained affable for a period of time, this incident eventually led to a feud. Houdini became more combatively opposed to spiritualism and felt that Doyle’s beliefs were naive. The relationship dissolved in acrimony.
The deaths of both men featured ironic twists.
Houdini was lounging backstage at the ornate Princess Theater in Montreal in October of 1926 when a group of students approached him: one of them asked about the rumor that Houdini could tolerate, without pain, a punch to the stomach. Houdini said it was true. The student began punching, so hard that it ruptured Houdini’s appendix. He died of peritonitis on the last day of the month, Halloween, at the age of 52.
Doyle, suffering from coronary heart disease, unwisely traveled thirty miles from his home to London in July of 1930 to make a speech on behalf of a reformation of the Witchcraft Act. He struggled through the speech, returned home exhausted, and passed away soon afterward. He was 71.
Jean Doyle claimed that she received a message from her husband during his funeral. Later, she reported that she contacted him by way of séance and “automatic writing.”
For ten years, Bess Houdini held a séance on Halloween. Bess made no contact with Houdini on those occasions, so she finally gave up. “Ten years was long enough to wait for any man,” she said.
Photo Credit: https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2016/04/the-real-story-of-houdini-doyle.html