The Unlikely Friendship and Inevitable Feud of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini

In a long life which has touched every side of humanity, Houdini is far and away the most curious and intriguing character whom I have ever encountered.

–Arthur Conan Doyle
One of the most ironic facts of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life is that the creator (or, as you will, Literary Agent) of Sherlock Holmes—the ultimate empiricist in literature—believed in Spiritualism with a religious fervor.

 

Doyle had dabbled in Spiritualism as early as the 1880s when he first began writing Sherlock Holmes stories. But it wasn’t until 1919 that he became fully converted, when a medium allegedly contacted Kingsley, Doyle’s son who had died in World War I.

Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914.
Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914.

 

The great magician and showman Harry Houdini was first drawn to Spiritualism for much the same reasons. After his mother died he became fascinated with the idea of contacting her beyond the grave. Despite knowing, and often gleefully exposing, the tricks of so-called mediums, Houdini held out some small hope that there could be a person with true psychic powers out there.

 

Harry Houdini circa 1920.
Harry Houdini circa 1920.

 

The friendship of—or perhaps more appropriately, the battle between—Doyle and Houdini began when Houdini learned Doyle was interested in the Davenport Brothers, a pair of stage mediums from the past. Houdini forwarded Doyle a copy of his book The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, which summarily explained and exposed the Davenport Brothers’ act.

 

Doyle wrote to thank Houdini for the book. He then went on to explain that Houdini hadn’t convinced him of any fraud on the part of the mediums.

 

Most people would throw their hands up at this. But Houdini continued to approach Doyle with remarkable sensitivity, given his predilection for appearing at séances and shouting, “I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!”

Houdini's 1920 exposé of side-show entertainers.
Miracle Mongers and their Methods, Houdini’s 1920 exposé of side-show entertainers.

 

At one point, Houdini invited Doyle to his home for a private demonstration. He performed some typical Spiritualist tricks, leaving Doyle stunned and impressed. Then he told Doyle:

I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion…I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along those lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily ‘supernatural,’ or the work of ‘spirits’ just because you cannot explain them.

 

Instead, Doyle left the house convinced that Houdini had psychic abilities of his own. He must simply have been denying them so that he could maintain his career. In a letter he stated, “Is it not perfectly evident that if he did not deny them [his psychic abilities] his occupation would have been gone forever?”

 

Doyle truly believed that Houdini accomplished some of his biggest feats of escape by turning into ectoplasm.

A copy of Conan Doyle's book The Wanderings of a Spiritualist, with an inscription by Houdini:
A copy of Doyle’s book The Wanderings of a Spiritualist, with an inscription by Houdini: “I think Doyle, or ought ‘I’ to say ‘Sir Arthur’ is honestly mistaken. He has made statements that I possess [psychic] power and I (pardon the ‘I’s’) know he is wrong.” From the collection of a private collector and friend.

Despite fundamental differences in opinion, Doyle and Houdini managed to remain friends for a few years. This fraught relationship balanced on two main points: First, it seems that Houdini did remain open to the possibility of communication with the dead—though he had yet to see it proven. Second, Doyle remained convinced that Houdini himself was a talented psychic.

 

A break was inevitable. But it was ushered in, despite their care, by two of the women dearest to the men.

 

One day Doyle invited Houdini to a private séance, in which the medium would attempt to contact Houdini’s mother.

 

The medium was Doyle’s wife, Jean.

 

Over the course of the night, Houdini’s mother wrote (through Jean) nearly 15 pages of messages to Houdini. Doyle was elated with his victory.

 

Three main problems, though.

  1. Houdini’s mother was Jewish, so she would never have started the contact with drawing the sign of the cross, as Jean did.
  2. Houdini’s mother did not speak English, but the entire message was in fluent English.
  3. The day of the séance was his deceased mother’s birthday. However, there was no mention of this during the entire session.

 

Houdini had not been convinced. But what to say when it is your friend’s wife who is the fraud? He left it alone.

 

Until quite a different occasion that ironically did not directly involve the author and his wife. Houdini wrote an article in which he stated,

…in the twenty-five years of my investigation and the hundreds of séances which I have attended, I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me that there is a possibility of communication with the loved ones who have gone beyond.

 

After that Lady Doyle was, according to her husband, “rather angry” with Houdini.

Houdini's 1924 publication, A Magician Among the Spirits, in which he exposes the tricks of many professed mediums and psychics.
Houdini’s 1924 publication, A Magician Among the Spirits, in which he exposes the tricks of many professed mediums and psychics.

 

From there the friendship spiraled into a series of public provocations and private semi-apologies, until Doyle finally refused to answer another letter from Houdini.

 

Why was Houdini so determined to explore Spiritualism? Why did he press for a friendship with Doyle, a fervent advocate for the very ideas he had gone great lengths to expose? Did he truly want to believe, somewhere deep down?

You will note that I am still a skeptic, but a seeker after the Truth. I am willing to believe, if I can find a Medium who, as you suggest, will not resort to ‘manipulation’ when the Power does not ‘arrive.’

 

This seems like an open-minded statement, but Houdini knew all the tricks in the book. He died never having found that Medium.

Conan Doyle's 1921 publication about his lecture tour in Australia supporting Spiritualism.
Doyle’s 1921 publication about his lecture tour in Australia supporting Spiritualism.

 

As for Doyle, he toured both America and Australia lecturing on Spiritualism and raising money for the cause. He wrote a number of books on the subject. He was a deep and sincere believer. How could the creator of Sherlock Holmes be presented with contrary evidence time and again—by an expert in the field, such as Houdini, no less—and still believe? Doyle answers this question in a letter to Houdini:

It wants to be approached not in the spirit of a detective approaching a suspect, but in that of a humble, religious soul, yearning for help and for comfort.

 

Through a medium, Arthur Conan Doyle believed he spoke to his dead son Kingsley more than half a dozen times.

 

Sources and Further Reading

  • The two sources I relied on most heavily for these details, particularly the quotes, are Stashower’s Teller of Tales: The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1999) and The Secret Life of Houdini by Kalush and Sloman (2006). Both biographies are excellent and highly recommended.
  • If you’d like to explore further, there are two great books written specifically on this unusual friendship: Final Séance by Polidoro (2001); and Masters of Mystery by Christopher Sandford (2011).
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52 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Poling says:

    I love stories about Houdini. He continued to search for but never found a medium he could trust. His wife continued to try and receive messages and people to this day try to talk to Houdini, including Penn and Teller. Great article/blog.

  2. Nicholas tsamparlis says:

    The old adage still holds “there’s a sucker born every minute”

  3. Jeanne henn says:

    Really interesting. I never knew this. Thank you

  4. I also love stories about Houdini and unoriginally agree that this is a great article/blog. (The books…ah.)

    The fact that Conan Doyle truly believed, in his secret heart of hearts, that Houdini turned into ectoplasm tickles my soul a bit. I think I’ll start believing that too.

    It is also worth stating that Houdini wouldn’t show him the mechanisms behind the illusion of his own tricks, even to prove a point. Ectoplasm it is. 🙂

    1. I simply like the excuse to write legitimately using the word “ectoplasm.”

  5. Definitely got me interested in Houdini. I’ll attempt reading “A Magician Among the Spirits” learn some patterns on deceptive people.

    1. There’s a great biography of Houdini that referenced for this post that you may like: The Secret Life of Houdini by Kalush and Sloman.

  6. Terrific article! A great related read from ‘Public Domain Review’: http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/06/12/sir-arthur-and-the-fairies/

  7. Snigdha says:

    Wow. Loved this article 🙂

  8. segmation says:

    Very interesting post! Thanks for sharing these awesome facts!

  9. Geo.Fyre says:

    Great article! I knew they were both interested psychics and such, but I never would have guessed that they had such a relationship. Very interesting.

  10. Great story! Conan is also an intriguing figure in history. I believe the medium that Conan Doyle worked with was Grace Cooke, the founder (along with her husband Ivan) of the White Eagle Lodge in England.

  11. awax1217 says:

    As Spock would say, “fascinating” There may be more to it than you mentioned. Doyle dabbled not only in spiritualism but in drugs. He actually had Holmes taking the needle. I believe that in a fit of opiate delight he saw things that he misconstrued were from the spirit world. Houdini to my knowledge did not drink or use drugs. He could not in order to get through with his tricks. He did believe his mother would contact him from the dead. I believe that and with no real evidence that people wanted to believe so much in the supernatural that they put them into a cognitive trance which allowed them to dream or see things that were not there. I also believe that many of the foods of the time period were not stored properly and not cooked well leading to many getting stomach aliments and therefore seeing things. That is why Dicken’s has Scrooge question whether the ghost is really there or a figment caused by a bit of bad meat.

  12. Wow. This is great. I’ve been trying my best to resist disappearing down the rabbit-hole of deep curiosity about Arthur Conan Doyle, but you just foiled that effort; I’m more intrigued than ever! Thanks for sharing this!

  13. I knew that Conan Doyle was a Spiritualist (he had a psychic search for Agatha Christie when she went missing in 1926), but I had no idea about Houdini. I guess it makes sense though: magicians do love a trick that looks like magic and perform it themselves while at the same time searching for anything real.
    By the way, I’ve experienced ghosts before, but I’m skeptical about mediums. I’ve yet to meet any that aren’t frauds or can prove to me without a doubt that they have magic or psychic abilities. Still, if I meet one, it’ll make an interesting blog article.

  14. Lauren Craig says:

    This is interesting. You never would have thought these two would have any connections.

  15. Neuroscience has proven that the mind automatically dismisses much of what it cannot understand. It’s a fail safe mechanism to prevent insanity–since the mind can easily be tricked through the senses, it benefits from a built-in braking system that prevents it from running out of control.

    So, when electricity was first demonstrated, people called it a hoax or called it the Devil. When germs were first suggested as a cause of illness, the discovering doctors were called lunatics and drummed out of practice because how could something invisible be responsible for very visible symptoms? That’s hokum!

    In just the last few years, we’ve figured out that the brain stores information like a hologram instead of like a library because people who’ve lost entire chunks of their brain to illness or trauma retain memories and skills we thought would be lost when that chunk disappeared. The first people to suggest the hologram paradigm were called quacks and were accused of practicing “woo-woo” spirituality, not medicine. Now, those same people are teaching neurosurgeons how to better treat patients.

    Much of what we take for granted as fact today was considered lies, trickery, and witchcraft a very short time ago. Imagine what we will know about the world a hundred years from now. Many of the things that are getting laughed at today will become tomorrow’s fact. For instance, quantum physicists are recently aware that human thought predictably affects the outcomes of their physics experiments. Think about the ramifications of that: the mind is affecting physical matter. Physicists in laboratories, not magicians around a velvet covered table in the dark.

    So, do we laugh and call it woo-woo all over again or do we take our heads out of our asses and move forward into knowledge?

    1. xmarisolx says:

      It isn’t clear what your point is our how it relates to the topic. Do you believe in spiritism or not?

  16. David Woods says:

    Reblogged this on Jake McCormick and commented:
    An interesting insight into the personal life of a great illusionist.

  17. jumeirajames says:

    The intense urge to speak once more with a loved one who has died makes people suspend their disbelief. The fact that religions indoctrinate people with the idea of life after death only reinforces the illusion.

  18. cobrunstrom says:

    In the wake of World War One, the world was full of desperate bereaved people, looking to reconnect with their loved ones. Conan Doyle was just one very prominent example. For fraudulent spiritualist it was a highly profitably golden age.

  19. brilliant. absolutely enjoyed reading it so much so didn’t want it to end.
    congratulations on being freshly pressed

  20. billpokins says:

    Yes an excellent review and reflection of these fellows. I know Houdini was a Master Mason, but not certain about Doyle but think it perhaps so.

  21. Brightbuckle says:

    Beautifully written.
    There is such a brilliant connection between these two. The network twists a few degrees to reveal, along with other famous people, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
    An amazing time period. I visit it often.

  22. ltishgart says:

    Oh how I love a good story! Well done!

  23. Great and fascinating post. I suppose their are other explanations, without meaning someone is a fraud – a medium genuinely believing he or she is contacting ‘the other side’ but they are actually contacting their own subconscious – but do not realise that ‘information’ is coming from within rather than without

  24. kiwipom91 says:

    Just wondering if you’ve ever seen Fairy Tale: A True Story? It’s a wonderful film that features Houdini (and has a little bit of Conan Doyle in it) and explores the theme of Spiritualism… I haven’t seen it since I was a kid, but need to find it again… Anyway, great article.

  25. Joe says:

    Very interesting read. Thanks.

  26. MartyW47 says:

    That’s a great story…

  27. sailor moon says:

    This is quite an interesting read. It really surprised me that these two figures in history are spiritualists. In fact, this made me more curious about their lives.

  28. Mr. CATSOE says:

    Have you, by chance, researched this article by contacting either of these gentlemen… from beyond?? (just wondering) 😉 Great Read.. Wonderful post.

  29. yykp says:

    Reblogged this on butbeunique and commented:
    All time fav.

  30. sil86as2 says:

    Reblogged this on gottopickapocketortwo and commented:
    Fascinating blog about two great men, Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and their interactions.

  31. awax1217 says:

    I just read your piece on the Lincoln autograph. Really interesting. My father-in-law dabbled in graphoglogy and actually used it on a case in South America. His friend was a big police chief and used him to get a handle on a killer who left handwritten papers at the scene of a killing. Alfred came up with some points based on the way he made his letters. Of course today that would be difficult because everyone uses a keyboard.

  32. Where do the Cottingley Fairies fit into this? I know Conan Doyle believed, but I think Houdini had some connection too??

  33. Paula Smith says:

    Houdini went to Cottingley and was convinced they were a hoax which angered Doyle. Not sure where that fits in the article’s timeline.

  34. Anne Fischer, Author says:

    Fascinating information! I love classic literature, and knew about Doyle’s beliefs, but I had no idea he and Houdini were friends.

  35. lndngeek says:

    Great article, I had no idea about their friendship.

  36. very interesting … again no idea of that connection but can easily have seen it coming .. long live the rational mind of sherlock

  37. tecarter says:

    If you enjoy the story of Houdini, you should look up the Amazing James Randi. A man truly cut from the same cloth.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation!

  38. Michael says:

    Thank you for this literary historiographic piece.

  39. Benjamin Bogarts says:

    Thank you Rebecca, I enjoyed the article and always look foreward to books coming into the shop on Pawn Stars. 🙂

  40. It makes sense that he kept looking for a medium. He knew that there must be someone out there with powers like his, instead of ectoplasm they can communicate beyond. Or so he thought.

    1. xmarisolx says:

      Houdini didn’t believe he possessed any powers since…he didn’t.

  41. Aron Houdini says:

    Excellent job very well done. One of the better articles I have read on these two…. (applauds)

  42. R. Parkhurst says:

    Thanks Rebecca, this was a great read!

  43. Wonderful post and images. Thank you.

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