Death

The Strange Friendship Between Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

One was the most famous magician of all time. The other created the world's most relentlessly logical detective. If you were to guess which of these two believed in magic and ghosts, and which was the consummate skeptic, well, you'd probably get it wrong. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were great friends, but their relationship fell apart over their respective beliefs about the paranormal.

Sir Arthur and Lady Jean Conan Doyle, c. 1920.

Great Minds...

It makes a strange sort of sense that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini would become great friends. Both were natural showmen, the author crafting compelling mysteries that thrilled the heart and challenged the brain, the escape artist a master of making the impossible, possible. Conan Doyle grew up the son of an alcoholic in a squalid Edinburgh tenement and Houdini came to the United States at age 4, the son of a rabbi who couldn't speak English. But despite their humble origins, both came to exemplify their chosen careers. And both toed a careful line between truth and fiction.

And, for awhile, both believed in Spiritualism. In the 1800s and bleeding into the early 1900s, the world collectively became entranced by mediums, mystics, and magicians who claimed to have an actual connection to a world after this one. And at age 18, Harry Houdini was right there with them. Devastated by the death of his father, the young man began reaching out to Spiritualists sometime around 1892 in hopes of hearing from the Great Beyond. But when they proved over and over again to be at best ineffective and at worst obvious frauds, he grew disillusioned with the practice.

In 1913, well after Houdini had risen to become one of the biggest celebrities in the world, his interest in the supernatural was reignited by the death of his beloved mother. But this time, when he sought the counsel of mediums, he did so with an extremely skeptical eye. It was tragic, really — Houdini seems to have hoped against hope that one of them would be able to reunite him with his parents, but if they failed, he was utterly unforgiving in proving them to be shams.

For his part, Conan Doyle also got involved in Spiritualism due to the death of a loved one. His son Kingsley was killed in 1918, one of millions killed in the Great War. But where Houdini found failure and fraud, Conan Doyle found a kind of peace. He was a member of the British Society for Psychical Research, and became one of the practice's main evangelists. It's enough to make you wonder why no ghosts ever appeared in Sherlock Holmes tales.

...But Not Always Alike

The two would eventually meet in 1920, but they'd had encounters over their conflicting beliefs long before that. Houdini sent Conan Doyle a copy of his book "The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin," which debunked the tricks of several of Conan Doyle's favorite mediums. (Robert Houdin, incidentally, was the legendary French magician who inspired Houdini's stage name). But far from dismissing the escape artist as a non-believer, Conan Doyle actually embraced this skepticism. He regarded Houdini as a hero of true mediums, debunking the fraudsters and defending those with legitimate powers. And after he saw Houdini perform in London, he came to believe that the man himself was a true magician who only denied it to protect the spiritual realm.

For years, they would exchange letters written in good spirit and tinged only slightly with gentle disagreements. But in 1922, their relationship would begin to fall apart for good.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's wife Jean was herself a practicing medium, and while Houdini and his family went on a seaside vacation in Atlantic City with the Conan Doyles, she offered to give the magician a private séance. It ... didn't go well. Jean's particular method involved "automatic writing," in which the dead write a message through the hand of the living. Sure enough, Houdini's mother spoke to him through Jean — but she wrote in English, which she hardly understood. "She" also adorned her paper with a large cross, despite being devoutly Jewish, and she failed to make any mention of the fact that that day was her birthday.

Houdini was, understandably, upset, but decided to let the charade pass without a word. But in December of that year, he penned an article in which he reaffirmed that he had never encountered any communication from beyond the grave. Conan Doyle became livid, and the relationship between the two never recovered. The author came to see the magician not as a healthy skeptic who saved the world from frauds, but as a jealous sorcerer who wished to hoard all of the magic of the world to himself by debunking other practitioners of the craft. And although Houdini only stepped up his debunkery game, one story from the end of his life suggests that he remained open-minded to the very end.

Harry Houdini's wife Bess was as much a skeptic as he was; nevertheless, the couple made a pact that went beyond death. They agreed on a series of code words and secret handshakes, and whoever passed away first would make every attempt to contact the other, if such a thing were possible. Harry died first, and Bess held séances every year for ten years after his death, but never received an answer. Eventually, she said, "Ten years is long enough to wait for any man."

So Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini never made up, though most would agree that Houdini probably got the better of the mystery writer. If only they had known that the real magic was their friendship all along.

For more on Harry Houdini's crusade against shams and fraudsters, check out "The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World." Or check in on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a more rational state of mind with "The Complete Sherlock Holmes." If you make a purchase through these links, Curiosity will get a share of the sales, which helps support the work that we do. 

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Written by Reuben Westmaas December 7, 2017