Tuesday, June 28, 2011

When Worlds Collide: Houdini and Conan Doyle

One of my favorite spots for adventures, the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, has a current exhibit that I just had to attend. Writings that detail the meeting of Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It offered the potential for high drama. As usual, click each photo for a better view.

Despite being the author of the very logical and deductive detective Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle held deep beliefs in spiritualism and periodically attended seances. In fact, his wife often served as the vessel for a spirit guide named Pheneas who presented himself through her automatic writings.

Doyle and Houdini became friends around their desire to expose fake mediums who were quite popular at the turn of the Century. It was a fast friendship despite Doyle's initial unfavorable impression of Houdini.

Doyle always kept detailed notes of various seances he attended and at the very bottom of this note he writes: "As the medium was half out of my control he was observed by a very bumbling, vulgar, American who made a few indifferent jokes." The bumbler was Houdini.

Houdini believed that the creator of Sherlock Holmes would have the deductive powers of his famous character that could be used in exposing fake spiritualists. However, Doyle's tight and highly controlled handwriting belies a personal style that believed in things such as fairies. Not only did Doyle not have the deductive powers of his famous creation, he also had no interest in disproving the existence of spirits; and in fact was quite gullible on the subject.

Evidently Doyle desperately wanted Houdini to believe as he did. So much so that he and his wife arranged a seance where he hoped to speak to Houdini's mother using Mrs. Doyle as the medium. Doyle's wife claimed she had made contact but Houdini believed she was a fraud. It seems Mrs. Doyle had the habit of making a cross at the beginning of her automatic writing and Houdini doubted that his mother who was an orthodox Jew would have allowed such a practice, in addition to his Hungarian mother's inability to write in English. And, he went public with his thinking on the matter. Notice the cross at the top of the page in the picture to the left.

A very public argument erupted that shattered the relationship and ultimately turned into a feud that lasted the remainder of their lives. It was very instructive to view the writings of these two giants of the early 20th century, and yet just as sad to learn what happened when the two very different skeptical and gullible worlds collided.


  1. I've had to read some Doyle books these days, because my English course, and I think Sherlock is one of the most famous and intersting detectives in the world. I love read how he solve always the difficult mysteries :-)

    Hi!, Cherrie, I hope you are fine :-) I'm very busy with my new blog :-SSSS that is why I'm not visit my friends blogs so I would want (as you can see, my English is awful, as always, ha ha)

    A big kiss for you from Europe!!

  2. Ana,
    Sorry for the delay in posting your comment but like you I have been busy with a school I now work with. Really glad that you have resumed doing your blog. I have checked on it from time to time and glad to see that you are as creative a usual.

    I too love Sherlock Holmes! He is such a multi-dimensional character who makes you really look at things and make deductions. If you get a chance try reading a Holmes Anthology which contains all the works. Once you read it you will be compelled to add it to your library and will return to it over and over!