Some of you might have seen the series on television Houdini and Doyle which fictionalised the relationship between these two complex and legendary individuals. However, as always, Paul Andruss deconstructs the various rumours and fictional depictions of the events of that time; bringing the truth to light.
Doyle and Houdini: the Dream Team by Paul Andruss
Doyle and Houdini (library picture)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s most famous detective, and Harry Houdini, its greatest magician, are surely a dream team. At least that’s what Sky TV thought when commissioning Houdini and Doyle. The fantasy drama series about the real life friends, where sceptic and believer investigated crimes with a supernatural flavour, was cancelled after one season.
Rabbi Weisz and family escaped the Hungarian pogroms to end up as poor Jews in New York. His proudly self-educated son Erik diligently worked his way through dime museums, sideshows and travelling carnivals into vaudeville theatres, while learning escapology, mind reading and magic. Before he was famous he even had a phony spiritualist act. Erik adopted the name Harry Houdini as a homage to his magician idols Harry Keller and world famous Robert Houdin.
Although from a comfortable background, Arthur Conan Doyle’s father was an alcoholic and spent periods in mental asylums. At one time the family was forced to live in a squalid tenement. Doyle was sent to private boarding school in England, paid for by his uncles.
After studying medicine in Edinburgh, he eventually set up a doctor’s practice in Plymouth. While waiting for patients he began writing fiction.
The Houdini and Doyle friendship developed from a mutual respect due to their similarities and differences. Through hard work both men rose from poverty to the pinnacle of their fields. Houdini started work at nine, yet as the son of a Rabbi longed to be a scholar. Doyle through family wealth became a medical doctor. But maybe the friendship wasn’t so straightforward when you examine things.
Poster for Houdini Spiritualist show (library image)
Houdini is known as a famous sceptic who exposed phoney mediums. But he was genuinely interested in finding evidence for the spirit realm, especially after the death of his beloved mother. However, being a magician, he was wise to all the tricks and took exception to ghouls preying on the bereaved.
Conan Doyle’s second wife was a gifted amateur medium who practiced automatic writing. Holding a pencil while in a trance, with eyes closed and mind empty, allowed the spirits to communicate directly through her. After losing his son and 10 other members of their immediate family in World War 1, the Doyles increasingly turned to spiritualism for solace.
Mutual admiration and their passionate interest in psychic phenomena gave the men common ground. Yet unknown to the other, each had an ulterior motive. After exposing phoney mediums Houdini was finding it hard to get into séances and used Doyle for introductions into spiritualist circles. Doyle wanted to be the man who brought the great sceptic to spiritualism and have him publicly renounce his disbelief. After seeing Houdini perform, Doyle convinced himself Houdini was no mere conjurer but a genuine miracle worker. Houdini’s protestations only confirmed Doyle’s suspicions.
The friendship deepened, mainly because Houdini stayed quiet about the mediums Doyle recommended. In truth he was saving his findings for a book. Things came to a head when Harry and Bess Houdini and the Doyles met in Atlantic City. Doyle insisted Houdini attend a séance of automatic writing with Lady Doyle. Houdini’s mother came through, gushing to her beloved son how beautiful and peaceful the other side was, and how she was preparing a place for him.
After the séance Doyle, noting Houdini was reflective and withdrawn, was sure he had demonstrated the existence of life after death beyond a doubt. Doyle did not know Bess, using the code from their old mind reading act, had pre-warned Houdini that Lady Doyle was pumping her for information about Houdini’s mother all afternoon.
When Houdini told the press he had never experienced any convincing spiritualist phenomena, Doyle was furious. He demanded to know why Houdini doubted his own mother speaking through Lady Doyle. Houdini mildly replied his beloved mother, who could not speak one word of English, had not written a single word in her native Hungarian.
The friends were now enemies. Doyle immediately rushed his version of events into print. He insisted Houdini begged Lady Doyle to sit and she complied only with reluctance. Houdini never forgave Doyle’s lie.
Doyle champions Margery (library image)
On opposite sides of the same crusade, they could not help but clash over the years; with increasing animosity on Doyle’s part. Doyle was a close friend of a notorious medium called Margery, a handsome vivacious woman who used her sex appeal to sway the dry university academics investigating her claims.
More than a paragraph is needed to discuss Margery and her husband’s shenanigans. In the end even Doyle backed off when questions arose over a number of young boys brought to America as wards of Margery’s husband and never seen again. In her twilight years, and now an abject alcoholic, Margery claimed her husband coerced her into professional mediumship, and hinted at the dark measures she was forced to employ to enable her to perform on cue.
When Houdini caught Margery red handed, Doyle was outraged. Margery’s spirit guide threatened Houdini with death. There are letters from Doyle echoing the sentiment. When Houdini died, Doyle crowed he knew Houdini would get his just deserts. He believed the spirits punished him for concealing his psychic gifts behind a façade of a conjuror.
After years of silence, Doyle was corresponding with Bess within a fortnight of Houdini’s death. He speaks of ‘the widow’, as ‘a splendid loyal little woman accepting of the spiritualist viewpoint and keen to get some evidence to give the world’. Obligingly Doyle recommended mediums. When Bess dismissed their messages as rubbish to the press, there was only one thing left to do.
Enter Arthur Ford, a medium and Conan Doyle’s protégé. Ford was the medium who delivered an agreed coded message from Houdini to Bess. It was claimed they were strangers, but Ford and Bess had been close friends for over a year. They were planning a spiritualist tour together: the sceptic’s widow and the medium who brought evidence from beyond the grave.
To read how that turned out follow the link at the end of the article.
One of Houdini’s friends said he seriously underestimated Doyle. Houdini could handle frauds and hucksters, but Doyle, as a zealot and someone who could not tolerate being wrong, was the most relentless type of enemy. Yet, like all fanatics Doyle did far more damage to himself than Houdini.
He lost serious money in a psychic bookstore venture.
He was mocked for his endorsement of the Cottingley fairies.
He publically advocated the Zancig husband and wife team as telepaths, even though they confessed they were stage magicians with a mind-reading act.
When caught promoting a fake spirit photograph as genuine, he refused to accept he was mistaken.
He was lampooned in the British Press for claiming spirits in the afterlife enjoyed cigars, whiskey and golf.
As a final insult, even his spirit guide, who came through during his wife’s séances, labelled him a ‘whale’.
Shortly before his death the author of the greatest detective wrote to a friend confessing… “I have moments of doubt when I wonder if we have not been victims of some extraordinary prank played on the human race by the other side.”
Here is the link to the earlier article on Sally’s Smorgasbord about Houdini’s wife getting a genuine coded message from her dead husband: an incident that passed into legend.
My thanks to Paul for another article that brings truth and perspective to the lives of the legendary.
About Paul Andruss
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
Paul Andruss is the author of 2 contrasting fantasy novels
Thomas the Rhymer – a magical fantasy for ages 11 to adult about a boy attempting to save fairy Thomas the Rhymer, while trying to rescue his brother from a selfish fairy queen.
Finn Mac Cool – rude, crude and funny, explicitly sexual and disturbingly violent, Finn Mac Cool is strictly for adults only.
Connect to Paul on social media.
You can find all of Paul’s posts in this directory: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/writer-in-residence-writer-paul-andruss/
Thank you for dropping by today and please feel free to share the post on your own blog and networks. Thanks Sally