THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
A HAUNTED FRIENDSHIP
HARRY HOUDINI AND SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
"I will present a feat which has, since the dawn of history, been considered an absolute impossibility," announced the man dramatically. He captured the attention of the audience, even though he was well under average height, was powerful without being bulky, bushy-haired and a little bow-legged. The man had a sharp-featured, yet handsome face and intense blue eyes. These eyes seemed to be alive with fire as they danced across the gathered and breathless crowd. He continued to speak in manner that was guaranteed to send chills down the spines of the most veteran student of magic.
"I shall endeavor to walk through a solid brick wall!"
And Harry Houdini did just that -- or at least he seemed to. The wall was made from solid brick, built on a foot-wide steel beam by a squad of brick layers before the eyes of the audience. Over a large carpet in the center of the stage was spread a seamless sheet of cloth. Members of a committee that had been assembled from the audience stood along its edges. Screens were placed on either side of the wall and the magician stepped behind one of them. They could hear his voice from the screen. "I'm going...", he cried. "I'm going ... I'm gone!" Then, much quieter, came his voice from the other side. "Here I am!"
He stepped out to greet an audience that was at first stunned into silence. There was, everyone could see, no connection by a tunnel under the wall. The carpet and canvas made that impossible. There was no way around the wall for the committee could see both ends. He did not go over the barrier -- so how then, could a man walk through a solid brick wall??
Of course, like all of Houdini's fabulous stunts and escapes, it was a clever illusion that was created by hard work, skill and ingenuity -- but many did not see it this way. In fact, Spiritualists believed that was using supernatural powers to escape from his seemingly inescapable traps. But was he really? Many were convinced that he was, including one man who was one of the leading Spiritualists in the world. His name was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle and Houdini first met in 1920, during the magician's tour of England. The two of them became good friends, despite their opposing views on the supernatural. Houdini was delighted to learn that there was at least one intelligent person who believed in Spiritualism and found that man in his friend Conan Doyle. The author was convinced of the value of the movement to the world and had given up most of his lucrative writing career to lecture about Spiritualism around the world. He also found that Houdini’s knowledge of the spirit world was as vast as his own, although their attitudes differed.
Doyle agreed with some of Houdini's methods in exposing fraudulent mediums because he believed that their existence damaged the legitimacy of the movement. Lacking his new friend's magical training though, he was less able to see how fraud was accomplished. Houdini worked to try and show the secrets practiced by the fraudulent mediums to Doyle but the author merely insisted that the mediums he knew were good and honest people who would never try and trick or cheat their followers. Besides that, Doyle stated, just because the feats of the spirits could be duplicated did not mean that they were not real. Just because Houdini could prove that fraud was possible was not enough to convince Doyle that it actually occurred.
The two men's arguments were long and inconclusive, but good natured. Neither convinced the other to his respective point of view but both of them found their own interest stirred by their meeting and the lengthy correspondences that followed. It would be a series of strange events over the next two years that would bring this unusual friendship to an end and the rift between then started when Doyle began to publicly take the side of Spiritualists who believed that Houdini accomplished some of his greatest magic using supernatural powers. Houdini had long been working to expose fraudulent mediums in private, in print and during his stage shows, which made him a much-hated figure in Spiritualist circles. Some believed they had an explanation for this -- they stated that Houdini’s exposure of mediums was simply to cover the fact that he was a medium himself! They claimed that many of his extraordinary escapes were actually done by Houdini "dematerializing" from the traps that he had placed himself in. "This ability", Doyle stated publicly, "to unbolt locked doors is undoubtedly due to Houdini’s mediumistic powers and not to any normal operation of the lock. The effort necessary to shoot a bolt from within a lock is drawn from Houdini the medium, but it must not be thought that this is the only means by which he can escape from his prison. For at times, his body can be... dematerialized and withdrawn."
Now, Houdini was placed in the classic magician’s "catch" position, meaning that he could only go so far in denying the Spiritualist claims. By going any further than he had, he would have to expose how his escapes were accomplished, which he could never do. His reply was simply that all of his escapes were managed by purely physical means. He stated that his crusade against Spiritualism was simply a way to protect the general public from charlatans but he, however, was able to keep an open mind on the subject and did not assume that all mediums were frauds.
Spiritualist leaders declared that Houdini’s actions did not agree with his words and so the magician made a pact with a number of friends. The pact promised that whichever of them died first, he should make every attempt to contact the others by way of a secret code. But Houdini still could not escape the claims being made by Doyle, so he devised a plan to make the author realize that all of his tricks were just that -- tricks. He assured Doyle that he would give him proof that magic was accomplished through simple trickery.
Three persons were present at the test, Houdini, Doyle and Bernard Ernst, the president of the American Society of Magicians. A slate was hung in the center of the room by Doyle and he was given five, plain cork balls to examine. He chose one of the balls at random and placed it in a container of white paint. Doyle was then given a piece of paper and was told to walk anywhere that he wanted to and then write a message on the paper. Doyle left the house, walked three blocks away and then turned a corner. He shielded the paper with his hand and wrote down a short message. Meanwhile, Ernst stayed in the room with Houdini to insure that the other magician remained in the room. When he finished writing, Conan Doyle folded the paper carefully and placed it in his pocket. He then returned to the house.
Houdini then told Doyle to pick up the paint-soaked ball and stick it on the suspended slate. The ball then inexplicably began to roll over the surface of the slate and it spelled out the biblical phrase, Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin... the exact words that Doyle had written on the paper!
Houdini claimed that it was all done by simple trickery but Doyle was more convinced than ever of his former friend’s supernatural powers. Ernst begged Houdini to explain how the trick worked, either to himself or Doyle, in the strictest confidence, but Houdini refused. Strangely, he would never use the trick again in any of his shows and no one has ever been able to reproduce it. At that time, Bernard Ernst admitted that the trick reminded him of a certain mind-reading stunt that Houdini had stopped using because, as it explained to Ernst, it was "too spooky".
The relationship between the two men had become tense and it was damaged even more by an event that occurred during Conan Doyle's American lecture tour in May 1922. The tour got off to a rocky start when Doyle landed in New York and gave a press conference that was derided and harshly criticized in the New York Times the following day. He didn't let this bother him though and was delighted with his tour manager, Lee Keedick, and managed to catch up with a number of old friends. His first lecture, at Carnegie Hall, took place during a heat wave and the humidity inside of the packed lecture room was intense. A record-breaking crowd filled the building and they listened attentively as he spoke for more than an hour about the mysteries of the next world. The following day, a much kinder article appeared in the New York World:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made an extraordinary impression last night at Carnegie Hall, in his attempt to prove the existence of life after death and the possibility of communication with the dead. The effectiveness of his talk depended on the fact that in spite of the imagination of his writings, he seems to be a downright person. He does not look a man who could be easily stampeded. His audience was profoundly attentive. Evidently it was a crowd which had its dead.
Doyle offered seven lectures in New York, all of which were well received. He spoke of his own experiences with mediums and at séances and showed lantern slides of spirit photographs, mediums exuding ectoplasm and even photographs of Katie King, smiling sweetly at one of Florence Cook's séances. Some of the happenings at the lectures were on the unsettling side though. Women fainted when the strange, spectral faces glowed on the screen, accompanied by the eerie strains of music from a Victrola. Others called out, begging for word from their dead loved ones. Every new slide brought a chorus of screams, moans and fainting spells. Distracted people wandered up and down the aisles, some sobbing uncontrollably. When the lecture ended though, Doyle's dressing room would be packed with well-wishers.
It must have made for an weird and chilling series of talks -- and things were going to get worse. Newspaper reports of Doyle's New York lectures caused an extraordinary rush of suicides by people who wanted to see the "next world" immediately. Several of them made front page news. One woman, Maude Fancher, heard Doyle giving a speech on the radio and then murdered her son and consumed the contents of a bottle of Lysol cleaner. Before she swallowed the poison, which took a week to kill her, she wrote a letter to Conan Doyle and told him that Spiritualism inspired her to the act. Then, she left a detailed letter for her husband explaining that she wanted her baby to placed in her arms when she was placed in the tomb.
A Brooklyn potter, Frank Alexi, stabbed his wife in the head with an ice pick, claiming that he had seen a evil spirit sitting there that had followed him home from Carnegie Hall. A young man killed himself and his room mate because, he explained, "there were no gas bills in the afterlife."
Conan Doyle, when confronted with these and several other peculiar incidents, stated without hesitation that they were the result of "a misunderstanding of what Spiritualism is meant to be."
This bit of bad press must have encouraged Doyle to get away from the thick of things and meet with a number of mediums of whom he was familiar. He attended a number of séances, including one in which a "spirit" continually referred to him as "Sir Sherlock Holmes". At another, an apparition appeared from a spirit cabinet with the face of Doyle's late mother. When he grasped the spirit to embrace her, he was stunned to find the muscular shoulders of a man beneath the "spirit robes". Rather than expose the medium on the spot, Doyle waited to do it privately. Before he could so so though, the medium was caught in a hoax. When Doyle was accused of aiding the medium in his fraud, he related the story of the séance -- but no one would believe him and he was savaged in the newspapers.
With this added dilemma, a meeting with his friend Houdini must have seemed a welcome respite. The two dined together and then returned to the magician's New York apartment. Here, he tried to explain to Doyle how the glove-like paraffin casts, supposedly of spirit hands, were created. A rubber glove would be filled with air, the wrist packed with wood, and then it would be dipped in paraffin wax. If fingerprints were needed, the first step would be to get a mold of a hand in dental wax or plaster; an impression would be made of the palm side of the hand, then of the back, and the two sides would be fitted together. Next, the entire hand would be duplicated in rubber and the fingerprints preserved. Once it was dipped in the paraffin, the process was complete. Doyle refused to accept this though -- maintaining that just because it could be duplicated by ordinary means did not mean that it was not created by extraordinary means in the first place.
On June 2, Doyle appeared as the guest of honor at the American Club of Magicians at the McAlpin Hotel. He solemnly announced to the assembled group that he would show something that was "psychic" and "prenatural" only in the sense that it as "not nature as we can now observe it". After building up an atmosphere of excitement and expectation (in the best tradition of a magician!), Doyle ordered the lights to be put out. Suddenly, the audience was astonished to see actual films of prehistoric creatures, including an iguanodon, a tyrannosaur and a brontosaurus, all struggling in a primeval forest. The next day, the New York Times ran a breathless story that was headlined "Dinosaurs Cavort on Film for Doyle". They pondered whether "these pictures were intended by the famous author as a joke on the magicians or a genuine pictures, like his photographs of fairies, was not revealed."
The next day, Doyle sent a humor-filled letter to Houdini, which he also released to the press. He revealed that the films had come from sequences in a motion picture version of his book, The Lost World, which was being produced in Chicago. The animation of the creatures had been done by Willis O'Brien, who would later go one to make the acclaimed original version of King Kong.
Needing a break from his hectic, and sometimes controversial, schedule in New York, the Conan Doyle's went to Atlantic City. He sent a message to Houdini and suggested that he come down for a short vacation. Houdini enthusiastically accepted and soon, Doyle was floating in the hotel swimming pool and admiring the length of time that the magician could remain under water, holding his breath. While Lady Jean and the children played with a beach ball, Doyle and Houdini sat in deck chairs, looking out over the ocean and discussing aspects of Spiritualism. As Conan Doyle described the work done by a Mrs. Deane in London, Houdini maintained a stoic silence, knowing that Mrs. Deane had been caught substituting a photographic plate from her purse for one exposed at a séance. And the discussion went on .... Houdini offered comments and careful observations but he had no intention of upsetting his friend and ruining their peaceful and enjoyable holiday.
On Sunday, Bess Houdini joined the happy group. Doyle was excited to see her, as was her husband, who had been enjoying the time spent playing with the Doyle children. He had been entertaining them with small magic tricks and delighted in their laughter. He eagerly spent a few moments alone with Bess though and the couple of was sitting on the beach one afternoon when a young lifeguard's son came running along to tell them that Lady Jean wanted to give Houdini a private séance in her suite. Houdini, who was impressed with Lady Jean's obvious sincerity and decency, was thrilled. Perhaps he could at last obtain proof of survival after death and when Conan Doyle later told him that Lady Jean would try and get a message to the magician from his adored mother, he was beside himself.
Houdini went up to the suite with Doyle and Lady Jean greeted him with great affection. She sat down at a large table, where a pile of paper and a pencil lay ready. Doyle sat next to his wife and Houdini sat on the opposite side of the table. Conan Doyle then offered a solemn prayer and asked his wife if she was ready. Her hand struck the table three times (a Spiritualistic code for "yes") and then sank into a deep trance.
Houdini wrote later: "I had made up my mind that I would be as religious as it was in my power to be and not at any time did I scoff during the ceremony. I excluded all earthly thoughts and gave my whole soul to the séance. I was willing to believe, even wanted to believe. It was weird to me and with a beating heart I waited, hoping that I might feel once more the presence of my beloved mother..."
Jean began to breathe deeply and her eyes fluttered. Her hand, as though moving on its own, dashed with amazing speed across sheets of paper. Conan Doyle handed them one by one over to the magician. Houdini turned pale and began to tremble. The message began: "Oh my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I'm through. I've tried, oh so often -- now I am happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy -- my own beloved boy -- friends, thank you, with all my heart for this." The message continued with an expression of joy about Mrs. Weiss' new life and the beauty of the next world. She concluded with "I wanted, oh so much -- now I can rest in peace." Doyle then asked Houdini if he wanted to ask his mother a question for "her reply will prove that she is at your side."
Houdini looked extremely upset and could not speak. Conan Doyle suggested a question. "Can my mother read my mind?" Houdini silently nodded his agreement and Lady Jean's hand began to move again. "I always wanted to read my beloved son's mind," the message continued, "there is so much that I want to say to him." The message then went on for several hundred words, mostly expressing joy at communicating with her son and her appreciation of the Doyle's.
At the end of the séance, Houdini sank back in his chair, utterly drained and exhausted. Then, unseen by Doyle and Lady Jean, Houdini scribbled with a fragment of pencil a small note on the first sheet of paper. "Message written by Lady Doyle claiming the spirit of my dear Mother had control of her hand -- my sainted mother could not write English and spoke broken English." A moment later, he picked up a sheet of paper and boldly wrote on it a single word "Powell". He looked at Conan Doyle and his eyes issued a challenge to the other man. He had been thinking of his friend Powell, a fellow magician -- if his mother had been reading his mind, wouldn't she have known this. But Doyle misunderstood the message completely and he stood up from his chair in shock. A good friend of Doyle's, Ellis Powell, editor of the London Financial News, had died just three days earlier. He was convinced that Houdini, with the gift of a medium, was trying to say that Powell was in the room. Houdini didn't have the heart to disillusion them on the spot but a few days later, he sent Doyle a letter to let him know that he was thinking of his magician friend and that he was not trying to tell him that a spectral presence was in the room.
Houdini left the hotel and returned to New York to wrestle with his conscience. Should he disclose the truth -- that his mother had not come through, that this had been her birthday and there was no reference made to it, that he felt no presence in the room, no smell of her favorite perfume -- and that when the message ended, he felt as alone and lost as he had when she died? If he were to reveal this, the Doyle's would be hurt and perhaps even ruined. On the other hand, if he kept quiet, he would be allowing the Spiritualists a false victory. Out of decency, he decided to withhold any statements about the séance until after the Doyle's left America.
The Doyle's never expected the blow that awaited them. They remained friendly with Houdini, dining and attending the theater with him and he came to the docks to see them off when they departed by sea on June 24. For some reason, Houdini held back on speaking out about the Doyle's until December 19, 1922. At that time, he issued a release that stated there was not the slightest evidence that his mother had "come through" Lady Jean. His mother could not read or write and could barely speak English and in addition to that, Lady Jean had started her automatic writing by scrawling a cross on the top of the paper. His mother had been Jewish and would have never have done this.
Conan Doyle protested Houdini's claims, stating that language and earthly dates meant nothing to the spirits but Houdini was not convinced. He did not think that the Doyle's had deliberately tried to deceive him but had deceived themselves by their own gullibility. As for the Doyle's, they weathered Houdini's criticisms, although his statement furthered damaged their once friendly relationship. Doyle tried to remain loyal to the magician and convinced himself that Houdini was too nervous about the encounter with his mother's spirit to admit that it was genuine. They also claimed in some reports that another message had also come through
that day -- claiming that Houdini would die soon -- and this was the reason he denied the authenticity of the communication.
For a short time after this, the two men tried to pretend that their friendship had not been ruined but it was too late to salvage it for the hurt was too deep on both sides. To the Doyle's, Houdini was willfully blind and appallingly ungrateful but to Houdini, the Doyle's had made a terrible mockery of the deep feelings that he had for his mother. What little remained of their friendship was destroyed in 1923 with Houdini's attacks on medium Mina Crandon, who appeared under the stage name of Margery. Houdini had become a member of a panel that was sponsored by Scientific American magazine to investigate self-proclaimed mediums and Houdini was instrumental in making sure that Margery was discredited. Doyle, who supported Margery, was outraged. "The commission is, in my opinion, a farce," he wrote, "and has already killed itself." Click Here to Read About Margery and her Battles with Houdini
The entire matter with Houdini, Margery and the Scientific American investigations was never settled to anyone's satisfaction. Margery was never deemed as genuine by the panel but she remained triumphant in the eyes of many, including Conan Doyle. The friendship between he and Houdini had finally reached its bitter end. "You force me to speak," he wrote to the magician, "and I have no wish to offend you but you cannot have it both ways. You cannot bitterly and offensively, often also unruly, attack a subject and yet expect courtesies from those who honor that subject. It is not reasonable."
Within a few years, in 1926, Bess Houdini would be shattered by her husband's premature death. While sorting through his papers and vast library, she uncovered a number of books on Spiritualism and the supernatural and thought they would make a nice gift to Conan Doyle, whom she still considered one of the best friends that Houdini had in life. She wrote to them and offered the books but Doyle was reluctant to take them, believing that Houdini had harbored bad feelings about him at the time of his death. Bess quickly replied that this was not the case and blamed most of the problems between the two men on the press. Houdini had never given up on the possibility of contacting his mother and told Bess so while on his death bed. And "if, as you believe, he had psychic powers," she wrote, "I give you my word that he never knew it.... He was deeply hurt whenever any journalistic arguments arose between you and would have been the happiest man in the world had he been able to agree with your views on spiritism. He admired and respected you .. two remarkable men with different views -- it is usually the third party that distorts the word or the meaning."