From 1876-81, Conan Doyle studied medicine at arguably the best medical school in the country - Edinburgh Uni. He practised medicine from the time of his graduation until after he returned from the Boer War in 1900.
Conan Doyle, at first, seemed only interested in Spiritualism for its narrative potential, rather than to change people’s hearts and minds. But after his father died when the author was young, quickly followed by his wife, Conan Doyle fell into a deep depression. Shortly thereafter, in 1893, he applied to join the Society for Psychical Research, a committee of academics aiming to study Spiritualism.
Eventually he gave up his lucrative literary career and dedicated himself wholly to his obsession with Spiritualism with. If anything, Conan Doyle's interest in the paranormal was even MORE intensified after the death of his brother and eldest son in World War I.
Houdini and Doyle met in 1920
In 1920, Houdini was touring Britain, performing scary stunts like climbing out of locked trunks and straitjackets. Or scarier still, breaking out of police lock ups in every city in which Houdini performed. Although Doyle was utterly famous himself, he was besotted with Houdini, going to Portsmouth to see his slightly younger fellow spiritualist. After the show, Doyle couldn’t wait to introduce himself to the magician backstage; apparently the very tall English writer and the very short Hungarian-American magician were happy spending quality time with each other. And their closeness, conducted mainly in letters, continued when Doyle to America to lecture on spiritualism.
Enter Christopher Sandford who wrote a book about these two important men called Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, published by Bloomsbury in 2011.
Houdini was not ashamed of his fellow mediums; they had to entertain the crowds and earn a living, just as he had to. But he never for a moment thought the magic was anything more than a stage show. Alas Conan Doyle had a lifetime of believing in fairies and séances, and would not be budged from his faith in these skills.
Why did Houdini acquiesce to Lady Conan Doyle when she suggested that they have a séance? Sandford showed that they were going to contact Houdini’s beloved deceased mother, Mrs Cecelia Weiss; although he knew it was nonsense, Houdini didn’t have the heart to say no. Lady Conan Doyle, in a kind of trance, called for a message from Mother Weiss and wrote the words down on paper, in perfect English. Sir Arthur thought the event a great success but Houdini knew that he had never spoken to his mama in English! When the very religious rabbi’s wife, Mrs Weiss, apparently made the sign of the cross, the game was up.
Houdini was apparently unable to convince Conan Doyle that his feats were simply illusions and tricks. As an experienced magician, Houdini knew all the tricks that his fellow magicians used. But the question remains – why did Houdini spend what was left of his life, rubbishing séances, travelling the world and exposing the trickery? After all, he had himself become both wealthy and famous, using the tricks of the trade! So this was a very strange friendship, and one that was doomed to fail.
Houdini's book, A Magician Among the Spirits, 1924
Note the mention of Conan Doyle on the book cover.
The knife in the back, as far as Doyle was concerned, happened when Houdini chronicled the profession’s trickery in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, published in 1924. Doyle, who had become an even firmer believer in spiritualism during his later years than he had been earlier, was very angry at Houdini's exposés. Houdini’s book led inevitably to the end of any trust between them.
Doyle’s own explanation was truly bizarre. He felt that Houdini was SUCH a powerful spiritualist that he must have been using his magic to block the magic of other magicians that Houdini had rubbished in his book. Even after Houdini died in 1926, Doyle published more proof about the truth of spiritualism in The Edge of The Unknown 1930.
I totally understand why Doyle would want to defend his own firmly held beliefs. But I have no idea why Doyle would want to vigorously defend his colleague's powerful spiritualism when the American had, for once and for all, exposed the profession’s use of trickery.
So in the end, there were two ironies. Firstly Houdini knew he and his fellow performers had to maintain their spiritual aura, if they were to continue to take advantage of a gullible public. Secondly Doyle had to be a rational and sceptical scientist, but he was so invested in spiritualism that he couldn’t afford to accept the truth from an expert. Although Doyle recognised that some spiritualists might be fraudulent, he believed Houdini's attitude was unfair and irrational, and his condemnation of spiritualism was sacrilegious.
Arthur and Jean Conan Doyle opened their bookshop
in Victoria Street SW London, in 1925.
Conan Doyle's book, The Edge of Unknown, was sold here.
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, a very large crowd attended the funeral and train loads of floral tributes were sent from across Britain and from other countries. It was a celebratory and colourful occasion, and he was buried in the non-Christian section of the cemetery. His readers either didn't know about his involvement in spiritualism, or they did but they didn't care.