Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle
Due to the extraordinary performances of magician Harry Houdini, there were Spiritualists and other members of the public who believed that Houdini was actually a medium himself, and that he only tried to debunk his fellow mediums in order to throw suspicion off his own abilities.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, good friend of Harry Houdini, came to believe that his magician friend actually did possess supernatural powers. This belief started a small tear in the friendship between the two gentlemen, and an eventual end to their companionship.
Houdini and Doyle once conducted a test in the presence of the president of the American Society of Magicians, Bernard Ernst. Houdini believe he would be able to convince them both that his illusions were “simple trickery.”
The test only served to eliminate all of Doyle’s doubts about Houdini’s ability; and, “Ernst admitted that the trick reminded him of a certain mind-reading stunt that Houdini had stopped using because he thought it was too spooky.” To read the account of this trick, see: https://www.prairieghosts.com/doyle_houdini.html.
The friendship of Houdini and Doyle was a rather unusual one. Doyle avidly believed in the ability of psychics to communicate the dead; and, Houdini devoted a great deal of time and energy to proving that the spiritualists were fraudulent.
Nevertheless, after meeting in England during a 1920 tour by Houdini, they did become very good friends. The two families even vacationed together sometimes.
During a relaxing mini-vacation in Atlantic City in 1922, an event transpired that served to split the small rift between the two gentlemen wide open.
Doyle was married to his second wife, Jean Leckie, at the time. It appears she was not a very nice lady, especially to Doyle’s children, but Arthur was enamored with her as reflected in the love letters he wrote to her even in his dotage.
Doyle and Leckie had married the year after his first wife passed away, in 1907. After the end of WWI, Doyle started spending a great deal of time devoting himself to Spiritualism. Interestingly, it was around this time that Jean began to show a talent for automatic writing.
During the fateful vacation in 1922, Jean offered to hold a séance for Houdini to reach his beloved mother.
Houdini wanted very much to believe that Lady Jean would be able to bring him a message from his mother, but was extremely disappointed throughout the procedure. Lady Jean delivered a long message to Houdini supposedly from his mother, but Houdini was not convinced.
Although he kept his feelings to himself for a while, Houdini came away from the event feeling disillusioned with claims of psychic ability, even from someone he has heretofore respected.
The week before Christmas of that year, Houdini spoke out about the séance. He said that “there was not the slightest evidence that his mother had come through” as his mother could barely speak any English and that she was Jewish and would not have started out writing at the top of the paper as Lady Jean had done.
To me, the saddest part of this story is that these two men were so driven by their passionate feelings about this subject that they allowed it to destroy their friendship.
In 1926, while Bess Houdini was sorting through her husband’s belongings after his passing, she found some books on spirituality that she offered to Doyle because she still felt that he was one of her husband’s dearest friends.
When he expressed his reluctance in accepting them because of the bad feelings between them at the end, Bess told him that her husband had never given up on the possibility of contacting his mother. She added, “If, as you believe, he had psychic powers, 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.”
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