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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford

Full confession. In my 35 years of obsessive Houdini research, I’ve always found his anti-spiritualism crusade to be the least interesting aspect of his life and career. In fact, I’ve sometimes felt I’ve had to slog though these sections in biographies. But all this has changed with the new book Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford, which had me riveted, and is one of those rare books that I came away from feeling like I know Houdini better.

Houdini and Conan Doyle (which will be titled Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini when it is released in the U.S. next month) is the third major non-fiction book written about the curious relationship between these two famous men. The other books are Ernst and Carrington’s Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship (1932) and Massimo Polidoro’s Final Séance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle (2001). While full props must go out to these first two books, especially Polidoro’s scholarly work, I do feel like Sandford has synthesized all previous research with his own new findings and formidable skills as a biographer to create the best book yet written on the subject of Houdini and spiritualism, and maybe the most skillfully written book about Houdini in general since Silverman (Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss).

Houdini haters will be upset to learn that Houdini actually comes off as quite scholarly and rational in this book. For all of Houdini's efforts to portray himself as a man of letters, it really wasn’t until this book that I finally saw that man clearly. Houdini was a man of action (and reaction) to be sure, but Sandford shows he put more thought into these actions then he is generally given credit for. In other words, he really was a smart as he said he was! This is because Sandford has gained access to some key Houdini diaries (as well as some "unpublished writings" of Bernard Ernst, Houdini lawyer and close friend) that offer a counterpoint to what was going on between the two men in their letters and in public. There was what Houdini said to the papers; there was what he said to Doyle in letters; and then there are his own beliefs and private feelings that are sometimes very different.

While there are no Charmian London level bombshells in Houdini and Conan Doyle, there are a several things that I found revelatory (my apologies if these are in Polidoro – I hoped to re-read that book before I wrote this review, but that didn’t happen). My jaw hit the floor as early as page 3 when Sandford says Houdini, at age 11, attended a "series of séances" in a failed attempt to contact his dead half-brother Hermann. Also, at age 18, Houdini sold his watch to pay for a "professional psychic reunion" with his recently deceased father. Forget the death of Mama in 1913, certainly the seeds of Houdini's hostility toward mediums can be at last partially attributed to these early disappointments in his youth.

I was also fascinated to learn that Houdini purchased Doyle's father's art portfolio in auction, and that Bessie returned this treasure to Doyle after Houdini’s death; that J. Gordon Whitehead was born on the same day Houdini performed his first ever public handcuff escape (Nov. 25, 1895); that Houdini prided himself on having a substantial collection of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, and struggled to prove that Doyle lifted his Holmes material from the writings of Edger Allen Poe. (Houdini seems eager to unleash this evidence on the world, he even teases it in his spiritualist lectures. But despite spending "long hours in his library comparing the two texts", he doesn't seem to be able to prove the theory to himself and never publishes.) And then there's the suggestion from Will Goldston that Houdini occasionally "partook in a nip of opium"(!).

(Also, on a fun personal note, I had no idea that Dr. Daniel Comstock, inventor and founder of Technicolor – my current employer – was on the Scientific American committee with Houdini.)

The narrative of Houdini and Conan Doyle is pretty evenly split between the two men, relating their respective biographies in equal measures (maybe a little more weighted to Doyle in the first third). Of course, I came for Houdini, but I found the Doyle material just as fascinating, and sometimes downright shocking! I had no idea just how far off the rails Doyle went near the end of his life, firmly believing his prophetic spirit guide, Pheneas, that the end of the world was imminent and preaching preparedness to his followers. One thing Sandford never really addresses is why Lady Doyle, as the voice of Pheneas, perpetuated this fiction for her husband. (At times Pheneas would implore Doyle to buy new home furnishings or kitchen appliances.) Unless they were both just flat out bonkers. It really is a strange, strange story.

My only complaint might be that the collection of photos included in the book leaves something to be desired. There is not even a single photo of Houdini and Doyle together (at least not in the UK proof edition, which is what I'm writing this review from -- maybe the final book will have more photos*). But photos are not what's important to us Houdini nuts and historians. It's the text that matters, and this is where Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford delivers!

UK edition (left) and U.S. edition (right).

*UPDATE: Having now received my copy of the finished book, I'm happy to report that it does indeed contain more photos than what was in the proof, including a photo of Houdini and Doyle together.

9 comments:

  1. I haven't read this book yet, but I did read a book about Doyle and his second wife. She may have become a true believer in mediumship, but I also think she found it a way to influence Doyle, to put it politely. In those days, there were very few avenues for women to have power. Pretending to be psychic was one of them.

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  2. I agree - from what I've read, he seemed totally in her thrall. I've got no doubt Doyle and his wife wanted to believe all that stuff and they only got more vehement about it each time they were challenged. Houdini never stood a chance trying to explain it to them. You can't argue rationally with that level of belief.

    Great review - thanks!

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  3. Interesting start to your blog revealing that the spirit stuff is your least favorite of Houdini's life...I say that because I too find it the least favorite, though of late have become more fascinated by it.
    Is this book a biography then? I was thinking it was just another fictional book about the two men, but it sounds as if it is a historical account of Doyle and Houdini in which case it's a must have!

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  4. Oh, it's not fiction. This is non-fiction. As you say, a historical account of Doyle and Houdini.

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  5. I particularly admire Houdini for his investigations in to Spiritualism, because he had the same objections to it that I do - People using cheap tricks to pretend to bring your loved ones back to you is an insult to their memory, and shows no respect for you or your grief. Though I admitt, Houdini the showman is of course much more fascinating :)

    That part about him selling his watch to pay for a seance in order to reach his father actually confirmed what I'd always thought. Houdini wasn't the eldest brother, and yet he was the one Rabbi Weiss instructed on his deathbed to take good care of Cecelia (and we all know Houdini kept that promise.) They must have been close.

    Hmmm, I will have to get this book!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Jessika. I think you're right that Ehrich was the one Rabbi Weiss looked to to take care of the family. Probably why his mother's nickname for him was "little father" (Tata - I think).

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  6. I saw this book based on your recommendation, and I loved it. In terms of the last years of Doyle's life, I think Sloman & Kalush go into Doyle's delusions quite well in their Houdini book. Based on Doyle's letters to my great-grandparents, there is no doubt that Doyle truly believed in a new religion and that his wife and Margery would be the vessels (so to speak) that would guide him to a new world. In fact he was obsessive on the topic. And it makes sense to me that Lady Doyle would use spirit communication to convey very earthly needs - it was an effective way of exercising power in the domestic realm. Margery did the same thing - sometimes using her spirit guide Walter to tell husband, Dr Crandon, where she wanted to go for vacation. I think the subject of female mediums and the subtext of controlling husbands through seances is worthy of study - its a whole different level of communication that I don't think anyone has really researched yet.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Anna. Female mediums controlling their husbands through seances is VERY interesting stuff and, you're right, it really hasn't been explored. Maybe it will be in the new book about Margery that David Jaher is writing.

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  7. Just getting caught up on this. Missed it the first time around. We were in contact with Christopher Sanford when he was writing this book. We made several suggestions on areas to cover, which he did. He thanked us in several emails. He is an excellent writer and a very careful researcher.

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

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