Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stashower spooks The Haunting of America

In his review of the new book, The Haunting of America: From the Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini, author Daniel Stashower (who has penned several fictional Houdini adventures) correctly challenges the book’s depiction of the famous Houdini-Conan Doyle Atlantic City seance. I will let Mr. Stashower speak for himself:

“Although Harry Houdini's name appears in the title, none of the major biographies of the escape artist are listed in the book's 15-page bibliography, not even the cornerstone treatment by Pulitzer winner Kenneth Silverman. Instead, we find a picture book and a biography for young readers -- both of which are excellent, admittedly, but neither of which sits at the pinnacle of the available scholarship. The effect of these omissions is keenly felt as the authors explore Houdini's tempestuous friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, who famously embraced spiritualism in later life. As Birnes and Martin relate, the relationship between the two men reached a breaking point during an ill-fated seance in Atlantic City, when Conan Doyle's wife produced a highly suspect spirit message from Houdini's dead mother. In their retelling of the event, however, the "Christian allusions" in the message brought Houdini to such a pitch of anger that he "exploded in rage" and "unleashed a volley of insults": "She's Jewish, you imbecile, as am I!" 
Well . . . that's not how I heard it. There have been dozens of accounts of this episode written over the years, and two books that focus exclusively on the relationship between the two men, but I don't recall seeing the "you imbecile" outburst in any of them. (Full disclosure: My own two books on Conan Doyle are cited in the bibliography.) In every version I've seen, Houdini keeps his composure in spite of his grave misgivings about the message, owing to his great respect for Conan Doyle. Only later, when the two men failed to reconcile their opposing views of what had transpired, did the friendship unravel. Am I making too much of a trifle? Perhaps, but as Sherlock Holmes once remarked, "There is nothing so important as trifles."”

Read Daniel Stashower’s full review at The Washington Post Online.

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