Friday, April 29, 2016

The true story of Houdini & Doyle

This Monday, May 2, FOX premieres Houdini & Doyle, a new TV series in which the two famous men investigate paranormal mysteries in England in 1901. Advanced publicity says the series is "based on true events." So before we enjoy the show, let's look back at the real story of Houdini and Doyle.

"Apart from his amazing courage, he was remarkable for his cheery urbanity in every-day life. One could not wish a better companion so long as one was with him, though he might do and say the most unexpected things when one was absent." - Doyle on Houdini

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a well-known believer and advocate of Spiritualism, a self-proclaimed religion in which one could communicate with the dead through a spirit medium. Even though Spiritualism had been around since 1848, the movement found new life after World War I, which had left so many dead on the battlefields and so many grieving loved ones wishing to make contact. The fact that esteemed men such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge championed the movement also gave it great credibility.

Harry Houdini was skeptical of Spiritualism. His own interest in the subject dates back to his youth (not his mother's death, as is frequently depicted). In the 1890s, when Houdini was first setting out as a magician, the tricks of spirit mediums were the cutting edge magic of the day, and Houdini studied their techniques in books such as Revelations of a Spirit Medium. Houdini and his wife Bess even performed "Spiritualistic Entertainments" during their struggling years. Even after Houdini achieved his great fame as "The Handcuff King", he continued to study Spiritualism, accumulating a vast library on the subject. While he still held out hope there could be such a thing as a genuine medium, all he ever found was fraud.

In 1920, Houdini traveled to England to fulfill engagements that had been postponed because of the war. Houdini was a fan of the Sherlock Homes stories and had read Doyle's latest books on the subject of Spiritualism, such as The New Revelation. By way of introduction, Houdini sent Doyle a copy of his own most scholarly work, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. Doyle saw Houdini perform at the London Palladium in June 1920. A short time later, the men struck up a friendship.

The focal point of their new friendship was the subject of Spiritualism. Houdini told Doyle he was a "seeker of Truth" and "willing to believe." Doyle agreed with Houdini that there was fraud out there, but that he could send him to genuine mediums. While in the UK, Houdini claimed to have visited over 100 mediums, including those Doyle felt were genuine. But at every sitting, Houdini recognized trickery. The experience left him "further than ever from a belief in the genuineness of the manifestations."

But Doyle firmly believed that Houdini himself had supernatural powers, and cited as evidence a man who claimed to have felt Houdini dematerialize while doing his Milk Can escape -- "A great loss of physical energy was felt...such as is usually felt by sitters in materializing séances." Doyle famously wrote to Houdini: "My dear chap, why go around the world seeking a demonstration of the occult when you are giving one all the time?"

Houdini and Doyle kept up a steady correspondence after Houdini returned to the U.S. The magician even paid homage to his new friend in his film, The Man From Beyond, which ends with Houdini's reincarnated man, Howard Hillary, reading The New Revelation. Doyle returned the favor by enthusiastically endorsing the film.

In 1922, Doyle came to the United States to lecture on the subject of Spiritualism. His lectures were a sensation in a "Jazz Age" that embraced the paranormal as fashion. Doyle even attended a special dinner hosted by Houdini for members of The Society of American Magicians. Showing a propensity for trickery himself, Doyle screened special effects footage from the in-production The Lost World. According to Doyle, the magicians were utterly fooled and believed he had somehow captured film of real dinosaurs.

But Doyle himself remained as gullible as ever. When Houdini playfully demonstrated a simple slight of hand trick in which he appeared to remove his thumb, Doyle was thunderstruck and once again proclaimed it as evidence of Houdini's paranormal powers.

In June of that same year, the Doyles invited the Houdinis to join them on a vacation in Atlantic City. While on the beach one day, Sir Arthur informed Houdini that Lady Doyle -- who had developed the power of mediumship herself -- was sensing that Houdini's deceased mother wished to communicate with him. Privately, Bess warned her husband that Lady Doyle had been peppering her with questions about his relationship with his mother just the day before. Nevertheless, Houdini agreed to the séance.

During the séance, held in Doyles suite at the Ambassador Hotel, Houdini's mother appeared to return via "automatic writing", a process in which Lady Doyle transcribed Cecelia Weiss's words from the beyond onto a note pad. Immediately, Houdini could see there where problems. The pages were in English, a language his mother did not speak. She also made the sign of the cross at the top of the first page. Not something one would expect from the wife of a Rabbi. The day before had also been his mother's birthday, something the spirit failed to mention. But Houdini concealed his doubts and thanked the Doyles for the séance.

After Atlantic City, Sir Arthur told the press that Houdini had been converted to the religion of Spiritualism. This forced Houdini's hand. Houdini countered publicly that he had not been converted and that he was more skeptical than ever. Of course, this raised the question of whether Houdini thought the Doyles were frauds. The public exchange put a strain on the friendship.

Feeling challenged, Houdini began touring with his own lecture that was the flip-side of Doyle's popular talks. Houdini demonstrated the tricks of fraudulent mediums and denounced the very mediums Doyle supported. Doyle felt Houdini was being too vitriolic in his attacks. Houdini felt Doyle was being too naive. The strain became too much and their friendship collapsed with the publication of Houdini's book, A Magician Among the Spirits, in May 1924.

With no more fear of offending his former friend, Houdini ratcheted up his campaign against fraudulent spirit mediums and made a sensation of it (giving his career a boost after his lackluster stint in the movies). He attended séances in disguise and exposed mediums from the stage. He even testified before Congress in support of a bill that outlawed fortune telling. Doyle continued his own vigorous defense of Spiritualism, supporting mediums Houdini debunked, notably the famous Mina Crandon a.k.a. "Margery." He continued to express his belief that Houdini was a medium in denial. He even felt Houdini was putting himself in danger, saying "The spirit world might well be incensed against him [for] using psychic powers at the very time when he is attacking them."

Houdini now publicly ridiculed Doyle's gullibility, citing his support of the Cottingley Fairies as an example. (Two young girls claimed to have photographed fairies in their garden. Doyle wrote a full book in support of the phenomena, The Coming of the Fairies, before the girls admitted the fairies were cutouts from a picture book which, ironically, contained a story by Doyle.) Houdini even considered taking their feud to a new level by publishing a monograph showing how Doyle plagiarized Edgar Allan Poe in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Happily, Houdini's research didn't pan out and he dropped the idea.

After Houdini's sudden death in October 1926, Sir Arthur wrote Bess a heartfelt letter of condolence, ending with: "I am sure that, with strength of character (and possibly his desire to make reparation), he will come back." As thanks, Bess sent him a portfolio of artwork by Conan Doyle's father that Houdini had acquired in an auction. Doyle wrote her in return:

"The book arrived and filled me with surprise... It really seems like a series of miracles–first that it should exist still, then that it should cross the Atlantic, and finally that it should come back home. I accept it as a peace-offering from your husband, and I thank him as well as you."

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930. He never wavered from his belief that his former friend was "the greatest physical medium of modern times."

So while Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never solved paranormal mysteries together, their famous friendship and feud forever links them in history, and it is nice to see the old friends reunited, if only in fiction.

For more on the real story of Houdini and Doyle, check out Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini by Christopher Standford. Houdini & Doyle airs on FOX Monday's at 9 PM ET/PT.



  1. My TV show on the Travel Channel's Mysteries At The Museum repeats Doyle and Houdini. Tune In for This Episode, Friday, May 27, 6pm | 5c
    Host Don Wildman examines a captivating Houdini portrait and tells of the Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle relationship in an interview at Scranton's Houdini Museum with magician Dick Brookz.
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

  2. It got so bad that in 1925, Houdini threatened to sue Doyle for slander:

    1. Oh, that's excellent. Thanks for the link, Bill.

  3. John above mentions

    "For more on the real story of Houdini and Doyle, check out Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini by Christopher Standford."

    be sure to check out page 231 of the book for evidence he found while researching in the British Library in the UK evidence of J. Gordon Whitehead's connection to higher ups in Montreal who were, or were friendly with believers in spiritualism.

    Do not have time to itemize it now as we are doing shows today and other events coming up, as well as getting ready for the coming busy weeks and months. Magician Mike Super is appearing here down the block from us next Saturday May 7.

    May 9 we are in New York to celebrate Houdini.

    The city of Williamsport is putting up a display at City Hall because of our discoveries of Houdini's several appearances in that city that they were not even aware of. Much great Houdini news coming up. Also cemetery news as well. Have to run but will try to keep you posted.

    We want to thank the SAM, MUM, Mike Close, David Bowers, John Cox, Joe Notaro, Bruce Kalver, and the long list of others who give us the encouragement to plow on in our endevors.

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

    1. It's amazing how Houdini's popularity and presence seems to just get stronger every year. And ever year now brings a new cultural mega event: Houdini Miniseries (2014), The Grim Game (2015), Houdini & Doyle (2016).

  4. As long as there are repressive governments, and that is a constant in every century, Houdini will remain relevant. He represented in his life as he does now, a defiance against those regimes that utilize police to terrorize and strong arm their citizens into submission.

  5. Read John's biography of Houdini on this blog. Then you might begin to understand.

  6. John, your site is an every-growing treasure. Thanks again for all your work.

    I don't have a television (and am not interested in acquiring one at this point, as I can find all I need to know online), but I did get an opportunity to see an episode of this program at my mother-in-law's house.

    Frankly, I hated it. It seems each biopic becomes more wildly inventive than the last. This is a shame, really, considering the fascinating value of the real events.

    I acquired several photos from Marie Blood, of Harry and Sir Arthur together, for the final time, in Denver, Colorado, where their paths crossed. The photos were annotated by someone (probably Bess), indicating the identities of everyone in them.

    Regrettably, I had to part with the photos some years ago during a period of ill health, but they're now in the possession of a major collector of magic materials, so I know they'll be safe.

    I also acquired, at the same time, the original copy of a letter Doyle had written to Houdini, in 1920. The letter is the first example of Doyle accusing Houdini of resorting to supernatural means to accomplish his escapes. The letter is, oddly, misquoted in "Houdini and Conan Doyle - Story of a Strange Friendship," by Ernst and (Hereward) Carrington.

    A facsimile of the letter will appear in the upcoming Marie Blood book.

    Thanks again for you efforts, you're making my job as author a lot easier, keeping all of these references in one place. You and your site will, of course, be sited in the finished publication.

  7. Hear, hear. Greg isn't the only scholar who relies on WAH for info on Harry. Eduardo Caamano noted in his bio Houdini that WAH was an important repository of information for his work.