My family and friends are cottoning on that I am becoming obsessed with all things Doyle-related: Wednesday 30th October I get a text from my dad saying, ‘Are you watching the One Show? They’re talking about Arthur Conan Doyle’. I wasn’t watching the One Show at the time so I flicked it on quickly. I’d like to say I was reading or doing something productive, but I was probably watching How I Met Your Mother or something similar. Regardless, I watched the One Show’s segment on Doyle’s relationship with Houdini.
(If you want to watch it you’ll find it at minute 24.08-32.55 http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03fczr7/The_One_Show_30_10_2013/)
With this in mind I scouted out what I could in the archive for Doyle’s relationship with Houdini. Alongside some lovely photos (see example above), I found a book by Massimo Polidoro called Final Seance: The Strange Friendship between Houdini and Conan Doyle. It was a fascinating read and went along the same lines as the BBC’s explanation, only with more detail, contents of letters, etc. It was also interesting to note Polidoro’s book is not the only one to title Doyle and Houdini’s friendship as ‘strange’.
Doyle and Houdini were unlikely friends. A minister and friend of Houdini, Walter Franklin Price commented:
‘the two men resembled each other. Each was a fascinating companion, each big-hearted and generous’
but what made it so unlikely were their polar opposite beliefs. Towards the end of his life Doyle became an advocate for the Spiritualist movement. He firmly believed in the power of seances, fairies and mediums. In our spiritually diverse culture, it may not seem so strange to believe in other worldly encounters, but I would like to point out this often included the expelling of ‘ectoplasm’, which, from description, was gross and purposeless. Photos of this phenomenon are in the archive:
I think the general consensus was that due to his son’s death in WW,1 Arthur Conan Doyle so badly wanted to believe in Spiritualism and to be able to contact his lost family, there was no convincing him otherwise, and this is where he and Houdini eventually came to blows.
Houdini was a magician and talented escape artist. He collected all things related to magic and Spiritualism, as he believed there could be some connection: he wanted to believe. However, every time he went to a seance, his intelligence and observation told him that there was a trick being played. He had the skills and knowledge to know what could be done through natural means, no matter how supernatural it seemed. So Houdini set about exposing medium after medium, to the point where friends of Doyle refused to do seances in Houdini’s presence claiming his doubt would scare away the spirits.
In any case, the two men became close friends, constantly writing to each other about Spiritualist things, people they’d met and cases they came across as proof of its truth or falsehood. They wanted to convince the other that they were right. Yet this was done with the greatest of respect and love; they enjoyed each other’s company greatly.
My favourite anecdote is when Houdini invited Doyle to a banquet he held for magicians and the press. Doyle accepted and on the night presented the room with a ‘Cinema interlude’ which was a film of Dinosaurs roaming and eating. Doyle refused to explain the film and, with cinema being so new, the room was flummoxed into believing that Doyle had filmed real dinosaurs!
He explained to Houdini in a letter:
My Cinema interlude, upon the occasion of the Magician’s dinner, should I think be explained now that its purpose was fulfilled. That purpose was simply to provide a little mystification for those who have so often mystified others…The Dinosaurs and other monsters have been constructed by pure cinema art of the highest kind, and are being used for “The Lost World”…
What fun! Doyle, who was so convinced of the truth of similar tricks, played his own. Houdini loved it too:
There is one thing positive, and that is that the little stunt at the banquet created a great deal more newspaper talk than anything on the program. I am very much obliged to you for your kindness in doing it, and I trust that Lady Doyle and yourself had an enjoyable evening.
However, the cordiality of the friendship did not last. After years of trying to convert the other to their own beliefs, the relationship fell apart. Houdini realised that Doyle was never going to believe that his ‘supernatural’ encounters could be explained naturally, even when Houdini himself set up a fake seance, producing everything a medium would using only his magician’s skills. Doyle would only believe that Houdini was in touch with the occult and, unknowingly perhaps, was channelling real spirits.
Doyle summarised the problem perfectly in a letter to Houdini:
Our relations are certainly curious and are likely to become more so, for so long as you attack what I know to be true, I have no alternative but to attack you in return
This collision of opinions came to a head when newspapers published Houdini’s confession that no experiences he’d had whilst in contact with the Spiritualist movement had convinced him of its authenticity. This upset Doyle as they had performed ‘automaton writing’ together with Doyle’s wife as the medium. He felt Houdini was being unfair to his wife and dishonest to his reaction at the time. Houdini attempted to explain that though he believed Lady Doyle was not a fraud, i.e. she really believed she was channelling spirits, the ‘spirit’ of Houdini’s mother had spoken in English, which was a language she had never spoken or understood while alive. This, to Houdini, proved the experience to be false.
After that the two men never reconciled completely, though there was still a mutual respect and as such, the strangest friendship came to an end.