They shackled Harry Houdini in handcuffs and leg irons. They locked him in bank vaults and jail cells. They wrapped him in straitjackets and hung him upside down from skyscrapers. They stuffed him into a milk can, then filled the can with water and bolted it shut. They entombed him in a coffin and buried the coffin in the earth.
But Houdini inevitably escaped. That was his job. He was an escape artist, the most famous in history.
Houdini also had a hobby. He donned various disguises to attend séances held by spiritualist mediums who claimed to communicate with the dead. Houdini hoped the mediums could make contact with the woman he called “my sainted mother,” but they never did. So he denounced them as frauds and exposed the deceptions they used to bilk the gullible and the grief-stricken.
In the years after World War I, when thousands of distraught people turned to mediums hoping to contact loved ones killed in the carnage, Houdini became the world’s most famous debunker of spiritualism.
The most famous believer in spiritualism during that era was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the British physician whose Sherlock Holmes stories were international bestsellers. The man who created a detective famed for his powers of logic was a mystic who believed in little winged fairies fluttering in British gardens. After his son Kingsley died of war wounds, Conan Doyle attended séances, and swore he made contact with Kingsley.
In 1920 Conan Doyle summoned Houdini to his estate in England. For weeks, they’d exchanged letters about spiritualism and now the magician was performing at the nearby Brighton Hippodrome, so the author invited him to stop by and have lunch sometime.
“Why not run up and see me,” he wrote. “We lunch at one but you can’t come too early—any day.”
Houdini arrived on April 14. At 46, he was a wiry, muscular little man, a head shorter than Conan Doyle, who was 60, sedentary and plump. Houdini entertained the writer’s three children with magic tricks, then sat down to lunch. Inevitably, the conversation turned to spiritualism and both Conan Doyle and his wife, Jean, swore that they’d contacted dead relatives in séances.
“Six times I have spoken face to face with my son, twice with my brother, once with my nephew,” Conan Doyle said.
A polite guest, Houdini didn’t argue. Instead, he asked his host to recommend reliable mediums. “I promise to go there with my mind absolutely clear and willing to believe.”
Conan Doyle produced a list of mediums that included Annie Brittain, who he termed “the best.”
On April 25, Houdini and his wife, Bess, visited Brittain but came away unimpressed. “Mrs. Brittain not convincing,” Houdini wrote in his diary. “Simply kept talking in general….All this ridiculous stuff.”
Writing to Conan Doyle, Houdini was more diplomatic: “She was also very interesting to me, and that is all I can say about this medium.”
For years, the unlikely friends kept up an amiable correspondence, and when Conan Doyle and his wife visited New York in 1922, Houdini invited them to lunch at his Manhattan brownstone. He also invited Conan Doyle to the annual banquet of the Society of American Magicians, promising a demonstration of how magicians can fake spiritualist phenomena. Conan Doyle balked. “I look upon this subject as sacred,” he explained, and he had no desire to see it mocked. Houdini quickly promised to change the program to something less offensive and Conan Doyle agreed to attend.
At the banquet, Houdini borrowed Conan Doyle’s dinner jacket, put it on and was then bound and gagged, tied in a sack and locked in a trunk that was placed in a tent. A few moments later, Houdini emerged. When the trunk was unlocked, out popped his wife, Bess, wearing Conan Doyle’s dinner jacket!
That was a tough act to follow but Conan Doyle was a shrewd showman. He took the stage and announced that he would screen a short movie that was “psychic” but “not occult,” and “preternatural” but not “supernatural.” He also announced that he would neither explain the movie nor answer questions about it. With that, the lights dimmed, the projector rolled and lifelike dinosaurs lumbered across the screen.
“Monsters of several million years ago, mostly of the dinosaur species, made love and killed each other in Sir Arthur’s pictures,” the New York Times reported in a story headlined, “Spiritist Mystifies World-Famous Magicians With Pictures of Prehistoric Beasts.”
Conan Doyle subsequently informed reporters that the clip came from the forthcoming movie of his novel, The Lost World, thus demonstrating a prowess for publicity that rivaled Houdini’s.
Two weeks later, Houdini visited the Conan Doyle family on their beach vacation in Atlantic City. One afternoon, the author informed the magician that Lady Doyle, who had become a medium, would like to do a séance for him.
“She has a feeling,” he said, “that she might have a message come through.”
Soon, Houdini was sitting at a table in a dark room with Conan Doyle and his wife, who began trembling and gasping and then furiously transcribing a message supposedly channeled from Houdini’s mother.
“It was a singular scene,” Conan Doyle recalled, “my wife with her hand flying wildly, beating the table while she scribbled at a furious rate.”
“Oh, my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I’m through—I’ve tried, oh, so often—now I am happy,” the message began. It continued for page after page, mostly words of love interspersed with vague descriptions of the hereafter: “It’s so different over here, so much larger and bigger and more beautiful—so lofty—all sweetness around one—nothing that hurts.”
Conan Doyle assumed that the séance would obliterate Houdini’s skepticism. It didn’t. Houdini couldn’t feel his mother’s presence—“there wasn’t even a semblance of it”—and the strange message proved unconvincing. Why was there a cross at the top of each page? His mother was Jewish. Why was the letter in English? His mother, born in Europe, spoke and wrote in German. And the day of the séance—June 17—was her birthday. Why didn’t she mention it?
Conan Doyle explained that spirits cared nothing for the earthly calendar and that Houdini’s mom might have learned English in heaven.
Houdini remained skeptical. He didn’t believe the Conan Doyles were frauds, simply self-deluded. And he continued to debunk séances. The two old friends eventually drifted apart. Conan Doyle called Houdini a “very conceited self-opinionated man.” Houdini called Conan Doyle “a bit senile” and “easily bamboozled.”
In October 1926, a college student asked Houdini if it was true that he could withstand any blow to his abdomen. Houdini said he could and the student sucker-punched him before he had a chance to brace his belly. He developed peritonitis and died a few days later—on Halloween.
Later, Conan Doyle revealed that on the night of the Atlantic City séance, he and Lady Doyle had attended another séance. At that one, Houdini’s mother predicted that her beloved son would die young.
“As we were on friendly terms with Houdini at the time, we were shocked at the message,” Conan Doyle wrote. “We did not pass it on to him, as we hoped it might prove mistaken, but that hope has now been dissipated.”
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.