Legerdemain vs. spiritualism: Houdini and Conan Doyle

On Books

March 25, 2001|By Micahel Pakenham | Micahel Pakenham,SUN STAFF

There's nothing new about New Age spiritualism. Fantastical superstition will infest humankind as long as there are people who live in scorn or terror of reason. To most others, after the first look, the bulk of this bunk - from ouija boards to channeling - is both boring and trivial. This was not so, however, when two of the most imaginative and forceful men on earth carried the debate into a love-hate collision of epic magnitude.

That tale is the subject of "Final Seance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle," by Massimo Polidoro (Prometheus, 275 pages, $25). It is a fascinating clash of mammoths and a delightful excursion into a just-past era when science was much simpler, and serious investigative scholarship was a territory fully open to amateurs.

Polidoro is executive director of the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and has written 12 books. He is a disciplined scholar, and maintains a keen balance. Though clearly skeptical, he treats both men with respect and fondness. He draws on a huge written record and uses unusually large - but riveting - amounts of it verbatim. The book is replete with photographs, adding dramatic intensity, "evidence" of spiritual manifestations, mainly in the early 1920s.

From the 1840s into the 1930s, there was widespread interest in spiritualism in America and Europe. Fortunetellers, seance leaders and the like could be found in every city. Enthusiasts were akin to today's believers in extraterrestrial aliens. (Oops, sorry, I have been admonished that political correctness demands one speak of Them today as Visiting Others.)

Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest on March 24, 1874, to a rabbi who brought his family to the United States in 1878. From childhood, he was fascinated by magic tricks. When he was 16, he took the name Houdini, based on the great French conjuror Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1881). He worked beer halls and small theaters for apprentice years and became spectacularly successful as a stage magician.

A serious self-made intellectual, he accumulated a huge library on magic and mysticism and wrote widely. By 1900 he was known worldwide, especially for his escape tricks. He became the highest paid entertainer of his era. He scorned any suggestion of the occult in his work.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 22, 1859, earned an M.D. degree and practiced medicine in England until he became one of the most popular and successful authors in the English language, beginning with "A Study in Scarlet," the first of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, published in 1887. He covered the Boer War and World War I as a newspaper correspondent, and was knighted in 1902 for his journalism.

Raised a Roman Catholic, he became an agnostic and originally got interested in spiritualism when a university student - as a firm skeptic. He publicly declared his belief in spiritualism in 1917, at 48. It changed his life, giving him a burning mission, taking him on international lecture tours. He incessantly collected data and documents, did voluminous writing on the subject and absorbed all he could about spiritual phenomena.

Because of their leadership in the opposing camps, Houdini and Conan Doyle were much aware of each other. The earliest surviving letter in what became an immense correspondence was dated March 15, 1920. In the spring of 1923, they were on tour in the United States, and met in Denver. Their friendship continued and grew, with exchanges of long letters and extensive visits, with both their wives.

Both their enthusiasms went on growing till death. In October 1922, Houdini expressed his views in the New York Sun, "I am perfectly willing to believe, but ... I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me that there is a possibility with communication with the loved ones who have gone beyond."

Meanwhile, Conan Doyle continued to spend vast time and money on "psychic" phenomena -hypnosis, auras, table tipping, spirit channeling, seances, spirit photography, ectoplasm and the like. He was highly sympathetic to such claims - even those proven fraudulent - and believed passionately in communications of spirits from the afterlife.

At the height of their friendship and correspondence, Conan Doyle again and again asserted that Houdini had - and in his performances used - "wonderful occult power," though Houdini utterly repudiated the idea.

In the early 1920s, Houdini began abandoning his performances in favor of lectures and demonstrations devoted to debunking spiritualism, just as Conan Doyle intensified his own lecturing.

Ultimately, inevitably, as their differences grew, they became bitter critics of each other and their work. By 1925, Conan Doyle was writing of Houdini as an unconscionable self-promoter and defamer of psychic occurrences and "a very discredited man." Houdini, whose life had become an anti-spiritualist crusade, wrote:

"My opinion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is that he is a menace to mankind, because the public thinks that he is just as great a man in [the] spiritualistic field as he is at writing stories. ... He has not enough mentality left to use good judgment."

They never reconciled. Houdini died on Oct. 31, 1926, from internal damage caused by a student punching him in the stomach, ostensibly as a test of his strength. Conan Doyle lived on till 1930.

After Houdini's death, Conan Doyle carried on an affectionate, consoling correspondence with Houdini's widow.

Polidoro has written - and written well - a saga of two Titans that is also a remarkable exploration of both superstition and obsession, at the lush twilight of the Edwardian era. They don't make 'em that way any more.

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