On the evening of September 7, 1919, 60-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle sat down in a darkened room in Portsmouth, England, to speak with his son Kingsley, who had died in the Spanish-influenza epidemic ten months earlier. “We had strong phenomena from the start,” Conan Doyle later wrote to his friend and fellow occultist Oliver Lodge:
The medium was always groaning, muttering, or talking, so that there was never a doubt where he was. Suddenly I heard a voice . . .
I said, “Is that you, boy?”
He said in a very intense whisper and a tone all his own, “Father!” and then after a pause, “Forgive me!”
Conan Doyle, who assumed Kingsley was referring to his earlier doubts about the paranormal, ended his account by saying that he had felt a strong hand pressing down on him, followed by a kiss on his forehead. “I am so happy,” his son assured him.
Although obviously a profound moment for Conan Doyle, it was by no means his first spiritualist experience. As a young provincial doctor in the 1880’s, he had regularly “consulted the cards” and attended seances, some of which were accompanied by the “apport,” or materialization, of everyday household objects: There had been an occasion when a dozen fresh eggs appeared on the table in front of him. At a sitting in June 1887, a medium told Conan Doyle that his Red Indian spirit guide had a message for him. It read, “The gentleman is a healer. Tell him not to read Leigh Hunt’s book.” As Conan Doyle had recently been thinking of buying a collection of essays by Hunt, it appeared to be a notable feat of divination. (Skeptics would argue that the spirit’s insights should be set against the fact that Conan Doyle had been practicing medicine locally for five years and was known to share his reading habits with friends and colleagues.) Doyle would later note, “This message marked in my Spiritual career the change of ‘I believe’ into ‘I know.’”
How could the man who created Sherlock Holmes, English literature’s most famously analytical, and stringently materialist, character (who made his first appearance that same year) subsequently come out as a believer in ghosts and fairies? Elementary: Apart from the shock of World War I (in which he lost 11 family members to combat or disease), Conan Doyle’s self-reinforcing belief in the occult was based on his professional interest in the untapped potential of the mind, which saw him conduct experiments in mesmerism and telepathy, by his unwavering faith that essential human goodness was rewarded with eternal life, and by a visionary insistence that what was scoffed at today as “beyond mortal comprehension” (such as radio transmissions had been in his youth) would be accepted tomorrow as commonplace. To this, others might add the facts that Conan Doyle had suffered a particularly austere Jesuit education, the beginning of a marked aversion to the Roman Catholic Church, which he ultimately saw as somehow orchestrating a worldwide antispiritualist conspiracy, and that his good nature made him susceptible to a wide range of seance-room fraud.
Doyle’s pronounced sense of chivalry consistently led him to doubt the likelihood of deception on the part of most female mediums, while he never credited the possibility that children were anything but the sweet-natured cherubs idealized on Victorian Christmas cards. This latter trait perhaps explains why Conan Doyle would go on to endorse the claims of 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her 10-year-old cousin, Frances Griffiths, when they announced that they had gone for a walk one day in the fields behind Elsie’s home in the northern English village of Cottingley and returned with photographs of little people. The girls eventually produced five such pictures, which Conan Doyle made the basis of his 1922 book The Coming of the Fairies. It was his most notorious public act, not excluding his periodic attempts to kill off Sherlock Holmes. Sixty years later, the then-elderly cousins admitted in a British magazine article that the “miracle” of which Conan Doyle had spoken so effusively was all a fake. The girls had cut out illustrations from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, a 1914 collection (in which Doyle himself had published a story), and propped them up in the grass with hatpins. Without descending too far into the briar patch of psychiatry, one could tentatively suggest that the whole affair spoke to Conan Doyle’s attempts to resolve his feelings about his father, Charles, an alcoholic who finished his life in a Scottish mental asylum, where he filled entire sketchbooks with drawings of creatures much like those presented by the Cottingley hoaxers.
Across the Atlantic, Harry Houdini, the self-proclaimed “greatest showman on earth,” cast a more skeptical eye on the various phenomena produced by the postwar era’s growing ranks of mediums and clairvoyants. He had known too many of these supposedly supernaturally gifted performers when they had been struggling vaudevillians to do otherwise. For a time, Houdini had even added an occult element to his own stage routine. In the 1890’s, he and his wife, Bess (who billed herself for the occasion as “Mademoiselle Beatrice”), toured the country doing a telepathy act that owed more to a prearranged code than to the feat of “spectral assistance and transference” advertised, while a variety of musical instruments flew across the stage on an invisible wire, and “ghost voices” issued from a hidden gramophone. But while Houdini forswore the occult and went on to become the ultimate self-liberator (rejecting all the “hocus-pocus explanations”—including the insistence by Conan Doyle that he dematerialized—of his escapes), he seems to have been of two minds about the possibility of actually making contact with the dead. Well into his middle age, Houdini held regular seances in an attempt to reach his late parents, and sometimes made nocturnal visits to the cemetery to lie down on their graves. In 1914, Houdini introduced a slate-writing effect to his act, in which messages purportedly sent from the beyond would appear on a blackboard. At the climax of one performance, he was able to display a few cryptic words he claimed had been supplied by W.T. Stead, a British journalist who had gone down on the Titanic two years earlier. Toward the end of his own life, Houdini startled an interviewer from the Chicago Tribune by suddenly breaking off from their conversation to look into the middle distance. “My mother’s here,” he announced quietly.
In April 1920, Houdini met Conan Doyle. They were arguably the two most famous entertainers in the world, and each man quickly identified something he needed in the other. Houdini was acutely conscious of his intellectual shortcomings, had ambitions to be a writer, and never missed a chance to rub shoulders with the literary elite, while Conan Doyle clearly saw “the little chap” as a possible high-profile recruit to the spiritualist ranks. At Doyle’s suggestion, Houdini was soon sitting with Marthe Béraud, a medium who went by the nom de séance of Eva C., at the offices of the Society for Psychical Research in London. The attractive Mrs. Béraud, whom Houdini remembered wearing a dress “of singularly sparing cut,” was said to be able to emit a thick, white, rubbery substance—ectoplasm—which occasionally took the shape of actual human faces. Conan Doyle referred to her as “the most wonderful materializing medium” of his acquaintance. Houdini was soon to send back an enthusiastic report of Béraud’s powers. “She brought up what appeared to be a rubberish object, which she disengaged and showed us plainly, when presto! It vanished . . . I found it highly interesting,” he wrote to Doyle. Houdini’s private account of his encounter told a different story. The medium “‘sleight-of-handed’ the foreign substances into her mouth,” he told his diary, “and simply regurgitated them.” A human face allegedly produced actually resembled “a colored cartoon, and seemed to have been unrolled,” he added. “All this is ridiculous stuff.”
Two years later, Conan Doyle, while on a lecture tour of the United States, invited Houdini up to his room at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City. Lady Doyle had begun to show a gift for automatic writing and believed she could summon the spirit of Houdini’s mother for him. Once in the darkened room, the three sitters joined hands, bowed their heads, and said a prayer. For some time, Lady Doyle sat motionless, poised over the blank writing pad before her. Then, with a jolt, the pencil in her hand began to move.
“It was a singular scene,” Conan Doyle later wrote,
my wife with her hand flying wildly, beating the table while she scribbled at a furious rate, I sitting opposite and tearing sheet after sheet from the block as it was filled up, and tossing each across to Houdini, while he sat silent, looking grimmer and paler every moment.
Lady Doyle was eventually to produce 15 pages seemingly full of Mrs. Houdini’s expressions of love for her son; it had been “profoundly moving” for all parties, Conan Doyle wrote, and a “striking affirmation of the soul’s immortality.”
When they met in New York two days later, Houdini gave Conan Doyle the impression that he was convinced “my mother really ‘came through’ . . . I have been walking on air ever since.” Over the next few weeks, Doyle spoke effusively of the event in public meetings, and in a full-length book he called Our American Adventure, while the “little chap” did nothing to contradict him. But then came one of those sudden reversals that constitute the basic fabric of the Conan Doyle-Houdini relationship. Apparently indignant at seeing his late mother’s message to him splashed across the New York Times, Houdini went to his lawyer and swore out a statement. It began,
Lady Doyle told me that she was automatically writing a letter which came through her, and was guided by the spirit of my beloved, sainted mother. . . .
There was not the slightest idea of my having felt my mother’s presence, and the letter which followed I cannot possibly accept as having been written or inspired by the soul or spirit of my sweet mother.
Houdini went on to give a series of interviews in which he mocked the idea that his mother would have communicated with him in fluent English, a language she had never spoken. “I feel rather sore about it,” Conan Doyle in turn wrote. “I know by many examples the purity of my wife’s mediumship, and I saw what you got and what the effect was upon you at the time.”
From this point on, relations began to deteriorate rapidly. Conan Doyle told the press that Houdini was denying the evidence of his own eyes, and Houdini told them that Conan Doyle was senile. In July 1924, they began a long and increasingly bitter dispute about Mina Crandon, a Boston medium who went by the alias of Margery. At a seance some time earlier, she had apparently been able to make the table rock up and down and a dried flower materialize on the floor, all while her feet remained under close observation, nestling on Conan Doyle’s lap. Doyle hailed Margery as a “truly gifted seer . . . a bridge to the Other Side” and wholeheartedly endorsed her claim to be channeling the voice of her late brother Walter, among a host of other spirits.
Houdini went to Boston, sat with Margery, and immediately pronounced her a fake. Early in the seance, she had drawn the sitters’ attention to a megaphone placed under the table. “Have Houdini tell me where to throw it,” Margery called.
“Toward me,” he replied, whereupon it clattered to his feet. “It was a slick ruse,” he later admitted, but one he could readily explain. Margery had silently picked up the device in the dark and placed it on her head like a dunce’s cap; when the moment came, “she simply jerked her head, causing the megaphone to fall at my feet,” he told the press. Similarly, a supposedly levitating bowl was “in reality being waved aloft on the end of the medium’s foot.” Margery’s voicing of the “Walter” character was no more than a “mildly accomplished ventriloquism act,” Houdini added. Back in England, Conan Doyle stubbornly defended the woman he called “the most gifted psychic alive” from her critics. “The Margery case will live in history . . . ,” he announced.
Houdini left Boston a very discredited man so far as psychic research is concerned. His friends will hope that he will confine himself in future to the art in which he is famous and leave a field in which his strong prejudices and unbalanced judgment entirely unfit him.
From then on, it was war. While Conan Doyle abandoned Sherlock Holmes to concentrate full-time on the “great revelation,” as he called spiritualism, Houdini worked with his customary energy and flair to expose its leading practitioners as frauds. Before long, he was traveling the country, offering to pay $10,000 ($400,000 today) to any medium able to produce “messages or manifestations I cannot duplicate.” None could. According to an audience member named James P. Clarke, Houdini announced from the stage of the Princess Theatre in Montreal that “Arthur Conan Doyle is just a writer of detective stories, and intellectually not a genius. If he were here in front of me, I would tear him to ribbons.” Three thousand miles away, Conan Doyle was now in nightly contact with a 10,000-year-old spirit guide who introduced himself as Pheneas, a former inhabitant of the Mesopotamian city of Ur. Pheneas would come to speak in blunt terms about the future of the world, in general, and the “little chap,” in particular. “Houdini is doomed, doomed!” the spirit announced at one seance. “A terrible future awaits him . . . His fate is at hand.” Although Houdini’s offer to send Conan Doyle a copy of his magnum opus, A Magician Among the Spirits, went unanswered, it seems he did so anyway. In time, the two men differed significantly in their opinions of it. While Houdini considered it “an enduring work . . . part of my monument,” Conan Doyle had a less favorable verdict. “A malicious book, full of every sort of misrepresentation,” he scratched across the title page.
Houdini died on October 31, 1926, aged 52; he had been suffering from appendicitis, and an ill-judged blow to his stomach from an admirer had ruptured his intestine. Within days, Conan Doyle was writing to Houdini’s widow to encourage her to try to make contact with her husband in the beyond. In January 1928, Bess reported that “nothing evidential” had happened in a year of seances, although she added that a mirror had recently fallen to the ground in her home for no apparent reason, and that the idea had occurred to her that this might possibly be some “manifestation” by Houdini.
Conan Doyle heartily concurred. “I think the mirror incident shows every sign of being a message,” he wrote back. “After all, such things don’t happen elsewhere. No mirror has ever broken in this house. Why should yours do so? And it is just the sort of energetic thing one could expect from him.”
Despite a continuing campaign by Conan Doyle and his entourage, Bess remained unconvinced. In 1936, she told a reporter from Time that she had not only given up trying to reach Houdini but had her doubts about the existence of a hereafter. “Ten years,” she observed, “is long enough to wait for any man.”
Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930, aged 71. A week later, some 6,000 people attended a memorial service at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where a vacant chair was set up on the platform alongside those reserved for the family. A cardboard sign propped up in front of it read, “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” The crowd watched as Estelle Roberts, a medium, jumped up to exclaim, “He is here! He is here!,” pointing at the empty chair. “Sir Arthur gave me a message—a personal one, which I gave to Lady Doyle,” Mrs. Roberts later told the press. “I saw him distinctly. He was wearing evening dress.”