At the end of the 19th century, perhaps every man wanted to be Arthur Conan Doyle. He had written historical novels, short stories of horror and the supernatural; and displayed huge energy and talent in a variety of fields. He was a fine cricketer (he once took the wicket of the great WC Grace); played football, rugby and golf. He practised as a doctor, campaigned for underdogs, introduced skis to Switzerland, and knew both Harry Houdini and Oscar Wilde. He was an adventurer, a controversialist, war reporter and knight of the realm. But most famously of all, he had created Sherlock Holmes, the world’s most famous detective – based on his former medical professor, Joseph Bell. All in all, Doyle was a Boy’s Own dream.
Yet for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, all such achievements paled into significance when set against his commitment to spiritualism. Although interested in the subject for many years, he publicly converted to the cause around time of the First World War – much to many people’s amazement. ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has many striking characteristics,’ wrote Ruth Brandon. ‘He is gigantically tall and strong. He is a gifted story teller. He is a man of strong opinions and considerable political influence. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about him is the combination of all the attributes of worldly success with an almost child-like literalness and credulity of mind, manifested particularly in relation to spiritualism.’
Conversations with Arthur Conan Doyle is an imagined conversation with this remarkable figure. But while the conversation is imagined, Doyle’s words are not; they are all authentically his. ‘For many, Conan Doyle’s commitment to spiritualism is an embarrassing aberration,’ says Simon Parke. ‘They want him to go back and just be the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But people don’t fit into boxes, and Doyle certainly doesn’t! So I want people to meet the man, hear him speak – and then make up their own minds. He’s often passionate; but never dull.’
About the author
Simon Parke was a priest in the Church of England for 20 years and is now a freelance writer. His most recent books are The One-Minute Mystic, Shelf Life, and The Enneagram: A Private Session with the World’s Greatest Psychologist. He is also the author of The Beautiful Life. Simon runs, leads retreats, meets with people looking for a new way in their life, and follows the beautiful game.
The extraordinary case of the great Houdini
Doyle’s friendship with Harry Houdini started as a transatlantic correspondence; with both keen to test the foundations of the spiritualist movement. They eventually met after Houdini performed in Brighton on his tour of Great Britain. Doyle was impressed and baffled by the skill of his performance. He invited Houdini to his home, and also arranged for him to experience over a hundred séances in Britain. In return, Houdini claimed he had seen trickery at each and every one.
It was a friendship that was to become increasingly tested. Here were two men pulling in very different directions.
SP: Sir Arthur, you believe Harry Houdini was the greatest physical medium of modern times.
ACD: I do not see how it can ever now be finally and definitely proved, but circumstantial evidence may be very strong, as Thoreau said when he found a trout in the milk jug. I foresee that the subject will be debated for many years to come, so perhaps my opinion, since I knew him well, and always entertained this possibility in my mind, may be of interest.
ACD: Let me say, in the first instance, that in a long life which has touched every side of humanity, Houdini is far and away the most curious and intriguing character whom I have ever encountered.
SP: Why so?
ACD: I have met better men, and I have certainly met very many worse ones; but I have never met a man who had such strange contrasts in his nature, and whose actions and motives it was more difficult to foresee or to reconcile.
SP: Good and bad?
ACD: Yes, and I will first, as is only proper, dwell upon the great good that lay in his nature. He had the essential masculine quality of courage to a supreme degree. Nobody has ever done, and nobody in all human probability will ever do, such reckless feats of daring. His whole life was one long succession of them, and when I say that amongst them was the leaping from one aeroplane to another, with handcuffed hands at the height of three thousand feet, one can form an idea of the extraordinary lengths that he would go.
SP: Almost superhuman.
ACD: In this, however, as in much more that concerned him, there was a certain psychic element that he was ready to admit freely.
SP: How do you mean?
ACD: He told me that a voice, which was independent of his own reason or judgment, told him what to do and how to do it. So long as he obeyed the voice he was assured of safety. ‘It all comes as easy as stepping off a log,’ he said to me, ‘but I have to wait for the voice. You stand there before a jump, swallowing the yellow stuff that everyman has in him. Then at last you hear the voice and you jump. Once I jumped on my own and I nearly broke my neck.’ This was the nearest admission that I ever had from him that I was right in thinking that there was a psychic element which was essential to every one of his feats.
SP: So a man of great courage and psychic awareness. What else?
ACD: Apart from his amazing courage, he was remarkable for his cheery urbanity in every-day life. One could not wish for a better companion so long as one was with him - though he might do and say the most unexpected things when one was absent. He was, like most Jews, estimable in his family relationships. His love for his dead mother seemed to be the ruling passion of his life, which he expressed on all sorts of public occasions in a way which was, I am sure, sincere, but is strange to our colder Western blood.
SP: People rarely express their honest feelings about their parents.
ACD: And there were many things in Houdini which were as Oriental as there were in our own Disraeli. He was devoted also to his wife, and with good reason, for she was as devoted to him; but again, his intimacy showed itself in unconventional ways. When in his examination before the Senatorial Committee he was hard-pressed by some defender of Spiritualism who impugned his motives in his violent and vindictive campaign against mediums, his answer was to turn to his wife and to say, ‘I have always been a good boy, have I not?’
SP: Sounds to me like he was a little boy looking for a mother’s approval.
ACD: Another favourable side of his character was his charity. I have heard, and am quite prepared to believe, that he was the last refuge of the down-and-out, especially if he belonged to his own profession of showman. This charity extended even beyond the grave, and if he heard of any old magician whose tombstone needed repair he took it upon himself at once to set the matter right. One man embraced him in the street, and upon Houdini angrily demanding who the devil he was, he answered, “Why, I am the man whose rent you have paid for the last ten years.”
SP: That’s a nice story.
ACD: And he was devoted to children, though he had none of his own. He was never too busy to give a special free performance for the youngsters. At Edinburgh he was so shocked at the bare feet of the kiddies that he had them all into the theatre, and fitted them then and there with five hundred pairs of boots. He was the greatest publicity agent that ever lived, however, so that it is not ill-natured to surmise that the local papers had been advised beforehand, and that the advertisement was well worth it.
SP: So a fine list of virtues. But what of his other side? Every scale has two bowls.
ACD: A prevailing feature of his character was a vanity which was so obvious and childish that it became more amusing than offensive. I can remember, for example, that when he introduced his brother to me, he did it by saying, ‘This is the brother of the great Houdini.’ This without any twinkle of humour and in a perfectly natural manner! And this enormous vanity was combined with a passion for publicity which knew no bounds, and which must at all costs be gratified. There was no consideration of any sort that would restrain him if he saw his way to an advertisement.
SP: So he needed to be out there; he needed to be in front of people. He dreaded the silence.
ACD: Even when he laid flowers upon the graves of the dead it was in the prearranged presence of the local photographers. And it was this desire to play a constant public part that had a great deal to do with his furious campaign against spiritualism. He knew that the public took a keen interest in the matter, and that there was unlimited publicity to be had from it.
SP: So what form did this campaign take?
ACD: His favourite argument, and that of many of his fellow-conjurers, was this flourishing of dollar-wads. It is obviously absurd, since the money will only be paid if you satisfy the challenger; and since the challenger has to pay the money, he naturally never will be satisfied!
SP: So spiritualists are asked for ‘proof’ – but it’s the challenger who decides what constitutes proof. And nothing ever quite does, so the money is safe.
ACD: The classical instance is that of the ‘Scientific American magazine,’ which offered a large sum for any well-attested psychic phenomenon, but on being confronted with the Crandon phenomena - which are perhaps the best attested in the whole annals of psychical research - found reasons for withholding the money.
ACD: And I remember that when I arrived in New York, Houdini offered some huge sum that he could do anything which I had ever seen a medium do. I at once accepted his challenge, and proposed as a test that he should materialise the face of my mother in such a way that others besides myself, who had known her in life, could recognize it. I heard no more of the matter after that - and yet in England a medium had actually done this! I would have brought my witnesses across the Atlantic had the test been accepted.
SP: Yet you can see why he was suspicious. In the States, even more than in England, there were a lot of frauds.
ACD: I admit that I underrated the corruption in the States. What first brought it home to me was that my friend Mrs. Crandon told me that she had received price lists from some firm which manufactures fraudulent instruments for performing tricks. If such a firm can make a living, there must be some villainy about, and a more judicious Houdini might well find a useful field of activity. It is these hyenas who retard our progress. I have myself had a hand in exposing more than one of them.
SP: You have exposed a good number in your time, I know. But Houdini wanted to declare everyone a fake.
ACD: I did advise Houdini.
SP: What did you say?
ACD: I said, ‘I see that you know a great deal about the negative side of spiritualism – I hope more on the positive side will come your way!’ But it wants to be approached not in the spirit of a detective approaching a suspect, but in that of a humble religious soul, yearning for help and comfort.
SP: I suspect that was never going to be Houdini’s way.
SP: Though judging from an entry in his diary, he was impressed by your commitment to the cause. If I may read the entry: ‘Visited Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Crowborough. Met Lady Doyle and the three children. Had lunch with them. They believe implicitly in spiritualism. Sir Arthur told me he had spoken six times to his son. No possible chance for trickery. Lady Doyle also believes and has had tests that are beyond belief. Told them all to me.’ He may be keeping his own opinions to himself, but he clearly feels the force of yours.
ACD: I think he did.
SP: And then, of course, that important incident in your relationship: when you believed that you actually made contact with his dead mother in a séance, through your wife’s gift of automatic writing. He records the words his mother spoke:
ACD: Yes. ‘Oh my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I’m through – I’ve tried, oh so often – now I am happy. Why of course I want to talk to my boy – my own beloved boy – Friends, thank you with all my heart for this!’
SP: But Houdini wasn’t impressed for then he adds: ‘Message written by Lady Doyle claiming the spirit of my dear mother had control of her hand – my sainted mother could not write English and spoke broken English.’ He then rubbished you in the New York papers. How did you feel about that?
ACD: I had no fancy for sparring with a friend in public, so I took no notice. But nonetheless, I felt rather sore about it.
SP: And then there was the Crandon case, which you believe not only exposed him; but had darker consequences still.
ACD: He had become familiar in advance with the procedure of the Crandon circle, and with the types of phenomena. It was easy for him to lay his plans.
SP: He wished to make the medium, Mrs Crandon, look stupid.
ACD: Indeed. But what he failed to take into account was the presiding spirit, Walter.
SP: Walter was the dead brother of Mrs Crandon.
ACD: He was the dead brother of Mrs. Crandon, a very real and live entity, who was by no means inclined to allow his innocent sister to be made the laughing stock of the continent. And it was the unseen Walter who checkmated the carefully laid plans of the magician.
SP: Sounds intriguing. So what happened?
ACD: The account of what occurred I take from the notes which were taken by the circle at the time. The first phenomenon to be tested was the ringing of an electric bell which could only be done by pressing down a flap of wood, well out of the reach of the medium. The room was darkened, but the bell did not ring. Suddenly the angry voice of Walter was heard.
‘You have put something to stop the bell ringing, Houdini, you blackguard!’ he cried.
Walter has a wealth of strong language and makes no pretence at all to be a very elevated being. They all have their use over there. On this occasion, at least, the use was evident, for when the light was turned up, there was the rubber from the end of a pencil stuck into the angle of the flap in such a way as to make it impossible that it could descend and press the bell.
SP: And Walter believed Houdini had put it there?
ACD: Houdini professed complete ignorance as to how it got there, but who else had the deft touch to do such a thing in the dark; and why was it only in his presence that such a thing occurred? It is clear that if he could say afterwards, when he had quietly removed the rubber, that his arrival had made all further trickery impossible, he would have scored the first trick in the game.
SP: Yes, I can see that.
ACD: He should have taken warning and realised that he was up against powers which were too strong for him, and which might prove dangerous if provoked too far. However, much worse was to come.
SP: Houdini had further plans?
ACD: The lady was put into a reconstituted box, her arms protruding through holes on each side. Houdini was then observed without any apparent reason, to pass his hand along the lady’s arm and so into the box. Presently, the lady’s arms were placed inside and the attempt was to be made to ring the bell-box while only her head projected. Suddenly the terrible Walter intervened.
‘Houdini, you blackguard!’ he thundered. ‘You have put a rule into the cabinet. You blackguard! Remember, Houdini, you won’t live forever. Someday you’ve got to die.’
Well, the lights were turned on, of course, and, shocking to relate, a two-foot folding rule was found lying in the box. It was a most deadly trick, for, of course, if the bell had rung, Houdini would have demanded a search of the cabinet, and the rule would have been found. It would, if held between the teeth, have enabled the medium to have reached and pressed down the flap of the bell-box, and all America would have resounded next day with the astuteness of Houdini and the proven villainy of the Crandons!
SP: So what happened after Walter shouted out?
ACD: For the moment Houdini was completely overcome, and cowered, as well he might before the wrath of the unseen. But one of Houdini’s characteristics was that nothing in this world or the next could permanently abash him.
SP: He had no shame?
ACD: Incredible as it may seem, he had his advertisement after all, for he flooded America with a pamphlet to say that he had shown that the Crandons were frauds, and that he had in some unspecified way exposed them. Speaking with a full knowledge, I say that this incident was never an exposure of anyone but Houdini, and is a most serious blot upon his career.
SP: You have suggested this incident had dark consequences?
ACD: The Crandons are themselves the most patient and forgiving people in the world, treating the most irritating opposition with a good-humoured and amused tolerance. But there are other forces which are beyond human control, and from that day the shadow lay heavy upon Houdini.
SP: How do you mean?
ACD: His anti-spiritualist agitation became more and more unreasoning until it bordered upon a mania, which could only be explained in some quarters by supposing that he was in the pay of certain clerical fanatics - an accusation which I do not believe. It is true that in order to preserve some show of reason, he proclaimed that he wished only to attack dishonest mediums, but as in the same breath he would assert that there were no honest ones, his moderation was more apparent than real! If he had consulted the reports of the National Association of American Spiritualists, he would have found that this representative body was far more efficient in exposing those swindlers than he had ever been, for they had the necessary experience by which the true can be separated from the false.
SP: And you say that his death was foreseen by various people; a judgement even?
ACD: There were some remarkable points about his death. It seems that upon Friday, October 22nd, he was lying in his dressing room, reading his letters. It was about five in the afternoon. He had lectured at McGill University a few days before, and with his usual affability, he allowed some of the students to come in and see him. What followed may be taken verbatim from the report of one of these young men.
‘Houdini,’ he says, ‘was facing us and lying down on a couch at the time reading some mail, his right side nearest us. This first-year student engaged Houdini more or less continually in a conversation, whilst my friend Mr. Smilovitch continued to sketch Houdini. This student was the first to raise the question of Houdini’s strength. My friend and I were not so much interested in his strength as we were in his mental acuteness, his skill, his beliefs and his personal experiences. Houdini stated that he had extraordinary muscles in his forearms, in his shoulders and in his back; and he asked all of us present to feel them, which we did.
The first-year McGill student then asked Houdini whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him. Houdini remarked rather unenthusiastically that his stomach could resist much; although he did not speak of it in superlative terms.
SP: I think I know what happened next.
ACD: ‘Thereupon he gave Houdini some very hammer-like blows below the belt, first securing Houdini’s permission to strike him. Houdini was reclining at the time with his right side nearest Whitehead; and the said student was more or less bending over him. These blows fell on that part of the stomach to the right of the navel, and were struck on the side nearest us, which was in fact Houdini’s right side; I do not remember exactly how many blows were struck. I am certain, however, of at least four very hard and severe body blows, because at the end of the second or third blow, I verbally protested against this sudden onslaught on the part of this first-year student, using the words, ‘Hey there. You must be crazy, what are you doing?’ or words to that effect. But Whitehead continued striking Houdini with all his strength.
Houdini stopped him suddenly in the midst of a punch, with a gesture that he had had enough. At the time Whitehead was striking Houdini, the latter looked as though he was in extreme pain and winced as each blow was struck.
Houdini immediately after stated that he had had no opportunity to prepare himself against the blows, as he did not think that Whitehead would strike him as suddenly as he did and with such force; and that he would have been in a better position to prepare for the blows if he had arisen from his couch for this purpose. But the injury to his foot prevented him from getting about rapidly.’
SP: So that’s what killed Houdini?
ACD: There is no doubt that the immediate cause of the death was a ruptured appendix, and it was certified as traumatic appendicitis by all three doctors who attended him. It is, however, a very rare complaint, one of the doctors asserting that he had never seen a case before. When one considers how often boxers are struck violent blows in this region, one can understand that it is not usually so vulnerable. From the time that he reached hospital, he seems to have known that he was doomed.
SP: Now Sir Arthur, you believe that Houdini had super-human powers, through secret knowledge from inner voices. Most will disagree with you; most will say he was just a very great magician.
ACD: I am aware that Houdini really was a very skilful conjurer. All that could be known in that direction he knew. Thus he confused the public mind by mixing up things which were dimly within their comprehension with things which were beyond anyone’s comprehension.
SP: Many did similar tricks to him.
ACD: I am aware that there is a box trick, and that there is a normal handcuff and bag trick. But these are not in the same class with Houdini’s work. I will believe they are when I see one of these other gentlemen thrown in a box off London Bridge. One poor man in America actually believed these explanations, and on the strength of them, jumped in a weighted packing case into a river in the Middle West; and one did so in Germany. They are there yet!
SP: Are you sure that this is not you wishing to believe it were so?
ACD: I will take a single case of Houdini’s powers, and of the sort of thing that he would say, in order to show you what he is up against if he means to maintain that these tricks had no abnormal element.
SP: Fair enough.
ACD: The description is by my friend, Captain Bartlett, himself a man of many accomplishments, psychic and otherwise. In the course of their conversation he said to his guest:
‘How about your box trick?’
‘Instantly Houdini’s expression changed. The sparkle left his eyes and his face looked drawn and haggard. ‘I cannot tell you,’ he said, in a low, tense voice. ‘I don’t know myself, and, what is more, I have always a dread lest I should fail, and then I would not live. I have promised Mrs. Houdini to give up the box trick at the end of the season, for she makes herself ill with anxiety, and for myself I shall be relieved too.’
‘He stooped to stroke our cats, and to our amazement, they fled from the room with their tails in the air - and for some minutes they dashed wildly up and down stairs, scattering the mats in all directions.
SP: So the cats were spooked! But other conjurers do not bestow special powers on him.
ACD: The attempts upon the part of his brother-magicians to give some sort of explanation of Houdini’s feats only serve to deepen the mystery. Mr. Howard Thurston, for whose opinion I have respect, for he seemed to me to be the only American conjurer who had some real accurate knowledge of psychic matters, says that his feats all come within the power of advanced conjuring.
SP: And that’s my point.
ACD: I know that feats with the same name do so, but I venture to express the opinion that such feats as Houdini did, have never been explained and are in an altogether different class. Houdini was one of the most remarkable men of whom we have any record, and he will live in history with such personalities as Cagliostro, the Chevalier D’ Eon and other strange characters. He had many outstanding qualities, and the world is the poorer for his loss. As matters stand, no one can say positively and finally that his powers were abnormal –
ACD: But you will, I hope, agree with me that there is a case to be answered.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published January 2010
Size: 5 x 8"