A seance that might have stumped Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, left, and Harry Houdini were fast friends until a seance sent them their separate ways.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, left, and Harry Houdini were fast friends until a seance sent them their separate ways.


“THEY WERE ACTUALLY GREAT FRIENDS for a short while, this unlikely pair,” I said to my young nephew, while showing him a photo. “The man on the left was tall and soft, his body squealing on him for indulgences in the rich foods he sometimes fancied. The man on the right was almost a foot shorter, every muscle in his body toned to perfection.”

“Who were they, and how did they get to be friends?”

“Have you ever read the stories of Sherlock Holmes?”

“Yes. You know they are favorites of mine, Uncle Henry,” Jackie answered.

“The tall man on the left is the man who wrote the stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scotsman. The man on the right was known as Harry Houdini, the great escape artist, and he was an American.”

“That is Houdini? I have seen many pictures of him, but he is not recognizable to me in those street clothes—especially the hat. They are nothing alike. How on earth did they ever become friends Uncle Henry?

It was a most unlikely event. Doyle was a medical man, author of many books, and a man of many interests. Houdini was a sort of performance artist with a basic education. He was very smart, though, and read a lot. They were brought together by the spiritual movement. It was a movement that started in the 1800s in which people were overly interested in trying to contact the spirits of departed loved ones, trying to predict their fortunes, all sorts of odd things and they used many techniques to do this.”

“Like what?”

“Fortune tellers, mediums, clairvoyants, gadgets such as Ouija boards, divining rods. They held séances. Some of the mediums practiced levitation of people and objects. It got very wild—it was an interesting time, but back to the story. Doyle had heard much about Houdini’s acts and in 1920 he took his family to see Houdini perform when he brought his show to Portsmouth, England. There he got to actually meet Houdini and they began corresponding by mail. Houdini invited Doyle to his own home at West 113th Street in New York. Each man was fascinated by the talents of the other one. It was a kind of mutual admiration society.”

“What about this spiritualism angle?”

“I am getting to that. Doyle and his wife had both been active in the spiritualism movement for quite some time. Doyle got it into his head somehow that Houdini gave off the vibes of a powerful medium. Houdini made no bones about the fact that he was anti-spiritualist. He had seen many charlatans connected with the movement. This did not deter Doyle’s fascination with the possibility that Houdini had strong psychic powers, and there is one more idea that seems very odd that a man as smart as Doyle would even have.”

“What is that, Uncle?”

“You are going to love this. It seems that Doyle believed that Houdini could turn himself into ectoplasm, at will. He was convinced that that is how he got himself out of all of the chains, ropes, straightjackets and so fourth. He turned himself into ectoplasm and oozed his way out of his bonds, then changed back into human flesh.”

“Ha, ha. You are kidding.”

“No. That is what I have read, anyway, in biographies of the men.”

“What happened to their friendship? I feel a crisis coming on.”

The message Lady Doyle said he received from Houdini's mother, written from beyond the grave.
The message Lady Doyle said he received from Houdini’s mother, written from beyond the grave.

“You are right. Their friendship almost totally dissolved over a séance.   It did not end in an angry explosion, but it faded away after the incident. Houdini had lost his mother, Cecelia Weiss in 1913. He adored her and it is reported that he actually fainted when he was given the news of her death. He, himself, was vulnerable to the lure of séances because of a strong desire to resume contact with his deceased mother. He attended quite a few until he became convinced that the mediums conducting them were frauds. The fakery enraged him.”

“What happened then?”

“In 1922, the Doyles were in the United States where Sir Arthur was conducting a lecture tour. Houdini and his wife, Bess, visited the Doyles when they were staying in Atlantic City. They were talked into going to a séance one evening at the Doyle’s. Lady Doyle would hold a séance in Houdini’s honor and attempt to do some automatic writing herself. The Doyles were convinced that this was a big chance for Houdini to get a message from the other side.”

“Did he?”

“Yes and no. The atmosphere was eerie and electric. Lady Doyle went into a trance. Houdini had vowed that on that one occasion he would abandon his prejudices. He would totally let go, he would concentrate on trying to receive a message. The people attending the séance all joined hands around the table. Lady Doyle went deeper and deeper into her trance. Her body suddenly stiffened. The hand in which she held her pencil began to quake and she began writing. She was getting a message for sure. Was Houdini about to get his long awaited message?”


“After three pages of scribbling, Lady Doyle was drained. Houdini read the message. He was not elated but instead had a nagging uneasiness about him. The message was not in his mother’s tone. Furthermore, it was in flawless English, which his mother had never completely learned. But there was that more telling sign. At the top of the first page Lady Doyle had drawn a Christian cross as part of the message. This would never have happened as the Weiss family was Jewish. In fact, Cecelia’s husband, Houdini’s father was actually a rabbi.”

“Wow. All I’ve gotta say. Wow.”

“The two men continued to correspond from time to time and to just avoid the subject of spiritualism all together. It didn’t work out very well. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was stuck on that subject and couldn’t leave it alone. They remained gentlemanly but drifted apart.”

Jackie retrieved the book with the images for further reading and added, “I wonder what Sherlock Holmes would make of it.”

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of The Scavenger’s Song.


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