Houdini & Conan-Doyle, Battle Over The Afterlife.

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Houdini & Conan-Doyle, Battle Over The Afterlife.

Post by Mark74 on Tue Jul 24, 2012 2:20 pm

Candlelight flickered in the drab hotel room in atlantic City that Christmas evening in 1922. the heavy curtains had been drawn and a ouija board lay on a table in the centre of the room.

A seeance was about to begin but one with a difference, considering who was involved.

Seated around that table were two of the most famous men of the time: one was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate rational, forensic-minded detective, the other Harry Houdini, the magician and supreme illusionist.

The men had long enjoyed a solid mutual admiration but that night would see their friendship end.

The row started after Conan Doyle’s wife Jean, who claimed to be a medium, tried to summon up the spirit of Houdini’s late mother.

Lady Conan doyle claimed to have contacted her and that she had passed on Christmas greetings to her son.

Houdini was immediately suspicious.

Considering that his mother was Jewish and spoke only Yiddish and broken English it was unlikely that her first words to him from the “other side” would be “Merry Christmas”.

After that evening the relationship between the men became increasingly strained and Houdini would embark on a campaign in which he publicly denounced mediums and such seeances as frauds.

The story of their dispute is told in the book Houdini and Conan Doyle, by Christopher Sandford.

In it he records how the friendship between the most feted figures alive had descended into fierce mutual dislike.

Conan Doyle had long been attracted to the occult, having attended his first seance while a medical student.

He soon became fascinated by the growing cult of spiritualism and was drawn to the idea that there was life after death and that communication with those who had “passed over” was entirely possible.

To many non-believers it seemed astonishing that the writer, whose greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes possessed reasoning powers based on cold logic could be involved in the mysterious world of spiritualism.

It was during the years following the First World War that Conan Doyle’s interest was particularly active. no fewer than 11 members of his family had been lost during the war and he sought to make contact.

He was not alone. By the early twenties some 80 million were practising spiritualism in north America and Britain.

The yearning to reunite the bereaved with the fathers and husbands they had lost during the war was immense.

But the international tidal wave of grief that followed the war opened up a lucrative business for con men and frauds.

Huge places such as New York’s Yankee Stadium and London’s Royal Albert Hall could easily be filled.

As well as millions of ordinary men and women, some of the most powerful figures on earth were attracted to spiritualism including nobel prize winners, military top brass and authors. even US president Calvin Coolidge held seeances in the White House.

Soon Conan Doyle became more famous for his spiritualism than for his Sherlock Holmes stories.

He made countless public appearances promoting his beliefs, presenting the facts as he knew them.

Even though he feared his reputation might suffer, he became an outspoken proponent.

Although some considered him a crank – particularly after he announced his beliefs in fairies – even his opponents were attracted by his easy-going public speaking manner.

A well-known exposer of false mediums Harry Price said of Conan Doyle: “Setting aside for the moment his most extraordinary and lovable personal qualities, the chief qualification that he possesses for the investigator was his crusading zeal... Poor, dear, lovable doyle! he was a giant in stature with the heart of a child.”

Houdini could not have been more different. the Hungarian-born illusionist was the son of a rabbi who arrived in the US as an immigrant in 1878.

By the time of his death, aged 52, in 1926, Houdini (real name Erik Weisz) was world famous as a magician.

Some even believed he had super-human abilities.

He specialised in escapes – even from coffins, chained mailbags and safes.

On one occasion he slipped free from the (supposedly) most secure pair of handcuffs that Scotland Yard could produce.

Houdini became interested in spiritualism after the death of his mother, to whom he was particularly close.

He yearned to converse with her again, even if he would become sceptical about spiritualism.

He and Conan Doyle met early in 1920 while the magician was on a highly successful tour of Europe.

By this time the writer was widely acknowledged as a leading spiritualist – some even called him the Prince Of Spiritualists.

Houdini was greatly flattered by the attention of the man who created Sherlock Holmes. he enjoyed listening to Conan Doyle but he was a vain man who flattered himself that he was on the same intellectual plane as the author.

Although he appeared ready to fully embrace spiritualism Houdini soon began to see through some of the tricks used by mediums introduced to him by Conan Doyle. he had yet to start exposing such frauds but Houdini was becoming angry at mediums taking the money of grief-stricken people who like himself just wanted to contact a loved one.

Eventually Houdini embarked on his crusade to expose the tricks such mediums employed and even joined a committee on the Scientific American journal which was offering a large reward to anyone who could prove the mediums’ methods were authentic. (No one ever claimed the reward).

Conan Doyle became agitated at the magician’s methods – which included attending séances with a reporter and a police officer.

Houdini wanted to show Conan Doyle how to spot the trickery used by mediums but the writer refused, claiming that all the mediums he knew were utterly honest and would never cheat anyone.

Houdini must have been astonished when Conan Doyle wrote to him claiming to have photographs of fairies.

“I have something (far more) precious: two photos, one of a goblin, the other of four fairies in a Yorkshire wood. A fake! You will say. No, sir, I think not... the fairies are about eight inches high. In one there is a single goblin dancing. In the other four beautiful, luminous creatures. Yes, it is a revelation.”

Conan Doyle also began to believe Houdini possessed magical powers.

Once Houdini showed him the child’s trick of apparently removing the first joint of the thumb.

Conan Doyle’s reaction was remarkable. He wrote: “Just a line to say how much we enjoyed our short visit yesterday.

"I think what interested me most was the ‘trick’ you showed us in the cab. You certainly have the most wonderful powers, whether inborn or acquired.”

For Houdini, still grieving for the loss of his beloved mother, the split with Conan Doyle came after the séance in which Lady Conan Doyle claimed to have contacted her.

Houdini recalled: “Presently, Lady Doyle was ‘seized’ by a spirit. Her hands shook and beat the table, her voice trembled and she called to the spirits to give her a message... her whole body shook and at last, making a cross at the head of the page, started writing.

And as she finished each page, Sir Arthur tore the sheet off and handed it to me... The first sheet began, ‘Oh my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I’m through... I’ve tried, oh-so-often and now I’m happy.’

It continued in this vein for 15 pages.”

Houdini felt uneasy.

As he said: “Although my sainted mother had been in America for nearly 50 years, she could not speak, nor read nor write English – and Lady Doyle’s message was in perfect English.”

That message also began with the sign of the cross – and the wife of a rabbi would hardly communicate with such a symbol.

Conan Doyle and Houdini started quarrelling in private and later in the columns of the New York Times.

Finally they ceased all contact – two great men who went from friendship to enmity in a battle over the after-life.

Mark74


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