Brain Pickings

The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini

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A glimpse of early-20th-century spiritualism, or how the supernatural became a conduit for the deeply human.

As far as unlikely friendships go, it hardly gets any unlikelier than that between Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and legendary illusionist Harry Houdini. Born fifteen years apart into dramatically different families, one the educated product of a proper Scottish upbringing and the other the self-made son of a Hungarian immigrant, the two even stood in stark physical contrast, once likened by a journalist to Pooh and Piglet.

But when they met in 1920, something extraordinary began. In Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, acclaimed pop culture biographer Christopher Sandford tells the story of the pair’s unique friendship, sometimes macabre, sometimes comic, and fundamentally human, underpinned by their shared longing for lost loved ones and their adventures in the world of Spiritualism — at the time, a world with unmatched popular allure.

From Queen Victoria to W. B. Yeats to Charles Dickens to Abraham Lincoln, even the era’s political, scientific, and artistic elite engaged in efforts to reach departed loved ones in worlds unseen. By the time Houdini arrived in America in 1878, more than 11 million people admitted to being Spiritualists. Spiritualism, of course, wasn’t a new idea at the time. The notion that the soul survives intact after physical death and lives on on another plane, Sandford reminds us, could be traced back at least as far back as the writings of Swedish mystic-philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg in the mid-18th century. His Arcana Coelestia (“Heavenly Secrets”) made an eight-volume case for the supernatural and provoked a published retort from Immanuel Kant, who pronounced Swedenborg’s opinions “nothing but illusions.”

This notion of illusion as a central part of Spiritualism turned out to be a central binding element for Houdini and Conan Doyle — one bringing to it the skepticism of a man making a living out of illusions and the other finding in it a saving grace of sorts.

Spiritualism is nothing more or less than mental intoxication; Intoxication of any sort when it becomes a habit is injurious to the body, but intoxication of the mind is always fatal to the mind.” ~ Harry Houdini

Houdini even called for a law that would “prevent these human leeches from sucking every bit of reason and common sense from their victims.” Still, when his father died, the 18-year-old Houdini sold his own watch to pay for a “professional psychic reunion” with the departed. In 1920, Houdini went on a six-month tour in Europe, attending more than a hundred séances. He wanted, desperately, to believe — but, himself professional skeptic in the business of fooling people, he never quite managed to suspend his disbelief. In fact, he became the Penn & Teller of his day, seeing it as his duty to myth-bust psychics and other prophets of Spiritualism.

Conan Doyle, at first, seemed only interested in Spiritualism for its narrative potential, rather than “to change people’s hearts and minds,” as Sandford puts it. But after his father died when the author was only 34 and, mere months later, his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given only a few months to live, Conan Doyle fell into a deep depression. Shortly thereafter, in 1893, he applied to join the Society for Psychical Research, a committee of academics aiming to study Spiritualism “without prejudice or prepossession.” Eventually, he gave up his lucrative literary career, killed off Sherlock Holmes, and dedicated himself wholly to his obsession with Spiritualism with, as we’ve already seen in this rare footage from 1930, reached a manically obsessive proportion by his old age.

Yet, despite their passionate and diametrically opposed views on Spiritualism, the Conan Doyle and Houdini had something intangible but powerful in common. Walter Prince, an ordained minister and a member of the SPR in the 1920s, put it this way:

The more I reflect on Houdini [and] Doyle, the more it seems that the two men resembled each other. Each was a fascinating companion, each big-hearted and generous, yet each was capable of bitter and emotional denunciation, each was devoted to his home and family, each felt himself an apostle of good to men, the one to rid them of certain beliefs, the other to inculcate in them those beliefs.”

Lively, engrossing, and rigorously researched, Masters of Mystery is as much a fascinating glimpse of an uncommon friendship as it is a riveting study of the early-20th-century culture of the supernatural and the universal, timeless, profoundly human longings that fuel irrational beliefs of any kind.

HT Boing Boing

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