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Houdini | Article

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)


Today, nearly seventy years after his death, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is universally associated with his most popular literary creation, Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the hyper-rational detective is such an enduring character in western literature that he and his creator have practically become one in the popular imagination. People are inevitably surprised, then, to find out that the real Conan Doyle was a far more complex man, one whose fervent belief in Spiritualism dominated the final dozen years of his life.

Arthur Conan Doyle, born into a large Catholic family in Edinburgh, Scotland, received most of his education from the Jesuits. But by the time he enrolled at the University there to study medicine, Conan Doyle had rejected Catholicism and Christianity in general. In 1882 he joined a medical practice in Plymouth, but after quarreling with his partner, opened his own practice in Southsea. There, in the mid-1880s, several important developments occurred: he married, began studying psychic phenomena, and started spending more time writing. Sherlock Holmes debuted in 1887 in "A Study in Scarlet," and in a short time proved so popular that Conan Doyle felt compelled to "kill" him in "The Final Problem," published in 1893. Recognizing early on that his creation might become a kind of straitjacket, Conan Doyle worked hard to distance himself from Holmes and indulge his many other interests.

While Holmes remained popular and was even reborn to have new adventures, Conan Doyle was able to lead a remarkably varied life. Around the turn of the century he was involved in two wars, first as a correspondent in Egypt and later running a hospital in South Africa during the Boer War. A popular pamphlet he wrote in support of the latter war led to his being knighted in 1902. The following year, and again in 1910, Conan Doyle’s investigations on behalf of men he felt had been wrongly accused kept him in the public eye. A year after the death of his first wife in 1906, Conan Doyle married Miss Jean Leckie, and the couple settled for good in Crowborough, Sussex. Their happy union helped him remain highly productive as a writer, as the 1912 debut of another favorite character, Professor Challenger, attests. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Conan Doyle helped organize a local volunteer force, covered the war as a correspondent, and later wrote a six-volume history of "The British Campaign in France and Flanders." But another product of the Great War was that it renewed interest in Spiritualism, and a converted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became its greatest spokesman.

Spiritualism brought Houdini and Conan Doyle together in 1920, but it was hardly the only thing they had in common. Both men were famous around the globe, and while their career paths were quite different they shared an energy and a virility that few could match. Houdini’s athletic feats were obviously central to his act; although more famous as a writer, Conan Doyle was an avid sportsman and adventurer, a large man who struck many as the very embodiment of English manhood. But for all their similarities, the men had divergent approaches to Spiritualism.

After a séance in which he believed he had been contacted by his son Kingsley, who had died in the War, Conan Doyle became a leader of the movement, defending it in lectures around the world. Even the embarrassing Cottingley fairy hoax, in which he had championed faked photographs of wood fairies and goblins that werelater revealed as fakes, did not deter him. "The Elusive American," on the other hand, thought he knew trickery when he saw it, and set out to punish those taking advantage of a vulnerable public. That their friendship lasted for several years is largely due to the fact that Houdini, always seeking intellectual respectabilty, deliberately hid his real feelings about Spititualism from the noted man of letters.

Soon after their correspondence had turned into a friendship, introductions from Conan Doyle gave Houdini entrée to dozens of mediums during an extended tour of Great Britain. Unknown to Doyle, however, Houdini was far from converting: "The more I investigate the subject," he wrote, "the less I can make myself believe." Inevitably, despite a growing personal friendship, the two great men moved toward a confrontation. 

Their falling out began when Houdini joined the Doyles for an intimate séance, in which Lady Doyle proposed to contact Houdini’s beloved mother. Although a skeptic, Houdini did believe in an afterlife, and as biographer Kenneth Silverman wrote, "closed his eyes and tried to rid his mind of all but religious thoughts." But by the time Lady Doyle had filled fifteen sheets with automatic-writing she claimed had come from Cecelia Weiss, Houdini had only become further convinced that he was witnessing a fraud. Although he left without disclosing it -- "I did not have the nerve to tell him," -- Houdini knew that he had not heard from his mother. A rabbi’s wife, she never would have begun with a sign of the cross; although she had barely uttered a word in English while alive, suddenly she was fluent, saying things like "I am almost overwhelmed by this joy." It simply did not sound like his dear mother, and Houdini resented it.

Although they both tried to prevent it, Houdini and Conan Doyle were arguing privately over medium cases within months; by the spring of 1923, they were exchanging sharp letters in the "New York Times." After a public feud when their tours crossed in Denver, the friendship seemed beyond repair. While praising him as "the bravest man in our generation," Conan Doyle condemned Houdini for being biased and publicity hungry. Houdini wrote that "There is nothing that Sir Arthur will believe that surprises me." It had been one of the oddest pairings of the century. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remained an ardent Spiritualist for the rest of his life. Returning home after a grueling tour of Scandinavia and Holland in 1929, he suffered a debilitating heart attack and died several months later.

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