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Friday, July 25, 2014

Epic Non-Rap Battles of History- Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

     Some of you who are fond "you-tubers" will have likely seen the channel called "Epic Rap Battles of History" which can be viewed here. However this is not something that cool and there is no rapping involved. I am for all intents and purposes a stereotypical white fella...no skills. However, this is an interesting story about an unusual friendship that went unusually awry. You see there was a time when the words most famous illusionist Harry Houdini, and arguably one of the top authors of the day Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were good friends. Good friends that eventually became bitter enemies.

     First of all I should explain how the two men...who operated in separate continents for all intents and purposes came to be friends. Well it  is simple...they were both intensely interested in the spiritualist movement that had gripped upper society in America and Europe in the last half of the 19th and early part of the 20th century. Prominent men such as naturalist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace, Lewis Carroll, and even a prime minister of Great Britain Alfred Balfour were members of the first spiritualist society. In the 1880's the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was formed by some of the leading scientists, artists, professors, and other great minds of the period. The intent of the society was to investigate psychical phenomenon such as hauntings and mediums to find out if they were true or false. The scientific method was applied to such things with the hopes of weeding out frauds and discovering truths that would prove there was life after death and that humans could communicate with the deceased via gifted individuals. The results of the studies were published in a scholarly journals and the society was a success in the United Kingdom so an American branch was opened soon after.

     What brought Houdini to the spiritualist movement was simple. He was a magician...although he did often prefer to use illusionist. And he was an honest one that that...he knew there was no magic in what he did hence he hated the term magician. His trade made him aware of many of the parlor tricks employed by professed mediums and he was often able to debunk their claims and expose their frauds. It truly offended Houdini that these con men and women took advantage of gullible and often grief stricken people searching for some solace in the loss of a loved one. Houdini had great empathy for the victims of the tricksters and made it a point to expose them where ever he could. He did hope that in his travels that he would eventually find some genuine souls with a true gift so he could contact his mother.

     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a man you would not think would be so readily attracted to the spiritualist movement. Indeed, the author that is credited with creating a character with such a powerfully deductive mind operating on the scientific method seems like an odd fit. But again you must put him in his time. There were many well learned men with an interest in the field and many of those were scientists and professors, so Doyle had plenty of intelligent company. What really sucked the famous author in was the fact that Doyle lost many loved ones in a very short time. His wife passed, his son died during the First World War, and two nephews and both his brothers in law died shortly after the war. The tremendous loss left the man depressed, lonely, and searching for answers. He investigated spiritualism heavily in the 1890's and through the 1920's looking for answers and to make contact. He killed his famous character off and abandoned his career, instead devoting his time and efforts to the spiritualist movement...hoping to bring knowledge and to open the minds of detractors as well as find peace in proof of life after death.

     The quest to find genuine mediums lead the two men to become friends for a time. However, Houdini was rapidly burning through various mediums and psychics from the small timers to the big time names and exposing all as frauds. As Doyle saw psychic after psychic exposed he let his heart and longing over rule his mind. He so wanted and needed to believe it was a true phenomenon that his frustration turned to anger...anger against Houdini and against the SPR. Starting in 1922 he publicly cursed both and charged them as being anti-spiritualist and that they lacked objectivity. Doyle published books containing his thoughts and theories on supernatural phenomenon to bolster the movement. For a time he was seen as a leader of spiritualists and lead a mass exodus of believers from the SPR. However by the end of the decade many of his certifiable mediums and phenomenon had been exposed as hoaxes.

    Sadly the bad blood between the two was not resolved until one of the men passed. Houdini passed away in 1926 due to a ruptured appendix after a performance.  While going through her dead husbands possessions, Bess(Houdini's Wife) found spiritualist books. She contact Doyle and offered to give them to the famed author, who declined thinking Houdini hated him at the time he passed away. Bess explained that the late illusionist harbored no ill will toward Doyle and she considered him one of her late husband's best friends in life, blaming the media for the bad blood. She told Doyle that Houdini always had some hope of contacting his dead mothers and indeed instructed Bess to hold a seance once a year and that if she heard a certain password from the medium that it was indeed him communicating from beyond. Touched and remorseful, Doyle accepted the books.

Possible Lesson - If you are going to make enemies, the creator of the worlds most intelligent detective who solves murders...may be on the list of people to avoid. They after all made money thinking of smart ways to commit crimes.

Houdini(CENTER) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle(FAR LEFT) with their families on vacation shortly before the rift between the two. Circa 1922.

ACD(left) and Houdini(right)

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