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The real-life relationship between Houdini and Doyle

L-R, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (WLUK), Harry Houdini (Photo courtesy of Tom Boldt)

For someone who made his living on illusion, Harry Houdini was remarkably grounded in facts. He always said every element in his act was done simply, and could be easily explained.

For someone whose best known literary character solved crimes with facts, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a devoted spiritualist who believed it was possible to contact the dead. He even wrote a book on the subject.

It might have seemed to be an unlikely friendship.


"The relationship with Arthur Conan Doyle was actually sought out by Houdini," said Emily Rock, curator at The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton. "Houdini wasn't formally educated."

Rock said Houdini only had a third-grade education, "but he always pressed himself to learn. He was a book collector, he wanted to be part of that cultural elite as well."

In 1920, Houdini and Doyle met on Houdini's tour of England. Over the next couple of years, the two often had conversations over spiritualism. Houdini desperately wanted to make contact with his mother, Cecelia, who died in 1913, but didn't think it was possible. Doyle did. Not only that, he said his wife Jean was the one who could do it. Houdini was skeptical, but agreed.

In 1922, during a seance, two things happened that shattered what little hope Houdini may have had of actually contacting his mother. Number one, when Jean wrote down the message Cecelia was apparently sending from the great beyond, it was in English, which Cecelia couldn't speak. But that wasn't all.

"She actually drew a cross at the beginning of the thing when she was contacting the mother. Well, Houdini was Jewish and he said there was no way my mother would ever draw a cross," said magician Ron Lindberg.

Houdini didn't show it at the time, but he was furious. He had always felt mediums were preying on the emotions of those who had lost a loved one, and the reading cemented his viewpoint.

"It was very sad because they were very good friends, then Houdini said 'no, this is fake' and wrote scathing reports about this, 'your wife is either a mental degenerate or a fraud, one of the two,'" Lindberg said.


You can watch Houdini & Doyle on FOX on Mondays at 8:00 p.m.

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