When Arthur Conan Doyle met Harry Houdini

first encounters
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The Independent Culture
Arthur Conan Doyle was obsessed from childhood with the supernatural. His Irish heritage, peopled with fairies and elves, prompted a dreamy acceptance of the insubstantial. Drawn to spiritualism, he attended his first seance at age 20 - about the time he was studying medicine, and seven years before Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson appeared on the scene.

In America, Ehrich Weiss, alias Harry Houdini, fifth son of a Hungarian rabbi, had also tried seances. He was fascinated by illusion, but of the magical rather than the otherworldly kind. He began with simple conjury, then perfected his own speciality - the artistry of escape.

Both men attained enormous celebrity. The creator of Holmes was knighted, and Houdini became the king of magic. In 1920, the latter was touring Britain, performing such breathtaking stunts as climbing out of locked trunks and straitjackets. Conan Doyle, now a convinced spiritualist, went to Portsmouth to see him and was dazzled by his almost swami-like discipline. He saw Houdini as another form of spiritualist, and after the show hurried backstage. The ruddy six-foot-four writer and the small, wiry magician met as seekers into the mystical. They talked for hours.

The two men corresponded often, and hobnobbed when Sir Arthur came to America to lecture on spiritualism. Houdini was too impressed by his friend's distinction and sincerity to say that in his experience, mediums were charlatans and their practices sheer devilry. He tried to explain how certain spooky tricks were done, but Conan Doyle would not listen to him. Perhaps Houdini should not have listened when Lady Conan Doyle suggested that they try to contact his beloved deceased mother - but he missed her terribly and could not resist. As he and Sir Arthur sat in strained expectancy, Lady Conan Doyle, in a kind of trance, called for a message from Mother Weiss and took it down verbatim - as the spirit moved her. Sir Arthur thought the event a great success. But Houdini knew it was not: the message was in English - a language his Yiddish-speaking mama had never mastered