Conan Doyle's very suspicious seance with Harry Houdini

IT WAS the strange and momentous night when Arthur met Harry.

The Arthur was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Harry was the legendary escapologist, Harry Houdini. They had been brought together by their shared interest in spiritualism. They met on this occasion in a hotel room in Atlantic City.

The curtains were drawn and the ouija board was produced. Conan Doyle's wife, Jean, allegedly a medium, attempted to summon the spirit of Houdini's mother. As the escapologist and writer looked on she said she had succeeded and conveyed to Houdini seasonal Christmas greetings from his departed mum.

The two men rejoiced at the success of the seance. It was only later that Houdini, no doubt inspired by the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, smelled a rat.

As his mother was Jewish, her first words to her son from the other side were unlikely to be Merry Christmas. And as she spoke only Yiddish it was even more unlikely that she and Lady Conan Doyle would be able to have much of a conversation.

After that evening in 1922 the relationship between writer and escapologist became increasingly strained, developing into a feud. The feud and Conan Doyle's staunch defence of spiritualism is evident in letters by the author to be auctioned today.

The two men fell out for good when Houdini's repeated failure to reach his mother on the other side led him publicly to denounce mediums and seances as frauds. Conan Doyle remained a firm believer in spiritualism.

Four letters written by Conan Doyle to the American journalist and the psychic investigator, James M Bird, are expected to fetch between pounds 3,000 and pounds 3,500 when they go under the hammer at Southeby's.

Conan Doyle was an admirer of Bird's investigations, even remarking in one letter with a surprisingly modern colloquialism "Wow! What a life!"

The letters encourage Bird in his "quest upon the greatest of all questions" and congratulate him on his "stand against Houdini", adding that Bird, after his investigations, "cannot have the slightest doubt of the preternatural origin of these phenomena. Nothing is SUPERnatural."

He also encouraged Bird in his "quest upon this greatest of all questions - so great that the most powerful argument against it is that its general acceptance would dwarf the affairs of life".

Also for sale at the auction is a pamphlet, A Word Of Warning, which Conan Doyle wrote in 1928 saying that the world faced an impending crisis to which he had been alerted through his spirit guide.

Meanwhile, a frustrated Houdini had published a series of articles exposing mediums and psychics as fakes.

Taking issue with one of these, which refers to a photograph of a levitating Chicago medium that Houdini said was false, Conan Doyle wrote: "He told me that he could see the foot of Mrs Tomson in the photo taken with him in Chicago. I should think that the real argument is that where a medium is faking she would take particular notice that her foot was not visible."

Included in the sale is an LP brought out in 1970 of The Final Houdini Seance. That seance, which took place on 31 October 1936, involved Houdini's widow attempting to contact her late husband. She failed.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf