How Conan Doyle fell out with illusionist Harry Houdini

Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

At times, completely opposite qualities can coexist in one person. Take, for example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. An educated person, a doctor and, most importantly, a writer who invented the brilliant literary detective, Sherlock Holmes.

For 20 years he wrote stories about mysterious events, which were explained exclusively rationally, only by the power of deduction. Then at some point he lost his father and suddenly believed in spirits. Where was his own deduction when he found the diary of a parent in which he claimed to have discovered a way to communicate with the dead? Why did Doyle not take into account the obvious facts - that his father died in a psychiatric clinic, where he was treated for strange voices in his head, which he believed to be the inhabitants of the other world? Wasn't that enough to refuse to fulfill his request to his son to turn to spiritualism himself?

No, Conan Doyle didn’t stop that. When Charles Altemont Doyle died in 1893 after being treated for alcoholism and depression for more than 10 years, the writer wavered for the first time. When his wife Louise Doyle, who had suffered from tuberculosis for many years, died in 1906, something in him broke again. In 1907, the writer married a second time - to Jean Lecky, and this marriage drove the last nail into the coffin of his former rationality.

Lekki seemed to be a medium and constantly arranged seances, in which she and her friends communicated with spirits. Conan Doyle took part in them with pleasure and converted to the new faith so much that he even wrote books on spiritualism and justified such exercises in public lectures.

And everything would be fine, this happy married couple would live happily further, spinning tables on weekends, only an unexpected friend appeared at the head of the family - the illusionist Harry Houdini.

Being a magician himself, Houdini was a great specialist in cheating the public, and therefore was skeptical about the practice of spiritualism. Having survived the tragedy (his son died), the illusionist for a while was carried away by similar ideas. It was at one of the lectures dedicated to them that he met Doyle, but rather quickly realized that all this was nothing more than tricks for gullible people.

But when he tried to explain this to the creator of Sherlock Holmes, he rested, not wanting to accept any arguments. Then Houdini decided to show Doyle a similar trick himself, and then expose his own fraud to prove that no spirits exist.

The "session" announced by Houdini was attended by acquaintances of both sides of the experiment, including the illusionist Bernard Ernst, who described in detail what happened for posterity.

First, Houdini showed Doyle a board in the middle of the room to check if there was any scam. Then he handed him a plate of cork balls. Doyle cut up the first one he saw and made sure they were the most common ones, no tricky fillers. Then the writer, at the request of the magician, threw another ball into a jar of white paint, and he himself went for a walk along the block, away from home, and pondered the message that he was to write on a piece of paper handed to him.

Doyle did as he was told, came back, took out a paint-smeared ball and put it on the board. The cork hung on a vertical surface for a few seconds (already a miracle!), And then began to move and soon traced on the board exactly the message Doyle had written.

The writer was so delighted that even Houdini's subsequent explanations that this was just a trick did not help. From now on, Doyle considered the illusionist to be a real medium.

Houdini never revealed the secret of his trick that day. This was done only later, when his friend Max Berol began to perform with a similar trick and attracted the attention of the historian of magic Milbori Christopher. It turns out that the whole thing was in the magnet, which was held in the hands of the assistant hiding behind the board, and the sleight of hand of the main performer. Houdini deftly replaced the cork ball with a special one with a metal core and Doyle's note that he had brought, taking it in his hands for a split second to make sure that it was "correctly folded" and nothing was visible. He handed the sheet of paper to the assistant, who was already moving the paint-stained ball in the right direction.

The illusionist continued to expose spiritism at every angle as fiercely as Doyle continued to defend it. For some time they were still friends, but then there was an irreparable embarrassment. Jean Lecky decided to convert Houdini to her faith once and for all and arranged a session for him to call his mother. The spirit that appeared at the call traced a cross on Christian paper. The magician was outraged: his mother was Jewish, and would never have allowed herself this, which means that Lekki is just a fraud! The Doyle spouses were offended and did not accept Houdini again.

We don’t know if this upset Houdini, but it certainly didn’t change his judgment. Until the end of his life, he remained an implacable fighter against swindlers who speculated on the grief of people who had lost their loved ones. He did not hesitate to expose them wherever he could, explaining to people the secrets of their tricks.

It is no coincidence that a prize founded in 2015 was named after him in Russia, promising a prize of 1 million rubles to anyone who can prove to the scientists included in the expert council that he really has any paranormal abilities. Despite the large number of "graduates" of programs like "The Battle of Psychics", no one has received the award so far.