By: Nancy Caldwell Sorel


A RTHUR CONAN DOYLE was obsessed from childhood with the super-natural. His Irish heritage, peopled with fairies and elves, prompted a very dreamy acceptance of the insubstantial. Drawn to spiritualism, he attended his first séance at age twenty—about the time he was studying medicine, and seven years before the appearance of Sherlock Holmes.

In America, Ehrich Weiss, alias Harry Houdini, fifth son of a Hungarian rabbi, also tried seances at an early age. He was fascinated by illusion, but of the magical rather than the otherworldly kind. He began with simple conjury, and then perfect-ed his own specialty—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 strait-jackets. Sir Arthur, 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 disclose that in his experience, mediums were charlatans and their practices sheer devilry. He tried to explain how certain spooky tricks were done, but Sir Arthur would not listen. Perhaps Houdini should not have listened when Lady Conan Doyle suggested that they try to contact his beloved deceased mother —but in fact 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 never mastered.


The ATLANTIC Monthly

745 Boylston St. , Boston, MA 02116

January 1994. (Pg. 103)

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