The Spiritualist Versus the Illusionist: The Battle Between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini – Part Two

Cecelia Weisz with Bess and her son, Harry (from Wild About Harry).

What happened after that 1922 séance with Lady Doyle? Houdini initially kept his opinions to himself – probably not wanting to embarrass his friends – while the Doyles publicly claimed they had successfully communicated with the magician’s mother. It wasn’t until a little while later that Houdini publicly went on record to say he had never seen anything from any medium to convince him the dead could communicate with the living. This not only hurt Lady Doyle’s feelings, it greatly angered Sir Arthur.

From the Library of Congress.

Further fanning the flames, that same year Scientific American magazine offered $5,000 to anyone who could scientifically prove the existence of ghosts. Being on the magazine’s panel of judges, Houdini passionately set out to debunk mediums by attending seances in disguise and lecturing on the topic, while exposing props used by mediums during their sessions. In 1926, he even testified before Congress to get a bill passed that would regulate mediums and fortune tellers.

One of the most famous mediums of the time, Mina “Margery” Crandon during a séance. Note the “spirit hand” appearing from her abdomen area. (From Wikimedia Commons)

To be clear, mediums and clairvoyants were making a killing during the 1920s off desperate people – rich and poor – who were anxious to communicate with their dearly departed, and they didn’t take kindly to Houdini raining on their money parade. In fact, in 1924 Boston medium Mina “Margery” Crandon, who was one of those exposed by Houdini, put a “curse” on him claiming he would be dead within the year as punishment for questioning the validity of her powers. Said Houdini, “The preposterous and malignant curse which has been put on me in Boston is not going to kill me. But here is always the chance that a coincidence will seem to prove the working of the curse.” [“‘Evil Spirits’ Put Curse Upon Harry Houdini.” Pittsburgh Telegraph, 22 December 1924]

Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead (on the right) (from

Houdini’s words couldn’t have been more prophetic. On October 11, 1926 Houdini broke his ankle during a show. Ever the showman, he refused to get medical attention choosing instead to continue his travels to Montreal where he was scheduled to speak on the fakery of mediums. While in Montreal Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, a student at McGill University, asked Houdini if he could punch him, as the illusionist was famous for withstanding a punch to the gut. Of course, this required physical preparation by Houdini – tensing his abdomen muscles, etc. – but without warning, Whitehead punched Houdini (reportedly more than once) which sent the magician writhing to the floor in pain. Again, rather than seek medical attention, Houdini soldiered on with his shows until his wife, Bess convinced him to go to the hospital once her husband developed a 104 degree fever. Doctors discovered his appendix had ruptured and immediately had it surgically removed, but by then it was too late. The seemingly “undefeatable” Harry Houdini died of sepsis on Halloween, 1926.

The Houdini / Weiss grave at Machpelah Cemetery, New York, New York (from Gardens of

Having an appendix ruptured due to body blows is extremely rare. Many believed Houdini may have already been suffering from appendicitis which was made worse by Whitehead’s punches. Others believed he was poisoned by his many enemies while in the hospital. What was the true reason? We’ll never know for sure since an autopsy was never performed. Interestingly enough, the Houdinis continued their anti-medium crusade even after Harry’s death as the couple had agreed that, should one of them die before the other, the deceased one would communicate with the living partner using a special, predetermined code. After ten years of seances to communicate with her husband, Bess Houdini finally gave up: no medium could ever crack the couple’s code.

“The Wanderings of a Spiritualist” (1921) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (from

And what about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? What did he have to say after his once good friend’s death? Both he and Lady Doyle claimed that Houdini’s mother had predicted her son would die young when she supposedly made contact during that séance in 1922, but the Doyles had chosen not pass this message along to the escape artist. There is no concrete evidence of such a message having been recorded. Conan Doyle did say, “We were great friends. He told me much in confidence, but never secrets regarding his tricks. How he did them I do not know. We agreed upon everything excepting spiritualism.” [The Associated Press, “Conan Doyle Mourns Houdini.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 2 November 1926, p.1]


“Houdini Ruins” off Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, ca. 1990s. These are no longer visible from the street. (From

Purportedly, people still hold seances on Halloween night near where Harry Houdini was living in Los Angeles. The property is referred to as “Houdini’s Estate” even though the property had been owned by one of his friends, Ralf Walker not Houdini. Located on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the original mansion and guest house, where the Houdinis likely stayed, burned down in 1959 leaving what eventually became overgrown ruins. Attracted by reported sightings of Houdini’s ghost, I made a visit to the site in 1990 with a group of friends. We didn’t see Houdini’s ghost, but we did find burned out candles and the like, evidence that the magician’s admirers were still trying to “make contact.” The property was sold in 1997 and the new owner cleaned up all the debris and began a restoration. The property has been sold a few more times since then and can now be rented for film shoots and private events: The Houdini Estate.

Lady Jean Doyle and one of Sir Arthur’s sons sit for a spirit photograph one year after Doyle’s death. (Harry Ransom Center, University of Austin at Texas)

Now you may be thinking, if Houdini, the unbeliever didn’t make contact, what about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Did he ever manifest himself during a séance? Mediums claimed Doyle made contact as early as one week after his death in 1930. Four years later in a séance attended by nearly 600 people in London, Doyle reportedly made contact again, and this time is was supposedly recorded on 26 acetate discs. “Doyle’s spirit” was recorded saying, “Take care of my boys and my good wife, Jean.” You can listen to “Doyle’s spirit” here:

[Are you curious to attend a séance? Villa Finale will be hosting “Springing Into Spiritualism,” on March 31, 2023 to mark the 175th anniversary of the first ever séance led by our friends at The Austin Séance (ticket information here:

If we should happen to sell out by the time this post is published, we will be hosting another séance in the fall. Sign up for our email list to stay informed about all our events and programs!]


Harry Houdini’s Spiritual Feud with Arthur Conan Doyle

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Maybe) Spoke with the Dead

Scientific American vs. the Supernatural

Arthur Conan

Arthur Conan

Wild About Harry Houdini

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part 5

It has been a while but here is Doug Daye with part five of Black inventors and innovators.

Doug Daye

Air Conditioning Unit

Villa Finale has central air now, but back when it was first built transoms helped with air flow to keep the rooms cool.

Accomplished inventor Fredrich M. Jones was led to research refrigeration techniques in order to store blood serum and medications during World War II. He created an air conditioning unit to be used in military field hospitals as well as a refrigerator to be used in military field kitchens. Jones was also awarded 60 other patents for various inventions in his lifetime which included, window air conditioning units and ice cream making machines. He was the first African American elected into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers and was also a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Bureau of Standards. Jones received his patent for the air conditioning unit on July 12, 1942. (Thanks to Jones, we have a way to cool off in the Texas summer heat!!!)

Photo Print Wash

Photos of Walter Mathis’ maternal grandparents located in Villa Finale’s Green Bedroom.

Clatonia Joaquin Dorticus created an improved photographic print wash machine which he received his patent for on April 23, 1895. In the process of photo developing, Dorticus created a method that would eliminate over washing that would make the photograph too soft and stick to the sides of the tank. His design included an automatic register and automatic water shut off to conserve water. Also, a removable false bottom was used on the washer, in order to protect the prints and negatives from chemicals and sediment that remained in the tank. His design went on to be cited in five other patents for photographic film and print washers filed over the next 100 years!


On December 10, 1878, Osbourn Dorsey patented the design for the first modern doorknob at sixteen years old! Not much is known about his life other than that he was possibly born into slavery in 1862 but was freed before his first birthday. Most of the information on Dorsey and his inventions comes from examining his patents. Prior to his invention, people would open and close doors by using leather straps or latches which were not the most effective. Dorsey’s “door holding device” as he called it, allowed for a more effective way to secure a door. It was also the first doorknob design fit for manufacturing. While the general public was slow to adopt the doorknob, it eventually became a significant device in public and private spaces that is still used to this day!

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part Two

Ready for part two of “Celebrating Black Inventors”? Here’s Doug with more!

Museum Interpreter, Doug Daye


Watercolor of man with guitar by artist Wayman Adams (from the Villa Finale Collection).

Robert Flemming Jr. a former civil war veteran and former slave, had the guitar patented on March 3rd, 1886. He also received a Canadian patent on April 5, 1887. Flemming’s guitar, which was called the “Euphonica,” produced a louder and more resonant sound than the traditional guitars. With the success of his guitar, he went on to become a music teacher and run his own guitar manufacturing business. Flemming’s guitar design is still used to this day!

Player Piano & Arm for Record Player

Villa Finale’s 1957 Decca HiFi record player can only be viewed during our special “Music for Your Eyes” tours (from the Villa Finale Collection).

Joseph Dickenson was a musical instrument designer born in Canada in 1855. He moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1870, where he joined the very prominent Clough and Warren Organ Company designing his own successful line of reed organs. He also developed new devices to improve the function of the previous player pianos. Dickinson’s new piano could begin playing at any point in the musical roll and did not have to start at the beginning. His new player pianos became highly sought after. His invention was patented on June 11, 1912.

He received a number of other patents for his musical inventions, including the arm for the record player which he received a patent for on January 8, 1918.

Electric Lamp

One of the many lamps with lusters found throughout Villa Finale (from the Villa Finale Collection).

While Thomas Edison is credited with the invention of the light bulb, it was Lewis Latimerwho had the idea to create the electric lamp with his partner Joseph N. Nichols. After fighting briefly in the Civil War, Latimer went to receive work as an office assistant at a patent firm where he fostered his skill for drafting and was soon able to do blueprint work. This gained the attention of Alexander Graham Bell who had him draw blueprints for the telephone. He went on to work for Hiram Maxim whose United States Electric Company was in competition with Thomas Edison. Latimer supervised the installation of the electric light bulb in various locations but came up with the idea to create a longer lasting bulb which used carbon filaments, resulting in the creation of the electric lamp. He and Nichols patented the electric lamp on September 18, 1881 and went on to work for Edison himself.

To learn more about Lewis Latimer, check out this article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation!

Stay tuned for Part 3!!