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

“Spirit is independent of matter”: this is what spiritualists from the late 19th century through the early 20th century tried to prove. In other words, our spirits continue to live even after our physical bodies die, and that it is possible for the souls of the dead to communicate with the living when provided the proper channels.

A Victorian-era séance (from

Many today do believe in life after death. Recently, I was back home (in the Los Angeles area) and decided to pay a visit to a former schoolmate of mine who had died a few months before. I was provided with the exact plot on a cemetery map from the office but, without any identifying number markers, finding the grave was proving impossible on the hilly memorial park. Just as I was about to give up and place the flowers I had purchased on a random lonely grave, I felt a tug on my denim pants – all of a sudden I had a sudden urge to go down the hill and to my left, in the direction I felt said “tug.” One minute later, I found my friend’s gave. Coincidence? I’ll let readers decide as I can be both skeptic and believer.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: doctor, author, spiritualist (from Flickr).

One skeptic turned believer was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author and creator of the great fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle created Holmes in 1887 when he was a young doctor. As a man of science, Doyle created the character with the methodology that “science can take the place of chance” to solve cases. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes used reason to crack even the toughest mysteries. However, by the time “A Study in Scarlet” the first Holmes book was released, Doyle was already attending séances, studying poltergeists, and experimenting with auto writing, and more. By the mid-1890s he had gone from “professional skeptic” as he called himself, to a full-fledged member of the Society of Physical Research (an organization created to understand the psychic or paranormal).

The first book featuring Sherlock Holmes (1887) (from Wikipedia).

By this time, Doyle’s “reasonable” Sherlock Holmes was starting to put a bit of a cramp on the author’s new outlook. Doyle wrote to his mother, “I think of slaying Holmes … He takes my mind from better things.” Indeed, Doyle grew disappointed with the era’s well-known people of knowledge who refused to even study the survival of life after death. To grow as a person, Doyle believed, one had to remain open-minded to everything, including the unexplainable. “Death is not the end,” he proclaimed.

The Doyles sit for a “spirit photographer” (1920). (From the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia)

Doyle felt spiritualism brought solace to people who lost loved ones, especially after the outbreak of World War I. In 1918, Doyle lost one of his sons, Arthur Kingsley, to the influenza pandemic while he was serving with the British Army. On September 7, 1919, Doyle claimed he had made contact with his dead son during a séance in England led by medium, Evan Powell. He was so thrilled he spent the last few years of his life touring the world to lecture on the reality of an afterlife. Doyle didn’t care that he was ridiculed for his beliefs which included ghosts and fairies.

Two giants meet: Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (from themelbourneblogger.blogspot).

While on tour in 1920, Doyle met famous escape artist Harry Houdini, who was on his own tour at the time to prove all mediums were frauds. Houdini knew many tricks of the trade used by mediums as he and his wife, Bess had claimed to be clairvoyants themselves early on in their careers. Perhaps Houdini had some guilt over taking advantage of people’s emotions to make money when he was first starting out, so this may have compelled him to expose mediums in an effort to protect others from being bamboozled out of their money.

Harry Houdini: escape artist, showman, skeptic (1903). (From

Despite their differences about something both were passionate about, the two men formed an unlikely friendship. Perhaps it was because Doyle honestly believed Houdini had supernatural abilities despite the fact the illusionist tried to convince him otherwise. They each tried unsuccessfully to change the other’s mind: Doyle believed there was inexplicable evidence of life after death while Houdini believed it was all hogwash. To be fair, Houdini didn’t completely dismiss the notion of life after death, he just wanted concrete proof he couldn’t debunk.

Stop-motion animation pioneer, Willis O’Brien working with “scary dinosaurs” for the 1925 film The Lost World based on Doyle’s 1912 book of the same name (from

The unlikely friendship began to fall apart in 1922 when Houdini invited Doyle to speak at the annual meeting of the Society of American Magicians. To prove that just because something seems impossible doesn’t mean it can’t happen, Doyle screened a test clip of the yet to be completed “The Lost World” (1925) based on his 1912 book. The clip featured a pair of dinosaurs (stop-motion figures) duking it out on a cliff. Although the special effects seem crude by today’s standards, the clip awed the 1922 audience. Of course, having dabbled in photographic and film illusions himself, Houdini knew there was more to what the eye interpreted on the screen.

Self-proclaimed medium, Lady Jean Doyle (from Wikidata).

Later that year, it was Doyle’s turn to extend an invitation to Houdini. Lady Jean Doyle, Arthur Conan’s second wife, was a self-proclaimed medium who would be leading a séance where Houdini was the guest of honor. During the event, Lady Doyle made “contact” with Houdini’s mother, Cecelia Weisz, who had died nine years before. Communication with Cecelia was via auto writing – also known as psychography – which is a way mediums produced words or messages without consciously writing. The message was about fifteen pages long, opening with a cross drawn on the first page, and written all in English. Houdini, despite not saying a word, noticed two problems: his mother was Jewish and only spoke German and Yiddish, not English.

How did Harry Houdini respond to these obvious inconsistencies? Find out in part 2 coming soon!

[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!]