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

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!]