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Final Séance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle

Book Review

William Harwood

Volume 26.2, March / April 2002

I have long been aware that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ended his friendship with Harry Houdini on account of Doyle’s blind, gullible belief in the very scam Houdini had disproven over and over. But not until I read Final Séance did I become convinced that incurable adherence to a security belief in the face of irrefutable evidence can only be described as a form of insanity. And I am far from the first person to reach that conclusion.

Following the publication of Doyle’s second pro-Spiritualism book, the Sunday Express ran the headline in its book column, “Is Conan Doyle Mad?” So far as I am aware, no publication of comparable influence has been similarly blunt in connection with Doyle’s spiritual successor, Shirley MacLaine. It is understandable why “political correctness,” requiring more circumspect criticism, is not to everybody’s taste. Not faced with such constraints, the Express went on, “One does not trouble to analyze the ravings of a madman. One shrugs one’s shoulders, laughs, and forgets.” The more polite London Times, reviewing Doyle’s previous book, referred to Doyle’s “incredible naiveté,” while the Nation stated, “The book leaves one with a rather poor opinion of the doctor’s critical abilities” (169). And when even an investigator as incredibly gullible as J.B. Rhine (who went on to authenticate ESP in a horse) saw through one of Doyle’s pet mediums, Doyle placed a notice in the Boston newspapers, “J.B. Rhine is an Ass” (203).

Houdini was religiously conservative, even disowning one of his brothers for violating one of Leviticus’s sectarian taboos (218-219). And when he testified before a Congressional committee in support of an anti-fortune-telling bill, he said:

This is positively no attack upon a religion. Please understand that emphatically. I am not attacking a religion. . . . But this thing they call 'spiritualism,' wherein a medium intercommunicates with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish. There are only two kinds of mediums, those who are mental degenerates and who ought to be under observation, and those who are deliberate cheats and frauds. I would not believe a fraudulent medium under oath; perjury means nothing to them. . . . Millions of dollars are stolen every year in America, and the Government [has] never paid any attention to it, because they look upon it as a religion.

Substitute “televangelism” for “spiritualism,” and the obvious response is, “So what else is new?” And when Polidoro writes of a paranormal hoax exposed by Houdini, “It was a typical swindle, still used today by many self-claimed psychics, astrologers, and charlatans. By this means Reese had been able to gather sums of money from gullible people who, more often than not, were also learned men of science and culture,” the response is again, “So what else is new?”

I was surprised to learn that, while Conan Doyle was en route to Australia, some Australian Presbyterians held a prayer meeting to ask their sectarian god to prevent the proponent of an opposition religion (Spiritualism) from reaching their shores alive. A fringe cult in Vancouver in 1962 held a similar prayer meeting to petition that a stage hypnotist not be permitted to perform in their city. The god did not answer that request either.

Polidoro does not devote much space to Doyle’s authentication of the Cottingley fairies, other than to quote a couple of statements in which Doyle expressed his conviction that little girls do not lie. That little girls (and boys) are humankind’s most notorious liars was quite unknown to him.

On the question of whether Arthur Ford correctly identified the message Houdini had promised to communicate to his widow if he ever came back, Polidoro quotes enough statements from Bess Houdini to make clear that only her desperate desire to believe led her to an initial authentication of Ford’s claim. On sober reflection, she realized that Ford had simply picked up pre-published clues and capitalized on her willingness to believe that the message was what Houdini would have sent her if he had been able. It was not a message that he had pre-arranged to send her. Doyle, not surprisingly, was convinced that Ford had indeed communicated with Houdini, and no one could convince him otherwise.

Even after Houdini’s death, in a letter to Bess Houdini, Doyle reiterated his stubborn conviction that Houdini possessed the very powers he devoted his life to refuting, including an ability to dematerialize his body in order to pass through solid walls (225). In doing so, he foreshadowed the parapsychologists at George Washington University, St. Louis, who, after James Randi’s “Project Alpha” had exposed their gullibility by having them pronounce the illusions of two youthful conjurers as genuine psychic phenomena, actually asserted that Randi’s associates really were psychics who for some reason were now pretending to be magicians. Will believers in pseudoscience ever learn to distinguish between sense and nonsense, and face the reality that their superstitions have been as fully disproven as phlogiston and the planet Vulcan? Only if Barnum was wrong.

William Harwood

William Harwood is the author of Mythology’s Last Gods (Prometheus, 1992), editor/translator of The Judaeo-Christian Bible Fully Translated (Imprintbooks 2001), and author of four books of fiction.