February 13, 2012
While I was a grad student at Penn State, a family magic act appeared at Waring Hall. The show must have been either cheap or free, because we were living on $77 a month, and we went. With us was Michael Moran, an actor, who was visiting us that week. After each trick, Michael explained how it was done. All but one – the one in which the father in this family act crumpled up a piece of paper into a ball, placed it on a tennis racket, held the racket out at a right angle to his body, bouncing that wad of paper until it turned into an egg. He took the egg off the racket and broke it into a glass bowl. Michael couldn’t explain that one.
Intellectually, I knew that the magician had pulled a switch, but somewhere in my being I wanted to believe that he had changed that ball of paper into an egg.
This was nothing new. When I was a kid, I religiously (sic) watched Joseph Dunninger’s TV show. Dunninger was a mentalist who performed astounding feats and and made a standing offer of a $1,000 reward — a lot of money then — for anyone who could show that his subjects were in kahoots with him. Still, he ended every show by saying something like the following: “And remember, a child of ten could do the things I do, after thirty years of practice.” I found that disclaimer disappointing; I would rather he had said nothing and left us guessing — and left me able to believe that he could read minds.
I imagine that same neurotic desire in audiences contributed a lot to the success of Harry Houdini, and also the success of spiritualists and mediums who claim they can summon the spirits of the dead. Those folks are the subject of Christopher Sandford’s book, Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.
The title is a little misleading in that Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories among other things, were never really “friends.” It was more that they were interested in each other, almost obsessed with each other. What they were interested in was their contrary opinions about contacting the dead. Doyle got immersed in that subject because of his own bereavements, and he was convinced not only that intelligence could exist apart from the body but that the dead could communicate with the living, notably through mediums, and that he himself had experienced it. He seriously believed that a new religion should be established based on that premise. Houdini, on the other hand — who had bereavement issues of his own — didn’t discount the possibility of life after death or even the concept of communicating with the dead, but he made a second profession out of investigating mediums and concluded that all of them, including Conan Doyle’s wife, were frauds.
The two men did correspond and then meet, and they exchanged visits with their families, but there was never any prospect that one would convert the other. Such friendship as there was came to an end when Conan Doyle’s wife, Jean, conducted a seance in which she purported to contact Houdini’s deceased mother, repeating the mother’s messages to her son through “automatic writing,” meaning that Jean’s hand involuntarily scribbled down what Cecilia Weiss was saying. Conan Doyle was convinced; Houdini was not, inasmuch as Jean wrote in English, a language Mrs. Weiss had never spoken, and called her son by the wrong first name. Houdini was polite about it at the time, but he later denounced the seance as a fake.
Although Conan Doyle was subjected to some criticism, he conducted a vigorous campaign to promote the ideas of spiritualism, drawing big crowds wherever he went. Houdini, on the other hand, took a lot of trouble to expose individual mediums as phonies, driving some of them out of the business. Sandford alludes several times to the obvious irony that Conan Doyle, who had invented the relentlessly logical Holmes, could accept as legitimate supposedly spiritual events for which there was no support or which were debunked by calmer minds. As for Houdini, it’s impossible to know how much of his crusade was based on his professed outrage over the manipulation of people who were desperate to contact their lost loved ones and how much was driven by the showman’s instinct that had made him an international celebrity.