Houdini & Doyle: The True Story Behind Their Paranormal Bromance

90 – Houdini & Doyle: The True Story Behind Their Paranormal Bromance

So, Wendy and I recorded this episode while on a trip to the sunny California Dream Factory and saw the previews for a show we’d talked about all the way back in Episode 36 – Paranormal Lit 101: Victorian Horror with Brian J. Showers. Houdini & Doyle is the show that turns the friendship between escape artist Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle into a crime solving duo. We haven’t seen it yet, but we thought we’d talk about the real relationship between the two men, who were on very different sides of the Spiritualism equation in the 1920s.

For a fun little side note, we not only went back to visited with rock photographer Jimmy Steinfeldt, the Rock n’ Roll Lens (get his awesome book of rock photography here!) at his studio in Laurel Canyon . Fun fact, it was formerly the home of Gary Kurtz, a producer on Star Wars, but more importantly for us, producer on Return To Oz (which I’ve referenced in this podcast way too many times!)  So that was a nice little dose of extra nerdery for me.

And here’s the nice tribute to Prince that was on the Rock Walk at Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard.

Lovely tribute to #Prince at the Rock Walk.

A photo posted by sunspotmike (@sunspotmike) on

Spiritualism was the movement that grew to massive heights in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. With so many people dying in the American Civil War and the massive loss of life that occurred in the First World War, people were desperate for ways to contact their deceased loved ones. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of these, he was always interested in the supernatural, but became obsessed after losing his first wife in 1906 and his son shortly before the end of World War I.

doyle & houdini
Here’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with that smoking walrus look that was so hot at the turn of the century.

Spiritualist mediums would hold séances where spirit faces would appear, strange knocks and sounds would respond as answers to questions, ectoplasm would manifest seemingly from nowhere, fingerprints would show up on the table that weren’t from any of the attendees. The mediums said that they could talk to the dead and Conan Doyle ate it right up.

Houdini & Doyle
Houdini gonna getcha!

Harry Houdini was the most famous magician in the world and it wasn’t uncommon for performers like himself to claim that they had real supernatural powers. But when his beloved mother passed away, Harry was desperate to talk to her again. He attended séance after séance to try and find some evidence of the paranormal, of a connection to the afterlife. But he knew the stage and he knew sleight of hand, he knew how to trick people and he knew when he was being tricked. Houdini debunked every one of the mediums he came into contact with.

houdini & doyle
Peanut butter and chocolate, at last!

They met in New York City in 1920 when the author was doing a weeklong stint of speeches at Carnegie Hall about Spiritualism. Houdini found Conan Doyle an intelligent counterpoint to his skepticism and Doyle thought that Houdini had magical powers and that he was just covering up his supernatural abilities by saying it was all illusion. They even went on a little jaunt to Atlantic City together where in the swimming pool, Houdini amazed the old Scotsman with how long he could hold his breath underwater.

Eventually things started going south when Sir Arthur had his wife do a special medium session where she claimed to be able to contact Harry’s mother through automatic writing (that’s where spirits take over the hand of the writer or influence their subconscious to communicate with the living .) It went on for hours but Houdini was just disappointed in the end when the mother wrote in perfect English (she was Hungarian and knew very little of the language of their American adopted home) and also when she made no mention of it being her birthday on the day she made contact (a fact that only Houdini knew in the room.)

Their relationship continued to cool off when Houdini was on a special investigation panel for Scientific American and he debunked a medium named Mina “Margery” Crandon that Conan Doyle championed.

But even the world’s most famous escape artist couldn’t escape the Grim Reaper. He died  on Halloween in 1926. His wife Bess held a séance every year on the anniversary of his death until after ten years she quit, believing that she never got the special message that Harry promised to send her from the other side.

Because this episode really is about being desperate to know that there’s something   wanting to contact the loved ones who have gone before them, we thought that our track, “Viking Funeral” would be appropriate because it’s a tribute to those we’ve left behind.

To the dearly departed,
and all the human sacrifice,
and to all the broken hearted,
who never got to roll the dice.

For tonight we ride,
with ghosts at our side,
of all the ones whom fate was so unkind.
All the promises unkept,
and the tears we never wept,
this one goes out to the left behind.

For all the broken arrows,
who never hit the mark,
We’ll see you on the flambeaus,
as we sing dirges in the dark.

For tonight we ride,
with ghosts at our side,
of all the ones whom fate was so unkind.
All the promises unkept,
and the tears we never wept,
this one goes out to the left behind.

For tonight we ride,
with ghosts at our side,
of all the ones whom fate was so unkind.
All the promises unkept,
and the tears we never wept,
this one goes out to the left behind.

For tonight we ride,
with ghosts at our side,
of all the ones whom fate was so unkind.
All the promises unkept,
and the tears we never wept,
this one goes out to the left behind.
credits

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