Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini in the haunted fairyland

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an intelligent man, and a good one. He had earned a medical degree and practiced medicine. He had written a good deal of fiction that included the intricate puzzles that are the Sherlock Holmes stories. He personally investigated and helped to clear two innocent men of crimes for which they had been convicted. (In both cases, racial prejudice had played a role in the convictions.) Not too shabby.

But people Doyle loved kept dying on him. His wife Louisa, a brother, two brothers-in-law, his nephews, and finally his son Kingley, who took a couple of years to die of complications from grisly wounds he received at the Battle of the Somme. Doyle became severely depressed, and went through what amounted to a religious conversion. He became convinced that he could communicate with his lost loved ones.

If you are now imagining elderly mediums in high collars and floor-length skirts, ghosts in lacy ectoplasmic lingerie, and great-great-granddad’s spittoon floating around the parlor like planes stacked up over an airport where they laid off the air traffic controllers, then you have successfully plotted the trajectory of Doyle’s spiritual pilgrimage.

Doyle was not a man who went in for half measures. If he was going to dive into the supernatural, by God, he was going to go off one of those hundred-plus-foot cliffs in Acapulco.

Honestly, I have to admire his guts. After all, how many grown men with medical degrees—or little girls over the age of six—will admit to believing in fairies?

Not only did he do that, but he wrote an entire (nonfiction!) book about them and included photos of the Cottingley Fairies, which he seems to have accepted as completely real. (Recipe: pose cute, post-Edwardian little girl, add drawings of fairies cut out of children’s story books, take photograph.)


And he believed in Harry Houdini. He was convinced that Houdini had supernatural powers. Mind you, this was despite Houdini’s frequent and increasingly exasperated statements to his friend that everything he did was no more than stage magic.

To prove his point, Houdini once spent weeks setting up an elaborate trick that looked impossible without the supernatural. He had a cotton wad “magically” write words on a slate that Doyle thought he had written in private and were known only to him. Then Houdini carefully explained to Doyle, step by step, exactly how he had pulled it off.

Doyle didn’t buy the explanation. He remained convinced that Houdini’s spiritual blindness prevented him from accepting the reality of his own occult powers. He grieved that his friend rejected The Truth.

I believe that Doyle, dotty as he was, was completely sincere and meant well. I have relatives like that.

What’s important to understand is that Houdini wanted to believe that you could chat with the dead as much as Doyle did. Houdini desperately missed his mother and wanted reassurance that he would see her again. However, unlike Doyle, he was exceptionally well-qualified to detect fraud and trickery, and even after going to dozens of séances, some of them conducted by celebrated mediums, that’s all he ever found.

He wanted it to be real, and it turned out to be a pack of lies and illusions designed to skim money off grieving people. That pissed Houdini off. He went public.


Since Doyle was the most prominent spokesperson for the I-see-dead-people industry, these public attacks on spiritualism strained Houdini’s friendship with Doyle beyond the breaking point.

Speaking of points, mine is that if you are selling fiction with a supernatural element you need to keep in mind that people want to believe in this stuff.

Consumers don’t want reality; they want the skeptics proven wrong and humiliated. Consumers want their belief in spooks and psychic powers and astrology and magic reinforced.

Television and cable networks, local television news, the movie business, magazines and newspapers, and the book-publishing industry all understand this. They make products to sell to the spiritual heirs of Arthur Conan Doyle. There is no significant market for skepticism.

The last time I saw a piece of fiction where the skeptics were proven right was a cold war story where a highly skilled troupe of magicians from a magic circus in Prague nearly convinced an American physicist that his dead daughter wanted him to defect in order to balance the nuclear arms race and save the world. That was decades ago, and in our era it would probably never see the light of day.


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