March 21, 2012 | by Margaret Eby
The Karpeles Manuscript Museum in Charleston is housed in an old Methodist church, a grandly columned Greek Revival building with a rusty front gate and a pipe organ still intact in the back. It's home to a revolving series of manuscripts culled from the private collection of real-estate magnates David and Marsh Karpeles, a couple with very eclectic and expensive taste in papers: in any given season the glass cases wedged around the pews and pulpit contain anything from pages of Roget’s original thesaurus to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s sketched map of the Antarctic. The February afternoon I visited, a gregarious man with a low-country accent and a flair for displaying pamphlets announced the winter exhibit with pride: “The letters of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, an odd pair if ever there was one.”
The dozen or so letters and scraps of free-written scrawl were from Conan Doyle and Houdini’s brief but spectacular relationship, one that was founded on and destroyed by a shared interest in the possibility of contacting people in the afterlife. It began, as friendships often do, with a book exchange. In 1920, Harry Houdini, on a tour of the British Isles with menagerie of rabbits, trunks of shackles, and his intrepid wife Bess in tow, introduced himself to Arthur Conan Doyle by sending him a copy of his The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. The volume was a biting criticism of Houdini’s magician namesake and an exposé of other hucksters who claimed to have the power of mediums. It was part of Houdini’s ongoing crusade to unmask those whom he considered contemptuous imposters. By then, Conan Doyle had shed the world of Holmes and Watson to explore other pursuits, jumping headlong into ethereal studies of Spiritualism after his brother and eldest son died in World War I. Houdini’s book intrigued him; he sent his own volley of work on prominent mediums back.
Their missives are debates over the nature of Spiritualism, examining the ways that psychics could be snookering their audiences. Houdini takes the role of the cynic, always searching for the telltale mirror hidden in the room, the trick latch, or a hidden set of aces. “You will note that I am still a skeptic, but a seeker after the Truth,” Houdini explained to Conan Doyle. In another letter, he put both his meaning and his doubts about Conan Doyle more plainly: “As a rule, I have found that the greater brain a man has, and the better he is educated, the easier it has been to mystify him.” For his part, Conan Doyle was an advocate for the supernatural, wanting badly to prove the world of spirits existed beyond doubt, to lay the case as bare as his most famous literary creation had time and again.
But the exchange is more than just lively disagreement. You can also read signs of warmth in their literary one-upsmanship. “I digested all the material,” Houdini wrote back after the initial book trade, “And when you say there are 96 volumes on your desk, it may interest you to know that I travel with a bookcase containing over 100 volumes.” Arthur Conan Doyle, not to be outdone, retorted in his next letter, “I have 200 [books] now, and have read them too!” In later letters, Conan Doyle affectionately pokes fun at his friend’s death-defying stunts: “I hope to see you—your normal self, not in a tank or hanging by one toe from a skyscraper.”
The appeal of their relationship isn’t difficult to suss out. It has the same charmed, fairy-tale element of the drinking tales from the Algonquin Round Table or the photograph of Elvis Presley shaking hands with Richard Nixon. Discovering their interaction is a moment of pure delight, as when you introduce unexpectedly connected acquaintances at a party. In the age of the cultural mash-up, when zombies can be recruited at will to populate Jane Austen novels and rap songs are dense with references to 1980s movies, pictures of the world’s most famous illusionist strolling along with the inventor of Sherlock Holmes while discussing fairies seem too good not to have been retroactively photoshopped.
Indeed, many writers have found material in the Conan Doyle–Houdini friendship. There’s Harry R. Squires’s What Rough Beast, a horror movie that has both gentleman solving a magic-related homicide. Gabriel Brownstein’s Man From Beyond vividly imagines Houdini and Conan Doyle in New York City, their relationship souring. Luminaries, an e-book published last year by Timothy Brennar, throws director Orson Welles into the mix as all three go on a mission for the British Government, and the 2003 Necronauts sets up H.P. Lovecraft with Doyle and Houdini to venture into the underworld. A self-published graphic novel about the pair, Among the Spirits by Steve Valentine, launched both an upcoming movie project from Dreamworks and a mystery series on Syfy. Houdini’s lawyer, Bernard M.L. Ernst, actually published the first nonfiction analysis of Conan Doyle and Houdini’s rapport in 1932, a mere eight years after Houdini’s death. Since then, there have been at least half a dozen books written on the subject, most recently Christopher Sandford’s absorbing Masters of Mystery. Almost all of the accounts have a variation on the same subtitle, remarking on the story of a “strange friendship.”
But is the Conan Doyle–Houdini partnership so strange? Physically, the two look almost comically mismatched. Houdini was short and sharp to Conan Doyle’s generous English frame and affable walrus mustache. In one often-circulated picture of the two together, Houdini wears a white suit and Conan Doyle a black one, as if emphasizing the disparity. But the coexistence between the doubter and the believer is a relationship dynamic we know well. It’s the foundation underneath many a television show: Houdini was the Scully to Conan Doyle’s Mulder, so to speak. Their friendship illustrates the warring impulses of intellectual life—the need to pick apart things to eliminate falsehoods, and the heartfelt want to be bamboozled sometimes, to acknowledge some sort of truth with a capital T. Certainty grounds us, but doubt is more interesting. The gap between them is why both great detective stories and great magic tricks work. What are magic tricks anyway except for pretty little fictions about doves evaporating into thin air and smiling assistants being sawn in half without consequence, humans casually violating the insufferably strict laws of science?
Conan Doyle and Houdini fell out over a séance. Conan Doyle’s wife Jean, acting as a medium, scribbled down a loving note that she claimed had been written through her, from the beyond, by Houdini’s late beloved mother. Houdini took a look at it and excused himself. The note Jean had written was in English, a language his Hungarian mother had never learned. Wounded, Houdini went to the press with his disillusionment over the whole affair, and Conan Doyle in turn accused him of being a petty showman. They remained in a kind of spiritualist cold war until Houdini’s death in 1926. But Houdini went to his grave with tendrils of hope in communication with the dead. Every year for ten years, on the anniversary of Houdini’s death, the widowed Bess carried out his wished by attempting—unsuccessfully—to commune with his spirit. The phrase that Bess used in each effort was an adaptation of the stage language they had devised in a vaudeville mind-reading act, “Answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell.” It translated into a single word: “Believe.”
Margaret Eby is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.