Did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle kill Harry Houdini? Probably not, but their weird rivalry is fascinating

13th August 2018

Trivia about historical figures excites the imagination. Sometimes, it shows us a glimpse of an alternative history we missed out on.

Other times, it shows us fascinating relationships between cultural icons.

Occasionally, they can do both. The friendship and rivalry between Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle has been explored by academics, artists and straight up hacks (including these chumps) across all media. Their relationship is fascinating but fleeting, as they ended up on either side of a raging theological debate. But, could this spat have gone darker than we imagined? Could Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have arranged the assassination of Harry Houdini?

Arguably, they were the two most famous entertainers on the planet when they were alive, and while appearing to be polar opposites socially, culturally and physically — biographer Christopher Sandford described them, charmingly, as looking like Pooh and Piglet, side by side — they had a surprising amount in common. Both came from meagre backgrounds, both had complicated relationships with their fathers and doted on their mothers and both had endless ambition — wanting to be remembered for achievements greater than history allowed.

In a tale as old as time, one of them became convinced that he could speak to the dead and it ruined the whole thing

Doyle, made rich and famous by his creation Sherlock Holmes, craved literary credibility through his lengthy and dull historical novels, while Houdini wanted to be more than a vaudeville act and longed for prestige in film, aviation, academics and literature — he even worked with the then little-known weird-fiction writer and anti-Semite HP Lovecraft, on a series of spooky short stories.

Doyle on holiday with his family and Harry Houdini (centre) in Atlantic City, 1922

The pair developed a friendship through mutual respect and admiration. They wrote letters, sent one another books and even holidayed together. But, in a tale as old as time, one of them became convinced that he could speak to the dead and it ruined the whole thing. Doyle became the de-facto leader of the spiritualist movement, the belief that mediums could receive messages from the deceased, while Houdini — himself a former fraud and medium — became the first celebrity debunker.

Houdini made the fatal flaw of insinuating Doyle’s wife, Lady Doyle, herself a medium, was a liar

Houdini was polite to Doyle in person. He admired — perhaps envied — the respect a Hungarian Jewish variety act could never attain at the turn of the century, but was rude in his personal correspondence about the author. He called his beliefs nonsense and once, while touring his debunking lectures, he said that he would tear Doyle to pieces.

A long-time opponent of the Spiritualist movement, Houdini exposed the ticks of many fraudulent “mediums”

Doyle took this all on the chin, marking it up to Houdini’s over-showmanship, and politely suggested that perhaps a simple magician might not know what the devil he was talking about. That is until Houdini made the fatal flaw of insinuating Doyle’s wife, Lady Doyle, herself a medium, was a liar.

Did Doyle inspire, or even orchestrate, the murder of a man he called his friend?

Certainly, it’s enough to end most troubled relationships — and in 2018 to warrant some snake emojis — but was it enough to push Doyle over the edge? Did Doyle inspire, or even orchestrate, the murder of a man he called his friend? It seems unlikely, but once we eliminate the impossible, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Let’s look at the evidence.

On 25 October, after a performance at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Houdini was rushed to the hospital. He was tired, weak and had a fever of 105. A few days earlier, before a show in Montreal, Houdini had received some guests. He was already feeling under the weather when one of the guests, Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, an amateur boxer and divinity student at McGill University, challenged Houdini.

Whitehead inquired into one of Houdini’s feats of strength, asking if it was true that Houdini could take a blow to the stomach from anyone without feeling it. It was a classic Houdini routine that David Blaine does to this day.

Houdini said that it was true and, before he could prepare himself, Whitehead pounced on him — delivering what witness referred to as “hammer-like blows”. Houdini took a few hits, before calling Whitehead off, thanking the guests for their time and excusing them in order to prepare for the show that night.

The doctors discovered that Houdini likely had appendicitis and had done for some time, given that his appendix, usually around 9cm and located on the right side of the human hip bone, had swollen and reached across the length of his hips. Houdini died aged 52 on 31 October — Halloween — in 1926.

The theory for assassination follows a shadowy and complex trail of spiritualism

The theory for assassination follows a shadowy and complex trail of spiritualism and goes to the highest seat of power in the West, the Canadian Prime Minister.

Whitehead, Houdini’s potential dispatcher, was friends with Beatrice Marler, an amateur medium and the wife of McGill alumnus, Herbert Marler MP. The right honourable Herbert was tight with the then Canadian Prime Minister William McKenzie King.

This is where it gets interesting. King, though raised a Christian, was big into spiritualism — as in he made policy decisions taking advice from his dead mother via his favourite mediums Rachel Bleaney and Etta Wriedt. If nothing else, this proves that women belong in politics just as much as men, given that three women with no training — one of whom was dead — were successfully running Canada, for a spell. Aside from women’s suffrage, this is important as Wriedt, who was from Detroit, the town Houdini had died in, had also performed séances for… Arthur Conan Doyle.

One spiritualist told Houdini that he would soon face a violent death as a ‘fitting punishment’ for his work

Mediums and spiritualists had been predicting (or promising?) Houdini’s death for some time, prior to Whitehead’s assault. After a Senate hearing on fraudulent mediums in Washington in early 1926, Madame Marcia told Houdini that he would be dead by November. A few years earlier, Margery “The Blonde Witch of Lime Street” Crandon — another correspondent of Doyle’s — had predicted Houdini’s demise in the form of a racist poem from her dead brother, and Houdini freely told the Chicago American that he had received letters from a spiritualist, predicting his “violent death, soon, as a fitting punishment for my nefarious work”.

He was a thorn in the side of the con artists because he exposed their methods, and the true believers disliked him because he discredited their genuine faith in a new religion, and they thought that he might actually be a medium. Doyle, himself, was convinced that Houdini used eldritch power to perform his nightly miracles. Houdini, of course, denied this, but like any good magician wouldn’t explain how he did perform his escapes.

Doyle was a big proponent of the Spiritualism movement and published a book on “spirit photography” in 1922

Further, Lady Doyle Had performed a séance for Houdini, channelling his mother through automatic writing. After this, all correspondence from Houdini — letters, journals, etc. — has been lost to time, if there was even any at all, and the event is said to have left Houdini feeling like he was walking on air. Houdini’s later denial of this would have been a double gut punch for Doyle. Not only did Houdini besmirch the honour of Lady Doyle, he denied his role as a saint in the spiritualist pantheon.

Could Doyle have known that an unexpected blow could rupture Houdini’s appendix?

Neither Doyle or his wife ever mentioned receiving messages from the next realm for Houdini’s imminent death — his spirit guide Phineas only predicted the end of the world, not the end of specific pen pals. Revenge is as good a motive as any, while Doyle’s influence, celebrity and status as a cult leader may have given him the means, but that kind of behaviour doesn’t seem to gel with the Stephen Fry of the 1900s. Or, does it?

He may have had the temperament for it. He was known for his determination and stubbornness, and was familiar with violence, having been bare-knuckle boxing champion on an Arctic trawler, while also serving as the crew’s doctor. And lest we forget, he designed methods of impossible crimes for a living. He was a fully-trained medical doctor. Could he have heard of Houdini’s growing illness, diagnosed him and known that an unexpected blow could rupture the appendix and kill the magician?

Doyle once convinced Houdini that footage from The Lost World was actually real

Further, Doyle was a known prankster. He once tricked a room full of magicians — including Houdini — by showing them footage from the movie adaptation of his book The Lost World and telling them it was real footage. Sounds stupid, but they believed it. And, he is a key suspect for the Piltdown Man Hoax. For someone so convinced in life after death, murder could be a simple gag like shaving someone’s head at a party or covering the toilet seat with clingfilm; an inconvenience for sure, but not the end of the world.

It’s commonly believed that he based Holmes’ arch-nemesis, in part, on the art thief Adam Worth, but could Doyle have been “a spider at the centre of the web” with “all the powers of darkness at his hand”?

As theories go, it’s pretty insane and entirely circumstantial

After Houdini’s death, Doyle told the New York Times that he had “greatly admired” Houdini and that his death was “a great shock and mystery”, but told fellow spiritualist Fulton Oursler that “his death was most certainly decreed from the other side” — which, of course, is exactly the kind of thing you would expect the deadly head of a global organisation of religious assassins to say.

As theories go, it’s pretty insane and entirely circumstantial. Doyle was one of the most famous and admired men on the planet, meaning his web of contacts would, naturally, have been huge. He was an advocate of justice, and helped to solve several crimes where and when he could. The idea that he would orchestrate murder does jar with that, somewhat (or is it the perfect cover?). Mostly, it just seems very un-sportsmanlike to have an enemy secretly murdered, and Doyle’s real problem is that he, perhaps naively, believed that humans were essentially good and honest, and don’t need to be murdered.

Claims that Doyle orchestrated Houdini’s death ‘received widespread attention but proof failed to materialise’

Not through lack of trying, we have received no comments yet from spiritualists, alive or dead that provide any real evidence to support belief in the theory; either the assassination one or the speaking-to-the-dead one. But Massimo Polidoro, a sceptic and author of books on debunking spiritualism, says that he is unaware of any instances of spiritualists physically attacking sceptics and, regarding Doyle orchestrating Houdini’s death that, “Unfortunately, such claims received widespread attention when they were presented to the public, but then proof of this failed to materialise.”

Houdini had a secret code known only to his wife, Bess, and Doyle that he would give to confirm his identity, should his spirit ever manifest. Doyle never revealed it or claimed to contact his old friend, and while Bess Houdini did hear those magic words, she later admitted to selling the secret to a rival magician to pay off the debts of the Houdini estate. She literally — as in actually, not figurative — kept a light burning for her late husband and performed a séance on Halloween — a tradition kept up by the magic community to this day — for 10 years. When she finally snuffed out that light, she said: “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”

It’s highly doubtful that Doyle killed Houdini, or even that crazed Canadian spiritualists did it in his name. Houdini and Doyle were two phenomenally interesting men, and the fact that they knew each other is thrilling enough, without having to believe that one was murdered by the other. Just like a magic trick, if you ignore the misdirection and the showmanship, what actually happened is disappointingly mundane. Connecting these dots and intuiting clues is merely storytelling; a bit of entertaining historical fiction and nothing more.

13th August 2018