Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, and the Promise and Ruin of Spiritualism

Book review: Through a Glass, Darkly, by Stefan Bechtel and Laurence Roy Stains
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What had come to be known as “spiritualism”—the conviction that those who have passed over had the ability and the desire to make contact across the veil of death with those they’d left behind—seemed to have bewitched the Western world. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, forever linked with his character, Sherlock Holmes, harbored a far greater passion in his life than the creation of his fictional detective. Doyle was a spiritualist – that wildly popular movement of believers that the human soul, its “personality”, survived death. At the turn of the century, these believers sought out mediums who could channel spirits in seances, lifting the veil between worlds to reveal what was on other side of death. “They were explorers, every bit as much as the naturalist in the jungle, the adventurer in the Arctic, the scientist in the laboratory.”

The book begins with the background of the Fox sisters in their New York state farmhouse with their famous rappings, alleged communications from the spiritual world. What always intrigues me about these stories is how there’s usually some little detail that remains unexplained despite exposure of the rest, and it’s what gives spooky stories their staying power. In the Fox case, their spirit contact claimed to have been murdered and entombed in the basement, where indeed, the body of a man was later found. Spiritualism as a whole has been widely and solidly debunked (see Mary Roach’s Spook for a thorough treatment) but it’s undeniably exciting to have at least one loose end that refuses to be tied up.

The authors tell their stories thoroughly, making sure to reveal whatever smoke and mirror techniques were responsible as far as these are known. The book’s abrupt ending, after Doyle has passed away, feels conspicuously lacking in this regard, as it’s presented without the context that the rest of the book is rich in. This bothered me, because in general the contextual element is used illuminatingly.

I particularly liked their tracing of the First World War and the Spanish flu epidemic as the precipitating factors of the spiritualism craze:

It was perhaps not surprising that spiritualism had attracted millions of adherents by 1922. For so many, the scale of the carnage brought on by these two great calamities raised the ancient questions, and the ancient hopes. Did human personality survive death? If so, was there some way of breaching the veil that separated the living from the lost and making direct contact with loved ones? In this world of seemingly random and meaningless tragedy, was there some hope of comfort and consolation outside the confines of traditional religion?

Doyle’s interest was piqued particularly after the loss of his son. The book tells his biography through his connection with spiritualism, which he really did consider his life’s great work. He comes across as an earnest, hopeful person (I loved a joyful description of when he realized he could abandon his tepid medical career and write full time.) One can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him when his beliefs aren’t tempered with enough healthy skepticism. He wholeheartedly supported two little girls who created photos purportedly of fairies, and defended them staunchly although one of the girls later admitted they were faked.

His obsession with the paranormal and willingness to believe in scientifically inexplicable phenomena, like communication with spirits or mythical creatures, seemed to override any reality. Although the questions arises of how the inventor of literature’s most logical detective could believe so fervently in spiritualism, it’s not answered or particularly thoroughly investigated. His beliefs forever colored public perception of him and his works, and for something so significant I wanted to see more of the how and why:

Essentially, he would be seated in the public square wearing a dunce cap, pelted with rotten tomatoes, and scorned by many of the same people who once bought his books and considered him one of Britain’s leading literary lights.

Doyle so firmly defended spiritualist practices like seances that after J.B. Rhine, later to become the “father of parapsychology” accused Mina Crandon, the so-called Witch of Lime Street, of being a fraud that Doyle took out an ad in a peer-reviewed journal calling him an “ass”.

Regarding comfort and consolation, illusionist Harry Houdini crosses paths with Doyle. Houdini lost his mother, with whom he was very close, and thus sparked his own interest in the possibility of communicating with the dead. But Houdini never could shake his own conviction that some trick or illusion was at play – game recognize game, I suppose – and was as much an adversary of spiritualist practices as an adherent. It makes for hilarious reading.

He would sometimes attend séances wearing a fake beard or mustache, and after he’d gathered enough evidence to incriminate the phony medium, he would throw off his disguise and shout, “I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!”

The authors describe the relationship between Doyle and Houdini as what would now be dubbed “frenemies”. These were my favorite sections: seeing the relationship between these two opposing viewpoints who both wanted the same thing so badly – for it all to be true – but one giving himself over too gullibly to every possibility and the other so afraid of being duped that he strenuously, even obsessively, dedicated himself to exposing fraud. “But at the same time, in private, he remained an earnest if unconvinced seeker.”

The book doesn’t have a uniting thesis, it’s not presenting anything new or proposing theories. The authors describe it as “a jolly romp, rather than a scholarly treatise. While raising the profound questions inherent in this material, we aimed to favor high spirits, delicious speculations, and compelling scenes and characters.”

It achieves that aim, and it’s a completely enjoyable, entertaining read. I’m not sure how compelling it would be for someone better versed in the topic, as the information and anecdotes here seem well-known historically. But for a beginner, or someone particularly interested in the Doyle-Houdini connection, it’s truly a lot of fun, compellingly written, constantly amusing and thoughtful.

Through a Glass, Darkly:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Quest to Solve the Greatest Mystery of All
by Stefan Bechtel and Laurence Roy Stains
published June 13, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press

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6 thoughts on “Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, and the Promise and Ruin of Spiritualism

      1. I also am fascinated by Houdini. I vaguely recalled he was obsessed with contacting the dead, but didn’t realize what a skeptic he was. That is hilarious that he wore a disguise and dramatically revealed himself!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. He’s such a fascinating figure! And that’s just the beginning, his involvement in the spiritualism scene is so funny. I mean it’s also deeply sad, at the heart of it, because of how much he wanted to communicate with his mother, but he’s such a lively, colorful character that the stories around him are wonderful.

        Like

  1. Am really fascinated by your review and to discover the creator of Sherlock Holmes to be illogical in his beliefs and his yearning for spiritualism although understood in the context of First World War and the Spanish Flu I guess many people will try to find Solace in religion.
    Houdini approach was quite entertaining and interesting also.
    Thanks for the great review

    Like

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