How Did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Trick Houdini?

houdiniOne of the strangest friendships ever was the one between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Houdini. Conan Doyle, in a bizarre contrast to his scientifically minded detective, was a staunch believer in communicating with the spirit world. Houdini was highly critical of spiritualism and was the scourge of fake mediums who used magic tricks to convince the gullible that they had made contact with the dearly departed. Doyle had become interested in spiritualism in the late 1800s and joined the British Society for Psychical Research. In 1894 he was one of the members of a committee sent to investigate a haunted house. The owner had claimed he heard mysterious noises like a chain being dragged across a wooden floor, accompanied with the sounds of tormented moaning. Doyle did hear something, probably not unusual in a creaking English country manor, but was not persuaded the sounds came from a supernatural source. But when later the body of a ten year old child was found buried in the garden, Doyle became convinced that he had indeed witnessed a psychic event. He became completely sold on spiritualism when his son, who had died during World War I, communicated with him from beyond the grave, or so Doyle claimed. In 1920 he met Houdini, and the strange friendship began. When Conan Doyle came to America in 1922 to lecture on Spiritualism, Houdini invited his friend to the annual meeting of the Society of American Magicians. The writer was hesitant about accepting, fearing that the magicians would ridicule his spiritualist beliefs. But as it turned out, it was Doyle who had something up his sleeve!

After the magicians had gotten through upstaging each other with their newest tricks, it was Doyle’s turn. He asked that the lights be turned down and a movie projector be brought in. The magicians’ jaws dropped when they saw what appeared to be live dinosaurs cavorting on the screen! Doyle refused to answer questions about the film, other than to insinuate that what may at first appear to be impossible, may indeed be possible. His message to the magicians was that they should not to dismiss phenomena they did not understand too quickly. The film was actually an excerpt from an upcoming movie based on Conan Doyle’s novel, The Lost World, and was the first example ever of stop-motion photography of miniatures. Doyle had the last laugh on this one, as none of the magicians, including Houdini, was able to explain how dinosaurs had been captured on film. Famed science writer Arthur C. Clarke would later comment that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The spiritualist Doyle had clearly demonstrated this to the skeptical magicians. Amazingly, Conan Doyle believed that Houdini actually had psychic powers because he could not imagine how the magician’s wondrous stunts could be performed by scientific means. This, in spite of knowing how science had done the apparently impossible.

 

Joe Schwarcz

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