It was June 17, 1913, and magician, actor, aviator—a man of many talents—Harry Houdini was having a press conference in Copenhagen when he was handed a telegram. His mother, Cecilia, with whom he always had a strong bond, had a stroke. A 30-year-old Houdini canceled all of his upcoming performances to get back to his mother in America as soon as he could, but, sadly, it was too late. Cecilia had passed and no trick in the book could bring her back.
Audiences began to see his acts take a turn toward the extreme, almost reckless—from burying himself alive to nearly drowning. Soon after, they witnessed a staunch crusade against Spiritualism, mediums, and psychics, or as Houdini called them, “vultures who prey on the bereaved.”
Houdini’s campaign against Spiritualism spurred from an unlikely friendship—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series. In the wake of his son’s death during the Great War, Doyle had become a believer in life after death and a missionary of Spiritualism, a religion that believes in spirit communication.
In 1922, Doyle suggested Houdini join him in trying to contact his mother, Cecilia. Houdini accepted and one Sunday afternoon in June, met Doyle and his wife Jean, a self-proclaimed medium, at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City.
In the séance, Jean delivered pages upon pages of hand-written messages from Cecilia. One read, “Thank God! At last, I’m through!” But Houdini wasn’t buying it. His mother could not write English, let alone speak it from the other side. She spoke Yiddish. Additionally, at the top of each page was a cross. She also managed to say “Merry Christmas.” Cecilia was the wife of a rabbi and devoutly Jewish—this simply did not make sense. Lastly, the séance was held on her birthday, which never came up…
Doyle became defensive, explaining that the rules of our earthly world do not apply on the other side. Perhaps Houdini’s mother learned English in Heaven? The Doyles walked away feeling that Houdini was deeply moved by the experience—publicly proclaiming that Houdini was a Spiritualist believer. Houdini felt otherwise.
Houdini replied to the press that Spiritualism was a sham and its practitioners were fraudsters. A feud developed between the two celebrities. Doyle wrote that Houdini “was a very conceited and self-opinionated man.” Houdini retaliated by writing, “Doyle is a bit senile and easily bamboozled.”
Houdini used his platform to publicly denounce Spiritualism. He was on a mission. During tours, shows, and personal appearances to promote his films, Houdini projected visual presentations—PowerPoint before it was PowerPoint—breaking down how he believed mediums were using trickery disguised as mystic gifts. He’d even attend séances undercover, and once he gathered what he felt was sufficient evidence of fraud, he would leap up, dramatically flinging off his disguise.
Ironically, following Houdini’s death on Halloween 1926, Bess, his wife, began holding annual séances to contact him. She was quoted as “…taking up the magician’s wand laid down by her husband’s dying hand.” She and Houdini had agreed on a secret code he would communicate to her after his death. These Halloween séances went on for 10 years, but no medium ever cracked the secret code.
After Houdini’s death, Doyle wrote Bess a letter of condolence, although it was unrelenting. “I am sure that, with strength of character (and possibly his desire to make reparation), he will come back,” he wrote. As a gesture of gratitude, Bess sent him a portfolio of artwork by Doyle’s own father that Houdini acquired at auction. Doyle accepted the surprising gift as a peace offering and the feud was finally settled from beyond the grave.