Spiritualism, Houdini & Conan Doyle

Hosted byDave Schrader

Spiritualism, Houdini & Conan Doyle

About the show

During the first half hour, actor Michael Weston joined Dave Schrader (email) to talk about portraying legendary magician Harry Houdini in the FOX TV Series Houdini and Doyle. Weston says he "loves the skeptic versus the believer" dynamic that is showcased on the program as his skeptical Houdini character engages in a friendly rivalry with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s near-total belief in the paranormal in an almost X-Files type way. The experience of playing the character actually caused him to recall a couple of personal ghost encounters as a result of the subjects written into the show.

Next, researcher and astrologist David Jaher discussed his new book about "Margery the Medium," who came to embody the raging national debate during the 1920s over Spiritualism, and her celebrated and very public struggles with Harry Houdini, who said that her feats were merely stage trickery. Scientific American magazine put out a call for spiritualists and mediums to be tested by a panel of scientists and other experts (which included Houdini) and offered a cash prize to anyone who could prove their claims. Margery (aka Mina Crandon) seemed to pass all the tests that the astonished group could throw at her, but Houdini refused to believe that she was genuine, and devised a “spirit cabinet” that he said was foolproof. During a session with Margery, the top of the box was apparently wrenched off by some force. Jaher says that Houdini slandered her in public in what was essentially a witch hunt, even suggesting that she slept with the scientists who had pronounced her feats genuine. In his research, what most surprised Jaher was "the authority that was bestowed on Houdini," since he had little formal education and was not a scientist.

In the last two hours, Arthur Conan Doyle biographer Matt Wingett explained how the creator of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most logical and scientific characters in history of literature, could also be an advocate for Spiritualism and psychic phenomena. Wingett said that this was due to the fact the first Holmes story was written when Doyle had recently earned his medical degree and was firmly steeped in the methods of science. Soon after, in 1886, he attended his first seance, which began his life-long interest in the paranormal. Wingett believes that another factor contributing to Doyle’s rejection of the popular Christian worldview was his harsh treatment at the hands of Jesuit schoolmasters when he was a boy. He added that the Spiritualist craze of the early 20th century was fueled by the "waves of grief" during the great losses of WWI and the worldwide influenza epidemic that claimed millions of lives. Many wanted to know if there was indeed a life after death and if they could communicate with their deceased loved ones.

Wingett said that the death of Doyle's son Kingsley in 1918 while recovering from battle wounds was a turning point in his Spiritualist pursuits. Doyle believed that he had achieved contact with Kingsley later during a seance. In 1920, Doyle met Harry Houdini and the two struck up a friendship. Even though Houdini personally demonstrated how many supposed tricks of mediumship were accomplished, Doyle still believed that some were genuine. Echoing the feelings of many at the time, he even thought that Houdini was a medium himself, and used his paranormal powers in his stage act. The two parted ways when Doyle’s wife Jean claimed to have contacted Houdini’s deceased mother in a trance. She wrote out her messages in fluent English, which was not a language that Houdini’s mother could speak or write very well. After many years of research into the life of Doyle, Wingett says that he has "never found an aspect of the paranormal that he [Doyle] was at least not willing to look into."

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