Month: November 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Spiritualists: Blackpool, Conan Doyle and Houdini

This is off topic.

Doyle and Houdini two intriguing giants, it involves Blackpool, there is a crime  and an epic row  erupts between Doyle and Houdini .    And finally: Spiritualism…  Blackpool has always had a religious and especially alternative religous aspect… With these excuses off we go…

 

SPIRITUALISM

Emmanuel Swedenborg claimed direct communication with God.  The philosopher Kant thought he was bonkers but interesting.  In the US two children started table rapping and so on.   The American Civil War left people bereaved and longing for communication with their lost loved ones.  Mediums contacted the dead.

Abraham Lincoln tried to communicate with his dead son  William (typhoid) through a medium.

BLACKPOOL

Blackpool has always been liminal.  At the end of land strange beliefs flourish.   Blackpool had a Swedenborgian Church and one of the few specifically built Spiritualist Churches in Albert Road.  The holiday atmosphere of Blackpool included clairvoyants and forturne tellers,  the astrological signs at Bispham Parish Church, the long survival of witchcraft and fairy stories, the boggarts and holy wells, pre-christian traditions all add up to a spookiness.   Your Rochdale mill-worker did not believe in fairies but he kind of knew the stories and on a moonlit night…

RELIGION

The end of the 19th Century saw a  growth in unorthodox religion… Satanism, Spiritualism, Paganism.  Instead of prayers late Victorians would have a seance or  summon up Satan.  The onetime Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was a dedicated table rapper.  Mediums were in demand.  Our own Winston Churchill appears in the outfit of the Ancient Order of Druids.  A physicist Oliver Lodge founded the Society for Psychic Research to examine evidence. William Butler Yeats and Alesteir Crowley attended sessions at the Golden Dawn.  Madame Blavatsky had many followers.  In Russia the country was half run by Rasputin… a mystic.

New beliefs were in the air.  Relativity, electromagnetism, quantum all supported the idea that the solid world was governed by unseen  forces.  In upper-class circles successful mediums had a field day.  T S Eliot captures the mood:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards.

HOUDINI AND SPIRITUALISM

!897 Garnett, Kansas.  The Opera House.  A clairvoyant is in contact with a recently deceased mother.  She complains that her son spends more time gallivanting with his secretary than putting flowers on her grave.  A local businessman walks out.  And then the atmosphere changes.  The clairvoyant announces that he will contact a beautiful young woman, Sadie Timmins who has been found murdered.  The murderer is unknown.  He will through his assistant Bessie contact the victim and solve the murder.he victim of an unsolved murder.    And then  assistant voiced the spirit Sadie.     She is abut to name the killer…   It  is unbearable.  And then Bessie  fainted…download

 

The man is Houdini and his assistant Bessie is his wife.

When Bessie and Houdini turned up at the town prior to the show they went to the cemetery and chatted.  The local murder was very present in peoples’ memories.  From there  on it was not hard for a skilled artist create enormous tension.  The audience had  no idea of the prior knowledge and the whole thing was deeply impressive.  Many stage mediums used similar techniques… one had an assistant hide in a lavatory cubicle and make notes about what people were talking about.

In later years Houdini became famous as an escapologist…  the most impressive stage magician ever.  He had qualities: intelligence, self-confidence, determination, physical toughness  and courage, a brilliant flair for self-promotion.  Many people believed that he had supernatural powers.

CONAN DOYLE AND SHERLOCK HOLMESquote-i-never-guess-it-is-a-capital-mistake-to-theorize-before-one-has-data-insensibly-one-begins-to-arthur-conan-doyle-282585

A quote from Conan Doyle… making a claim that is extravagantly untrue.

Conan Doyle a genial cheerful doctor created Sherlock Holmes.  I cannot think of any figure in literature who exists independently of his creator as distinctly as Sherlock Holmes.  One  explanation is that Conan Doyle used parts of his own experience  that he wished to discard or deny:  moodiness, pessimism, addiction.  Sherlock was Conan Doyle’s anti-self.  Conan Doyle had Lancashire connections… he went to school at Stonyhurst… it has the largest collection of Catholic relics in the world although I doubt the curator will show you the collection of dessicated priest’s heads.  A visit to Stonyhurst puts you in mind of Baskerville Hall.   Tolkien went there too.

Sherlock Holmes was a sensation.  He made Conan Doyle rich.  Doyle came to resent Holmes.  He  preferred his more literary works about Brigadier Gerard. Doyle was more romantic than his hyper-rational creation.  So Doyle killed him off… both Sherlock Holmes and his antagonist Professor Moriarty were killed at the Reichbach Falls.

finalproblem

Who killed Sherlock Homes?  Moriarty or Doyle.

 

And then…  Doyle needed the money.   He was a very generous man and had a constant need for money.  So he brought back Sherlock to fill a financial need.  This made Sherlock even more charismatic … he was now god-like… resurrected from the dead.  Like Moriarty Doyle had tried and failed to destroy Holmes.

When  Holmes reappeared , in disguise, he has a book about tree worship… this must refer to the Golden Bough with its mythology of sacrificed kings being killed and re-arising… like Holmes.   Doyle couldn’t even kill his own creation who had an annoying life of his own.  A dummy  takes on a life of his own…  who is the ventriloquist and who the dummy?

 

CONAN DOYLE AND SPIRITUALISM

One  reason for Conan Doyle’s distaste for Holmes  was that Conan Doyle was increasingly taken up with Spiritualism.  His son Kingsley had died in the influenza epidemic at the end of the war.

Doyle fell for spiritualism and paranormal beliefs in a big way.

The Cottingley Fairies were dreamed up by two young girls possibly bored.  They cut up pictures of fairies and photographed them using one of their father’s cameras.  To us the results are ludicrous but to Conan Doyle they were evidence.

 

photo

 

The SPR treated  the Cottingley Fairies with  caution.  But Conan based a whole wing of his belief system on their real existence.  Conan Doyle published a book called The Coming of the Fairies.  It is difficult not to squirm.   It is also easy to see why Conan Doyle rejected the Sherlock Holmes approach…   it is not hard to imagine what Sherlock would have made of the Cottingley Fairies.

Interestingly the one of the girls admitted the fraud in later life but she also believed in fairies and said that one of the photos… the vaguest… was genuine.

The-Coming-of-the-Fairies-198x300

The Coming of the Fairies.

Doyle also championed spirit photography.

Doyle was inspired by a Boston couple Dr and Margery Crandon.  Unlike many Mediums money was not their motive… they were a wealthy couple.  Some of the effects were dramatic.  As their career unravelled it turned out that they used stage magic at least on some occasions.  Margery was  sexually voracious and exhibitionistic, they were borderline loopy.  Or actually not much borderline.

Conan Doyle’s first wife had died after a long illness.  He had been an attentive and devoted husband.  He then married his secretary Jean who as luck would have it turned out to be a medium and an automatic writer.  Automatic writing is where the medium is taken over by a spirit and scribbles all kinds of stuff at a furious rate, in case you are thinking this is bonkers, it is, but William Blake and Coleridge both claimed that their work was dictated in this way.    A slight diversion here.  W B  Yeats proposed to his lifelong love Maud Gonne and when she turned him down he proposed to her daughter and she turned him down and then he proposed to Georgie… George as she was always called.  Presumably if Georgie hadn’t accepted he would have gone on proposing to people…

Yeats was 25 years older the relationship was a bit tricky at first until… as luck would have it… it turned out that George was a medium and automatic writer.  The spirit who dictated the automatic writing gave specific advice about diet, sexual difficulties…  As it happens this  coincided with George’s wishes.  And indeed so it was with Conan Doyle and Jean.  Yeats and Conan Doyle do not seem to have had a moment of doubt about the reality of their spouses’ mediumship and Yeats published a whole booklet called a Vision in which he appears to believe that the automatic writing conveys a whole psychology as complex and  reliable as Freud’s.  Based on some writing that his wife did while she was in a trance…

At this second if you are like me you might be asking…  were all our ancestors loopy?  I think the answer is yes…  at least partly.    When our current concerns and obsessions are examined in future years a lot of what we hold sacred will be seen as daft (and futile)  as  the Victorian obsession with preventing boys masturbating.

The problem is that we don’t know which bits.

Doyle when he spoke about spiritualism came across as good-humoured, bluff, amusing…  rather like a retired colonel … He was exceptionally winning and inspired confidence.  Spiritualism could not have a more convincing advocate.

HOUDINI AND CONAN DOYLE: PARALLEL CAREERS

Both Conan Doyle and Houdini had outstanding careers.  Houdini shaped his career much more consciously.  There is a German crime story in which Houdini and Sherlock Holmes meet up.  And inevitably Conan Doyle and Houdini… two of the most celebrated people of their times met one another.   Conan Doyle in many ways had a golden life.  His father was an artist who sadly declined into alcoholism and dementia but Conan qualified as a doctor and shortly took up writing with great financial success.  He had a sunny, energetic radiant personality.  At the same time he seemed to embody English Common Sense.  He was a gifted sportsman.  He had a chivalrous attitude: for example he tended to believe that women and children could not lie.

Houdini’s father was a rabbi.  Houdini experienced anti-Semitism.  His background was impoverished and his success much more down to a conscious mastery of skills.  He was brilliant and also well aware of the dark side of life.  He had been a fake medium himself.  He never seems to have given up on the idea of survival of death and the possibility of communicating with the dead.  He was much more capable of dissembling than Conan Doyle.  A decisive feature of his life was the death of his beloved mother.  He visited mediums after her death and although he said he never saw anything he could not easily reproduce throughout his life he never lost belief in the possibility.  At the end of his life he was filled with gloomy foreboding as if he forsaw his death.  And  many Spiritualists did  predict his death with relish and enthusiasm.

 

At first Conan Doyle and Houdini got on well.  Conan Doyle always complained that he never understood Houdini .   Houdini  could put on a persona to suit the circumstances.  In addition Houdini, despite appearances, was  insecure and the friendship of Conan Doyle, who in many ways was a representative of the Establishment, was something he treasured.   Now Houdini would have instantly seen through  Conan Doyle’s evidence of spiritualism but he may well have kept his mouth shut because he realised to speak his mind would be to lose Conan Doyle’s friendship.  In this respect Houdini looked on Conan Doyle as child-like and obsessive.Houdini MFB Press (dragged) copy

Houdini and Doyle

Once Houdini asked Doyle to go into the garden and write down a phrase and put it in a box.  Doyle wrote down a phrase in Hebrew from the bible.  When he came back Houdini wrote the phrase on a piece of paper.  Doyle credited Houdini with extra-sensory powers.  How did Houdini do it?  I haven’t got the foggiest idea.

Over time their differences became more pointed.  One cause of dispute was when the journal Scientific American offered a stupendous reward for anybody who could offer evidence of psychic communication.  No claimant was able to claim the reward because Houdini was an expert at all forms of magic and also because his technique of separating  the medium from  access to the materials disrupted the process.  The effects attributed to spirits only happened when the medium was in contact with the materials.

One great source of disagreement was ectoplasm.  Mediums claimed that this was a non-material substance  that could be photographed or seen in seances.  Doyle believed in it.  Houdini said it was a conjuring trick using traditional conjuring materials such as silk.  I will not disconcert you by discussing where Houdini claimed Mrs Crandon concealed her ectoplasm or his claim that her husband had facilitated this by a surgical intervention but Houdini’s antagonism to what he saw as fraud was sometimes pathological.

ectoplasm-4

Ectoplasm

The absolute crisis in the relationship between the Doyles and Houdini came about when Lady Doyle conducted a seance and contacted Houdini’s mother.  Houdini’s feelings can be imagined.  First of all he was insulted by the idea that he could be fooled by an amateur.  Second the message was in English and full of Christian symbolism where Houdini’s mother was a pious Jew and spoke Yiddish and finally there may have been a slight uncertainty on Houdini’s part.  Had Lady Doyle really contacted his beloved mother?  He had tried to contact his mother through mediums and failed.

Houdini was an expert  at concealing his feelings so the Doyles did not realise that Houdini was horrified.  My guess is that Lady Doyle  believed that she was a medium (maybe she was?) and saw her role as bringing comfort.  But as Marx would observe (I think) don’t our beliefs often  coincide with our interests?

Any road up the foundations were laid for a feud in which the bitterness was often concealed in protestations of admiration.

It is hard not to believe that Conan Doyle had gone quietly crackers (away with the fairies comes to mind)  on the subject of spiritualism but he was a brilliant stage performer and effectively an evangelist for spiritualism.  Taking the opposite view Houdini performed a a show discrediting spiritualism by demonstrating the tricks of mediums.  Fist fights and street violence took place.  It is said that mediums and psychics including Lady Doyle longed for his destruction.

They had their way: He was destroyed.   An athletic student asked if he could hit him.  Houdini agreed, this was one of his acts and he would brace himself by tightening his stomach muscles.  The student hit him before he had done this.    This eventually caused his death.  Interestingly for conspiracy theorists we know nothing else about the student who hit him except that he became a vicar and drank himself to death.  Houdini reappeared as a spirit to Jean Doyle the medium and acknowledged that Doyle had been right all along.  Lenin also contacted her.

BLACKPOOL

Doyle asserted the truth of spiritualism.   Houdini gave lectures demonstrating how mediums faked  performances.   And both came to Blackpool.  Sadly for my story Houdini did not come in his anti-spiritualist mode but he did have an encounter that involves crime.

HOUDINI IN BLACKPOOL 1905

Houdini visited Blackpool early in his career.   On June 12 1905 he  went to  the Police Station (where St John’s Market is).  The Chief Constable and various councillors and ex-mayors witnessed him escape from his cell and through another locked door in seven minutes and wrote a letter on Blackpool Police Stationery.

This was widely reported in the Blackpool and local papers and cannot have harmed his appearance at the Hippodrome during that  week.  Intriguing to think what went on behind the scenes to get the councillors and mayors and Chief Constable to endorse Houdini.  (He may have been locked in the cell which still exists under the fish-stall).

Even though Houdini was a superstar and was massively wealthy  he still cadged drinks at a Blackpool pub.   Well actually it didn’t.  This is what happened: On Saturday George William Green was charged with “unlawfully and knowingly attempting to obtain by false pretenses the sum of four shillings.  ”  On the previous Friday  morning  George went into the Adelphi Hotel on Church Street.  He approached Joseph William Rome and showed him a printed card saying that he was Houdini.  He asked if Joseph would lend him 4 shillings and he would pay him back 50 shillings.    Mr Rome wisely refused.  William went on to ask another customer to lend him a shilling.  William said: “I was drunk.  I do not know what I have been doing lately.”

Houdini appeared in the witness box.

The previous day, Friday, about 1.00 pm  a person from Fleetwood had turned up and claimed that Houdini owed him money after a drinking session.. Houdini contacted the Police and William was arrested about 3.15 that afternoon.   William Green was sentenced to 28 days hard labour which seems harsh when he had never been proved to have gained anything by his deception.  But then Houdini and the Chief Constable…

CONAN DOYLE IN BLACKPOOL 1920

Conan Doyle lectured  in the Pavilion at the Winter Gardens on Tuesday 20  January 1920 on Death  and Hereafter.

He defended spirit photography:  “They were either cold-blooded deliberate frauds or else the thing was true. ”  Houdini would agree with that.

Doyle described the world of the after-life which is depressingly similar to this life.  So similar that many dead people do not realise they are dead until a denizen explains to them.

His message was optimistic.  The dead are so happy that they would not wish to return.

Doyle believed that this was a first stage and later the spirit moved on.  The next world is much more congenial.  “No mother who has lost a baby need ever grieve.”  Doyle acknowledged the existence of fraud.

He says he has discussed family matters with his deceased brother and his deceased son.  When asked about death they said: It was an extraordinarily pleasant process.

He discussed the attitude of the Church which was often hostile.   He said that Spiritualism is not a religion but an aid to all religions.  Doyle  urged his audience to seek personal experience: “Test it”.

Among the audience were the Mayor, councillors and vicars.  A vote of thanks was seconded by Mr J Armitage President of the Blackpool Spiritual Church which kind of undermines Doyle’s point that spiritualism is not a religion.

He gave an interview to Allan Clarke the author of Windmill Land.  Allan Clarke had lost a son and became  inclined to Spiritualism.

Doyle and Houdini had both suffered great bereavements and it may be that the success of spiritualism  owed something to the sense of loss that followed the War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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