Houdini and Doyle: Two Extremes of Belief

Houdini and Doyle

When it comes to the paranormal and unexplained phenomena, many people fall into one to two unfortunate camps.  Some people unquestioningly and uncritically believe every unusual occurrence has a paranormal explanation – most have not met a kook theory they don’t accept.  On the other hand are people who fall into cynicism, generally while claiming they’re “open-minded skeptics.”  However, they are cynics and flat out refuse to accept paranormal explanations for any situation, no matter the circumstances or the evidence.  They refuse to believe anything with equal vigor as those in the first group willingly believe everything.  Neither position represents a true open-minded, skeptical attitude.  Two famous men represent each of end of the belief spectrum – Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Harry Houdini was a highly accomplished magician in the early twentieth century.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician and writer – the creator of Sherlock Holmes.  Both men were highly respected and both considered highly intelligent.  Given their notoriety, it’s interesting to look at the difference in their beliefs regarding the paranormal.  Least any reader get the wrong impression, let me say right up from that I hold both men in high regard.  However, I think it’s enlightening to look at how each of them fell into opposite ends of the belief spectrum.

The Fox Sisters

“Spiritualism” flourished in the mid to late 1800s, however it slowly faded from popularity due to the exposure of many mediums as frauds and the confession of fakery (later retracted by one) of the Fox sisters who’d touched off the movement in the 1840s.   It’s insightful to note spiritualism gained much acclaim in the United States during and shortly after the Civil War as grieving relatives hoped to contact relatives killed in the war.

World War I Cemetery

Spiritualism found a revival, particularly in Europe, during and following World War One.  It’s almost impossible for us to understand the devastation brought on by the war.  We think the US death toll from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a big deal.  It’s nothing compared to World War One.  During the Battle of the Somme alone, from July to November 1916, over 164,000 were killed or missing.  On the first day of the Battle of Somme, over 19,000 British soldiers were slaughtered in a matter of hours.  We simply cannot fathom the impact – nearly everyone had a relative killed or had a neighbor whose relative was killed.  As in the American Civil War, grieving relatives desired a means to communicate with lost loved ones, mostly young men cut down in their prime.  Unfortunately, many charlatans, claiming “mediumistic” powers, took advantage of the situation purely for financial gain.


Into the situation stepped Houdini and Doyle.  Houdini had a long interest in the paranormal.  As a highly accomplished illusionist, he was very adept at spotting trickery.  In fact, at one point early in his career, he held staged séances as part of his act – he made it clear it was an act and didn’t claim possession of any special powers, yet due to his skills, many came away convinced Houdini was a medium.  However, this was precisely his point – to show how easy it is to trick the believer.  Houdini’s interest in the spirit world took on a new importance following the death of his beloved mother on July 17, 1913.  Houdini went in search of a medium who could help in get in touch with his departed mother.  Instead, he only found trickster after trickster.  As he found one fraud after another, Houdini quickly turned from honest, open-minded skeptic to die-hard cynic.  His personal goal became “exposing” all mediums as frauds.  His attitude clouded his judgment to the point when he encountered something he couldn’t explain, he still denounced the medium, claiming the person was simply using some kind of trickery he wasn’t yet able to explain.

Cottingley Fairies

Like Houdini, Doyle shared a long-time interest in the paranormal.  While Doyle initially believed much activity was due to trickery, he lacked Houdini’s skills as a magician to spot the tricks.  As Doyle continued to study spiritualism, he took an opposite path to Houdini.  Whereas Houdini became less accepting, Doyle became more accepting.  Even when mediums Doyle claimed were authentic were proven frauds, Doyle continued to support the mediums.  It seems Doyle’s desire to believe overrode his critical judgment.  For example, Doyle championed as authentic the Cottingley fairy photographs of 1917, even though they appeared to be photos of cardboard cutouts (which is exactly what the sisters who took them admitted they were in 1981).

Houdini and Doyle actually developed a close friendship in the early 20th century.  The two men clearly respected each other and shared a genuine interest in exchanging thoughts on spiritualism.  For some time, they exchanged good-natured arguments.  However, as Doyle continued to accept as true even claims clearly shown as fraudulent, the friendship became strained.  It finally ended in bitterness when Doyle publically claimed Houdini’s feats of illusion came from his mediumistic powers.  Doyle adamantly refused to accept Houdini’s explanations his illusions were mere trickery performed by a highly skilled magician.

I believe the attitudes of both Houdini and Doyle are wrong.  It seems to me both attitudes represent the easy way out.  In one case, you simply declare everything a hoax or a trick.  In the other case, you simply accept everything as true.  Neither requires much critical thought because you go into the situation with our mind already made up.  There’s no need to conduct any investigation or any research because you either already believe it’s true or you already believe it’s a lie.

Honest, open-minded skepticism is the much less “easy” attitude.  This attitude forces you to critically analyze the situation.  It forces you to engage your brain to actually think about the situation since you don’t go in with a prejudgment.  Does this mean you’ll get it right every time?  Of course not, but it does force you to arrive at a conclusion based on your observations instead of your preconceived decisions.  Along the same lines, I believe this attitude also allows you to accept if you’re initial analysis proves wrong.  With the other two attitudes, it’s not easy to admit you were wrong since that goes against you underlying paradigm.  Have you honestly analyzed your attitude?

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