Author, Houdini had spirit war

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is seen with his family in a photograph at the beginning of his book 'Pheneas Speaks.'

In the early days of the 20th century, the world's most famous magician and the creator of the greatest detective in fiction had a running debate about ghosts.

But it didn't go exactly the way most people would assume.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, believed in spirits, fairies and supernatural powers -- this despite his most famous creation's proclivities toward logic and analytical reasoning.

Harry Houdini, a most skillful illusionist, knew a good trick when he saw one. And he believed all that spirit talk was bunk.

Conan Doyle devoted the last years of his life to writing about spiritualism while Houdini put on shows to debunk the myth of returning spirits.

"A conflict developed between them," said Roy Smith, associate director of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum.

Through April, the Karpeles Museum is hosting an exhibit featuring letters, manuscripts and various writings by these two towering figures in early 20th century culture. Among the collection are several sets of notes on seances in Conan Doyle's small, neat handwriting, as well as letters from Houdini -- before he was famous -- literally begging for paying jobs.

In one note, Conan Doyle claims that during a seance, two spirits whistled along with a "grammaphone" in the room.

"One with a very good ear. Another not so good," Conan Doyle wrote. "The former was better than any mortal."

Conan Doyle turned to spiritualism, some say, because of tragedy. He lost his first wife, and then World War I took the lives of one son, his brother, two brothers-in-law and two nephews. Death was much on his mind, as evidenced by a page from his lecture on death, part of the Karpeles collection.

Houdini once tried to show his friend that many of the events he witnessed were merely tricks. He demonstrated the familiar trick of separating the top half of his thumb from the lower half, a pretty common illusion.

But it only had Conan Doyle convinced that Houdini had supernatural powers of his own. In fact, when Houdini debunked mediums, Conan Doyle once suggested Houdini used his own powers to block those of other spiritualists.

All these documents are from the private collection of David Karpeles, a California real estate magnate who runs 10 museums across the country that showcase his collection of nearly 1 million historical documents. Karpeles is merely interested in sharing his collection and educating folks; admission is free.

The most interesting piece in this exhibit might be a note Conan Doyle wrote accusing Houdini of tampering with the results of the escape artist's 1924 Scientific American seances.

"What I think he may do is slip a die into the contact box," Conan Doyle wrote.

In fact, at that seance, Houdini exposed Mina Crandon, a well-known medium.

The Houdini letters in the exhibit show a much more practical side to the showman. In his messy scrawl, Houdini -- before his fame -- writes to theater owners trying to book himself and his wife's show, hopefully for a paying gig.

"I don't drink, smoke or chew," Houdini writes. "If you can't offer us a salary, let me know what you will do for us."

Houdini's fortunes would rise as Conan Doyle descended more into the world of spiritualism and predictions of world catastrophes. In one note, he forecasts that earthquakes will destroy South Carolina and San Francisco. One prediction did come true.

And Conan Doyle predicted his 1930 death months before it occurred.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at