Sir Arthur Conan Doyle vs. Harry Houdini – UFOs, Spiritualism and the Cult of Belief, or More Evidence That History Repeats Itself


Harry Houdini

If you believe there is anything new under the sun in the world of the paranormal you are decidedly wrong! The events of today are part of an ongoing list of unexplainable phenomena that have their own uncanny parallels going back a century or more, which becomes apparent when one studies the existing records from that era. There are hundreds of photos of UFOs and their occupants now (some authentic, others undoubtedly hoaxed), while from earlier times we have albums filled with spirit photos as well as unidentified orbs circling around a darkened room. Ghosts have haunted many a stately mansion.

Today, you can watch “Ghost Hunters” on cable television. There are numerous publications espousing a belief in the afterlife. The internet is filled with all sorts of “fringe” websites. Remote viewing is extremely popular, as is channeling, while in “those days” floating trumpets and slate writing were part of just about every séance. Believers and disbelievers were all over the place. Today, we have Uri Geller and the Amazing Randi fighting it out in court, exactly as Houdini and the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did on a bit more civil level in front of large audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

One might be surprised to see Doyle arguing on the side of belief in spiritualism. When one thinks of the literary legend Sherlock Holmes, the master of logical deduction and pragmatic empiricism, the notion of a supernatural explanation for the mysteries Holmes solves with a complex system of reasoning probably never enters the picture. You don’t think of Holmes as chasing down a ghost or holding the archetypical magnifying glass to better view a spirit returned from the other side.


While Holmes is without question a dealer in facts and cold hard “reality” – his very reputable reputation could not exist without it – his creator was another matter entirely.



Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a reluctant bestselling author in his time. He felt the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes character kept him from doing more serious literary work, but the public’s hunger for more of the Baker Street sleuth seemed to be endless. Doyle felt forced to continue to churn out more Holmes stories, even resurrecting him from the dead after Holmes supposedly died at the end of one of his adventures.


But Doyle himself lived in a more magical, spiritual world than his detective. For Doyle, ghosts and spirits were real, and it was possible to converse with the spirit realm, or at least to make a kind of real-world contact. How did Doyle come to such a non-empirical, some would say, credulous state of mind?


The answer to that is, quite naturally, bound up in the details of Doyle’s personal life. Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. By the time he left college in 1875, he had rejected Christianity and called himself an agnostic. He studied medicine from 1876 to 1881, and it was in this same period that he began writing short stories. His first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study In Scarlet,” was published in 1887.


After suffering, in rapid succession, the deaths of his wife, his son, his brother, two brothers-in-law and two nephews, Doyle longed to have some sort of contact with the spirits of the departed. After a séance in which he believed he had been contacted by his late son, who had died in World War One, Doyle became a leader of the spiritualist movement, defending it in lectures around the world. In some ways, Doyle was the first ghost buster, studying the subject with a scientific bent that was rare for his time.


Doyle and Houdini first met in 1920, during the magician’s tour of England, and quickly became friends. Like Doyle, a true believer, the escape artist Harry Houdini was also interested in the spiritualist movement, but with an eye to disproving the claims of mediums, as Houdini felt they preyed on the emotions of grief-stricken people desperate for a word from loved ones who had crossed over.



Houdini’s motivations in that regard were complex. In some ways it is reminiscent of Fox Mulder from television’s “The X-Files,” and the poster in Mulder’s office that had the words “I Want To Believe” superimposed over a UFO. Houdini also wanted to believe, but found that his efforts to put his faith in what he discovered were frustrated at every turn by obvious charlatans and fakes – or at least this is the public position he took during his career. Some would say, like certain magicians and escape artists, such as the Amazing Randi, who piggyback off the sensational claims of UFO abductees, contactees and psychics of considerable merit, Houdini was just looking for media attention he would not have gotten otherwise as a relatively obscure entertainer.



Present day students of both Doyle and Houdini have fresh reason to rejoice now that Tim Beckley of Global Communications has rescued from oblivion important papers and memorabilia of these opposing friends/rivals. In fact, Beckley has actually given us a trilogy of works representing Doyle’s enthrallment with the unknown.


One of these works, The Paranormal World Of Sherlock Holmes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle First Ghost Buster And Psychic Sleuth, is brimming with updated information provided by a contemporary psychic, known as Dragonstar, and writer Tim R. Swartz. Once the reader has been brought up to date by the biographical and historical material they present, one can then dive into Doyle’s rare “The Edge Of The Unknown” manuscript, which is presented for the first time in over seventy five years. The book is a completely no-holds-barred study of spiritualism in its many forms, written with a journalistic, facts-based verve while at the same time informed by Doyle’s practiced skills as a professional writer, skills honed over many years of writing his fictional Holmes detective stories.


Doyle tackles such subjects as ghosts and apparitions and throws some of his own paranormal experiences into the reportage. It is a hugely interesting look back at the early days of parapsychology, a time that predates our own but was no less intent on finding a scientific basis for the strange encounters so many people were having with entities not of this world.



Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In another volume that is part of this Doyle trilogy, one can read about Houdini’s inner struggle with spiritualism in his own words, as well as his efforts to smear some of the most respected mediums and psychics of his day. Beckley has issued a large coffee table formatted work complete with pull out color posters. Revealing The Bizarre Powers Of Harry Houdini: Psychic? Medium? Prophet? Clairvoyant? (Book & Audio CD of Houdini’s Last Séance included in package) contains both Doyle and Houdini’s personal views on a wide range of mystical topics, as well as their investigative writings on the paranormal in general. The book starts out with the knighted author attempting to prove that Houdini was himself really a charlatan of sorts. Doyle believed that Houdini was trying to cover up his own mediumistic abilities in a carefully worked out charade.


In fact, Doyle eventually came up with a theory about Houdini that bolstered his own beliefs while adding to Houdini’s already considerable mystique. Doyle published his unique take on the escape artist in an essay called “The Riddle of Houdini,” which is packaged as part of the introduction to this book. Doyle was convinced that Houdini possessed real paranormal powers, such as the ability to read minds, to dematerialize and rematerialize at another location, as well as possessing superhuman strength. In other words, Houdini wasn’t merely a master of illusion. His ability to escape from entrapments and restraints that would quite easily kill a mere mortal did not require the skill of a truly human entity but rather a kind of superman gifted with supernatural powers he refused to acknowledge publicly.


Doyle further believed that Houdini’s mission as one of the first great debunkers was intended to provide a smokescreen to cover over his preternatural powers. No one would ever think the great medium-baiter was in fact a medium himself. Doyle’s essay, in which he argues for this understanding of Houdini in exacting detail, also quotes the rabbi who spoke at Houdini’s funeral as saying, “Houdini possessed a wondrous power that he never understood, and which he never revealed to anyone in life.” Even those who worked with Houdini during his stage act were sometimes stumped, such as the Chinese conjurer who had seen Houdini perform close up several times and who repeatedly stated, “This is not a trick, it is a gift.”


Nearly one hundred years later, we still do not understand this mystery. Houdini said at one point that his works would die with him, which can be taken to mean that his feats were dependent upon powers that he alone possessed, and which could not be passed on to a successor or taught to future students of his work.



After Doyle has been given his say, Harry Houdini himself takes over center stage in this concerted effort to present both points of view. As a parenthetical aside, however, most of those who follow Houdini’s career do not realize that the biggest portion, if not all, of his books and papers on the paranormal were thought to have been craftily ghostwritten over the years by one Mr. Walter Gibson, who was Houdini’s longtime associate. Even less known is that Gibson was a firm believer in psychic phenomena and wrote several well-received books on the subject that are now hard to come by. Gibson, along with Mrs. Houdini, arranged the yearly Halloween séances in which they tried to get through to the controversial escape artist on the “other side.”


Whoever the actual writer, however, a rare treat indeed is the inclusion of Houdini’s classic “A Magician Among The Sprits,” an instructive, seemingly heartfelt effort to show how the world’s most famous mediums created their illusions and how they were able to pull the wool over the eyes of those who sincerely believed. Unfortunately, Houdini spends an inordinate amount of time smearing these individuals with half truths and accusations which would not hold up in a court of law – though some of the incidents he brings up did go before a judge in several countries.


Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The stories of several mediums/adepts are included here. There were the Davenport Brothers, the fabulous Eusapia Palladino, Henry Slade and Daniel D. Home, who levitated himself out one window and into the next. There are quotes – some incredible – from the best scientists of the time, who observed what was supposed to be impossible with their own eyes.


As part of this package, Beckley has gathered together some of the best photographic “evidence” of spirits, weird unexplainable “light” patterns (today they would be called orbs) as well as clippings and full length news stories from the day which show just how big the spiritualist movement was and why so many followed it in earnest – not unlike how UFOs have attracted such massive attention worldwide in our own time.



Also part of the recent Global Communications Doyle bonanza is a book by a medium called Leon Denis that Doyle translated from the original French. The book, reprinted by Beckley/Global Communications, was originally called “The Mystery of Joan of Arc,” but has, as part of this timely trilogy, been released in its expanded, updated form as The Charismatic, Martyred Life Of Joan Of Arc. Denis claims that he heard the voice of Joan as he wrote it, or as we might say today, he “channeled” the French heroine and canonized saint as she spoke to him in the form of soul-to-soul contact.


In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote an introduction to this one in which I gave a brief history of Joan of Arc, Leon Denis and of course Doyle himself. The translation work on the book is further testimony to Doyle’s keen interest in spiritualism and the depths to which he sincerely believed in it. Why otherwise would he undertake the daunting task of translating this rather obscure work about a figure that has prominence in an historical sense but also has a limited audience that would want to hear from her “directly”?



Where does all this fit in the overall pattern of belief in the paranormal? Outside of showing how the subject can be batted around back and forth among the believers and the professional skeptics, I suppose if one were to offer a version of interconnected beliefs, a sort of Paranormal Theory of Everything, some of the spiritualist phenomena can be said to overlap to a considerable degree with modern UFO phenomena. For instance, it is reported in both fields that telepathy is a major component of communication. It is the method used for conversations between the gray aliens and their abductees as well as being a cherished belief of the spiritualists. A lot of the parapsychology studies that began in the 20th century attempted to document telepathy and mind-reading as a workable skill some subjects possessed.


Levitation is also said to happen in both realms of experience. The aliens quite easily remove a person from bed and then “float” the abductee into a waiting UFO, while spirits are said to float objects around the séance room to prove they are indeed present. The appearance of a departed relative is sometimes reported as part of an abduction experience, something similar to a ghostly apparition, but apparently in a less frightening context than a typical haunting. That the gray aliens have some kind of power to walk people back and forth between the afterlife and life in this world has been attested to by many abduction researchers, including Dr. David Jacobs, who told me about such instances when I interviewed him sometime in the 1990s, though he would not fully endorse words like “ghost” or “afterlife.”


Another point of intersection is the familiar “angel hair” said to be left behind after a UFO sighting. The substance is remarkably similar to “ectoplasm,” a white, gooey calling card from the other side which is sometimes excreted from the various orifices of a medium’s body and has even been photographed on numerous occasions. It would be difficult to argue that angel hair and ectoplasm don’t come from a common source, but at the same time their literal meaning eludes us, as does so much in UFOlogy and spiritualism.


Dr. Kenneth Ring has done extensive research into the relationship between alien abduction and the Near-Death-Experience, contending that both experiences come from a common source. Raymond Fowler, the famed abduction researcher behind the legendary “The Andreasson Affair” and many other books on abduction, once told me about a man visiting the dentist who received an overdose of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, and had a Near-Death-Experience while in the dentist’s chair. But instead of entering into the usual long tunnel and seeing a bright light, he found himself aboard a UFO undergoing the standard medical procedures of an alien abduction experience. There are numerous other anecdotes in the literature that lead one to draw this same conclusion, that there is a continuum linking UFOs, spiritualism and nearly any other aspect of the paranormal you would care to name. Were we to solve one mystery, it would likely lead to a solution for the other.



You can keep all that in mind as you read the books here that revolve around Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualist beliefs. The books are beautiful to look at as well, especially the full color reproductions of Harry Houdini’s publicity posters featured in the book Revealing the Bizarre Powers of Harry Houdini and the lovely selection of spirit and fairy photos included in The Paranormal World of Sherlock Holmes. Another feast for the eyes can be found in The Charismatic, Martyred Life of Joan of Arc, in which Global Communications has generously reproduced several classic and modern paintings of Joan in full color.


If one considers one’s self to be a true student of the strange, these books are a vital, necessary part of one’s education. With the kind of direct hotline into the weird these books offer, one can lose one’s self in a mystic dream that encompasses all the many facets of the world beyond, whether it be manifested in a flying saucer or a séance room. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can help you get there, minus the rigidly rational Sherlock Holmes that made him famous.


ISBN Numbers

1606110780 Charismatic Martyred Life Of Joan Of Arc

To find out more information or to purchase this book simply click on the title: The Charismatic, Martyred Life Of Joan Of Arc

1606110799 Revealing The Bizarre Powers Of Harry Houdini: Psychic? Medium? Prophet? Clairvoyant? (Book & Bonus CD of Houdini’s Last Séance)

To find out more information or to purchase this book simply click on the title: Revealing The Bizarre Powers Of Harry Houdini: Psychic? Medium? Prophet? Clairvoyant (Book & Bonus CD of Houdini’s Last Seance)

1606110802 The Paranormal World Of Sherlock Holmes

To find out more information or to purchase this book simply click on the title: The Paranormal World of Shelock Holmes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle FIrst Ghost Buster and Psychic Sleuth


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