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Houdini, Sir Doyle Do AC


Houdini, Sir Doyle Do AC

The famed creator of Sherlock Holmes and escape artist Harry Houdini were resort guests in June of ’22. 

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Houdini, Sir Doyle Do AC

Houdini with the Doyles in Atlantic City.

An ocean away from his home in London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stepped outside the Ambassador Hotel to sample life in Atlantic City.

Tired of coping with the heat of Manhattan, the creator of Sherlock Holmes headed to South Jersey in June 1922 for a break during his speaking tour of the United States. Surprisingly, the writer was at a loss for words. 

“It is difficult to describe Atlantic City for we have nothing in England that is at all like it,” he wrote of his visit a year later in Our American Adventure.

The 63-year-old Doyle quickly took to life at the Jersey Shore, professing an enjoyment of the rolling chairs on the Boardwalk, the Million Dollar Pier and the beach. 

“To be floating on a blue ocean and look up to a blue sky is the nearest approach to detachment from earth that normal life can give,” he wrote.

Doyle’s biggest adventure in the city, though, came indoors and would not have been 
out of place in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories. Call it “The Case of the Seashore Séance.”

Doyle’s interest in spiritualism — the belief that the dead survive as spirits and can communicate with the living, especially with the help of a third party or medium — had grown after World War I. In 1919, he believed he had communicated with his son, Kingsley, who died in the last days of the war. Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini was a friend of Doyle but also an avowed skeptic of the spiritualism movement. Still, he desired to communicate with his mother, Cecelia, who had died in 1913. He came to Atlantic City to visit the Doyles and accepted an invitation to a séance by Doyle and the author’s wife, Lady Jean Conan Doyle, in the couple’s suite at the Ambassador on Sunday, June 18.

The room was quiet as a gentle breeze floated through an open window. Doyle opened the proceedings with a prayer, giving thanks to the Almighty for “this breaking down of the walls between two worlds.” He then added, “Can we receive another sign from our friends from beyond?”

Doyle’s wife then conducted a séance. Using a process known as automatic writing, Lady Jean picked up a pencil and began transcribing a message from the next world. She began by placing a cross on top of the pad in recognition that the spirit believed in God. Lady Jean began hastily scribbling the words coming from the spirit of Houdini’s mother on her pad: “Oh, my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I’m through. I’ve tried so often. Now, I’m happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy — my own beloved boy.” 

The spirit indicated that she brought the two men together and urged her son “to try and write in his own home.” Houdini complied with the request in the suite. He cleared his mind, picked up a pencil and held it over the paper and wrote the word “Powell.” Doyle was amazed, believing the name was a reference to Ellis Powell, a close friend and a medium who had recently died. Houdini offered an alternative opinion. He was referring to Frederick Eugene Powell, a magician and illusionist who was preparing to go on tour to help promote The Man From Beyond, the latest silent movie starring Houdini. The disagreement over the meaning of Powell was a sign of a fissure in the friendship between two of the most prominent celebrities of the early 1920s.

Houdini had additional reservations about the séance. His mother was Jewish and would not have made a reference to the sign of the cross, he believed. In addition, German was her first language and she could not speak write or read English. The day before the séance was her birthday, but she made no mention of that fact.

In the fall, Houdini wrote a story for the New York Sun in which he expressly stated his feeling. “I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me there is a possibility of communication with the loved ones who have gone beyond.”

Doyle was undeterred in his belief of spiritualism up to his death at age 71 on July 7, 1930. Interestingly, there is no record of him ever trying to contact his first wife, Louisa, who died in 1906, via séance, according to the official Web site of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate.

Houdini, who died on Halloween in 1926, may have had the last word, or lack of one, on the subject. Attempts to contact him in the afterlife have been unsuccessful.

Houdini and the Doyles in Atlantic City


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