(Reprinted from April 12, 2003).
We know that the Jonathan Edward-esque medium has a tepid following. We thought he was an aberration.
We just assumed there was not a wide-spread support for such bunk.
We were wrong and it is kind of scary how the revisionist pen can keep alive long ago solved mysteries.
The we read of a new literary exhibition: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes, opens this weekend at Chicago’s prestigious Newberry Library.
Sir Arthur’s magazines, artworks, photographs and artifacts have been collected for presentation through July 12.
Included within the manuscripts and letters is his correspondence with Harry Houdini concerning the reality of spiritualism.
Houdini had great respect for Doyle but refused to hold his tongue or pen on the subject.
In Kenneth Silverman’s great new biography, Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss, the Doyle and Houdini Dialogue got us thinking. Lady Conan Doyle performed spirit or automatic writings for the great magician while the couple visited the United States.
The Doyles were convinced Houdini believed the 15 pages of automatic writing from his late mother.
Houdini, on the other hand, found it doubtful his mother would speak in the alien tongue of English or, as the wife of a Rabbi would mark her message with a cross.
Wrote Houdini, “my sainted mother could not read, write or speak the English language.”
According to Silverman, Houdini wrote to Doyle, “I know you treat this as a religion, but personally, I cannot do so, for up to the present time, and with all my experiences, I have never seen or heard anything that could really convert me.”
The relationship soured, failed and turned adversarial. Cartoons depicted Doyle as being as clueless as his fictional character Watson.
The Fox sisters were credited with the start of the Modern Spiritualism Movement.
These three sisters were apparently able to communicate with the spirit of a dead man who inhabited their Hydesville, New York home.
The new book, The Movement recalls this event as the start of something big. We just assumed “The Movement” ended when Margaret Fox confessed to The New York World, “Spiritualism is a fraud and a deception. It is a branch of legerdemain, but it has to be closely studied to gain perfection.”
Her confession didn’t stop The Movement, or even, it appears, slow it down.
In fact, even after reading Maggie Fox’s The Death Blow to Spiritualism, Doyle refused to give up.
He wrote: “Nothing that she could say in that regard would in the least change my opinion, nor would it that of any one else who had become profoundly convinced that there is an occult influence connecting us with an invisible world.”
Doyle was not alone. We stumbled upon a website of the First Spiritual Temple and reviewed their take on the Fox sisters start of the movement they now keep alive.
There was no mention of the confession, no mention of Margaret Fox’s demonstration of how she created the sound of spirit rappings with her foot.
Similarly, the site considers the Margery phenomenon and Houdini’s effort to expose her fraud.
Margery, the wife of a prominent Bostonian, was allegedly a medium through which a spirit’s presence could be proven by voice, rappings, ectoplasm, lights, sounds and writings.
She took on the Scientific American‘s challenge to demonstrate that her skills were real.
Houdini was on the committee to investigate the contenders and, apparently, the only one with the desire or ability to expose their fraudulent work.
Margery was exposed when she failed to manifest a spirit when locked in the famous “Margery Box” constructed by Houdini.
She wasn’t able to use her arms or legs to bring the sounds or sights of the other world to this.
But to read the account on the First Spiritual Temple webpage, the results were inconclusive.
They caution those of us who might consider spiritualism to be a fraud to see Margery’s failure as proof that she was authentic. Huh?
At the expense of sounding naive or gullible, we must contend that there was a great deal about this medium and her activities which were buried with her. People frequently have a tendency to judge a person’s whole life based on a few isolated facts; it is here where, we feel, we must be fair with Margery Crandon. She was under a great deal of pressure from many sources. Furthermore, she was investigated by researchers who, quite honestly, had many preconceived ideas about her and who knew next to nothing about physical mediumship.
After all, they caution, spiritualists and mediums are sensitive as is their art.
“So often, people fail to recognize the acute sensitivity of a medium, let alone that of the spirit workers. The success of mediumship depends upon many factors, most of which we simply do not understand.”
This morning we published an essay asking whether a Christian magician can or should perform Mentalism?
This was more of a theological question based on our concern that performing mental effects as part of a Christian object-lesson would or could give the wrong impression and allow a brother or sister to stumble.
We had no idea the debate that existed between Doyle and Houdini still had vitality today.
Maybe the answer is that our brother or sister has already stumbled and it is our job as magicians to help pull them from their position.
Maybe, as magicians, we should leave the crusading to the crusaders on either side of the issue and stick to entertaining. We have no clue.
Maybe, we should consult our Magic 8-Ball and Ouija Board and get back with you.