Between 1923 and 1924, the famous Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle sold out theatres and toured throughout the United States– often both visiting the same city within mere days of each other.
Rather than Harry mystifying crowds with his magic or Arthur wowing fans with stories of Sherlock Holmes, though, both men did the unexpected. They delivered lectures about communicating with the dead.
During the 1840s in New York, the Spiritualism religious movement began and was largely based on the belief that those still living could commune with the deceased. The movement only picked up steam throughout the coming decades and reached a height of popularity during the 1920s.
The 1920s were a time of turmoil and catastrophe since almost eight hundred thousand people died during the Great War and the 1918 pandemic. So, Spiritualism provided solace, and millions of followers leaned into it.
Interestingly, though, Arthur and Harry could not have had more different views on the movement. And in their lectures, they made sure to detail their opposing perspectives on everything from mediums and seances to Ouija boards and spirit photography.
Arthur was reportedly a fervent believer in Spiritualism, with his interest being driven by his roots in science and medicine.
“He genuinely believes that there were energies and aspects of nature that we still did not understand. And, of course, that’s science, right?” explained Eric Colleary, curator of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, where Arthur’s work is archived.
Harry Houdini, on the other hand, was a vocal skeptic of Spiritualism, and for thirty years, the magician made it his mission to debunk the movement’s beliefs.
“He believed it was the responsibility of the magician to make it clear to the public that this was not magic. This was all tricks of the eye. This was misdirection. This was an illusion,” detailed Amanda Zimmerman, one of the Library of Congress’ reference librarians.