John Cox Reviews Masters of Mystery

Inside Magic Image of Masters of Mystery Book CoverInside Magic is honored to bring its readers John Cox’  great review of Christopher Sandford’s book, Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.  Mr.  Cox owns one of our two favorite Houdini sites on the world wide webs, Wild About Harry (http://www.wildabouthoudini.com).   The other Inside Magic Favorite site is Houdini.org, the incredible work of Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brooks.  Both of these sites should be on your bookmark toolbar or made your home pages. 

Full confession. In my 35 years of obsessive Houdini research, I’ve always found his anti-spiritualism crusade to be the least interesting aspect of his life and career. In fact, I’ve sometimes felt I’ve had to slog though these sections in biographies. But all this has changed with the new book Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford, which had me riveted, and is one of those rare books that I came away from feeling like I know Houdini better.

Houdini and Conan Doyle (which will be titled Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini when it is released in the U.S. next month) is the third major non-fiction book written about the curious relationship between these two famous men. The other books are Ernst and Carrington’s Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship (1932) and Massimo Polidoro’s Final Séance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle (2001). While full props must go out to these first two books, especially Polidoro’s scholarly work, I do feel like Sandford has synthesized all previous research with his own new findings and formidable skills as a biographer to create the best book yet written on the subject of Houdini and spiritualism, and maybe the most skillfully written book about Houdini in general since Silverman (Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss).

Houdini haters will be upset to learn that Houdini actually comes off as quite scholarly and rational in this book. For all of Houdini's efforts to portray himself as a man of letters, it really wasn’t until this book that I finally saw that man clearly. Houdini was a man of action (and reaction) to be sure, but Sandford shows he put more thought into these actions then he is generally given credit for. In other words, he really was a smart as he said he was! This is because Sandford has gained access to some key Houdini diaries (as well as some "unpublished writings" of Bernard Ernst, Houdini lawyer and close friend) that offer a counterpoint to what was going on between the two men in their letters and in public. There was what Houdini said to the papers; there was what he said to Doyle in letters; and then there are his own beliefs and private feelings that are sometimes very different.

While there are no Charmian London level bombshells in Houdini and Conan Doyle, there are a several things that I found revelatory (my apologies if these are in Polidoro – I hoped to re-read that book before I wrote this review, but that didn’t happen). My jaw hit the floor as early as page 3 when Sandford says Houdini, at age 11, attended a "series of séances" in a failed attempt to contact his dead half-brother Hermann. Also, at age 18, Houdini sold his watch to pay for a "professional psychic reunion" with his recently deceased father. Forget the death of Mama in 1913, certainly the seeds of Houdini's hostility toward mediums can be at last partially attributed to these early disappointments in his youth.

 

I was also fascinated to learn that Houdini purchased Doyle's father's art portfolio in auction, and that Bessie returned this treasure to Doyle after Houdini’s death; that J. Gordon Whitehead was born on the same day Houdini performed his first ever public handcuff escape (Nov. 25, 1895); that Houdini prided himself on having a substantial collection of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, and struggled to prove that Doyle lifted his Holmes material from the writings of Edger Allen Poe. (Houdini seems eager to unleash this evidence on the world, he even teases it in his spiritualist lectures. But despite spending "long hours in his library comparing the two texts", he doesn't seem to be able to prove the theory to himself and never publishes.) And then there's the suggestion from Will Goldstone that Houdini occasionally "partook in a nip of opium"(!).

(Also, on a fun personal note, I had no idea that Dr. Daniel Comstock, inventor and founder of Technicolor – my current employer – was on the Scientific American committee with Houdini.)

The narrative of Houdini and Conan Doyle is pretty evenly split between the two men, relating their respective biographies in equal measures (maybe a little more weighted to Doyle in the first third). Of course, I came for Houdini, but I found the Doyle material just as fascinating, and sometimes downright shocking! I had no idea just how far off the rails Doyle went near the end of his life, firmly believing his prophetic spirit guide, Pheneas, that the end of the world was imminent and preaching preparedness to his followers. One thing Sandford never really addresses is why Lady Doyle, as the voice of Pheneas, perpetuated this fiction for her husband. (At times

Pheneas would implore Doyle to buy new home furnishings or kitchen appliances.) Unless they were both just flat out bonkers. It really is a strange, strange story.
My only complaint might be that the collection of photos included in the book leaves something to be desired. There is not even a single photo of Houdini and Doyle together (at least not in the UK proof edition, which is what I'm writing this review from — maybe the final book will have more photos*). But photos are not what's important to us Houdini nuts and historians. It's the text that matters, and this is where Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford delivers!

 

UK edition (left) and U.S. edition (right).

 

 

*UPDATE: Having now received my copy of the finished book, I'm happy to report that it does indeed contain more photos than what was in the proof, including a photo of Houdini and Doyle together.

 

 

Terry Evanswood Finds Permanent Home in Tennessee

So, you know how it is, how it goes, and all that stuff. And then you miss the chance to see something really amazing and you are reminded of your failure everywhere and all the time.

We missed out on the chance to see Terry Evanswood and his highly touted Wonders of Magic show at Wonderworks in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We wanted to see it. We planned to see it and even Google Mapped it. But our rig had problems as we left Kentucky and it didn’t get any better as we moved into the mountains heading south.

We were driving the big semi through Tennesee on our way to Florida for what turned out to be a month-long engagement in Orlando and the better part of the week in West Palm Beach.

We could have made Pigeon Forge only by driving it hard. We’d have to be averaging 60 mph for the next few hours and hope for no traffic. The mountains made it impossible to keep anywhere near 60 or even 50. The traffic did not help much either.

Our Kenworth’s nose crossed the Pigeon Forge city line exactly when Terry Evanswood was likely taking his final bows in the final show of the day.

For the rest of our time in Florida and along our trip back to Mystic Hollow, Michigan, we saw constant reminders of our poor timing and horrible luck.

Tonight, we read news of Terry Evanswood’s success at Wonder Works.


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Fox Sisters in the News Again

Margaret Fox Kane - The  Reason for Our Late NightsWe have not withheld our admiration for The Fox Sisters as both innovators and debunkers in the past.

True, both Katie and Maggie Fox recanted their recantation of Spiritualism before they died but for a brief, shining moment, they did the right thing.

On the way to the right path, they developed a whole new industry catering to those in sorrow and doubt.  Through their single-handed innovation of the modern seance, they struck gold figuratively and literally in the fearful psyche of the common man or woman.

The three sisters established the ground rules for all who would claim skills in Spiritualism; darkened room, physical contact with the medium, coded responses from beyond, and even physical manifestation of a passed loved-one’s body in part or in whole.

As we head into the Seance Season, it is proper to recall that the three girls from New York who began the practice also sought to end by complete exposure of their methods and motivations.  But it was too late,  common wisdom had already accepted the principles and ritual behind Spiritualism.  Even complete exposure of the methods used to dupe those who now held fast to their conviction that it was real, was insufficient.

Victor Hugo wrote, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”

Apparently that was true whether the idea is based in fact or fiction.


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Ectospasms: The Fox Sisters in Dance

Lola Lola Dance Theatre Image for EctospasmThe Lola Lola Dance Theatre will debut their multi-media dance theatre piece, Ectospasms, as part of the New York International Fringe Festival scheduled for August 14th – 23rd.

Ectospasms is a play on the term coined by spiritualists for a substance allegedly produced by the disembodied, Ectoplasm.

As repulsed as we are by ectoplasm, we are just as attracted to all things related in any way to The Fox Sisters.

In fact, you can read both Houdini’s account of The Fox Sisters and Maggie Fox confession in our Inside Magic Library for free.

Ironically, Maggie, Katie and Leah never produced ectoplasm in their seances.  Like another innovator, Vanilla Ice, they were all about the rapping.  (Although Katie did perform some full-body materialzations later in her career).


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A Magician Among the Spirits Available

Margaret Fox Kane - The  Reason for Our Late NightsThis has become a passion and a time-suck all in one.

We started by reading The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox.  That lead to Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism , another take on the Fox Sisters.

We went back to read Houdini’s A Magician Among the Spirits and finally understood some of the passion we previously misinterpreted to be a strident, arrogant tone.

Read in context with the Spiritualism movement, Houdni’s A Magician Among the Spirits is the perfect, logical balance to the incredible claims of spiritualists.

All of this led to our reading Maggie Fox’s The Death Blow to Spiritualism.

While she later recanted her recantation, it is a sombering experience to hear the side of the woman (along with her younger sister, Katie, and older sister, Leah) started Spiritualism and all that it produced.

Now, we find ourselves with an irrational crush on Maggie Fox and an even greater sense of awe of Harry Houdini.

More about this investigation later but for now, check out the downloadable PDF of A Magician Among the Spirits, by Houdini.


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