Perhaps you’ve heard of the new TV show Houdini and Doyle, in which history’s most famous magician and the creator of Sherlock Holmes team up to solve cases that may or may not involve supernatural forces. The premise might sound outrageous, sort of like a steampunk version of The X-Files, but Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were friends. And in true X-Files fashion, one member of the partnership was a skeptic, while the other was a true believer. Doyle was a committed spiritualist who publicly vouched for the authenticity of mediums and psychics; in one case, he went so far as to pronounce a set of faked photos of fairies to be genuine. While Houdini found the prospect of communicating with the dead intriguing, his experiences with fraudulent mediums who claimed they could put him in touch with his dead mother left him disillusioned, and he began a one-man crusade against them.
Now, twentieth-century debates over supernatural phenomena fall pretty far outside my historical wheelhouse, and when I go off on tangents like this it’s usually because there’s a dinosaur connection. And hoo boy—is there ever a dinosaur connection to the story of Houdini and Doyle’s friendship.
It all goes back to a remarkable film Doyle presented at a meeting of the Society of American Magicians at New York’s Hotel McAlpin on June 2, 1922, during an American lecture tour on spiritualism. After an introduction by Houdini, who was the society’s president, Doyle made a few remarks about his belief in mediums. A decade’s worth of investigation, he said, had convinced him that one really could communicate with the dead, and he appreciated the efforts of magicians who debunked those fake mediums—”human hyenas,” he called them—that discredited honest spiritualists everywhere. But “when a conjurer does occasionally attack spiritualism as a whole,” he claimed, “he deals in a subject which he does not understand.”
A front-page story in the next day’s New York Times described what happened next:
The author then asked permission of Mr. Houdini to give his strange exhibition. He gave no idea in advance as to its character, but said nothing to discredit the suggestion that he considered the coming exhibition to be genuine.
“If I brought here in real existence what I show in these pictures, it would be a great catastrophe,” he said.
“These pictures are not occult,” he continued. “In the second place, this is psychic because everything that emanates from the human spirit or human brain is psychic. It is not supernatural. Nothing is. It is preternatural in the sense that it isnot [sic] known to our ordinary senses.
…”I would like to add, to save myself from getting up again, that, if permission is granted for me to show this, they will speak for themselves. I will answer no questions regarding them either for the press or the others present.”
Doyle’s “strange exhibition” turned out to be a reel of motion picture footage. And while it had nothing to do with spiritualism, it did involve bringing up the dead:
Monsters of several million years ago, mostly of the dinosaur species, made love and killed each other in Sir Arthur’s pictures. Prehistoric brutes that resembled rhinoceroses magnified many times, equipped with enormous horns that pointed forward like those of the unicorn, drove dinosaurs away from feasts on one another. One monster, like a horned toad of monumental proportions, presented an impenetrable surface of armor plate to attacking reptiles and moved along in safety.
…His monsters of the ancient world or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces.
While Doyle refused to answer questions about the film, he did tell the magicians, “It is the effect of the joining on the one hand of imagination and on the other other hand of some power of materialization. The imagination, I may say, comes to me. The materializing power comes from elsewhere.”
That “materializing power,” in fact, was stop motion animation. The footage was a test reel of animator Willis O’Brien’s work for the film adaptation of Doyle’s own 1912 novel The Lost World, in which explorers find live prehistoric animals atop a South American plateau. O’Brien had made short films with stop motion dinosaurs before, but the 1925 version of The Lost World was the first feature-length dinosaur movie. (Incidentally, it was also the first in-flight movie shown to airline passengers, during an Imperial Airways flight out of London.)
Doyle’s 1922 visit to New York marked the dawn of the dinosaur movie craze, but it also marked the end of his relationship with Houdini. That summer, the two men and their families visited Atlantic City together. Doyle’s wife, who claimed to be a medium herself, offered Houdini an opportunity to communicate with his dead mother in a private séance. Houdini accepted, but the results left him as unconvinced as ever. When Houdini later admitted to Doyle that he did not think his mother had actually contacted him in Atlantic City, Doyle was offended.
A few years later, Houdini was a member of a committee appointed by Scientific American to investigate a medium Doyle had publicly vouched for named Mina Crandon. When Houdini denounced Crandon as a fraud, it was the last straw; the two men’s already strained relationship ended. Doyle never convinced Houdini that humans could summon the dead, at least not without the sort of trickery that allowed him to conjure up the terrible lizards that night at the Hotel McAlpin.