UNITED KINGDOM. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, brilliant creator of detective Sherlock Holmes, was schizophrenic and complicit in the murder of illusionist Harry Houdini. Those extraordinary claims are made in two recent books which examine the lives of the two men who held opposing views about the evidence for life after death and mediumship.
Their authors are guilty of insulting Spiritualists and others who take an interest in the paranormal by suggesting that it indicates the presence of a mental illness and that some would even kill to preserve their beliefs.
The first culprit is Dr Andrew Norman, a Scottish general practitioner turned writer (as indeed was his subject, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), who shares the bewilderment of many that an educated man capable of writing clever and intricate detective novels could also declare his belief in communications from the dead and the existence of fairies.
In doing so, Norman claims, Sir Arthur was displaying classic signs of mental illness. “In the medical profession when we see something bizarre happening we often look at the possibility that there is a family trait. It seems that Conan Doyle may have been suffering from a mental condition.”
The insult, of course, is to suggest that Sir Arthur’s interest in such things was “bizarre” and that it was even necessary to look for a medical explanation. If Andrew Norman were to examine any of the recent opinion polls about the paranormal, such as the Baylor Religion Survey, he would realise that belief in various subjects that he would term “bizarre” is extraordinarily widespread, and indeed that educated individuals are more likely to have an interest in borderline subjects.
Is he suggesting they are all suffering from mental problems? Various newspapers picked up on this story but, strangely, none names the book. We suspect it comes from Dr Andrew Norman’s Agatha Christie: The Finished Portrait, in which he argues that during an 11-day missing period in the life of the crime thriller writer she was in a “fugue state” – a period of out-of-body amnesia caused by stress.
The other book that maligns Sir Arthur’s character – without suggesting any mental disorder, incidentally – has been written by two Americans, William Kalush and Larry Sloman. It is yet another biography of master magician, illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (left). And like all other books on Houdini, it deals in depth with Houdini’s interest in Spiritualism and his exposure of many fraudulent mediums. In fact, by announcing his intention of exposing mediums even before he arrived in a town, he ensured his shows were sold out.
Houdini died after being punched in the stomach by a student who had asked him if it were true that he could withstand blows to the abdomen. Houdini said he could, but was punched before he had time to brace himself against the punch. As a result, he suffered a burst appendix and died a few days later, on Hallowe’en 1927.
But in The Secret Life of Houdini: the making of America’s First Superhero, the authors suggest that a group of Spiritualists – among them Sir Arthur – might have orchestrated the blows to the stomach as a way of silencing Spiritualism’s main detractor. They even go as far as to suggest that Canada’s then prime minister, William Mackenzie King, who was a staunch Spiritualist, may have had links with the plotters.
“I don't think Doyle himself was involved” in Houdini's death, co-author Harry Sloman has said. “But he was ruthless and he was a true believer. God knows what he would stop at to get the Spiritualist agenda promoted.”
But another Houdini biographer, Kenneth Silverman, has dismissed the claim as “an old story”. The author of Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1996), told Canada’s The Colonist: “If they have some new evidence, that would be spectacular. I’m just waiting for them to publish their notes. All I can do for the moment is suspend judgment.”
It’s hardly likely that either claim could be proved, particular eight decades after Houdini’s death and three years later, in 1930, that of Sir Arthur. But the authors clearly know the publicity value of making sensational claims, regardless of the damage they do to the memory of someone who made an enormous contribution to Spiritualism and our understanding of mediumship.