Doyle, Houdini and The Strand Magazine
By Stephen Forrester
The Strand Magazine took its name from the old ‘Strand’ street in London, where it was published from 1891 until 1950. This magazine was very popular and boasted “a picture on every page”, which was very expensive to produce at the time. Readers lined up each month for the latest issue of the Strand which might well contain a new Sherlock Holmes story, but would also provide other stories, historical essays, biographies, portraits of famous people, puzzles, curiosities and even magic. The art of Magic was in its golden age during the time of the Strand Magazine and celebrities such as Houdini contributed some excellent articles. Houdini and Doyle both wrote about Spiritualism for the Strand Magazine, but from wildly differing perspectives.
Luckily for us, the Strand had a large circulation, and copies were bound and sold in six-month collected editions (January to June and July to December of each year) with an index included in each volume, which incidentally, was not always complete. The bound volumes are still possible to obtain, whereas individual issues are quite rare and are eagerly sought and cherished by collectors of Sherlockiana.
Most of the articles in the Strand are about five pages in length and contain original artwork by popular artists and copious photographs, many of which have never been reprinted. There are also related articles on such subjects as astrology, clairvoyance, dreams, ghosts, occult phenomena, the paranormal and telepathy as well as techniques and stories regarding famous criminals of the past.
While conducting some research on Victorian magazines in the University of Calgary library, I happened upon a book compiled by Geraldine Beare entitled Index to the Strand Magazine 1891 – 1950. The book provides listings of articles by both author and subject. Utilizing this book along with my own researches, I would like to examine Doyle, Houdini and Spiritualism as depicted in the pages of the Strand Magazine.
Briefly, it appears that Houdini had taken up an anti-spiritualist crusade because of frustration at an inability to communicate with his dearly loved dead mother. In addition, it was also good business and kept him in the public eye. Exposing fraudulent medium’s tricks in his magic shows assured him notoriety and controversy, which of course resulted in considerable publicity. Houdini stated that he really wanted to believe in a life hereafter, but could find no evidence for belief in the hundreds of outright fakes and deluded individuals that he had witnessed.
On the other hand, many believe that Doyle had taken up the cause of Spiritualism due to the deaths of his first wife, son and mother, all within a few years of each other. Like Houdini, he became increasingly obsessed with the possibility of life after death. Unlike Houdini, he never believed that that the deceased were in fact actually dead. As a result he renounced his Roman Catholic faith and became the leading crusader of the Spiritualist movement, writing numerous books and articles on the subject. When Houdini’s condemnation of fraudulent mediums became strident, Conan Doyle found it impossible to maintain their friendship.

Long before Houdini met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he wrote a letter to Sherlock Holmes:

Characterless men,” had taken names similar to his and were stealing, “The fruits of my brain work, and years of research for new tricks. They are trying to get rid of me, by either crippling me for life or even going to the extreme of taking my life in cold blood.

Some men had broken into Houdini’s trunks in Germany and were trying to bribe his loyal assistant. Houdini had no intention of mailing this letter, but it appeared as an illustration in
Der Kettensprenger Houdini und der Welt-Detektif (Dec./1908) an anonymous paperback thriller published in Berlin. According to the story, Holmes crossed the channel, took a train to the German capital and soon had the criminals behind bars.
Of Houdini and Magic:
- The Thrills in the Life of a Magician by Harry Houdini. January 1919, Vol. 57, pp. 11 – 14. This article had previously appeared in the American Magazine, September 1918, Vol. 86, p.36.  Houdini discusses his life, the psychology of magic and various escapes, including ones from an underwater box, hanging upside down in a straight jacket and from jail cells. Throughout the article, Houdini emphasizes that all his feats are accomplished solely by natural physical means and are the result of practice.

- Handcuffs by Maurice Moser. January 1894, Vol. 7, pp. 94 – 98. A police Inspector from Scotland Yard describes, with illustrations, the types of manacles that were in use around the time of Sherlock Holmes.
- The Great Handcuff Trick by Anonymous. August 1903, Vol. 26, pp. 206 – 209. An expose, written by a Handcuff King, of how to escape from handcuffs by concealing picks. It was later produced as a 31-page booklet entitled Secret of the Great Handcuff Trick, published in 1911 by George McLeod in Toronto. It contains the same photographs as the Strand article plus a few more.

- My Reminiscences by John Nevil Maskelyne. January 1910, Vol. 39, pp. 17 – 24

- Are Indian Jugglers Humbug by Charles Bertram. December 1899, Vol. 18, pp. 657 – 664.

- The Experiences of a Conjuror by Horace Goldin. January 1909, Vol. 37, pp. 100 – 104.

- A Parlour Séance with David Devant
by E. T. Sachs. December 1901, Vol. 22, pp. 735 – 743. England’s most popular magician at the time teaches some after dinner tricks.

- The Magic Shop
by H. G. Wells. June 1903, Vol. 25, pp. 634 – 640. This is a charming story of Wells’ visit with his son to a magic shop in London.
Doyle on Houdini:
- Houdini the Enigma by Arthur Conan Doyle. August 1927, Vol. 74, pp. 134 – 143. Doyle the believer called Houdini the skeptic “the greatest physical medium of modern times” and believed that “there was a psychic element which was essential to every one of his feats”. Doyle said that Houdini’s campaign against mediums did temporary good as far as “false mediums” go, but was ignorant of Houdini’s attempts to expose all mediums. He says that Houdini’s feats were not mere “tricks” and tried to prove that Houdini was in fact a medium himself, hence the title of the article. Doyle concludes that Houdini possesses powers that are “supernormal” and thus “inexplicable” and on a “different plane” than the ordinary.

- Houdini the Enigma by Arthur Conan Doyle. September 1927, Vol. 74, pp. 265 – 270. A continuation of the previous listing. Doyle claimed that Houdini’s experience with decent mediums was very limited. He also states that Houdini’s attitude in private was very different than what it was in public. Doyle asks: “Is it possible for a man to be a very powerful medium all his life…and yet never to realize the gifts he is using are those which the world calls mediumship?”

The above articles made up much of the first two chapters of Doyle’s 1930 publication
The Edge of the Unknown.

Alas Doyle and Houdini were friends who agreed upon everything except spiritualism, which is commented on in the book
Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship by Hereward Carrington & Bernard M. L. Ernst. The first American edition was published in 1932 by A. & C. Boni Inc. The first English edition, with a foreword by J. C. Cannell, was published in London by Hutchinson in 1933.  In this book Conan Doyle expressed the belief that Houdini could release himself from restraints and jail cells by dematerializing his body at will.
Doyle on Spiritualism & Fairies:
- The Cottingley Fairies. February 1923, Vol. 65, p. 105

- The Evidence for Fairies. March 1921, Vol. 61, pp. 199 – 206. More pictures attempting to prove the genuineness of fairies.

- Fairies Photographed. December 1920, Vol. 60, pp. 463 – 468. Doyle’s acceptance and publication of pictures showing young girls photographed with fairies caused a sensation and great controversy.

- The Absolute Proof. November 1920, Vol. 60, pp. 439 – 445.

- The Law of the Ghost. December 1919, Vol. 58, pp. 543 – 550. Doyle has reiterated three ghost stories that he claims are absolutely authentic and attempts to examine them to define some psychic laws or principles in order to advance psychic knowledge. He comes to the conclusion that there is a “strict limitation of psychic power…which stands in the way of destruction and personal violence.”

- A New Light on Old Crimes.” January 1920, Vol. 59, pp. 65 – 74. Doyle shows that many things believed to be “inexplicable” in the past can at present be explained and thus believes that “psychic science” will all eventually be classified and explained. Doyle concludes by suggesting that psychic’s could be helpful to give police tips about their cases but not to convict criminals.

- Shadows on a Screen. May 1920, Vol. 59, p. 180.

- The Sideric Pendulum – Introduction. August 1920, Vol. 60, p. 180.

- A Work of Wonders. May 1921, Vol. 61, pp. 423 – 430.
About the author:
Stephen Forrester is a professional magician and locksmith as well as a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and The Singular Society of the Baker Street Dozen. Mr.Forrester is also the author of 3 books on magic and has over 60 magazine articles in print. His most recent book; THE ANNOTATED DISCOVERY OF WITCHCRAFT - the first printed book from 1584 to contain magic tricks, is currently available at $40 U.S. postpaid. You may contact Mr. Forrester directly for a signed copy. Click here to send an email for more details about the book.
Links to further reading on Doyle, Houdini and Spiritualism:
- Arthur Conan Doyle, Spiritualism, and Fairies
- Houdini on Exposing Spiritualism -  ACD and the Case of the Cottingley Fairies
- Conan Doyle: A Spiritualist Perspective
- Houdini: A Biographical Chronology
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This article was originally published in "Canadian Holmes - St. Jean Baptiste Day 1989" and appears here with the author's permission. Article is copyright © Stephen Forrester 1988 and may not be reprinted without the author's consent. Copyright for images used here reside with their respective owners and are used here only for review and illustration purposes. For removal of any materials, the copyright holder should contact the webmaster.