Messages from beyond the veil

At age 11, Houdini attended a séance for his dead half-brother; at age 18, he paid for a “professional psychic reunion” with his recently-deceased father.

One of spiritualism’s true believers was Arthur Conan Doyle, and one of its major detractors was Harry Houdini

The two had a friendship that went on for years, yet they ultimately had a falling out over their differences, fueled by misunderstanding and feelings of betrayal.

Conan Doyle and Houdini both endured almost unbearable losses due to deaths of close family members.

Following the death of Doyle’s wife Louisa in 1906, the death of his son Kingsley just before the end of World War I, and the deaths of his brother Innes, his two brothers-in-law, and his two nephews shortly after the war, Conan Doyle sank into depression.

He found solace in spiritualism and its attempts to find proof of existence beyond the grave. 

Houdini’s famous skepticism, on the other hand, was fueled by not a little bitterness. After his mother’s death, he had tried, in vain, to contact her through séances, which proved fruitless.

Though he claimed in his book A Magician Among the Spirits that his mind was “open and receptive and ready to believe,” he never did receive the messages from the beyond that he waited every day for years and years to hear; neither from his dead parents, nor later in life, from his close friend and personal secretary, John W. Sargent.

What seems clear from Houdini’s writings is not that he didn’t believe in the possibility of messages from the beyond; but that instead, he took the possibility so seriously that he deplored fakes and liars pretending to communicate with the dead, who at the same time, took advantage of the vulnerability and credulousness of surviving family members. 

Houdini, expert at the art of creating stage illusions, was critical of mediums who claimed an ability they clearly lacked, and he made it his business to debunk sham-mystics who merely pretended to speak to “the other side.”

Houdini participating in a séance

In contrast, Conan Doyle had begun his relationship with Spiritualism as somewhat of a skeptic (with an open mind), who became a true believer while staying as a guest at the home of a fellow-member of the British Society for Psychical Research.

His friend had been complaining for quite some time of the disquieting loud noises he and his family suffered through but could find no explanation for.

During his visit, Doyle heard the same noises, but once again, no explanation could be found. A few years later, the house burned down, and a child’s skeleton was discovered, buried in the garden. Conan Doyle became convinced that he really had witnessed psychic phenomena caused by the spirit of the dead child.

Houdini met Conan Doyle when the escape artist performed in London in 1920. Some years later, Conan Doyle’s wife invited Houdini to attend a séance, in the hopes of contacting Houdini’s mother.

Lady Doyle was considered an accomplished automatic writer, and during the séance produced copious amounts of writing in English, simultaneously claiming that she was communing with Houdini’s mother, a woman who had trouble speaking English, hence Houdini’s disbelief.

Once again, he thought he was being deliberately duped, mislead, and, worst of all, since the Conan Doyles were friends, betrayed.

Houdini, flanked by his mother and wife

How to explain unseen phenomena… this is what lies behind so much of the experimentalism of the period. Houdini and Conan Doyle’s falling out stems largely from their differing values, but it all began with the experiment in ideomotor response that a séance represents (especially one involving automatic writing, or a ‘spirit’ or talking board).

Attempting to speak with the dead, of course, is part of the Hallowe’en tradition, since it is on this night that the veil between the worlds of the dead and living is thinnest, and most easily breached. 

With the rise of Spiritualism in America and England, the most popular method of communication with the spirit world became the Ouija board, but packaging it and selling it to the masses diminished any authenticity and mystique the idea might once have claimed.

Ouija boards stemmed from use of the ‘talking board,’ or ‘spirit board,’ versions of which have existed throughout history, in many cultures. Some methods of communicating with the dead via written language were as simple as spreading cards inscribed with the alphabet in a circular pattern on a tabletop, and using an empty wine goblet as a pointing device.   

Another use for the talking board, interestingly, developed in the therapeutic 1970s, when the idea of talking to one’s self through the medium of the board (rather than using a medium to communicate via the board to another realm) augmented psychological study of the subconscious.

An example of this kind of board, used to facilitate therapeutic automatism, can be found on The Museum of Talking Board’s Ziriya message board page.

Inadvertently furthering the popular desire to communicate with the dead, Houdini himself died unexpectedly of peritonitis on Hallowe’en, 1926. For ten years afterwards, his widow, Bess, conducted an anniversary séance on the night traditionally renowned as the time when spirits are most likely to speak to the earthly realm.

Unfortunately, the convoluted system she and Houdini worked out prior to his death, that she was told to employ when attempting to communicate with him, would defy the ability of most spirits, it seems to me:

“The message was based on both sentimentality and an old vaudeville mind-reading routine,” ( “The message was, ‘Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell.’ Bess’s wedding band bore the inscription “Rosabelle,” the name of the song she sang in her act when they first met. The other words correspond to a secret spelling code used to pass information between a magician and his assistant during a mentalism act. Each word or word pair equals a letter. The word ‘answer’ stood for the letter ‘B,’ for example. ‘Answer, answer’ stood for the letter ‘V.’ Thus, the Houdinis’ secret phrase spelled out the word ‘believe’.”

In 1929, a young medium named Arthur Ford claimed he had successfully received the secret message from Harry Houdini. Upon investigation, however, it was discovered that Ford’s claim was a hoax. Bess, it seems, had inadvertently revealed the message to reporters more than a year earlier.

This Ouija board was developed by the Kennard Novelty Company. The Ouija board was assembled of five separate boards joined side by side and braced by two vertical slats on the back. Stamped on the reverse side is the patent date: February 10, 1891.
This Ouija board was developed by the Kennard Novelty Company. The Ouija board was assembled of five separate boards joined side by side and braced by two vertical slats on the back. Stamped on the reverse side is the patent date: February 10, 1891.

One wonders what Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini would have made of this pseudoscientific device, created specifically to communicate with “other levels” of human consciousness.

In the ongoing attempt to penetrate the veil between this realm and the next, the spirit board or séance will always be easier to facilitate than a complex device of ‘metascience,’ but as you’ll see from this example, human beings will continue to try.

My suggestion if you want to achieve success, however, is not to make the message you’re hoping to receive from the dead understandable on your terms, since you’re alive, and they most definitely are not.

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