How Did Houdini Trick Conan Doyle?

To demonstrate how spirit photographers could seemingly capture images of the dead interacting with the living, Houdini arranged to have himself photographed with the long-dead Abe Lincoln. (Credit: Library of Congress)

Eric Weisz, better known to the world as Harry Houdini, was born on this date in 1874. Famous for his feats as an escape artist and magician, Houdini also became one of the most crusading anti-spiritualists of the 1920s. Because of his familiarity with the illusions of stage magic and sleight of hand, Houdini was particularly adept at spotting the trickery that the so-called psychics and spirit mediums then hawking their services as conduits to the afterlife to the credulous grieving public commonly used. (Can you imagine anyone being foolish enough to fall for such predatory charlatanry today?)

That turn in Houdini’s career led him to collaborate with Scientific American on a lengthy exposé of spiritualism. Scientific American had offered a $5,000 reward to any medium who could satisfy its panel of investigators, which included Houdini, two of the magazine’s editors (J. Malcolm Bird and Austin C. Lescaboura) and others, that his or her paranormal gifts were genuine.

Unfortunately, although the magazine’s panel did reveal many frauds during the few years of its tenure, the whole episode ended very badly. The problem—which in retrospect is quite evident to anyone who has read through the Scientific American archives of that time, as I did—was that at least one of the editors, Malcolm Bird, was not so secretly a believer in the afterlife and very much wanted a psychic to succeed.

Matters came to a head in 1924 when the team was evaluating a psychic whom it called “Margery” in print, though we now know her to be Mina Crandon, the comely young wife of a Boston socialite and surgeon. You can read Houdini’s own account of the messy business that resulted, but in short: Mina Crandon’s seance tricks, perhaps aided by her personal charm, bamboozled Bird and the rest Scientific American group with the exception of Houdini, who was not initially at their meetings. They were prepared to award her the prize but Houdini protested that he needed to see for himself. At the seance, Houdini saw through the deception and called “Margery” on it, much to the annoyance of Bird, who angrily resisted exposing her con game. The arguments that followed led to the dissolution of the ghostbusting squad, and the $5,000 was never awarded.

What Houdini’s account does not say, but which I have heard as a perhaps unreliable rumor, is that the dispute between Houdini and Bird actually turned into a physical brawl. (Ahh, the two-fisted SciAm editors of yesteryear….) Also, when I attended James Randi’s The Amaz!ing Meeting in Las Vegas in 2003 and talked about these events, magician and mad debunker Penn Jillette told me that he had heard directly from Mina Cranston’s granddaughter that Mina had been sleeping with several members of the team, including Bird. (Oh, the scandal!) That just might help to account for Bird’s umbrage at Houdini’s harsh quashing of Mina’s scam.

But that is not the anti-spiritualist episode I would like to talk about today.

Rather, turn to a particular occasion when Houdini was trying to disabuse Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of his own spiritualist inclinations. Conan Doyle was not the paragon of rationality and reason that one might assume the creator of Sherlock Holmes would be: he had a soft spot for mediums. (It tends to make one think of Holmes’s famous dictum that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” in a somewhat different light.) Nevertheless, because Houdini and Conan Doyle had come to be friends, Houdini wanted to open the author’s eyes to the psychic frauds, and so he staged a demonstration that he hoped would do the trick.

Michael Shermer recently described what happened in his February “Skeptic” column for Scientific American:

In the spring of 1922 Conan Doyle visited Houdini in his New York City home, whereupon the magician set out to demonstrate that slate writing—a favorite method among mediums for receiving messages from the dead, who allegedly moved a piece of chalk across a slate—could be done by perfectly prosaic means. Houdini had Conan Doyle hang a slate from anywhere in the room so that it was free to swing in space. He presented the author with four cork balls, asking him to pick one and cut it open to prove that it had not been altered. He then had Conan Doyle pick another ball and dip it into a well of white ink. While it was soaking, Houdini asked his visitor to go down the street in any direction, take out a piece of paper and pencil, write a question or a sentence, put it back in his pocket and return to the house. Conan Doyle complied, scribbling, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,” a riddle from the Bible’s book of Daniel, meaning, “It has been counted and counted, weighed and divided.”

How appropriate, for what happened next defied explanation, at least in Conan Doyle’s mind. Houdini had him scoop up the ink-soaked ball in a spoon and place it against the slate, where it momentarily stuck before slowly rolling across the face, spelling out “M,” “e,” “n,” “e,” and so forth until the entire phrase was completed, at which point the ball dropped to the ground.

Houdini then explained that he had done the whole thing through simple trickery and implored Conan Doyle to give up his spiritualist beliefs. Alas, he failed: not only did Conan Doyle continue to believe in mediums but he suspected that Houdini knowingly or unknowingly used his own supernatural gifts in the performance of his escape acts.

Here is my question for the hive mind: How did Houdini do it? Magicians are of course famously reluctant to reveal how they do their tricks, and it’s not clear that Houdini showed the secret to Conan Doyle. (Perhaps that’s why Conan Doyle refused to be convinced.) Rather than ask a magician to break his professional code, I thought I would ask you readers to suggest how Houdini accomplished his “ghostly” slate writing.

Here are my own uninformed guesses about elements of the trick, which still probably don’t quite cohere into a full explanation.

  • My sense is that the slate hung from wherever it was placed by wires attached to its four corners so that it could swing freely but also hang level. I suspect that a marionette-like arrangement of those wires could in theory allow a ball to be rolled across the slate’s surface as required.
  • Conan Doyle’s cutting into one of the cork balls to prove it had not been tampered with does not preclude his selected ball from being tampered with or replaced subsequently, when he is not looking.
  • Sending Conan Doyle down the street to write his secret message would give him a sense of privacy, but of course it also would allow Houdini (and unknown cronies?) a chance to reset the slate and the balls as they chose.
  • Any good pickpocket could probably remove that page with Conan Doyle’s message from his pocket, look at it and return it without him being the wiser.

That’s my best hypothesis about how Houdini did it. What’s yours?

Update (added 3/25, 8:23 a.m.): Via Twitter, P. Kerim Friedman tells me that these two books (here and here) may hold the answer, although those explanations aren’t immediately available online. So I’d still like to hear your theories.

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20 Responses to How Did Houdini Trick Conan Doyle?

  1. lee s says:

    The ball probably had a magnet inserted into it.
    As for how it was manipulated from behind the slate, we do not have sufficient information. However, as modern illusionists have demonstrated, much can be hidden with the proper lighting, mirrors, and some distraction. Also, there were devices available at the time that were intended to allow a person to write a message and duplicate it using wires.
    The message could have been exposed via the use of carbon paper (or merely the imprint on an underlying surface).
    In almost any scenario, accomplices must have been used to write the message and communicate the correct message to the transcriber.

  2. Cuttlefish says:

    One place you can read quite a bit about *some* of the secrets used by some of the fakes whom Houdini exposed, is in his “A Magician Among The Spirits” (a quick search finds a few sources for it online, but none I am completely comfortable linking.) Another of his books is available, giving away other sorts of secrets:
    Houdini’s book, “Miracle Mongers and their Methods”.

  3. Basically what you said. Magnetism was used in some way, either magnetic paint or a magnetic ball or a ball with an iron core and a magnetized slate or a magnet behind the slate, etc.

    One of the things that really fascinating about the whole “Spiritualism” movement is how it was to a large degree a product of “clever” use of new technologies to dupe unsuspecting people. Most of the magic tricks of the early 20th century and of Spiritualism involved the use of electronic and mechanical devices, or things like photography or two way mirrors, etc. which had all been newly invented.

  4. Deborah Blum says:

    But Conan Doyle was awfully easy to trick. If you remember, he always believed that cut outs of fairies, posed in a garden, was the real deal. If you look at his work with the British Society for Psychical Research, you find that he’s almost falling over himself with eagerness to believe. It’s actually one of the problems that haunted (couldn’t resist) the earlier researchers into the paranormal and enabled professional mediums to hoodwink not only the likes of ACD but people like Alfred Russel Wallace and William Crookes.

    • John Rennie says:

      All true. In the same way that, most naturally, life scientists come from the ranks of people fascinated by living things go and astronomers from those enchanted by space, paranormal researchers are disproportionately people who would like to think the paranormal exists. The key difference is that life scientists and astronomers don’t have to worry about the very existence of what they’d like to study.

      Brilliance in science or any other area of expertise doesn’t insulate people against fraud, unfortunately. What was that famous Richard Feynman quote? That “you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool”?

  5. Paul says:

    “Can you imagine anyone being foolish enough to fall for such predatory charlatanry today?”

    I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. Thank you!

    • Lee S says:

      Do you think that people do not fall for such chicanery today? Sadly, there are still those who are easily duped and those who can con them.

      I’m also disturbed by the example of Margery duping the editors of Scientific American.

      • John Rennie says:

        I think Paul realized I was being facetious in making the joke; my Dr. Oz and John Edward post all too sadly proves that people do still fall for such things.

        The Margery episode wasn’t Scientific American‘s proudest moment, to be sure, but as Deborah Blum noted above in her comment, brilliant scientists have often been fooled. I think the lesson is that any of us can be fooled by a clever con artist who tells us what we want hear.

  6. Claudio T says:

    A friend of mine (who to this day believes in supernatural things) once told me a story about himself. It happened on a holiday in India. This story I will tell here, as it may be similar in some aspects to the Houdini story. Here goes.
    My friend walked over a market place in town X in India, when suddenly he was approached by a “guru” who told him some things about himselves (horoscope-style: they would have fitted myself as well). So far so good. Somehow the guru was short on cash (surprise), and he got ALL (!) my friends money, by telling him a) money was bad for him (haha) and b) that the guru could prove his touch of the supernatural to him. In which case a9 would look like the truth, i guess. My friend then had to THINK (I asked him about this twice, he said he only THOUGHT about it) about some things that happened in his past. The guru then retold all of these things. My friend in a bliss. The guru rich. Done. When i heard the story I was astonished, naturally, and for some time I thought “Wow, maybe my view of the world is false after all!”. Due to an incredible (or maybe not so much) coincidence other friends of mine, less gullible, were also in india. I told them the story. One exclaimed “Was that the marketplace in X [sorry forgot the city]?” “YES! WHY?” Then he told me he was attempted to be “tricked” (his words) in the same way at the same place. “HOW?” I said “HOW COULD HE READ YOUR MIND?” He replied. “what are you talking about? I had to write all these things down on a piece of paper and I was watched from behind by a complice of the guru!”. I went back to my first friend. I asked him whether he did write down these things. He said “Ah, yeah, maybe. But it doesn’t matter, the guy was a guru.” This, i believe teaches us several things. 1. Houdini could have had such an accomplice as well 2. When in doubt, dont believe in the supernatural. it always turns out to be false in the end 3. Stories are stories, and they should not be taken as evidence.

  7. Shecky R. says:

    unless I missed it, no one has yet mentioned the wonderful Stephen Macknik book from last year, “Sleights of Mind,” that deals with related subjects; a great read.

  8. Antje K says:

    or maybe Houdini knew what the words gonna be. See

  9. Norm Clumph says:

    Houdini did this wonderful trick with cotton placed beforehand into Doyle’s trousers. The reason he used white ink rather than the usual black was to divert attention. The rest is easy to execute.

  10. It’s still interesting to know. I love everything that’s supernatural, psychics, ghosts, haunted, UFOs, etc, hoax or not. I just love that stuff.

    Younger, I even thought about studying parapsychology, ghost hunting. Maybe I should have. :)

  11. Moboy says:

    Arthur Doyle lost over 9 family members including a son to WW1.Can’t blame the guy since he’s second wife was also a illusionist.Watch the Decoded episode of “Who murdered Houdini”. It looks in Houdini and Doyle’s relationship.

  12. Dave says:

    Berol’s Secret
    The secret of the trick remained a mystery for years until magician and historian Milbourne Christopher revealed it in his book Houdini, A Pictorial Life. “Neither Doyle nor Ernst,” wrote Christopher, “could fathom this mystery. They might have been less startled had they seen Houdini’s friend Max Berol perform in Vaudeville.” Berol had been performing for years, both in Europe and America, an act in which a ball dipped in ink would spell on an isolated board the words called out by members of the audience:

    “Berol did this by switching a solid cork ball for one with an iron core. A magnet at the end of a rod, manipulated by an assistant concealed behind the board, caused the ball to adhere and move-apparently under its own power. After Berol retired, Houdini purchased the equipment. An assistant in the room adjacent to Houdini’s library had opened a small panel in the wall and extended the rod with a magnet through it. The ball on the slate had an iron center, of course.

    “Ernst had not remembered that when Doyle returned to the room, after writing the words outdoors, Houdini had checked to make sure the slip of paper on which Doyle wrote was folded, then immediately returned it to his friend. Before doing so, the magician had switched slips. While Doyle was busy retrieving the ball from the inkwell and taking it to the board, Houdini read the words. His conversation cued his hidden assistant. Once the message had been written on the slate, Houdini asked Doyle for the folded slip to verify his words. He opened the blank paper, pretended to read from it, then switched it for the original as he returned the paper to his friend. Later, Houdini explained this switching process during his public lectures on fraudulent mediums.”

  13. Neil says:

    Great story Claudio. I’m from India, and I live in Bombay, the financial capital of India. THis does not stop some con men from trying their luck in hitting on gullible people with their “Supernatural” mumbo jumbo.
    Once there was this guy who came to me, shook hands and told me he would tell me about my future for free.
    He put his hand over my head with a sort of trance-like gaze… then held my hand and started to give me some jazz about what awaited me in my future.
    Then he told me that I was very blessed and that I smelt of roses. I looked at him wierdly… so he said… “Yes, Its true… just smell your hands and you will get the smell… Please give me some money for this good fortune of yours…”
    I smelt my hands, and indeed, there was a smell of roses… Then suddenly it hit me… I told him that instead of money, I wld give HIM some good fortune.. and I told him to smell HIS hands, as I had transfered the “good fortune” to HIM.
    He quickly walked away without looking back…
    What happened was this: I had realised, that when he shook my hands and when when he later touched them while in his “trance-like state”, he had rubbed perfume onto my hands….. WHen I gave him HIS line of giving him Good Fortune in return, he understood that I had figured out his trick… and he just walked away.
    This might seem dumb, but there and many people who actually believe that these “Gurus” have powers, and will very readily believe the “mystical powers” that they profess to have….

  14. schmitty says:

    I know this is really old, but I thought I’d throw out an option I’ve considered.
    Imagine a remote controlled etch a sketch. But it’s a magnet within a board with an x axis and a y axis controlled by 2 servos. Tesla demonstrated a radio controlled boat in 1898, so it’s plausible that Houdini could acquire something like this.
    He could have powered the board through the picture wire and hook.
    As others have said here, he could have easily switched the cork ball and had a third party acquire the message from Doyle.