Shore Lore: Spellbound

There were three of them in that room at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City on a June Sunday in 1922—three sitting around a table with the shades drawn against the afternoon sun, three closing their eyes in deepest concentration. Or were there four?

There were three of them in that room at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City on a June Sunday in 1922—three sitting around a table with the shades drawn against the afternoon sun, three closing their eyes in deepest concentration. Or were there four?

While on a lecture tour of America, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—eminent British author, father of Sherlock Holmes, ardent believer in spiritualism—had invited his friend Harry Houdini—master illusionist and escape artist, ardent doubter of spiritualism—to visit him and his wife in Atlantic City. As they sat together in that room at the Ambassador, they also invited Houdini’s mother to join them—except that she was dead.

“I was willing to believe, even wanted to believe,” Houdini wrote later. “[W]ith a beating heart I waited, hoping that I might feel once more the presence of my beloved mother.”

After the terrible losses of the World War, the spiritualism movement had swelled with mourners hoping to communicate with the souls of the dead. This séance in Atlantic City would turn out to be one of the movement’s landmark moments. Doyle, who had lost his son to the war, was eager to convert Houdini.

Doyle’s wife slipped into a trance, her eyes fluttering, her hand racing across sheets of paper piled on the table. “Thank God, thank God! At last I’m through,” the scrawled message began, in perfect English. It went on for fifteen more pages before the spell was broken, and Houdini scrawled a note on the first sheet. He shared neither what he wrote nor thought with the Doyles, who left for England a week later, believing they had added another convert to their ranks.

Six months later Houdini made public what he had written that afternoon at the Ambassador: “[M]y sainted mother could not write English and spoke broken English.” His public repudiation of the séance ruptured his friendship with Doyle. Within a few years, both men died, neither having converted the other.

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