In his time, Harry Houdini was a master of illusion, escapes and slight of hand; a superstar who built his fame on convincing his audiences that the impossible was possible by wriggling out of straight jackets and escaping from contraptions like the one he called the Chinese Water Torture Chamber.
Meanwhile, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most enduring literary figures of all time: Sherlock Holmes, a detective who used his sound reasoning and skills of deduction to solve even the most mysterious of crimes.
As it turns out, the two men were great friends. One of their shared interests was spiritualism, though they approached the subject quite differently. Both men attended séances, sought out mediums and wondered if it were in fact possible to communicate with the dead. The current exhibit at the Karpeles Manuscript Library
uses rare, original documents to explore their shared obsession.
The exhibit reveals how the two men’s opinions on the spirit world differed drastically. Doyle was a believer; his own wife, in fact, claimed to be a medium and several documents at the Karpeles show Doyle’s notes on the prognostications she made with the apparent aid of a spirit guide named Phineas. Houdini, however, was a skeptic. He wanted to believe that it was possible to connect with departed loved ones, but his experience in the world of magic taught him that most of the so-called mediums he encountered were tricksters and frauds. Houdini’s insistence on exposing mediums and Doyle’s faith in spirits, séances and his wife’s gift strained their friendship.
The documents on the display at the Karpeles are all in Doyle or Houdini’s original hand. Just comparing Doyle’s tiny, neat scrawl and Houdini’s large rambling cursive helps you imagine what arguments between the two friends might have been like. The accompanying text beside each document helps piece together not only the story of these two men but the history of the 19th and early 20th century fascination with contacting the spirit world. It’s a fascinating peek into this lesser known chapter in the lives of these two famous men.
The Karpeles Manuscript Library is housed in a magnificent Greek Revival Building that dates back to 1791 when it was built as a Methodist Church. During the Civil War the place was used as a hospital when the Union Army attacked Charleston, and in 1989 Hurricane Hugo tore the roof of the edifice.
Today, the imposing, moss-covered steps lead to a fully restored, warmly lit museum. Its rotating exhibits of historical documents connect us with the past, make history real, and, in their own way, conjure the spirits of the dead.
The current exhibit runs now through April 30. Admission is free. The Karpeles Manuscript Library
is at 68 Spring St. in the up-and-coming Elliotburough neighborhood just outside the historic core. Free street parking is easily accessible or you can park at the Visitors’ Center, which is a 10 minute walk away.