The American master illusionist and escape artist, Harry Houdini, was no stranger to Sussex.
He brought his stage show to Brighton’s Arcadia Theatre of Varieties, made an appearance in Hastings and in April 1905 starred at the Eastbourne Royal Hippodrome. He gained sensational headline publicity for this latter show when he broke out of the town’s high security police cells on Easter Monday.
Given that Houdini’s feats astounded audiences everywhere and caused many to believe he had genuine supernatural powers, it is not surprising that he became intensely interested in mediums and psychics and was intrigued as to whether contact between the living and the dead was possible.
In 1920 Houdini met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Sherlock Holmes author lived in Crowborough and had developed a fascination with spiritualism in the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign. When he lost a son, Kingsley, who died two years after being grievously wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Conan Doyle became convinced that the young man had tried to communicate with him from beyond the grave.
Considering that his detective creation was a master at unmasking murderers and solving baffling mysteries, it seems astonishing that Conan Doyle was so susceptible to the supernatural. It must have been something innate in his nature. This penchant reached its apotheosis when he accepted as genuine the appearance of fairies in photographs of cousins Elsie and Frances Griffith taken in a Yorkshire garden. It took half a century before the photos were conclusively exposed as fake.
Conan Doyle definitely believed Houdini had inexplicable spiritual qualities and was much more than an incredibly clever magician. He wasn’t the only celebrity convinced of Houdini’s supernatural gifts; when the actress Sarah Bernhardt lost a leg as a result of an accident on stage she pleaded for him to magic her up a new limb.
Certainly Houdini always hoped communication with the dead was possible not least because he longed to be reunited with his beloved late mother. But his own experience in being able to fool most of the people most of the time with his “miraculous” escapes from certain death induced a healthy scepticism. At first this didn’t detract Houdini from forming a friendship with Conan Doyle.
It was the writer’s wife Jean who later gave rise to problems in the relationship. Jean believed she was a medium and was sure that spirits could direct her hand in what was called “automatic writing”. In 1922 in a séance held in an Atlantic City hotel room she claimed that Houdini’s mother had contacted her and dictated 15 pages of grammatically correct English which were duly presented to the magician.
The Conan Doyles thought Houdini had been truly impressed but were dismayed when he later declared that he did not believe the words came from his mother. For one thing, as a child Houdini had emigrated to America from Budapest with his family and his Hungarian mother never fully mastered the English language, spoken or written.
The incident opened a rift between the writer and magician, one that widened when Houdini denounced a number of spiritualists championed as genuine by the Conan Doyles. One of the mediums in question was Mina “Margery” Crandon, a wealthy American in the habit of conducting a séance whilst stark naked.
In 1934, leading American parapsychologist, Walter Prince, pronounced the Crandon case to be “the most ingenious, persistent, and fantastic complex of fraud in the history of psychic research”. By then Conan Doyle and Houdini were long gone, the latter dying on Halloween 1926, a date with somewhat ironic connotations.
Subsequently his widow Bess held an annual seance, hoping that Houdini would make contact and quote a prearranged code. She gave up her vigil in 1936, citing: “10 years is long enough to wait for any man”.
Following Conan Doyle’s death in Crowborough in 1930, a séance was held at the Royal Albert Hall. A row of chairs on stage accommodated his surviving family. One chair was left vacant should Sir Arthur appear. It remained empty.
Houdini was the inspiration for “The Great Omani”, a remarkable escapologist and stuntman who made his home in Sussex. Born Ronald Cunningham in 1915, he did not publicly perform until 1950.
His daredevil stunts included being confined to a straitjacket while chained and padlocked to a pier support at Bognor Regis from which he must escape before the tide covered him. On Brighton’s West Pier he jumped through fire to land on a bed of broken glass. For the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 he performed a handstand on top of Beachy Head whilst holding up a Union flag between his toes.
Fire, water and glass featured in his many appearances at the Bedford Tavern near his Brighton home, the last being in 2005 when he escaped from handcuffs despite both his arms being ablaze with lighter fluid. Asked why he did such things he replied: “People will always flock to see anybody likely to kill themselves.”
He died in Brighton in October 2007. For his funeral he specified that there be a trapdoor in the floor of his coffin. He also composed a suitable ditty for the service: “They lay the Great Omani in his box / They have done it up with nails not locks / But at his funeral do not despair / Chances are he won’t be there.”