The famed creator of Sherlock Holmes and escape artist Harry Houdini were resort guests in June of ’22.
An ocean away from his home in London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stepped outside the Ambassador Hotel to sample life in Atlantic City.
Tired of coping with the heat of Manhattan, the creator of Sherlock Holmes headed to South Jersey in June 1922 for a break during his speaking tour of the United States. Surprisingly, the writer was at a loss for words.
“It is difficult to describe Atlantic City for we have nothing in England that is at all like it,” he wrote of his visit a year later in Our American Adventure.
The 63-year-old Doyle quickly took to life at the Jersey Shore, professing an enjoyment of the rolling chairs on the Boardwalk, the Million Dollar Pier and the beach.
“To be floating on a blue ocean and look up to a blue sky is the nearest approach to detachment from earth that normal life can give,” he wrote.
Doyle’s biggest adventure in the city, though, came indoors and would not have been out of place in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories. Call it “The Case of the Seashore Séance.”
Doyle’s interest in spiritualism — the belief that the dead survive as spirits and can communicate with the living, especially with the help of a third party or medium — had grown after World War I. In 1919, he believed he had communicated with his son, Kingsley, who died in the last days of the war. Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini was a friend of Doyle but also an avowed skeptic of the spiritualism movement. Still, he desired to communicate with his mother, Cecelia, who had died in 1913. He came to Atlantic City to visit the Doyles and accepted an invitation to a séance by Doyle and the author’s wife, Lady Jean Conan Doyle, in the couple’s suite at the Ambassador on Sunday, June 18.
The room was quiet as a gentle breeze floated through an open window. Doyle opened the proceedings with a prayer, giving thanks to the Almighty for “this breaking down of the walls between two worlds.” He then added, “Can we receive another sign from our friends from beyond?”
Doyle’s wife then conducted a séance. Using a process known as automatic writing, Lady Jean picked up a pencil and began transcribing a message from the next world. She began by placing a cross on top of the pad in recognition that the spirit believed in God. Lady Jean began hastily scribbling the words coming from the spirit of Houdini’s mother on her pad: “Oh, my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I’m through. I’ve tried so often. Now, I’m happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy — my own beloved boy.”
The spirit indicated that she brought the two men together and urged her son “to try and write in his own home.” Houdini complied with the request in the suite. He cleared his mind, picked up a pencil and held it over the paper and wrote the word “Powell.” Doyle was amazed, believing the name was a reference to Ellis Powell, a close friend and a medium who had recently died. Houdini offered an alternative opinion. He was referring to Frederick Eugene Powell, a magician and illusionist who was preparing to go on tour to help promote The Man From Beyond, the latest silent movie starring Houdini. The disagreement over the meaning of Powell was a sign of a fissure in the friendship between two of the most prominent celebrities of the early 1920s.
Houdini had additional reservations about the séance. His mother was Jewish and would not have made a reference to the sign of the cross, he believed. In addition, German was her first language and she could not speak write or read English. The day before the séance was her birthday, but she made no mention of that fact.
In the fall, Houdini wrote a story for the New York Sun in which he expressly stated his feeling. “I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me there is a possibility of communication with the loved ones who have gone beyond.”
Doyle was undeterred in his belief of spiritualism up to his death at age 71 on July 7, 1930. Interestingly, there is no record of him ever trying to contact his first wife, Louisa, who died in 1906, via séance, according to the official Web site of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate.
Houdini, who died on Halloween in 1926, may have had the last word, or lack of one, on the subject. Attempts to contact him in the afterlife have been unsuccessful.
Houdini and the Doyles in Atlantic City
Teller: "The White House [Sub Shop is] a regular stop. As a child Atlantic City was where I went to visit my grandparents. They had a house on Ventnor Avenue. I have a great fondness for Atlantic City and the Boardwalk."
Here’s just a brief taste of the varied traditions and attractions that make up the Atlantic City and southern New Jersey shore area, from A to Z.
In the movie Atlantic City, the aging gangster played by Burt Lancaster laments the end of the golden age of Atlantic City, the Prohibition years, when AC provided all the vices being denied Americans elsewhere. "The town was floy-floy then," he explains. From the floy-floy era to the hubba-hubba 500 Club, Club Harlem years, to the modern bling-bling era ushered in with legalized gaming, Atlantic City has remained a resort destination where people come to have a good time. And a good time always included superior entertainment. By the 1880s, Atlantic City was a bustling resort town, a place where both the working class and the upper crust came to escape the heat of the big cities to the north, south and west. Early entertainment options included circuses and sideshows, vaudeville, ballrooms, amusement piers and minstrel shows. The "world's greatest comic juggler" at one of the minstrel shows was W.C. Fields. Al Jolsen was also a regular performer in town, and Harry Houdini presented his death defying feats of remarkable escapism at the Garden Pier. John Young was the P.T. Barnum of Atlantic City. The first pier he bought featured a huge ballroom, a hippodrome, an exhibit hall and an aquarium....
Magician Jeff McBride is a nonconforming master of prestidigitation. Each time that the award-winning "magicians' magician" takes to the stage of Trump Marina's Shell theater, he "abracadazzles" audiences of all ages with atypical magical feats. Jeff McBride - Magic at the Edge runs through Sept. 2. Forget the cutting a lady in half bit, pulling rabbits from a hat, mind-reading tricks, or thunderous equipment. You won't see any of that in this production. McBride has levitated magic to a sophisticated art form. He takes pride in keeping audiences entertained by empowering them to reach to the depths of their imaginations, and by his extraordinary use of sleight-of-hand. Joining McBride in the show are Abbi Spinner and magician Jordan Wright. Six years ago McBride took a bride, tying the knot with Spinner, his longtime assistant. It's obviously a tight knot that neither would want to untie, in spite of their collective magical know-how. "I made a wife appear, and I make her appear on stage, too," laughed McBride during an interview with Atlantic City Weekly. "She's good at disappearing acts as well; she's one of the finest female escape artists in the world." Abbi proved this at the show's opening night,...
It is not surprising that magician Steve Wyrick, a man from Texas, likes big illusions. In the course of his show at Harrah's, he arrives onstage in a stationary helicopter that appears in a puff of ...
Straitjacketed and upside-down, the illusionist hung from the heights of the Keith Theatre. Blood rushed to his head as he struggled against his confines while the crowd below, heads tilted toward the sky, grew apprehensive. Beyond the theatre roofline, thin white clouds stretched toward the elusive horizon. Onlookers gasped as the figure above wriggled and jerked in his predicament. Then the only sounds were the ocean's hollow surge and a few lazy squawks from a gull. That was the scene in 1918, as marquee magician Harry Houdini fashioned his escape in front of the great vaudeville house on the ocean end of the Garden Pier, a site already known for eye-catching entertainment. Two years earlier, a typewriter as big as a house had taken up residence in a pier pavilion, and youths climbed onto the keyboard and learned about the age of mechanization. In 1921, the carriage in the spotlight was comelier: the first Inter-City Bathing Beauty Contest hopefuls strutted for judges at the Keith Theatre. The event would grow into Miss America. A pair of Philadelphia meatpackers with a taste for show business built the first Garden Pier - Atlantic City's seventh - in 1913. A courtyard filled with shrubs...
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