The Three Most Famous Names in History Are Jesus Christ, Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Houdini

George Bernard Shaw? Otto Penzler? James Thurber? Harold Ross? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly, George Bernard Shaw once presented an idiosyncratic list of the three most famous individuals: Jesus Christ, Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Houdini. Did Shaw really put forward this triptych?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the 1976 biography “Houdini: His Life and Art” by James Randi and Bert Randolph Sugar. The pertinent passage occurred in the foreword written by Sugar alone: 1

At a time when national heroes have passed from the American landscape, it is difficult to fathom Houdini’s full impact. People who couldn’t care less about magic know his name. George Bernard Shaw once said that as one of the three most famous people in the history of the world, real or imagined, Houdini took his place beside Jesus Christ and Sherlock Holmes.

QI does not know were Sugar obtained support for his claim about Shaw, and 1976 is more than 25 years after the death of the famous intellectual; hence, this evidence is weak.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1921 “The Literary Digest” in New York relayed a report about a gathering in London which included a discussion of the “three most famous living Englishmen”. Shaw was on the list, but he did not create it: 2

At a recent London dinner George Bernard Shaw was the guest of honor. The toastmaster in introducing him said that a certain club in London recently had voted on “who are the three most famous living Englishmen?” The balloting showed George Bernard Shaw, Lloyd George, and Charlie Chaplin far in the lead.

“And I can’t help wondering,” said the toastmaster, “how Mr. Shaw likes the company in which he finds himself.”

“I don’t mind Charlie,” spoke up Mr. Shaw.—New York World.

The popular humorist James Thurber wrote a series of articles about Harold Ross who was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of “The New Yorker”. Contemporaries criticized Ross for having gaps in his knowledge of influential historical and literary figures. In 1957 Thurber mentioned the two figures Ross felt were preeminent in the minds of the general populace: 3

He once said that only two names were familiar to every reader in the civilized world: Houdini and Sherlock Holmes.

In 1976 a version of the expression under investigation appeared in “Houdini: His Life and Art” as mentioned previously.

In 1979 the notable anthologist of mystery fiction Otto Penzler wrote a book review article in “The Washington Post”. He discussed several Holmesian works, and he mentioned the saying: 4

George Bernard Shaw once described Sherlock Holmes as one of the three most famous men who ever lived, along with Jesus Christ and Houdini. Well, he’s still a hot name in the publishing world—not bad for someone who recently celebrated his 125th birthday.

In 1987 a reviewer in “The Boston Globe” attributed the saying to Shaw: 5

It is no surprise then that George Bernard Shaw, the great satirist of Victorian provincialism and stodginess, admired the stories. (Shaw once said that Jesus Christ, Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes were the three most famous people in the world.)

In 1988 “The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre” included the saying within the entry for Harry Houdini: 6

G. B. Shaw called him one of the three most famous persons in the world (the other two being Jesus Christ and Sherlock Holmes).

In conclusion, there is some weak evidence that George Bernard Shaw presented this curious list of three elevated individuals; however, at this time QI would not ascribe the expression to Shaw. Perhaps future researchers will be able to resolve this mystery.

Image Notes: Harry Houdini in handcuffs circa 1918. Sherlock Holmes portrait by Sidney Paget circa 1904. George Bernard Shaw in press photo circa 1909. All three images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, resized, and cropped.

(Great thanks to David Byron and Bill Mullins whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bill Mullins who obtained scans of the important “Houdini: His Life and Art” citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1978 (1976 Copyright), Houdini: His Life and Art by The Amazing Randi (James Randi) and Bert Randolph Sugar, Section: Foreword by Sugar, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1921 February 12, The Literary Digest, Treating ‘Em Rough, Quote Page 84, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1957 December, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 200, Number 6, The Years with Ross by James Thurber, Start Page 45, Quote page 49, The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1979 March 9, The Washington Post Section: Book World, Sherlockian Chic: Spies and Diabolists by Otto Penzler, Quote Page D10, Column 1, Washington D.C. (ProQuest)
  5. 1987 August 23, Boston Globe, A Sleuth for All Seasons 100 Years After His Birth, Sherlock Holmes Is Still Piping Hot by Daneil Golden, Quote Page 21, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  6. 1990 (First Published 1988), The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre, Edited by Martin Banham, Entry: Harry Houdini (Erik Weisz), Quote Page 458, Column 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Verified with scans)