I recently just wrote a review of the movie Mr. Holmes and it's had me thinking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Not the great author who created Sherlock and his world... but the fragile and highly superstitious man in search of comfort. For this blog I will discuss his tour of the United States in the early 1920s and how his obsession with understanding the metaphysical world began with great loss and ended with a tarnished reputation.
During his lifetime, Conan Doyle was known as much for his interest in Spiritiualism as for his literary works. His fascination with ghosts and spirits was not unusual for his time, when Spiritualism was at its height and professional mediums could enjoy the patronage of the rich and famous throughout North America and Europe. Spiritualism was often seen as a diversion for Victorian society’s elite, and certainly Conan Doyle was proof of this.
At a very young age, Conan Doyle was sent to Hodder Place, a preparatory school run by the strict Roman Catholic Jesuits. The experience was apparently a bad one for him and he emerged from his schooling agnostic. Later in his life, however, his religious views began to change drastically. Many sources link this transformation to the death of his son, Kingsley, who was serving with the British forces during World War I and was wounded during the disastrous Allied offensive known as the Battle of the Somme. While recuperating for his injuries, Kingsley developed pneumonia and died in a field hospital. His passing was certainly crushing to his father, but it was only one in a series of deaths that Conan Doyle had to endure. Eleven years earlier, his wife had succumbed to tuberculosis and Kingsley’s death was followed by that of Arthur’s brother, his brothers-in-law and two nephews. By all accounts, so much loss in such a short period of time sent Conan Doyle into a depressive tailspin and he turned to Spiritualism for solace.
By the time he reached California in 1922 as part of his tour of the United States, Conan Doyle’s reputation as a devout defender of Spiritualism was well established. And largely ridiculed.
One of the most sensational causes he championed would become known as the case of the Cottingley Fairies. In 1918, two English girls claimed to have taken photos of themselves interacting with several diminutive sprites in the Yorkshire woods. Conan Doyle was assigned by Strand Magazine to investigate. He consulted several experts in the field of photography. The results were mixed. The Kodak corporation acknowledged that the negatives were not tampered with, but also stated that such photos could be easily staged and duplicated. A second expert named Harold Snelling declared the photos genuine and it was Snelling who Conan Doyle chose to believe. Convinced of their legitimacy, Conan Doyle provided the girls with a new camera and over the next few years they were able to produce several more photos. The fact that the girls were allowed to use the camera without any witnesses didn’t seem to bother Conan Doyle; and his sense of Victorian honor compelled him to believe that no girl would be deceitful enough to perpetrate such a hoax or fool a man such as himself. Ergo, the fairies had to be real.
(The girls admitted in 1981 that the photos had been faked, but that their embarrassment at fooling Arthur Conan Doyle kept them from confessing earlier.)
Conan Doyle’s absolute belief in the Cottingley Fairies, and his subsequent publishing of a book on the subject, did little to shore up his credibility. The public seemed to expect a more impartial reaction from the father of Sherlock Holmes, a medical doctor and a renowned man of letters. Skepticism and ridicule continued to follow Conan Doyle as he began his tour of America. Read one U.S. newspaper editorial:
“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and author of a number of other stories which have captured the imagination of tens of thousands of readers, is one person. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, making himself ridiculous with his profession of faith in pictures of fairies and other spiritualistic flapadoodle, is another. Of the two, the first is an admirable figure, but the latter has made of itself a fit mark for the mocking laughter of the world...”
Conan Doyle did not seem deterred by his detractors and continued to lecture publicly and give interviews to the press about spiritual matters. In June 1923, the Oakland Tribute provided Conan Doyle with the opportunity to defend himself in an article entitled “‘Sherlock Holmes’ Creator Tells Of His Bridge to Land of Hereafter: Doyle Admits He Met Spirits Via Medium Route.” Conan Doyle wrote:
“I was a confirmed materialist and fought against their facts [of spiritualism] until they were too much for me and I could not help realizing their truth. This process took many years of reading and experiment as detailed in my books. What nonsense it is therefore to say that I had a ‘great consuming desire to believe... etc.’ It was not so...”
Despite his assertions, Conan Doyle’s method for examining psychic phenomenon and the legitimacy of mediums was suspect even in his day. One author, in an exposé of the parlor tricks used by mediums to dupe their clients, wrote: “Doyle admits that the medium’s throat and lips showed movement during this singing, but he swallows the whole thing when, as he says, the ‘intelligence’ glibly explained that the medium’s throat and organs are used by the spooks.” The author asked, “In Doyle’s case is the wish father to the thought?”
As the author toured California, he met with a variety of mediums and visited many venues thought to be haunted, including the Whaley House in San Diego. He also continued to speak out on some of the most famous paranormal events of the day, including the rumored “Curse of King Tutankhamun.”
In November 1922, the western world was left stunned after archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of an obscure pharaoh and in the process the greatest treasure trove in history. Shortly after the tomb’s excavation, Carter’s patron and friend, Lord Carnarvon, died suddenly in Cairo. Rumors began almost immediately that the Lord’s demise was the result of ancient curses placed on Tutankhamun’s remains by Egyptian priests. Conan Doyle openly supported this notion, and even offered other example’s of the so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs.”
“...The son of Sir William Ingram, London publisher, met the fate prescribed by a mummy he discovered and brought to London. On the mummy was found the following inscription:
‘May the life of the one who disturbs me end rapidly and may his bones never be buried.’
Shortly afterward the son was killed in a hunting expedition in Somaliland. The body was placed in a dry bed of a stream, pending removal. When the party returned, the dry bed had been turned into a raging torrent and the body had disappeared...” [“Spirits On Guard At Tombs, Says A. Conan Doyle,” The Oakland Tribune, Tuesday, April 5, 1923.]
Ironically, it was during this same period that Conan Doyle met and befriended Spiritualism’s greatest critic — Harry Houdini. (The two men are pictured together below.) The renowned magician had developed an interest in Spiritualism following the death of his mother. In this respect, both men were united in their search for answers by the deaths of loved ones. But for Houdini, Spiritualism was a profound disappointment. His expert eye quickly identified the illusions and sleights of hand used by mediums during séances, and he became convinced that the entire movement was fraudulent. Conan Doyle hoped to change Houdini’s mind and eventually became convinced that the magician possessed supernatural powers of which he was either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge.
During the final part of his American lecture tour, Conan Doyle and his wife invited Houdini and his wife to a séance. Lady Conan Doyle had recently discovered her ability to produce “automatic writing” and she was anxious to help contact Houdini’s deceased mother. During the séance, she produced six pages of handwritten notes for Houdini which she claimed were created by his mother’s spirit. Houdini was far from convinced. Lady Conan Doyle’s notes were in English, a language his mother didn’t understand and the ritual had taken place on his mother’s birthday, although her spirit did not seem to acknowledge that fact. Concerned of offending Conan Doyle, whom Houdini believed was sincerely trying to help him, he said nothing about these discrepancies for months. When he finally broached his concerns to Arthur Conan Doyle, the man of letters had his usual convenient answers, claiming that the spirit world did not worry about things as trivial as language or dates on a calendar. Their friendship never recovered from this disagreement.
Conan Doyle continued to unflinchingly defend Spiritualism through the remaining years of his life, even publishing an impressive two volume tome called The History of Spiritualism in 1926. On July 8, 1930, he died of a heart attack while strolling through his garden but even death did not seem to sever his connection to Spiritualism. For years afterward, Lady Conan Doyle claimed to be in regular contact with her husband and came to rely on his advice for many everyday concerns. The Conan Doyle family also credited Arthur’s spirit with diagnosing his wife’s tuberculosis from beyond the grave, a feat that he had not been able to perform in life despite his medical training. Likewise, the mediums he had championed so ferociously seemed reluctant to give up his patronage after his death. Suddenly, Conan Doyle’s vaporous image began to appear in many “spirit photos” produced by various professional psychics. (See the photo of Conan Doyle at the top of the page for an example of this hoax.) But even this development could not delay the inevitable.
“...Many of the mediums whom Conan Doyle had supported were falling from grace,” wrote author Daniel Stashower in his biography entitled Teller of Tales. “Nino Pecararo, whose powers Conan Doyle had defended against the criticisms of Houdini, was soon hounded out of business by the magician Joseph Dunninger. “Spirit of Doyle’s Son Merely Nino’s Trick,” reported the New York Evening Journal; “Nino Pecararo, Who Helped Conan Doyle’s Faith in Mystic World, Admits Deceit,” announced the Herald Tribune. For the next ten years, similar headlines would appear at regular intervals as one “reformed medium” after another attempted to convert exposure into financial gain.
“Conan Doyle’s own messages from the spirit world were also held up to criticism. “Now the late Sir Arthur was an admirable writer of English,” noted one journalist. “If the post-death messages are exact copies of those messages, his knowledge of even the elementary rules of grammar must have suffered woefully since his death.”
In the end, Conan Doyle’s literary brilliance may have been overshadowed by his preoccupation with the supernatural and his Victorian conceit. However, we must be charitable in knowing that whatever folly he championed, he did so only as a reaction to his own great sense of love and loss.
The photos shown above are in the public domain.
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