Conan Doyle and Spiritualism
1916 Arthur Conan Doyle made a declaration that would impact the rest of
his life. He stated his belief in Spiritualism. Could it be? The man who created the
ever-logical Sherlock Holmes believed in ghosts?
The Fox sisters (pictured on the left) are credited with the birth of Spiritualism. In 1848
Maggie and Katie Fox, discovered that they were able to communicate with
a spirit that seemed to inhabit their home in Hydesville, New York. The
spirit claimed to be a murdered man who was buried in the cellar.
Spiritualism focused on communication with spirits.
The movement stressed that there was indeed life after death and that
communication with those who had "passed over" was entirely
By 1855 two million people were followers of the
movement. However as time went by disorganization within the movement
and fraudulent practices lead to the movement's decline. By 1900
Spiritualism had lost its popularity. After the First World War the
movement once again became popular as people struggled to deal with the
loss of loved ones.
Conan Doyle's Early Religious Life
The Doyle family was strongly Catholic. Conan
Doyle was raised in that tradition but he came to question those
beliefs. He declared himself an agnostic. So strong were his beliefs
that he refused the help of his father's family in establishing his
medical practice. He realized that the family would have recommended him
to their church connections. He felt that it would have been
hypocritical to draw on that sort of support.
As early as 1881 Conan Doyle showed an interest in
Spiritualism. During that year he attended a lecture on
spiritualism. In 1887 The Light, a spiritualistic magazine,
published an article by Conan Doyle describing a séance that he'd
attended. In February of 1889 he attended a lecture on mesmerism given
by Professor Milo de Meyer. In fact, as part of the lecture de Meyer
tried to mesmerize or hypnotize Conan Doyle, but failed.
Conan Doyle a Ghostbuster?
In 1893 Conan Doyle joined the British Society for
Psychical Research. Other members were future Prime Minister Arthur
Balfour, philosopher William James, naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace,
scientists Williams Crookes and Oliver Lodge.
In 1894 Colonel Elmore asked the organization to
investigate mysterious sounds emanating from his home in Dorset. At
night Elmore, his wife and adult daughter could hear chains being
dragged across a wooden floor and moaning that sounded like a soul in
torment. The family dog refused to enter certain parts of the home and
most of Elmore's staff had left.
Conan Doyle, Dr. Sydney Scott and Frank
Podmore were sent to investigate the possible haunting. They spent
several evenings in the home however their results were inconclusive.
One night the investigators were disturbed by a
"fearsome uproar" but no damage or cause for the noise could
be discovered. Conan Doyle left the Dorset home unsure if it was genuinely
haunted or if the haunting had been a hoax.
Later the body of a child, approximately ten years old, was
discovered buried in the
garden. Conan Doyle became convinced that he really had witnessed
psychic phenomena that was caused by the spirit of the dead child.
The Public Fight for Spiritualism
During October of 1917 Conan Doyle gave his first
public lecture on Spiritualism. He wanted to present the facts, as he
knew them, for the benefit of mankind. Even though he knew his
reputation and career would suffer he became an outspoken proponent for
He wrote books, articles and made countless public
appearances to promote his beliefs. His easy-going manner and absolute
faith in the movement made him an effective speaker. He was so sincere that even opponents of
Spiritualism considered him to be
Harry Price made a reputation for himself by exposing
false mediums. He had this to say about Conan Doyle, "Setting aside
for the moment his extraordinary and most loveable personal qualities,
the chief qualification that he possessed for the role of investigator
was his crusading zeal. Among all the notable persons attracted to
Spiritualism, he was perhaps the most uncritical. His extreme credulity,
indeed, was the despair of his colleagues, all of whom, however, held
him in the highest respect for his complete honesty. Poor, dear,
lovable, credulous Doyle! He was a giant in stature with the heart of a
The Cottingley Fairies
Conan Doyle's already battered reputation hit a new
low in late 1920. The December issue of The Strand magazine featured an
article written by Conan Doyle about some extraordinary photos. Two
young ladies in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley took these
photographs of things they'd seen surrounding their country home. The
photos were of fairies.
Conan Doyle learned of the photos earlier in the
year and he began to investigate the matter. Negatives of the
photographs were sent to two places for testing. One group, the London
representatives of Kodak, stated that no one had tampered with the
negatives. However they also said that they could produce similar photos
and therefore they could not state the photos were genuine pictures of
Conan Doyle received a different response
from the second expert. Harold Snelling examined the
negatives and declared the photos to be genuine.
Snelling's endorsement along with Conan Doyle's
chivalrous view that two, young ladies would not lie about such a matter
lead him to believe that the photos were authentic photos of fairies.
Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini
Harry Houdini is considered by some to be the greatest
magician of all time. He specialized in escapes. He could inexplicably
extract himself from coffins, mailbags, and safes. In one famous
incident he even broke free of handcuffs in Scotland Yard.
Houdini became interested in Spiritualism after the
death of his beloved mother. He had hopes of contacting her. However
after consulting mediums and attending séances he became convinced that
mediums were charlatans. Thereafter he made it a personal mission to expose false
Conan Doyle first met Houdini in 1920. Oddly enough
the two men became friends. Conan Doyle wanted to make Houdini a
believer in the movement. He even suspected that Houdini possessed
some psychic gifts.
Houdini must have been flattered
by the attention of the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes. Also Houdini
really did want to believe in the movement. If he could find a genuine
medium then he could perhaps contact his mother.
In 1922 Conan Doyle and his family were in America for
a lecture tour on Spiritualism. They arranged to meet Houdini and his
wife, Bess, in Atlantic City. While the couples were visiting Lady Conan
Doyle suggested that they hold a séance. Jean Conan Doyle was an inspired or automatic
writer and she felt that she could help Houdini attain what he'd long
sought, contact with his mother.
The session went well and Lady Conan Doyle produced
fifteen pages of writings supposedly from Houdini's mother. While
Houdini didn't doubt that the Conan Doyles sincerely wanted to help
him, he did doubt
that the message was from his mother. He didn't say anything at the
time, but the communication was in English, a language that his mother
didn't speak. Also the writings made no mention of the fact that the
séance happened on his mother's birthday.
Months later Houdini shared his doubts. Conan Doyle
countered that contact between the two worlds produced a natural
translating effect. Thusly it was normal that the communication would be
in the language of the medium and not that of the spirit. He also stated
that things such as birthdays didn't matter to those in the spirit
Although they tried to put this incident behind them
their friendship never recovered from the rift.
Conan Doyle's support of
Spiritualism did damage his reputation as he knew it would. He was
never one to back away from a fight and the fight for Spiritualism was
one he fought until the end.
A few days before his death in 1930 Conan Doyle wrote,
"The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The
greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now."