Spiritualism and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

6th January 2021. Reading Time: 10 minutes Famous Paranormal Cases, General. 326 page views. 0 comments.

While most well known as the author of the iconic Sherlock Holmes series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an advocate for spiritualism making his mark on the paranormal field.  

While most well known as the author of the iconic Sherlock Holmes series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an advocate for spiritualism making his mark on the paranormal field.  

Who was Arthur Conan Doyle?

Image Source: https://www.biography.com/writer/arthur-conan-doyle

Arthur Ignatius Doyle was born on the 22nd of May 1859 in Edenborough Scotland.  His father was an artist and his mother a well-educated woman with a passion for storytelling, it is no coincidence that Doyle is considered to be one of the greatest creative minds in history.  While he was expected to follow in his Father’s artistic footsteps, he decided to pursue a career in medicine instead.  Surrounded by future best authors such as James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson at University, under the inspiration from his favourite teacher Dr. Joseph Bell, he penned his first piece 'The Mystery of Sasassa Valley' which went onto be published in magazine Chamber’s Journal.  The rest as they say is history.  He did indeed go on to graduate with a Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree, however, most people know him as the author and creator of the iconic character Sherlock Holmes.

While Doyle was a very successful and famous author, it should be noted that he volunteered his services by enlisting in the Boer war, tried his hand in politics, and even had a short legal stint defending those who he felt deserved justice.  It was said in some ways he was mimicking his famous character, Holmes.  Sadly Doyle also experienced tragic loss as well.  His first wife Louisa died tragically on the 4th of July 1906.  They had two children together.  He did find love and remarried again, however, after World War 1 he suffered more loss.  His son, his brother, 2 of his nephews, and his 2 brothers in law were all killed while serving in World War 1.  His sense of loss over the years was always channeled through his writing and defending those who were less fortunate than he was.  Though people incorrectly state that Doyle was drawn to spiritualism after his son's death, his interest lay in the area long before he was born. 

Doyle and spiritualism

In 1887, Doyle published a letter in the 1887 issue of Light, the journal of the London Spiritualistic Alliance titled 'A test message'.  

After weighing the evidence, I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa, though I have been to that continent and have never chanced to see one. I felt that if human evidence — regarding both the quantity and the quality of the witnesses — can prove anything, it has proved this. I then set to work to organise a circle of six, which met nine or ten times at my house. We had phenomena such as messages delivered by tilts, and even some writing under control, but there was never anything which could be said to be absolutely Conclusive. That complicated machine, the human body, is capable of playing strange tricks, and what was the possibility of unconscious cerebration, of involuntary muscular action, and of the effect of a dozen heavy hands on one light table, I was never entirely satisfied. I was convinced that others had obtained the phenomena, but not that I had done so myself.

A Test Message is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in the magazine Light on 2 July 1887.

In 1893, Doyle joined the Society for Psychical Research as a self-proclaimed novice in psychical research.  At the time it was more like a side hobby where he dabbled with table tipping, mesmerism, and thought transference (which would later be known as telepathy).

In 1894, Doyle was part of a research team consisting of Frank Podmore and Dr Sydney Scott to investigate sounds and disturbances at Colonel Elmore's family home.  After spending a few nights and experiencing a 'fearsome uproar' they could not conclude if the house was haunted or if it was indeed a hoax.  It was later discovered the body of a 10-year-old child had been buried in the garden.  Doyle was convinced that he had witnessed psychic phenomena at the hands of the deceased child.

In 1917, Doyle made his first public lecture on spiritualism.  Knowing it could mean the end of his career, he felt it was more important for all of mankind to know.  Psychical researchers often disagreed with Doyle and the people he would advocate for.  At a time when exposing fraudulent mediums was at an all-time high, Doyle garnered a reputation by being too trusting and having too big of a heart.

Setting aside for the moment his extraordinary and most lovable personal qualities, the chief qualification that he possessed for the role of the 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 child.

Harry Price

Doyle and famous researcher Harry Price often disagreed, especially when Doyle threw his support behind defamed spirit photographer William Hope in 1922 after Price proclaimed he was a fraud. Doyle went on to lead a mass resignation of members from the Society for Psychical Research claiming the institution was against spiritualism.

The Cottingley Fairies

In 1920, Doyle wrote an article for the Strand where he showed some extraordinary photos of what would later be known as the Cottingley Fairies which would become known as a Worldwide hoax, something the girls behind the photos eventually admitted to.  He would later pen the book The coming of the fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1922).  Doyle felt the girls would not lie about such a thing, showing his genuine and trusting nature.  Doyle pondered in his book that perhaps the fairies themselves were thoughtforms and a subject of psychic phenomena

Can these be thought-forms ? The fact that they are so like our conventional idea of fairies is in favour of the idea. But if they move rapidly, have musical instruments, and so forth, then it is impossible to talk of "thought-forms," a term which suggests something vague and intangible. In a sense we are all thought-forms, since we can only be perceived through the senses, but these little figures would seem to have an objective reality, as we have ourselves, even if their vibrations should prove to be such that it takes either psychic power or a sensitive plate to record them. If they are conventional it may be that fairies have really been seen in every generation, and so some correct description of them has been retained.

The coming of the fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1922)

You can read more about this famous case here:

https://llifs.com.au/blog/the-cottingley-fairies/

A friendship with Houdini

Before meeting in person in 1920, Houdini sent Doyle one of his books 'The unmasking of Robert Houdin' which exposed the methods of the mediums that Doyle passionately defended. Not taking offense, he believed that Houdini was fighting the good fight and was working on the side of spiritualism and just weeding out the frauds. For years they exchanged letters through mutual admiration. Houdini felt that Doyle was too quick to jump to conclusions, and always seemed to believe what he sees. Houdini once demonstrated how a medium performs slate-writing. Doyle was convinced that Houdini had special powers, however, he wanted his friend to understand it was all just a trick.

Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion ... I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily “supernatural,” or the work of “spirits,” just because you cannot explain them....

Harry Houdini

Image Source: A Magician among the spirits Harry Houdini

In 1922, while on holiday together, Doyle's wife Jean who was a psychic medium offered to give Houdini a special private seance in which he would be able to make contact with his mother, something he had longed for. During an automatic writing session, Jean wrote out a well-written letter in English underneath the symbol of a Cross. Doyle claimed that Houdini seemed to be moved by this touching communication. Houdini was not convinced that Jean's letter was from his mother. His Mother spoke very poor English and the letter was written perfectly - grammar and all. Secondly, it was written under the drawn symbol of a cross. His mother was Jewish. Third, it was the day of her birthday something that was not mentioned at all in the letter. Doyle wrote publicly to proclaim that Houdini had been visited by his Mother's spirit. It was something that Houdini was willing to let go of for the sake of his friendship. Doyle was later surprised to find that Houdini publicly claimed later in a press interview that he had never seen any evidence of a genuine medium which upset his wife Jean. While through correspondence they put the incident behind them, their relationship would never recover.  What followed were very public disagreements about spiritualism with Doyle advocating for mediums that Houdini had exposed.  One of the more notable being Margery 'Mina' Crandon.  

Image Source: Wild about Harry

After Houdini's death in 1926, Doyle wrote to Houdini's wife Bess 

I am sure that, with strength of character (and possibly his desire to make reparation), he will come back.

In return, Bess sent to Doyle a collection of Doyle's father's artwork that Houdini had required at auction.  Doyle wrote to Bess

The book arrived and filled me with surprise... It really seems like a series of miracles–first that it should exist still, then that it should cross the Atlantic, and finally that it should come back home. I accept it as a peace-offering from your husband, and I thank him as well as you.

The Psychic Bookshop

Image Source: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/

In 1925, Doyle and his wife Jean would open 'The Psychic Bookshop', a brick and mortar store that was a was a book shop, a library, a museum, and a book publishing company based in London.  

SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE'S PSYCHIC BOOKSHOP AND LIBRARY. Sir, — It has long seemed to me that one of the weak points in our psychic movement is the complete disconnection between our splendid literature and the man in the street. He is as a rule absolutely unaware of its existence. In an endeavour to get past this difficulty I am engaged in starting a psychic bookshop and library in one of the most central positions in London. It is in Abbey House in Victoria street, opposite to Dean’s Yard, and within a stone's throw of Westminster Abbey. I would ask the, support of all psychic students for this venture, so far as it can be given without encroaching upon the trade in psychic books already done by the London Spiritualist Alliance, or by the office of the "Two Worlds." I wish to open up new fields, not to encroach upon the old ones. Nothing but psychic books will be sold, and a large stock kept in hand, while every effort will be made to meet the wants of customers. Should any reader have duplicates which he could spare for the library he would do me a service if, after the beginning of February, he would send them to the manager at the address given. — Yours, etc., ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE. January 16th. 

16 january 1925 Light Magazine

Doyle remains one of the more controversial figures in the spiritualism community, namely due to his willingness to believe those who were outed as frauds.  He was genuine in nature with a big heart and a strong belief in spiritualism.

Just before his death in 1930, Doyle's final written public words were

The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now.

References:

https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/

https://arthurconandoyle.co.uk/spiritualist

A Magician among the spirits Harry Houdini 

The coming of the fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1922)

https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2016/04/the-real-story-of-houdini-doyle.html

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