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The supernatural interests of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Following personal tragedy, the creator of that most rational of literary figures, Sherlock Holmes, developed an obsession with spiritualism. Fiona Snailham and Anna Maria Barry Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's belief in spiritualism, talking to the dead... and fairies

A lobbycard for the 1923 film Is Conan Doyle Right? (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)
Published: February 8, 2022 at 8:05 am
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On a July evening in 1930, 10,000 people crowded into London’s Royal Albert Hall, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and perhaps even hear him speak. Sure enough, the celebrated author turned up right on time. Dressed in an evening suit, the man behind the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon took his seat on stage and began to talk.

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But there was something very strange about Doyle – he was dead.

The event at the Albert Hall was a séance: an attempt to communicate with “the other side”. Doyle, who had died just a few days earlier, was the world’s most famous proponent of spiritualism, a religious movement based on the belief that the living can speak to the dead.

In life, the author had attended countless seances, written books on supernatural phenomena and toured the world giving lectures on his beliefs. In death, his supporters hoped that he would appear before them once again.

Spiritualism once had a huge following in Britain. People have long been fascinated by the idea of life after death, and the Victorians were no exception. The 19th-century craze for spiritualism originated across the Atlantic in 1848, when two young girls from rural New York came forward with an extraordinary claim.

Sisters Kate and Maggie Fox were just 11 and 14 when they announced to the world that they could communicate with spirits. The departed, they said, spoke to them by “rapping” – spelling out messages with a series of knocking sounds. Though years later the sisters apparently confessed that this episode had been a hoax, at the time their abilities convinced many.

A craze for post-mortem communication quickly swept the US, and many mediums – claiming that they, too, had the ability to speak with the dead – made a name (and money) for themselves.

Dead reckoners: three famous spiritualist adherents

The eminent evolutionist

A belief in spiritualism damaged the scientific reputation of the influential 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who pioneered a theory of evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin. Wallace wrote articles in defence of spiritualism and even provided testimony in support of “Dr” Henry Slade, when this suspect medium was tried for fraud.

The investigative journalist

The reporter WT Stead was best known for writing exposés on issues such as child abuse. His interest in psychic phenomena led him to establish the newspaper Borderland, one of many spiritualist periodicals published in Britain. None of the messages he received from the “other side” warned Stead against boarding the Titanic – he perished during its ill-fated voyage in 1912.

The acclaimed novelist

Bestselling writer Rosamond Lehmann, author of 1927’s Dusty Answer, turned to spiritualism after the loss to polio of her young daughter, Sarah, in 1958. Lehmann soon became a prominent spiritualist, writing about her otherworldly experiences, and serving as vice-president at London’s College of Psychic Studies.

Several travelled across the Atlantic to demonstrate their skill in Britain, where high-profile seance attendees included poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and social reformer Robert Owen. Throughout the 19th century, the movement grew in momentum and celebrity mediums offered public demonstrations in theatres and town halls. Public interest was piqued and spiritualist groups began to appear across Britain.

Though it may be surprising to learn that the brain behind arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes believed in the supernatural, the path from supersleuth to ghost-hunter is shorter than you might expect, not least because many spiritualists were greatly concerned with evidence.

They conducted tests, interviews and experiments to expose fraudsters and provide definitive proof of life after death. Holmes once said that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Not many spiritualists would have disagreed.

“The greatest nonsense”

Doyle’s interest in the unexplained began early in his career, when he was working as a newly qualified doctor. Though initially a sceptic who considered spiritual phenomena “the greatest nonsense upon Earth”, his curiosity was piqued by an experiment in “thought transference”. This involved Doyle drawing images on a piece of paper and attempting to communicate them telepathically to a friend.

This companion, who could not see Doyle’s drawings, would then sketch the messages he “received” on a second piece of paper. Doyle was astounded to discover that again and again his friend presented an image identical to his own.

Doyle began to attend seances and was staggered by some of the information he received: personal details the medium could not possibly have known

This sparked an intense interest in the young doctor, who began to research psychic phenomena around the world. Doyle was particularly fascinated to discover that people of different cultures had reported the same supernatural experiences. Could there be something in this? He began to attend seances and, though many left him unimpressed, he was staggered by some of the information he received: personal details the medium could not possibly have known.

In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded with the aim of conducting scientific investigations into spiritualist phenomena. This was no band of amateurs: its members included eminent scientists and professors including chemists, physicists and psychologists.

When Doyle joined the SPR in 1893, the president was Arthur Balfour, who would later become British prime minister. The author contributed to the society’s activities, weeding out frauds and subjecting self-proclaimed mediums to rigorous testing.

A joyous reunion

The carnage wrought by both the First World War and the 1918 influenza pandemic attracted many more adherents to spiritualism. People who had recently suffered great loss now turned for solace to a new movement that offered the possibility of contacting the dead.

In early 1919, the Spiritualists’ National Union organised a national memorial service at the Royal Albert Hall, with an estimated 7,000 people attending what was later called a “joyous reunion” with the fallen. Doyle, who wrote a report of the service for the spiritualist magazine Light, was among those whose grief pushed them to explore the unexplained.

The author had lost several close family members, including his son Kingsley, who died (possibly from flu or pneumonia) in October 1918, aged 25. One night in 1919, Doyle and his wife, Jean, attended a seance with the medium Evan Powell, a modest Welshman who refused to accept payment for his efforts. During the session, conducted in the dark, Kingsley Doyle appeared and spoke to his parents.

When they asked if he was happy, Kingsley’s voice was heard to respond: “Yes, I am so happy!” The spirit even bent his father’s head forward to kiss it. For Doyle, this was the ultimate proof: he was convinced that he had heard his son’s voice and felt his presence. From that point on, spiritualism became the most important thing in his life, and he became its foremost public defender.

Elsie Wright with a winged gnome, in a photograph taken by her cousin Frances Griffiths in 1917
Elsie Wright with a winged gnome, in a photograph taken by her cousin Frances Griffiths in 1917. Doyle regarded the Cottingley Fairies as proof of psychic phenomena, yet the cousins later revealed that they were a hoax (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Soon afterwards, Doyle went one step further and announced his belief in fairies. This was yet another strange story that began with two young girls. In 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, cousins aged 16 and 9, claimed to have photographed fairies in the village of Cottingley, West Yorkshire.

Their images of dancing fairies baffled photographic experts, who could not work out how they had been faked. That was enough for Doyle, who wrote a series of articles and, in 1922, a book arguing that these fairies constituted yet more proof of psychic phenomena. Predictably, he was lampooned in the press as a gullible man tricked by children. Indeed, years later the girls admitted their deception, revealing that the fairies had been drawn on card and pinned to strands of grass.

His controversial defence of the Cottingley fairies was not the only time Doyle published personal opinions on contemporary sensations. In 1923, he used newspaper interviews to insert himself into discussions about the death of Lord Carnarvon, a prominent Egyptologist who had backed the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Doyle refused to believe that the earl’s death was the result of blood poisoning; rather, he told the press, the death may have been caused by “elementals” – spirits conjured by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the royal tomb. His comments were reported in the London Daily News and The Morning Post, popularising the idea of a “mummy’s curse”.

Doyle refused to believe that Lord Carnarvon's death was the result of blood poisoning; rather, he told the press, the death may have been caused by “elementals” – spirits conjured by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the royal tomb

A shared interest in spiritualism inspired an unusual relationship between Doyle and the world-famous escapologist Harry Houdini. Doyle was convinced that his friend was in possession of supernatural abilities that enabled his death-defying escapes. Houdini was more inclined to scepticism, particularly after attending a seance with Doyle. When the spirit of Houdini’s beloved mother apparently spoke to him in English – a language in which they had never communicated during her life – he was unconvinced.

Over the next few years Houdini began to crusade against spiritualism, giving lectures and public demonstrations of the tricks that mediums used to take in the gullible. He even attacked his former friend, calling Doyle “senile” and “easily bamboozled”.

Such a feud developed that, when Houdini died in 1926, some speculated that spiritualists had murdered him. Doyle, in a way, had the last laugh. He told journalists that the escapologist’s death at the age of just 52 had come as no surprise: Houdini’s mother had told him at a seance that her son would die early.

Hello from the other side

Doyle made his own journey to the “other side” on 7 July 1930, having suffered a heart attack in his garden. Fittingly, death did not mean the end of his spiritualist activity.

Shortly after his passing, Doyle’s family and friends set up the seance at the Royal Albert Hall, in the belief that this long-time proponent of spiritualism would want an opportunity to send his own message from beyond the grave. Every seat in the house was filled – except one, which was reserved for the spirit of Sir Arthur.

A series of spiritualists offered eulogies before Mrs Estelle Roberts stepped on to the stage. A celebrated medium, Roberts demonstrated her clairvoyance to the audience before declaring that the deceased author was in the room, appropriately attired in his evening dress. Approaching Lady Doyle, he whispered news from beyond, though the exact contents of Sir Arthur’s final message to the woman he loved were never revealed.

That was still not the end. Four years later, Doyle’s spirit appeared at a meeting hosted by the Latvian medium Noah Zerdin at Aeolian Hall on New Bond Street. With the foresight to record proceedings, Zerdin caught the disembodied voice of Doyle on tape, asking those present to “take care of my boys and my good wife, Jean”.

Whether the audio, held in the British Library Archives, is proof of life beyond the grave is open to question. Doyle, for one, would believe it is.

Fiona Snailham is an early career researcher with a focus on 19th-century literature and Victorian spiritualism

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Anna Maria Barry is a historian and writer specialising in 19th-century culture. Her current research focuses on death masks

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