Arthur Conan Doyle's Interest in Spiritualism

Arthur Conan Doyle became interested in Spiritualism as early as 1886 (Byrne 72). He read a book written by the US High Courts Judge John Worth Edmonds (1816-1874), one of the most influential early American Spiritualists, who claimed that after the death of his wife he had been able to communicate with her. Edmonds also met with the Fox sisters, known as the “Rochester knockers” and Doyle appreciated his account of the girls' communication with spirits. (Lycett 138) When Doyle practised as a physician at Southsea, he participated in table turning sittings at the home of one of his patients, General Drayson, a teacher at the Greenwich Naval College. In his Memoirs and Adventures, he wrote:

I was so impressed that I wrote an account of it to Light, the psychic weekly paper, and so in the year I actually put myself on the public record as a student of these matters. [86]

In 1893, Conan Doyle joined the British Society for Psychical Research, a society formed in Cambridge one year earlier in order to investigate scientifically the claims of Spiritualism and other paranormal phenomena. Other members of the Society included the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, philosopher William James, naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, scientists Williams Crookes and Oliver Lodge, and philosopher and economist Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) and poet and philologist F. W. H. Meyers (1843-1901). After carrying out a series of experiments, Conan Doyle became convinced that telepathy, or 'thought transference', does exist. In 1917, Conan Doyle gave his first public lecture on Spiritualism. Later he wrote books, articles and made public appearances in Britain, Australia and America to promote his beliefs. He held numerous séances together with his second wife Jean to communicate with members of their family killed in World War One and other spirits. On the summit of his literary fame caused by the Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle, decided to abandon writing fiction and devoted himself almost entirely to the study of paranormal. Doyle was convinced that intelligence could exist apart from the body, and that the dead could communicate with the living.

Harry Houdini

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first met the famous American illusionist Harry Houdini in 1920, during the magician's tour of England, and they soon became friends. He believed that Houdini possessed supernatural powers. However, either of them had a different view about Spiritualism. Houdini was a fervent opponent of the Spiritualist movement in the 1920s. In 1922, he agreed to participate in a séance arranged by Conan Doyle and his wife as a medium who claimed that she had contacted his dead mother. Lady Doyle, in a hypnotic trance, wrote automatically a long message in English from Mrs. Weiss, Houdini's mother. Houdini understood that it was trickery because his late mother barely knew English. He announced publicly that Spiritualism is a fraud and thus he ended his friendship with Doyle. (Carlson 113)

Sir Arthur's Works on Spiritualism

Twenty of Sir Arthur's over sixty books are about Spiritualism. They include: The New Revelation (1918), Life After Death (1918), The Vital Message (1919), Spiritualism and Rationalism (1920), The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921), The Coming of the Fairies (1922), The Case for Spirit Photography (1922), Our American Adventure (1923), Our Second American Adventure (1924), Spiritualist's Reader (1924), Memories and Adventures (1924), The Early Christian Church and Modern Spiritualism (1925), The Land of Mist (1926, fiction), The History of Spiritualism, in two volumes (1926), Pheneas Speaks. Direct Spirit Communication in the Family Circle (1927), Our African Winter (1929), The Edge of the Unknown (1930).

The Coming of the Fairies

In 1917, two teenage girls in Yorkshire, Elsie Wright (age 16) and her cousin Frances Griffiths (age 10), produced two photographs of fairies which they had taken in their garden. One of the photos showed Frances in the garden with a waterfall with four fairies dancing upon the bush. Three of them had wings and one was playing a long flute-like instrument. Conan Doyle accepted the photos as genuine evidence for fairies and wrote two pamphlets and a book, The Coming of the Fairies (1922), in which he publicly announced that fairies truly existed. The book was widely ridiculed in the press and many people realised that Conan Doyle had lost his grip on reality.

The History of Spiritualism

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most important book on Spiritualism is the two-volume set, The History of Spiritualism (1924), which discusses a wide range of issues and personalities linked with modern Spiritualism, both in America and the United Kingdom. The book made him one of the leading Spiritualists of his time.

Spiritualist Travels

Conan Doyle promoted the ideas of Spiritualism all over the world, drawing big crowds wherever he went. He began his Spiritualist travels in 1918, with visits to major cities of Great Britain. Then, during 1920 and 1921, he made voyages to Australia and New Zealand. In 1922 and 1923, he toured the United States with lectures on Spiritualism. Early in 1928, he visited South Africa, and in the autumn, he toured several European countries. In 1925, he was nominated Honorary President at the International Spiritualist Congress in Paris.

Death of a Spiritualist

After Sir Arthur's death, news spread that he and his wife had previously arranged test communications in the event of the passing of either. Many claims were set forth, but whether satisfactory communication was established remains a question. Five days after Conan Doyle's death on July 7th, 1930, an overflow crowd at the Royal Albert Hall witnessed the medium Estelle Roberts contact him. She asserted that she had seen clairvoyantly Conan Doyle sitting in the empty chair. She conveyed a message from Sir Arthur, though apparently only his wife in the front row heard it, everyone else being overmatched by a burst from an enthusiastic organist. (New York Times Obituary, July 8, 1930)

Conclusion

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an indefatigable exponent of Spiritualism, who vigorously championed the cause of life-after-death. His faith in the possibility of communication with departed souls was strong and he cared little whether others agreed with it or not. Sir Arthur claimed to have had conversations with the spirits of many great men, including Cecil Rhodes, Joseph Conrad, and others. In his later years he often expressed a wish that he should be remembered for his psychic work rather than for his novels. (New York Times Obituary, July 8, 1930)

How could Sir Arthur, a medical man and the creator of a super-rational detective, have come out as a committed spiritualist? This question is hard to answer. Paradoxically, Victorian Spiritualism was the natural child of rationalism and loss of religious faith; a strange hybrid of science and evolutionary metaphysics which attracted the minds of many people at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was a counterculture movement within Victorian and Edwardian society and its legacy is visible in later time. Victorian Spiritualism exerted an indirect influence on the emergence of the esoteric movements of modern Theosophy and New Age. It also had an impact on psychoanalysis (the notion of the subconscious), and last but not least, the modernist artists and writers, such as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce (the concept of epiphany), Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.

Related Material

References and Further Reading

Bown, Nicola, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell, eds. The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1983.

Bremmer, Jan N. The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife. London: Routledge, 2002.

Buckland, Raymond. The Spirit Book: The Encyclopedia of Clairvoyance, Channeling, and Spirit Communication. Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2005.

Byrne, Georgina. Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850-1939. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2010.

Carlson, Laurie M. Harry Houdini for Kids: His Life and Adventures with 21 Magic Tricks and Illusions. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009.

Cottom, Daniel. Abyss of Reason: Cultural Movements, Revelations, and Betrayals. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Davies, Charles Maurice. Mystic London: or, Phases of Occult Life in the Metropolis. London: Tinsley Brothers,1875.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism. New York: Doran, 1926.

____. Memories and Adventures. 1924. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

____. The New Revelation. Project Gutenberg.

Eliot, George. George Eliot's Life, as Related in Her Letters and Journals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Hazelgrove, Jenny. Spiritualism and British Society between the Wars. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Hill, Arthur J. Spiritualism. Its History, Phenomena, and Doctrine. London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Casell and Company, 1918.

Howitt, William. The History of the Supernatural in All Ages and Nations and in All Churches Christian and Pagan Demonstrating a Universal Faith. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Company, 1863.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens and Mesmerism: The Hidden Springs of Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Lamont, Peter. “Spiritualism and a Mid-Victorian Crisis of Evidence,” The Historical Journal, 47(4) 2004, 897-920.

Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in Victorian Britain, 1850-1914. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room. Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. London: Virago, 1989.

_____. “‘Borderland Forms’: Arthur Conan Doyle, Albion’s Daughters, and the Politics of the Cottingley Fairies.” History Workshop 38 (1994), 48-85.

Sandford Christopher. Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Pearsall, Ronald. The Table-Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult. London: Sutton Publishing, 1972.

Podmore, Frank. Modern Spiritualism. London, 1902; reprinted as Mediums of the Nineteenth Century. New York: University Books, 1963.

___. The Newer Spiritualism. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1910.

Travers Smith, Hester. Oscar Wilde from Purgatory: Psychic Messages. New York: H. Holt, 1926.

Tromp, Marlene. “Spirited Sexuality: Sex, Marriage, and Victorian Spiritualism,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 31(2003) 67-81.

___. Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism. Albany: State of New York University Press, 2006.

Sword, Helen. Ghostwriting Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Wallace, Alfred. The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural. London: F. Farrah,1866.

Wiley, Barry H. The Thought Reader Craze: Victorian Science at the Enchanted Boundary. Jefferson, NC.: McFarland & Company, 2012.

Willburn, Sarah A., Tatiana Kontou, eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-century Spiritualism and the Occult. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012.

Winter, Alison. Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.


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Last modified 14 November 2013