Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Spiritualism

by | Jul 8, 2017 | Blog

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Today, Doyle equals Sherlock Holmes, the rational, clinical, forensic detective able to crack any crime by systematic and careful deduction.

Few realise that he was a medical doctor, fewer still that he was in the vanguard of the rise of 19th Century Spiritualism.

Anecdotally his interest was attracted by a book by US High Courts Judge John Worth Edmonds (1816-1874), a pioneering American Spiritualist, who claimed that after the death of his wife he had been able to communicate with her.

While working as a doctor in Southsea he moved on to participate in table turning sittings at the home of one of his patients, General Drayson, a teacher at the Greenwich Naval College reflecting the popularity and status of interest in the paranormal.

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 British Society for Psychical Research,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).

This convinced him that telepathy existed and 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. Such was his all -consuming interest in Spiritualism that he abandoned writing any more Sherlock Holmes books 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.

Sir Arthur claimed to have had conversations with the spirits of many great men, including Cecil Rhodes, Joseph Conrad, and others.
Doyle had numerous celebrity friends, amongst them met the famous American illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini.

He believed that Houdini possessed supernatural powers, Houdini however was a sceptic about Spiritualism. 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 exposed this as trickery because his late mother barely knew English and announced publicly that Spiritualism is a fraud, which understandably ended his friendship with Doyle.

Around a third 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).

In 1917 Doyle’s credibility was seriously damaged by the “Fairies Fraud”, 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 leading many people to question whether Doyle had lost his grip on reality.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s definitive 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 authorities on Spiritualism of his time prompting widespread travel 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.

Doyle died in 1930 prompting a pre-arranged test to see whether he could communicate beyond from beyond the grave at the Royal Albert Hall, but the results were inconclusive.

The New York Times Obituary, July 8, 1930 wrote:

“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.

In his later years, he often expressed a wish that he should be remembered for his psychic work rather than for his novels.

Doyle certainly had a strong literary and philosophical impact on the time.

He tapped into 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 and the notion of the subconscious, and the modernist artists and writers, such as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.
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