by Paula Bosse
In 1922, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the world-famous author of the Sherlock Holmes books, embarked on a U.S. lecture tour in which he held forth on Spiritualism and psychic phenomena. (Click articles to see larger images.)
He was a staunch (some might say “gullible”) believer in mediums and seances, and he felt it his duty to share with the people of the world his findings into the world of psychic research.
“I haven’t abandoned writing, one has to earn one’s living, but my principle thoughts are that I should extend, if I can, that knowledge which I have on psychic matters and spread it as far as I can to those who have been less fortunate. But don’t for one moment suppose that I am taking it upon myself to say that I am the inventor of Spiritualism or that I am even the principle exponent of it. There are many great mediums, many great psychical researchers, investigators of all sorts. All that I can do is to be a gramophone on the subject, to go about, to meet people face to face, to try and make them understand that this thing is not a foolish thing, which is so often represented, but that it really is a great philosophy and, as I think, the basis of all religious improvement in the future of the human race.” (Quote from a short 1927 film)
While in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he was introduced to the wireless radio receiver, then beginning to make its way into the American consciousness and soon to find itself an essential part of most American homes. Doyle had wondered whether radio technology could be used to communicate with the Great Beyond.
“I have been wondering if a knowledge of radio would not help my psychic investigations. Now I am convinced that it will. I do not know how much I can learn about it, but I am going to learn all I can.” (New York Times, June 15, 1922)
The photo above (which can be seen much larger here) shows Doyle (on the right) listening intently. After an afternoon spent with John Firth & Co. representative Frank Waller (on the left) — who took the various components apart and explained their functions — Doyle “arranged to have a complete radio outfit installed in his English home immediately after his return there” (NYT, June 15, 1922).
Doyle’s American tour was front page news all across the country. After all, he was the famed author of the immensely popular Sherlock Holmes stories. While the response to his Spiritualist views was somewhat muted, there was no denying that Doyle was a major celebrity, and Americans love celebrities. Newspaper coverage was wall-to-wall and mostly respectful. While his musings might have been fairly … unusual, his 1922 visit coincided with a rise in interest in metaphysics, so Doyle’s offbeat views on the hereafter probably weren’t seen to be quite as kooky as they might have been had there not been a general awareness of the subject. Not that there weren’t detractors.
He spoke often of the spiritual realm of the “other side” — of heaven, or “The Summerland,” complete with ever-young beautiful people and a very English idyll of horses, dogs, sport, and country houses.
His talents as a novelist imbued his descriptions of this golden, tennis-togged paradise with such vivid detail that there were warnings that his words might cause a wave of suicides, that death might be seen as an escape to a beautiful realm for those trapped in desperate straits. One such case was directly tied to Doyle (whose Spiritualist philosophy was actually against suicide).
Aside from those who thought his lectures might be dangerous — or who just flat didn’t believe any of what Doyle was trying to sell — there were also many who cautioned that there was a brisk business in fake mediums who charged large sums of money and held “seances” for desperate family members longing to contact dead loved ones. For many, Spiritualism was just another word for “fraud.” Or “hokum.”
But Doyle was a fervent believer. One wonders exactly how such an educated man — a doctor — could be drawn into such an odd world. How, for instance, was it possible that he — a Knight of the Realm — could have been completely taken in by the outrageous hoax of the Cottingley Fairies? As noted literary figure G. K. Chesterton famously quipped:
“It has long seemed to me that Sir Arthur’s mentality is much more that of Watson than it is of Holmes. “
But believe he did. As he returned to England, he said he likely made few converts in America, but he predicted that in the next 10 years, there would be “a landslide in this country to spiritualism and it will be the prevailing religion.”
Sources & Notes
Top photo is from the Keystone Press Agency, Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Toronto Reference Library, Toronto Pubic Library; more information is here.
Sources of clippings as noted.
See SEVERAL photos of Doyle and his family in America in 1922, on the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia site, here.
Read an interview with Doyle in a slightly fuzzy scan of the St. Louis Dispatch article “Conan Doyle Describes Spiritualist Heaven” (May 7, 1922) here.
Lastly, two films of Doyle. For some reason I’d never thought of seeing him on film — or hearing his voice. The first video is silent, and shows him and his family shipboard, heading back to England in June, 1922, waving, and waving, and then not waving.
And this interesting 10-minute film from 1927 (three years before his death) has Doyle talking about Sherlock Holmes for the first half and his interest in psychic phenomena in the second half. It really is weird to see film footage of someone I so connect with the 19th century!
All images larger when clicked.
Copyright © 2017 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.