To most readers, the name of Arthur Conan Doyle will forever be connected with the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his trusted friend Dr Watson. The celebrated writer of detective stories based his whole literary career on extolling the virtues of science, reason and logical thinking, which leaves many surprised to learn that in his real life Doyle was a very different sort of man.
Born in Edinburgh on May 22 1859, Arthur Conan Doyle was originally a trained physician. The character of Sherlock Holmes was greatly inspired by one of his university professors, Dr Joseph Bell, and signs of Doyle’s interest in medicine are easily found in many of his stories and novels. His own medical practice, however, wasn’t very successful, and he eventually abandoned it in favour of full-time writing and other activities.
Doyle was a man of many interests – he was active in politics and advocacy, and accomplished in a range of sports (from football and cricket to golf and boxing) – but it is his interest in the paranormal that nowadays seems the most curious aspect of his life, one that he kept at least since the 1880s, when he started attending spiritualist seances and doing research on mediums, telepathy, poltergeists and other psychic phenomena.
One can do research on these subjects from the standpoint of a sceptical, dispassionate observer; Doyle, however, approached it with the fervour of a true believer. Already by 1887 he had publicly identified as a spiritualist and went on to join a number of spiritualist organisations. Finally, at the time of the First World War he became an active public proponent of the religion.
As a side note, modern spiritualism as a religious movement originated in the U.S. in the 1840s and ‘50s. As it spread around the world, mediumistic seances quickly became a permanent fixture in the broader culture of the Victorian era. Spiritualism offered a progressive alternative to the stale, old teachings and rituals of the traditional churches; its promise of the possibility of communication with the spirit world by means of gifted mediums was very appealing to many. All the more so during and immediately after the First World War: with countless men killed in battle, and further millions dying in the great pandemic of 1918, those who survived flocked to consult mediums, at least to be able to say the final good-byes to their loved ones.
Moved by the zeitgeist, it was in 1918 that Doyle published his first explicitly spiritualist book, The New Revelation, followed by The Vital Message in 1919 and a total of eleven other spiritualist titles published by his death in 1930. (At the end of this post, you’ll find the full list with links to downloadable e-books.) By that time, he’d already been a household name as a celebrated writer, and as such the single most prominent advocate and exponent of spiritualist beliefs, on a global scale.
However, such was the strength, not to say blindness, of his convictions that even some in the spiritualist circles thought he was going a bit too far. Probably the most notorious case involving Doyle was that of the so-called Cottingley Fairies. In 1920, he published an article stating his belief in the existence of fairies which he backed up by including a series of photographs made by two girls from the village of Cottingley, Elsie Wrights and Frances Griffiths. What their photographs showed were small and delicate winged creatures that the girls claimed to have been real fairies. While many immediately denounced the photographs as an obvious hoax, Doyle bought the whole story hook, line and sinker, his gullibility bringing some disrepute to the wider spiritualist movement. (Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1983 that Wrights and Griffiths admitted they had faked the photographs, but they still insisted on having seen these ethereal beings.)
All these decades after his (physical) death, Doyle’s legacy is very much alive. Sherlock Holmes’ popularity hasn’t faded a bit, but I don’t refer to literary legacy only. Spiritualism, too, is still around and even from the great beyond Arthur Conan Doyle continues to serve in the capacity of the Honorary President-in-Spirit of the Spiritualist National Union. Founded in 1901, it remains one of the most prominent organisations carrying the torch of spiritualism.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE’S SPIRITUALIST WRITINGS
The New Revelation (1918)
The Vital Message (1919)
The Coming of the Fairies (1922)
Our American Adventure (1923)
The Spiritualist’s Reader (1924)
Pheneas Speaks (1927)
Our African Winter (1929)
The Edge of the Unknown (1930)