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The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle You May Not Know

January 24, 2014

In honor of the beginning of the next series of Sherlock on Masterpiece Mystery, I went to the periodicals stacks to dig up some original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and came across something that interested me even more. 

I’m sure I had read at one time about his interest in spiritualism; however, when I discovered an interview with Sir Arthur in the September 1922 edition of The American Magazine titled, “You Start in There Where You Leave Off Here,” I realized the full extent of his belief in spiritualism and was a little shocked.

In this interview, Sir Arthur staunchly defends his position on spiritualism saying, “Would you pick me out as the kind of man who loses his critical faculties in a medium’s dark room? Do I look as if I would be easily swept off my feet?” He asserts that he has carried on “sustained conversations” with his dead son, exclaiming “Why should I grieve when I know he lives?” Doyle explains the origins of his interest in spiritualism (beginning with his early medical career), his gathering of evidence, and his eventual acceptance (coinciding with the grief and hardship of World War I) of spiritualism as “something tremendous; a breaking down of the walls between two worlds; a call of hope and of guidance to the human race in the time of its affliction.”

This interview is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the man who created Sherlock Holmes. It includes a “spirit photo” (never before published in an American magazine) of Sir Arthur with the face of his deceased son. The caption states, “Sir Arthur took his own photographic plates . . . to the medium . . . placed the plates in the camera, then sat before it, as for an ordinary photograph. Afterward he developed the plates with his own hands. The likeness is said by those who knew the son to be unmistakable.”

It is surprising to learn how sincerely Sir Arthur believed in spiritualism and how zealously he tried to convince those who doubted. He lectured frequently on the topic, wrote many letters to the press along with articles like “Stranger Than Fiction” (published in Collier’s magazine November 27, 1915), and even penned a book titled The Coming of the Fairies in defense of the controversial Cottingley fairy photographs. In fact, he tried (unsuccessfully) to convert Harry Houdini, the famous illusionist, who was himself on a crusade to debunk spiritualism. H.L. Mencken states in his review of the book The Believing Mind: Houdini and Conan Doyle in the June 1932 issue of American Mercury that Sir Arthur went to his grave “thoroughly convinced that Houdini himself had been a medium” despite the fact that “Houdini, while they were both alive, protested against this nonsense with great earnestness, and offered the most solemn assurance that all of his tricks . . . were tricks and nothing more.”

A photo of Doyle and Houdini appeared in the article, “Houdini and the Sprits,” in the July 1928 issue of The American Magazine about Houdini’s personal quest to expose spiritualism as a “fraud that he conceived as a menace to society.” The caption reads, “Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, warm personal friends, but antagonists on the question of spiritualism.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Sir Arthur, check out some of these titles from our non-fiction collection: