One Man’s Fall from Faith: The Spiritualism of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

There are fairies at the bottom of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s garden. At least that was what the inspired father of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Professor Challenger, and Brigadier Gerard, the author of A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, a man knighted for his services to the British Empire, sincerely and unquestionably believed. He went to his death still defending the honesty of a Yorkshire schoolgirl who claimed she had taken photographs of a group of gossamer-winged, wand-waving pixies. The photos still exist; the story was exploded many years ago. Conan Doyle’s life was dominated not by detective writing, not by writing in any genre, but by an almost monomaniacal conviction that the supernatural was a reality, and that through a belief in, and understanding of, spiritualism our lives could be made complete and abundantly meaningful. There exists a profoundly symbolic cartoon of Conan Doyle, his legs manacled to a tiny Sherlock Holmes, the miasma of smoke from the diminutive detective’s meerschaum pipe enveloping and imprisoning the Gulliver-like creator. “Stop writing letters to me about Sherlock Holmes!” he wrote in June 1922. “It is of limited interest. Ask me, please ask me, about Spiritualism, about what really matters.”

Conan Doyle always maintained that he had two birthdays: May 22, 1859, when he was delivered from his mother’s womb, and November 14, 1893, when he became a member of the British Society for Psychical Research. To a very large extent his conversion was inevitable. Born and raised a Roman Catholic and educated by Jesuits, he rejected his religion almost as soon as he left home and his influential mother. The Jesuits had not then adopted liberation theology and eternal compassion, preferring liberal punishment and eternal beatings. But their pupil—Scottish, Irish, part melancholy, part visionary—did grow up filled with spiritual longing. He labored long and hard about his Catholic faith and whether to abandon it. His early diaries record references to, “betraying the mass” and “never again the communion.” But once that decision to leave the Church had been made he never vacillated or doubted, at least not in any public or tangible sense. He became an inexorable opponent of all things Catholic, even to the point of supporting evangelical Protestants in internal Christian squabbles. Once he qualified as a doctor, Conan Doyle served as a ship’s medic, and it was on one nautical trip aboard a moribund whaler that the somewhat credulous, intensely imaginative young man sat down to tales of afterlife contact from hardened and cynical old sailors. Though no longer a Catholic, Conan Doyle was still profoundly religious; he was prime for the taking.

The atmosphere of late Victorian and early Edwardian Britain—and North America and Europe were far from dissimilar in this respect—was thick with seances, mediums, and ghostly apparitions. This was the breeding ground for Aleister Crowley, for the occult eugenicists, as well as the less pernicious Christian spiritualists. In short, any and every form of vaguely theological alternative was considered. A more sophisticated and cerebral form of New Age mentality abounded, and Shirley MacClaines there most certainly were. Arthur Balfour may not have tripped the light fantastic in innumerable Hollywood musicals, but he did possess celebrity, influence, and the ability to legitimize extreme ideas. This one-time Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, an original “bright young thing,” was a devoted spiritualist and believer in the supernatural. His public acceptance and approval of these beliefs enabled an entire generation of the middle and upper class to overcome the hurdle of peer disapproval.

Yet is was a prosaic young girl who mangled her vowel sounds and wiped her frequently running nose on her sleeve who finally brought Conan Doyle into the fold. Florrie Cookes was born in London in 1854, and from her early teens was thought by the initiated to be a gifted and highly acute medium. She floated to the ceiling of the family’s Hackney home on the most unlikely and inconvenient of occasions, sometimes accompanied by her sister, but usually on a solo flight. More often she would be found insensible on the floor, exhausted after intense moments of communication with the dead—a tiny but perfect conduit for the thoughts and desires of the spirit world. In 1870 the girl’s father placed her in the charge of two more experienced mediums, Frank Herne and Charles Williams. Within the year Florrie was holding her own seances. She managed to produce a spirit, John King, and then his daughter, Katie. These were tactile spirits, touching the men who were seated around the table, even fondling the women. Some present pondered on the physical similarities between John King and Frank Herne, and the way little Katie’s eyes and cheek bones so resembled those of Florrie Cookes.

By 1873 Cookes was the most famous medium in London. She invited the authoress Florence Marryat to a séance, where spirit Katie King stripped naked, crying out, “now you can see that I am a woman.” Marryat later commented, “Which indeed she was.” In 1880 a skeptical sitter realized that one of Cookes’ new spirits was wearing guylines; he made a grab at her, and she ran away screaming insults and punching her fist in the air. Florrie Cookes’ own clothes were found lying behind a nearby cabinet. Arthur Balfour, his political star ascending rapidly, poured parliamentarian scorn on the entire affair. Arthur Conan Doyle, however, had less to lose. At around the same time he was invited by a patient of his, “a General whom I attended professionally,” to monitor the results of a bout of “table turning.” He thought those results beyond doubt. Soon he was writing letters to the local press, singing them with the name “spiritualist.”

He had been irrevocably seduced by a compendious, seminal volume written by a friend, F.W.H. Myers. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death was the most important spiritualist book of its time. “A great root book from which a tree of knowledge will grow,” Conan Doyle wrote to his mother. In 1200 pages Myers propounded his view that human personality was not simply a combination of physical and mental elements, dependent on the material existence of the body and the brain. Myers believed that the personality is essentially supernatural, that the conscious self is simply the tip of an “inverted iceberg, the rest of the personality being separable from it and superior to it, and connecting it with the soul.” He coined the term telepathy, describing it as, “like islands in a stream; certain human beings are able to release themselves from the confines of the physical bases of subsidiary thought and can establish contact between the islands, and build up connections with personalities which had survived the physical destruction of the brain.”

This was the science and the philosophy Conan Doyle needed to expunge any traces of skepticism that still existed about the Cookes affair. Heroic delusions were one thing, considered explanation quite another. He later wrote in one of his spiritualist manuals, The New Revelation: “Myers was an enormous advance. If mind could act on mind at a distance, then there were some human powers which were quite different to matter as we had always understood it. The ground was cut from under the feet of the materialists, and my old position had been destroyed… if the mind, the spirit, the intelligence of man could operate at a distance from the body, then it was a thing to that extent separate from the body. Why should it not exist on its own when the body was destroyed.”

There exists a short film of Arthur Conan Doyle. It is shaky, the cameraman has no notion of framing and continuity and it is often a little out of focus; but it manages to convey the delightful essence of the man. He grins a great deal, talks to his dog, flirts with the camera with a confidence rare for filmed subjects in the 1920s. Some of the ten minutes of the piece are concerned with Sherlock Holmes, but the bulk is spent on spiritualism. Any questions as to why he embraced the movement, why he believed so much of its content when even some zealots were more selective, is answered therein. A serenity comes to his face when he discusses spiritualism. He is no longer an author inundated with letters from Sherlockian fanatics but a man of faith in comfortable seclusion from the fools and knaves who surround him. He wears the look of all men of genuine belief, of monks, priests, the authentically holy. It is the mask of certainty.

Spiritualism became his vocation. The overwhelming and international success of Sherlock Holmes—it is argued that Holmes is the most famous literary creation in the history of language—made Conan Doyle a world recognized figure. He was invited to address audiences in almost every major city in the world, and whenever he spent an evening lecturing about Holmes he devoted his mornings and afternoons to talking about spiritualism. He toured the United States and Canada on several occasions, was fascinated by a poltergeist sighting in Montreal—”The electric lights were switched off at untoward moments, and the pictures were stripped from the walls. Twice the husband was assaulted by pillows until his incredulity had been buffeted out of him. Prayer seemed of no avail”—moved and shaken by the psychic immensity of Winnipeg:

On our first night… we attended a circle for psychical research which has been conducted for two years by a group of scientific men who have obtained remarkable success. The medium is a small, pleasant-faced woman from the Western Highlands of Scotland. Her psychic gifts are both mental and physical. The circle, which contained ten persons, included my wife and myself, placed their hands, or one hand each, upon a small table, part of which was illuminated by phosphorous so as to give some light. It was violently agitated, and this process was described as ‘charging in.’ It was then pushed back into a small cabinet made of four hung curtains with an opening in front. Out of this table came clattering again and again entirely of its own, with no sitter touching it. I stood by the slit in the curtain in subdued red light and I watched the table within. One moment it was quiescent. A moment later it was like a restless dog in a kennel, springing, tossing, beating up against the supports, and finally bounding out with a velocity which caused me to get quickly out of the way. It ended by rising up in the air while our fingertips were on it and remaining for an appreciable period.”

Winnipeg had more than dancing tables to offer. Later during his stay, Conan Doyle met a local medium named Mrs. Bolton. She led a group of spiritualists in a round of “Lead, Kindly Light…. Then she sank into a trance, from which she emerged with an aspect of very great dignity and benevolence,” and proceeded to lecture the good citizens on the conditions of heaven and the possibilities of transforming water into wine. Arthur Conan Doyle rather liked North America.

He was not so enthusiastic about France. In September 1925, he was made acting President of the International Spiritualist Congress in Paris. Interest in contact with the deceased had never been greater; so many tens of thousands had been killed during the war, few were those who had not lost a husband, son or lover. Four-thousand people attended the congress, and there were riots outside the building by those who had not managed to obtain official tickets. The police were called, their barriers were smashed, fights and beatings occurred. In an effort to inject some order into the proceedings and calm the mood of the delegates Conan Doyle began the day with a slide show. The projectionist was drunk, and if the slides were not shown upside down they bore little relation to the notes being read by the acting president in his broken and heavily Edinburgh accented French. Skeptics began to laugh. More fights. Somebody shouted out from the middle of the hall, “Look out, you’re treading on my ectoplasm.” A believer broke a chair over the head of a heretic. Conan Doyle was furious, lost his temper, and stormed off the stage.

The following year another mass meeting was organized, this time for London’s Royal Albert Hall, to commemorate Armistice Day. This jamboree was far more of a success, with less Gallic playfulness but more Anglo-Saxon organization. Conan Doyle rose from his seat in the front row of the impressive auditorium, which today hosts the likes of Diana Ross and Neil Diamond. He was wearing his medals from the Boer War, his walrus moustache was neatly combed, and his slightly distended stomach slowed his ascent to the front of the stage. He took a breath, then another, and looked around the audience in a careful, deliberate manner. A pause. “I ask all who are sure they are in touch with their dead to rise and testify,” he bellowed without the aid of a microphone. Another pause. Some members of the audience began to stand, then more. Finally, over 3,000 men and women stand up, some laughing, some crying. There are inchoate tears in Conan Doyle’s eyes as well. He says in a softer but still audible voice, “Thank God there are so many. I prophesy that within five years to such an appeal every man and woman in this great hall shall arise.” He takes a moment to hold up his hands towards the roof like some sports star with a trophy, and surreptitiously brushes a tear from his cheek. “We are not testifying to faith, but to fact.”

The Houdini Connection

Across the Atlantic there existed another man of genius who refused to believe that physical death was the conclusion to life. This son of a Brooklyn rabbi had not attended medical college or one of the better British public schools. He was a magician. Better still, he was the magician, Harry Houdini. The escapologist was passionately interested in the supernatural, but was also committed to exposing fake spiritualists; the frauds, he believed, composed the majority of the breed. The image of Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini strolling along the streets of Manhattan together, arm-in-arm, sharing a music hall joke, is quite delicious. There was an affection between the men that bordered on platonic love. In 1920 Conan Doyle wrote to Houdini: “I see that you know a great deal about the negative side of spiritualism—I hope more on the positive side will come your way. But it wants to be approached not in the spirit of a detective approaching a suspect, but in that of a humble, religious soul, yearning for help and comfort.”

The friendship deepened. The two families became close, staying with each other and sharing holidays. Conan Doyle made some headway with his friend, introducing him to more plausible seances, finally drawing out a “we had some success” from Houdini after one particular meeting. But Houdini was cognizant of too many of the tricks of the trade to become a convert; more than this, when he was unable to prove fraud he became splenetic and resentful. The two men began to argue. Houdini delivered diatribes against spiritualism at the end of his magic shows, sometimes referring to his Scottish friend and mocking his attitudes. Such was the strength of Conan Doyle’s beliefs that he was prepared to abandon friendship rather than tolerate jibes at spiritualism. The two did not speak again.

Houdini eventually died of peritonitis in Montreal, caused by a punch in the stomach from a college student eager to prove his strength. Ironically, he had just concluded a lecture concerning the fallacies of spiritualism. Some years before his death Houdini had devised a code of signals and knocks and revealed it only to his wife and to Conan Doyle. If, after I die, I want to communicate with you, he declared, I will use the code. It will be proof of an afterlife. A medium named Arthur Ford contacted Conan Doyle shortly after Houdini’s death and swore that Houdini’s spirit had woken him one night and given him the details of a special code. He was questioned, and his answers were accurate. Conan Doyle was euphoric. He was then informed that Houdini’s parsimonious widow had sold the code to the Brooklyn Eagle—it had been published and was hence common knowledge throughout New York City.

Conan Doyle’s involvement with spiritualism was in fact characterized by a succession of disappointments. In August 1925, he opened a Psychic Bookshop and Museum near to Westminster Abbey. He invested most of his savings and almost all of his spare time into the project. He lost a small fortune. A direct hit from a German bomb during the Second World War destroyed the majority of the books, papers, and artifacts. In 1930 he fell out with the Society for Psychical Research. Their journal had published an eviscerating review of a book of psychic mysteries by a friend of Conan Doyle, Marquis Scott. The review implied that the book was a hoax and suggested fraud on the part of the author. Conan Doyle demanded contrition, and when none was forthcoming resigned from the society he had joined 37 years earlier. The review, of course, was merely the latest in a series of petty internecine squabbles and personality battles inside organized spiritualism.

If disappointment did not weigh him down, the critical judgment of others most certainly left its impression. Simply put, enemies never bothered him but doubting friends did. He defended the homosexual Sir Roger Casement, for example, who had spied for the Germans during the First World War so as to aid the Irish Nationalists. Calls for Casement’s blood were ubiquitous, but Conan Doyle believed that the wretched man was clinically insane and should not be executed. Casement was in fact mad, and was also executed. Conan Doyle never wavered in his defense of the unfortunate aristocrat. He laughingly dismissed frantic, bloody letters accusing him of treachery, but took to his room for hours when an old friend called on him and expressed disapproval of his support for Casement. Unfortunately, it was friends who tended to poke fun at his spiritualism, but just as often they had little option. How could they take seriously Conan Doyle’s allegation that his second wife, Jean Leckie, had definite psychic powers when she herself thought the idea was absurd. And then there was the case of Lily Loder-Symonds.

She had been a bridesmaid at the Conan Doyle wedding and was an old and trusted companion of Jean Leckie. She was at first employed as a family nanny but a chronic lung complaint drove her to her bed. Concerned about her future at the Conan Doyle home, she suddenly developed the power of “automatic writing.” Her position was more secure, but not guaranteed. Then she began to write down messages from her brothers, all of whom had been killed at Ypres in 1915. Conan Doyle was subsequently in awe of her and invited her to become a permanent guest in his house.

He also lost battles. His anti-Catholicism occasionally bordered on the hysterical, with some of his historical romances displaying lamentable bigotry towards the Roman Church. Once a Catholic, often an anti-Catholic. In 1929 he engaged the Jesuit Father Herbert Thurston in a public debate. Thurston had recently published a critical work entitled Modern Spiritualism, and Conan Doyle replied with The Roman Catholic Church—A Rejoinder. The two men had been at Stoneyhurst together, and Thurston had been the more astute intellect even then. Neutrals had no doubt as to who had triumphed. A less morally courageous individual than Conan Doyle would not have picked up the gauntlet in the first place.

Although he was a hussar for his cause, the noblest of partisans, he also left his flanks unguarded and vulnerable to ridicule. Rather than embrace certain aspects of the supernatural and reject others Conan Doyle believed that each of the phenomena were related and mutually dependant. He eschewed those spiritualists who were contemptuous of other, less formulated psychic ideas. On fairies, for example, he wrote in The Edge of the Unknown: “All these evidences as to fairies sink into significance compared with the actual photographs which I have published in my Coming of the Fairies. These, in the enlarged edition, cover cases from Yorkshire, Devonshire, Canada, and Germany, and show varying sizes as already described. Since its publication I have had an excellent one from Sweden.” In the summer of 1929 two Californian friends of the Conan Doyles, Doctor and Mrs. Wickland, came to Britain for a visit. While the four were out together Mrs. Wickland, “physically identifies herself with the spirit of a murdered ostler.” Why is it, Conan Doyle asked a cousin, that they laugh at me?

He wrote over 20 books on spiritualism, including The Wanderings of a Spiritualist, The Case for Spirit Photography, two volumes of The History of Spiritualism, and An Open Letter to Those of my Generation. Some were published by the small Psychic Press, but others by more reputable and secular houses such as G.P. Putnam’s or Hodder and Stroughton. He dedicated the first, and possibly the best, of these volumes, “To all the brave men and women, humble or learned, who have had the moral courage during seventy years to face ridicule or worldly disadvantage in order to testify to an all-important truth.”

Yet he knew as the end of his life approached that the battle, if not the war, had been lost. His legacy was of course Sherlock Holmes, that purest and most pristine example of the materialist, and opponent of all things beyond nature. Conan Doyle used him as a safety valve, to siphon off the cynicism and irony of which he was so capable. Conan Doyle was sometimes naïve, but he was never foolish. In a revised work he wrote these telling words, exotic because of their ambivalence and sense of doubt: “We who believe in the psychic revelation, and who appreciate that a perception of these things is one of the utmost importance, certainly have hurled ourselves against the obstinacy of our time. Possibly we have allowed some of our lives to be gnawed away in what for the moment seemed a vain and thankless quest. Only the future can show whether the sacrifice was worth it. Personally, I think it was.” Poor, poor Sir Arthur.


  • Michael Coren

    Michael Coren (born 1959) is a British-Canadian columnist, author, public speaker, radio host and television talk show host. He hosted the television talk show The Michael Coren Show on the Crossroads Television System from 1999 to 2011 when he moved to the Sun News Network to host an evening talk show, The Arena with Michael Coren. He has also been a long-time radio personality, particularly on CFRB radio. He has written more than ten books, including biographies of G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and C. S. Lewis. His latest two books, Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity and Why Catholics are Right, were published in 2012 and 2011 respectively.

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