A talk by Tania Ewing
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for his Sherlock Holmes books; however, by the time of his transition, he was also known as a dedicated and renowned Spiritualist. He was born in 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland to a very strict Roman Catholic family and educated in Jesuit schools; both in the England and in Austria.
During his time in school, Doyle started to doubt Catholicism. Later, as a man of science, he did not believe the pope was infallible nor did he believe in Immaculate Conception. He also took issue with the view that everyone outside the Catholic Church is damned. These views drove him to become an agnostic.
In medical school, Doyle met Professor Joseph Bell who was later to be the model for Sherlock Holmes. Bell taught his students deductive reasoning through observing material evidence, and Doyle became convinced that observation and deductive reasoning could solve every mystery of life. At the same time, he was still curious about religion but refused to accept any religion that required blind faith, insisting, “I must have definite demonstration, for if it were to be a matter of faith then I might as well go back to the faith of my fathers. Never will I accept anything, which cannot be proved to me. The evils of religion have all come from accepting things which cannot be proved.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle investigated several religions but rejected each one because they were unable to justify their faith by demonstration of proof. His interest in Spiritualism began when he attended a lecture in 1881. He read books by prominent proponents of Spiritualism of the day and was intrigued enough to test their hypotheses by participating in séances and table turning or table tipping as it is now known.
Doyle became convinced after meeting an experienced medium who told him not to read a book by Leigh Hunt—a book that only Doyle himself knew he was considering reading. He later reported, “This incident …, after many months of inquiry, showed me it was absolutely certain that intelligence could exist apart from the body…. Let me conclude by exhorting any other searcher never to despair of receiving personal testimony but to persevere through any number of failures until at last conviction comes to him, as, it will.” With this, Doyle had finally received the demonstration of proof he had sought.
In 1887, Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in the novel Study in Scarlett which is a story set against the background of Mormonism. He also introduced his acceptance of spiritualism and proof of life after death in the book. Later, he wrote two letters to the Light, which is a British Spiritualist magazine, in which he discussed his conversion to Spiritualism. In 1893, he joined the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Among the Society’s members were philosopher William James, scientist William Crooke and future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.
In 1894, the SPR sent Doyle, Dr. Sydney Scott and Frank Podmore to investigate a possible haunting. Colonel Elmore and his family were hearing strange sounds like chains being dragged across a floor and moaning that sounded like a “soul in torment.” The dog wouldn’t enter parts of the house and many of the staff had left afraid of the noises. After spending several nights investigating, the three were unable to come up with a conclusion even though, on one night, they were disturbed by a “fearsome uproar,” as Doyle described it; no damage or cause for the noise could be discovered. Following the discovery of a child’s body buried in the garden and resulting cessation of the disturbances, Doyle became convinced that he had witnessed psychic phenomena caused by the spirit of the dead child.
Though not openly advocating Spiritualism, Doyle continued to support the Light magazine. He continued to study psychic phenomena and his writing reflected his growing interest. Some biographers believe that Doyle’s book, The Stark Munro Letters, are autobiographical with the character Stark Munro saying, “I have mastered the principles of several religions. They have all shocked me by the violence which I should have to do to my reason to accept the dogmas of any one of them…. I see so clearly that faith is not a virtue, but a vice. It is a goat which has been herded with the sheep”
In 1916, Doyle’s brother-in-law and close friend, Malcolm Leckie, died. In her grief, Doyle’s wife, Lady Jean Doyle, turned to her spirit guide Pheneas by way of automatic writing; her success with automatic writing would last throughout her life. A short time after the death of Leckie, gifted medium Lily Lauder-Symonds conducted a séance for the family and delivered a message from Leckie. He and Doyle had shared a private joke about a guinea that he had given to Doyle as his first “fee” when he became a doctor. Doyle wore the guinea on his watch chain. The message that Doyle was given by Lauder-Symonds concerned the guinea, an item that most people including the medium knew nothing about.
Now actively advocating Spiritualism, Doyle wrote to the Light to say that, due to the war, he more closely examined his beliefs and values. He said that “it was really something tremendous, a breaking down of the walls between two worlds, a direct undeniable message from beyond, a call of hope and of guidance to the human race at the time of its deepest affliction.” With renewed belief, Doyle and Lady Doyle began touring Britain, giving a series of lectures on Spiritualism as a way to help those grieving the loss of loved ones killed in the war.
In 1918, Doyle’s oldest son, Kingsley, wounded during the Battle of the Somme, died of pneumonia. Not long after, Doyle’s brother Innes also succumbed to pneumonia. The next year, Doyle attended a séance given by a Welsh medium. At the séance, Kingsley appeared and Doyle recognized his voice. Kingsley provided details to Doyle that were unknown to the medium.
With the publication of The New Revelation in 1918 and The Vital Message in 1919, Doyle related his personal belief in Spiritualism. At this time, he also wrote many letters to newspapers declaring that he believed Spiritualism to be more closely aligned with what Christ taught; that the Fox sisters in New York in 1848 proved that “no faith is necessary to come to a realization that spiritualism is true.”
Doyle’s mother died in 1920. During a séance not long after her death, she came through with other family members. Of those experiences, Doyle said, “I saw them as plainly as I ever saw them in life.”
In 1925, Doyle was nominated honorary president of the International Spiritualist Congress that was held in Paris. That year, he also opened a “Psychic Bookshop and Library” which was “within a stone’s throw of Westminster Abbey.” And, towards the end of that year, he supplemented it with a museum of psychic artifacts and memorabilia in the basement. Unfortunately, no one knows what happened to the contents of the museum after WWII.
In The History of Spiritualism, published in 1926, Doyle wrote that “Spiritualism is founded on proven facts so that a science of religion may be built up.”
In 1927, he published Pheneas speaks: Direct spirit communications in the family circle. The book was about Lady Doyle’s experiences with automatic writing and her Spirit guide.
Doyle believed traditional churches felt threatened by spiritualism and that “Roman Catholics and the Evangelical sects, alike, found themselves for once united in their opposition”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle transitioned in 1930 in England. A few days before his transition, Doyle wrote: “The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now.”
Troy Taylor’s American Hauntings, “The Haunted Museum, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” prairieghosts.com/doyle.html
The First Spiritual Temple, “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – (1859-1930),” fst.org/doyle.htm
The Chronicles of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Conan Doyle and Spiritualism,” siracd.com/life_spirit.shtml
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Spiritualism and “New Religions,” by Michael W. Homer, dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V23N04_99.pdf