Guest writer MATT WINGETT investigates the spiritual side of the inventor of the world’s greatest consulting detective
For those who revere Arthur Conan Doyle for his super-rational creation, Sherlock Holmes, it will come as no surprise to learn that he once picked a fight with a priest. A lapsed Catholic living in the Portsmouth resort town of Southsea, Conan Doyle was furious at the parochial Protestant priest’s bigotry.
It’s an image the world would like to have of Sir Arthur: a man of science, defender of rationalism, and with little regard for our so-called “spiritual guardians”. So what could have brought him to believe so strongly in later life that it was possible to communicate with the dead – a belief so powerful it caused him to fall out with his one-time friend Harry Houdini?
The seeds to Conan Doyle’s spiritualism were planted in the year 1885, when he was invited to join a table-turning session at the home of one of his patients, General Drayson, a teacher at Greenwich Naval College. At these seances, Conan Doyle witnessed the most extraordinary manifestations that both astonished him, and left him distinctly suspicious of the medium’s honesty.
However, with his interest heightened, he joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), performing experiments that led him to conclude that telepathy was genuine.
His attitude to Spiritualism itself changed after the death from pneumonia of his son, Kingsley. Conan Doyle attended a seance in which a medium “contacted” his son, and “spoke in his voice”. This, combined with the “manifestation” of his dead first wife convinced Conan Doyle of the reality of the afterlife – and of the psychic’s ability to penetrate The Veil.
He travelled the world in pursuit of spiritualist phenomena, and everywhere he went he found what he considered to be undeniable proof for the supernatural. Indeed, he even went so far as to proclaim the “Cottingley Fairy” phenomenon genuine, in which two little girls were supposedly photographed with real fairies…
His obsessive belief in the supernatural drew criticism. The famous escapologist Harry Houdini was initially drawn to the famous Conan Doyle – but after Conan Doyle pressured him to become a spiritualist, Houdini reacted. A war of words ensued between them in the newspapers – an argument that in the end destroyed their friendship. If Conan Doyle was anything – he was determined – even stubborn.
Standing in the Conan Doyle Museum in Portsmouth today, it is fascinating to consider these two parts of his personality. Conan Doyle the doctor and scientist is well represented. But so is Conan Doyle the spiritualist. Both were strong elements in this brilliant writer’s character.
To many, it seems an impossible combination. But as his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes once said:
“…When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth…”
You can download Matt Wingett’s free ghostly e-book “TheTourist” (the story is set in Conan Doyle’s city of Portsmouth) from here. Matt’s other “Portsmouth Gothic” stories can be found on Amazon by clicking Turn The Tides Gently and The Three Belles Star In “We’ll Meet Again”.