As the BBC’s Sherlock returns to our screens, we can now tell of a new book to be published in March 2016 tells the story of how the Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes also came to believe in ghosts. Telling Doyle’s story through never-republished letters and articles, MATT WINGETT tracks Doyle’s fledgling belief in the 1880s, and his explosion on to the world’s stage as a leading Spiritualist during the Great War. We take a look at Matt’s book.
In 1887, a young medical doctor living in Portsmouth experienced two life-changing events. One was the publication of a detective story in Mrs Beeton’s Christmas Annual. A Study In Scarlet was the first story on what became the worldwide phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes.
The other event, though less known to the public, had an equally profound effect on the doctor’s life. For it was also in 1887 that Arthur Conan Doyle became convinced of the truth of Spiritualism – a fact he first proclaimed in the occult magazine, Light on 2nd July 1887, in a letter entitled “A Test Message”.
The letter, full of the new convert’s excitement, described a sitting with a medium which had finally convinced him of spirit communication. At its close, he exhorted other searchers after truth “never to despair… but to persevere through any number of failures until at last conviction comes to him, as come it will.”
The following month on 27th August, 1887, Light published a second article by Doyle. Here, the young doctor responded to a warning that Mr Richard Hodgson, an exposer of fake mediums who had recently unmasked Madame Blavatsky as a fraud in India was now heading to the United States to do the same for mediums over there. The article, first published in the Sunday Boston Herald, gave a description of Hodgson and warned “all mediums to look out for him, and on no account to hold séances with him.”
Doyle’s response was confident. He identified himself as a Spiritualist (describing Spiritualism as his religion) and recognised the aid Hodgson was providing Spiritualism in “cleaning out the Augean Stables” of fake mediums. He recommended that mediums should welcome him with open arms, and commented that for genuine mediums the only problem he could cause would be “that his mental attitude might cause inharmonious conditions, and so bring about a negative result.”
That such an apparent contrast should appear between Doyle the creator of the ultra-rational Sherlock Holmes and Doyle the devout Spiritualist in the same year is the starting point for Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light by writer Matt Wingett, which is due to be published at the beginning of March 2016.
The book traces the Spiritualist career of Conan Doyle through the pages of Light magazine in order to answer the question, “How could the creator of Sherlock Holmes also have believed in ghosts – and even fairies?” Along the way it republishes (often for the first time in books form) every single article and letter Conan Doyle wrote for the magazine between 1887 ad 1920, as well as many more in which he was mentioned, giving an unparalleled context to his Spiritualist thinking. It includes the discussions he had with fellow Spiritualists, the arguments he had with Pressmen, the clergy and scientists and traces his extraordinary Spiritualist career.
“Many people think Conan Doyle became a spiritualist as the direct result of the death of his son, Kingsley, who died of injuries he sustained in World War I,” says Matt Wingett. “But the truth is far more interesting. Doyle was fascinated by the possibility of the existence of spirits and ghosts long before his son was even born. He subscribed to Light as early as 1887, joined the Society for Psychical Research in the 1890s and even went on his own ghost hunt with one of the SPR’s founders. He performed experiments in telepathy and attended séances while living in Portsmouth, and became utterly convinced of the existence of ghosts.”
For anyone wanting to know more about Conan Doyle and his spiritualist beliefs, this is a fascinating book.