THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
What Led the Creator of Sherlock Holmes & One of the Leading Writers of his Day to Become the World's Most Famous Proponent of Spiritualism?
In the early days of 1886, a young and at that time, not very successful, doctor named Arthur Conan Doyle was living in a the small English village of Southsea. In between his few patients, he began jotting down notes about a story that he planned to write about a detective who lived on Baker Street in London and his faithful companion, a young doctor who had returned from action in Afghanistan. When he settled on the name of "Sherlock Holmes" for the detective and decided to write the story in the words of the doctor, John H. Watson, Doyle began to write the story. At that moment, one of the most powerful and enduring sets of characters in the history of literature was born.
In the years that followed, Conan Doyle -- and his especially his famous detective -- became known throughout the world. Sir Arthur would go on to achieve a remarkable career as an author and as a vivid public figure. He became personally involved in a number of causes, including using his own deductive skills to free two innocent men from prison. He also championed military and social reforms that were well ahead of their time and was even knighted for his service during the Boer War. In addition, he also introduced skis to the country of Switzerland and chronicled the history of the British Army during World War I.
But all of these achievements, at least in the mind of Conan Doyle, paled in comparison to what he believed was his greatest crusade -- the promotion of Spiritualism around the world. Around the time of World War I. Doyle converted publicly to Spiritualism and he set aside his writing career to lecture and travel the world for the Spiritualist cause.
His writings were almost solely centered on the movement and its amazing wonders. Conan Doyle pursued Spiritualism with all of the vigor that he plunged into everything else -- full steam ahead.
Despite a number of set-backs, the collapse of friendships, ridiculous frauds and even the exposure of mediums he believed in, Conan Doyle would not be shaken in his beliefs. He was insulted, disparaged and forced to give up most of his paid work but he never faltered.
What could have so convinced this proper and courageous English gentleman to so heartily embrace a movement that was despised by so many? What did Conan Doyle know that so much of the rest of the world did not? And what mysteries was he privy to.....?
THE DOCTOR & WRITER
Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 22, 1859. He was the second child and oldest son of Charles Doyle, an assistant surveyor in the Scottish Office of Works. Charles Doyle was an artistic man but never fared well in his work. Early biographies of his son painted a picture of his father as a "dreamy aesthetic figure" but it was later revealed that he was both an alcoholic and an epileptic. He left his job while in his 40's and spent most of the rest of his life in nursing homes for alcoholics and mental asylums. Doyle's mother, Mary, on the other hand was the backbone of the family. She was a well-read woman and a great storyteller and years later, Arthur would credit her for her love of literature. She bore her husband ten children in all, five girls and two boys of whom survived.
Growing up, Doyle spent two years at a preparatory school of Hodder and then among the Jesuits at Stonyhurst. He had been allowed to attend this Catholic institution at no charge for it was hoped that he might dedicate his life to the church. He would eventually become disenchanted with Catholicism though and decide on pursuing a medical career instead. Over the next few years, Doyle endured the spartan conditions of boarding school, the corporal punishment and the poor food. He excelled at sports, especially cricket, and at 16 passed his graduate exam with honors. Doyle began working hard to obtain a scholarship for his medical studies and while awarded one, a series of official mistakes prevented him from receiving it. His family could not afford to send him to school, so he worked a series of jobs and attended medical college at the same time. It took him five years to earn his degrees as a Bachelor of Medicine but his completed his schooling in Edinburgh in 1881.
Doyle was eager to start a medical practice after graduation and had also developed a love for writing. He hoped to supplement his practice by selling short stories to the magazines of the day but while in school, he recognized the importance of working first and writing later. He wrote and sold a short story or two and then, as a third-year student, he signed on as a ship's surgeon for a whaler that was making a seven month voyage to the Arctic. Doyle got along well with the ships' crew. He was by now a massive and strong young man, an all around sportsman and a man of incredible strength. His boxing skills also served him well and he won a bout with the ship's steward on the first night out of port.
The trip to the Arctic so fulfilled his taste for action and adventure that he signed on to another ship the following year. This time, he was a ship's surgeon on a voyage taking cargo and crew down the west coast of Africa. This adventure was far less enjoyable though and he became extremely ill, likely with malaria. He came home with a small amount of money in his pockets though and decided to start his medical practice. Oddly, Doyle first ended up working as an assistant to an eccentric character named Budd that he knew from medical school. Budd was little more than a charlatan and ended up cheating Doyle out of not only his portion of the practice but left him nearly penniless as well. Finally, Doyle ended up in a small village outside of Plymouth called Southsea, where he practiced for eight years.
He made little money during this period of his life but he managed to supplement his meager income with sales of short stories. As he settled into his practice, he wrote as often as time allowed and since he had few patients, he would often spend hours scratching out adventure stories as his desk. In 1886, he penned his first Sherlock Holmes story but had difficulty finding anyone to publish it. He eventually sold it outright for a small sum. The publishers told him that at the time, they didn't plan to publish it for at least a year "as the market is flooded at present by cheap fiction."
The story called "A Study in Scarlet" appeared in the Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887 and met with success but Doyle had no interest in being merely a writer of short, detective stories. Instead, he began research and wrote a lengthy historical novel called Micah Clarke. The book appeared in 1889 and was an immediate success. Six more stories about Sherlock Homes followed in the recently founded Strand Magazine and an American publisher requested a Holmes novel, spurring Doyle to write The Sign of the Four. Doyle meant to write only those stories about Sherlock Holmes and no more. He thought of himself as a serious novelist and the Holmes stories were merely a distraction to him. However, when the publishers offered more and more money for additional tales, Doyle surrendered -- and the Sherlock Holmes saga began.
Before Sherlock Homes was a sensation in England though, Doyle was already busy writing another historical novel, The White Company, which he considered his best work, and attending to his practice. His younger brother, Innes, had also come to live with him in Southsea and he assisted Doyle in his work. He still saw his writing as simply an added income to his position as a doctor.
In 1885, Doyle married Louise Hawkins, the older sister of a patient of his who had died. She was a sweet and docile woman who remained in the background, perhaps overshadowed by her larger than life spouse. Doyle, despite his love for cricket and soccer, was a good husband though and in 1889, their daughter Mary was born. In 1890, a strange event occurred that may have only been a coincidence but in later years, many would wonder. Not long after Mary's birth, Doyle received word of a demonstration that was taking place in Berlin by a doctor who claimed to be able to cure consumption (tuberculosis). Doyle became obsessed with going to the conference, even though he did not specialize in consumption at all. He could not explain his interest and so went to Berlin to see what was occurring. Unfortunately, the trip turned out to be fruitless for he arrived too late to get into the presentation. Doyle's interest in the lecture was never fully explained but tragically -- three years later -- his wife would be diagnosed with consumption would be given only a few months to live. Was it merely a coincidence or was Doyle's keen interest in the subject matter, as some have suggested, a foreshadowing of things to come?
A chance meeting with a physician in London convinced Doyle to move his practice to the city. He decided however to specialize in eye care but to do so, he needed to attend a six month training session in Vienna. The Southsea practice was abandoned (it was too small to be sold), Mary was sent to her grandmother and Doyle and Louise set off for Austria. The entire trip turned out to be a disaster. The lectures were given in German and while Doyle had a conversational knowledge of the language, he was unable to follow the technical terms. He wrote a short book The Doings at Raffles Haw instead and he and Louise left Vienna in two months instead of six. When the couple returned to England, he set up practice in London in Devonshire Place, at the top of Wimpole Street. It was a quiet and ideal location -- for writing anyway -- and not a single patient darkened Doyle's doorstep. He spent all of his time writing and it was here that he created the next set of Sherlock Holmes tales. The immediate success of the stories, the lack of patients and a severe bout with influenza that nearly killed him made his next decision an easy one. He would give up his medical work and turn all his attentions to writing.
MEMORIES & ADVENTURES
Conan Doyle was in his early thirties when he decided to break with medicine and over the next ten years, he became increasingly more successful and and increasingly more of a public figure. He emerged into the last decade of the Nineteenth Century as one of the most influential characters of his generation. To one aspect of the public he was the creator of Sherlock Homes, to another he was the author of historical novels and adventure stories and even those who were not interested in his gripping tales, he was a man of total faith in the Imperial idea of Britain and a personage who was ready and eager to play a role in public affairs.
Doyle was a figure that most men aspired to imitate. He looked more like a sportsman than a man of letter, was a robust outdoorsman and a avid boxer, adept at soccer and loved cricket. He was also, like many men and women of his generation, concerned about religion. He lost his Catholic faith while still a young man and for a time was mildly agnostic. While living in Southsea, he became interested in psychical research and began reading heavily on the subject. He also had the opportunity to visit séances and experiments in telepathy and thought transference. His search for answers led to a meeting with Sir Oliver Lodge, one of the leading paranormal investigators of the time, and in 1893, he joined the Psychical Research Society. He watched with interest the public's fascination with Spiritualism but did not understand how ghostly phenomena warranted a faith and religion based around it -- at least not yet. He did become more and more interested in the Spiritualist movement though, although at first his interested was tinged heavily with skepticism. This did not keep him from writing horror tales in which Spiritualism played a part though.
Sadly, Doyle's personal life was not to successful. He refused to accept the diagnosis that doctor's had given to his beloved Louise was became determined to find a cure for her tuberculosis. According to the doctors, she only had a few months love but Doyle was sure that he could prolong her life. He set aside his a career and began taking Louis to various places that had been recommended as being helpful to patients suffering from consumption. He traveled first to Switzerland and then was told by a friend and fellow writer, Grant Allen, who also suffered from tuberculosis, that he had found the climate in the English county of Surrey to be of great benefit. So, Doyle purchased a large home there called Undershaw, which incidentally, was one of the first in the region to have electric lighting. This was Louise's home until her death in 1906.
The strain of caring for Louise took its toll on not only Doyle's own peace of mind but on his relationship with his children as well. A son, Kingsley, had also been born in 1892 and to he and Mary, their father was a lovable but slightly fearsome character. He could be reckless and boyish with them one moment and then, when tired or worried, curt and sharp with them the next. Much of his strain undoubtedly came after 1897, when he met a young woman named Jean Leckie. If one needed any evidence to prove that Doyle was a honorable and respectable man, they need only examine the fact that his relations with Jean, who was 14 years younger, remained platonic until after Louise died. A year later, they married and she bore him three more children. Some of his friends were critical of his attachment to Jean but as far as Doyle was concerned, the relationship remained innocent for a number of years.
Doyle's grief over the sad state of affairs at home, as well as his mixed emotions about Jean, led him to escape into his writing and into the bright lights of public life. He attended dinners, joined literary societies, went on trips and even wrote a stage play called Waterloo, which was performed by the eminent actor Henry Irving.
He took his brother Innes, who was about to enter the military, to the United States, where he went on a book tour, giving talks and readings. He became very popular with Americans and they loved his bluff manner, his cheerfulness, his Scottish accent and his simple and unpretentious ways. Doyle found the wide open spaces and outdoor life of America to be invigorating and felt very much at home. Since Americans loved the Sherlock Holmes stories as much as the British did, Conan Doyle was probably the best-known Englishman in America for many years.
During the Boer War, Doyle came into his own as an adventurous public figure. The war began in October 1899 and just before Christmas of that year, in what was known as Black Week, the British military suffered three staggering defeats at the hands of an army of farmers in South Africa. There was much alarm in Britain, together with a patriotic upsurge, and on Christmas Eve, Doyle decided to volunteer for South Africa. His mother was angry and distressed, believing that his life was of more value to his country at home. There were thousands who could fight, she told him, but only one who could have created Sherlock Holmes (Doyle's mother never understood her son's disinterest in the great detective and was very angry when he killed him off by having him fall over a waterfall with his archenemy, Professor Moriarty). She also believed that Doyle's sympathies were better aimed at the Boers that at the wealthy companies who were using the military to protect their interests in the African nation.
Her feelings about the Boers were shared by many. The discovery of gold in the Witwaterstrand region in the 1880's had led many who wanted to get rich quick to descend on Johannesburg. Cecil Rhodes was the operator of many commercial endeavors who used the British "Imperial ideals" as as excuse to run roughshod over the people of the area. Conan Doyle himself admired and respected the Boers, but his adherence to Britain and the Empire was unquestioning. He decided to enlist but the Army had little use for a 40 year-old recruit and placed him on a waiting list. When the chance came for him to join a hospital unit (at his own expense) that had been put together by his friend John Langman, he jumped at the chance. He became a doctor and an unofficial supervisor and shipped out to South Africa.
Doyle remained in South Africa for a little more than three months. After the capture of the Boer capital of Pretoria, the war (he thought) came to an end. He found the time he spent in the country to be deeply satisfying and after obtaining a number of first-hand accounts of the fighting, he wrote a book called The Great Boer War on his return to England. The book became very popular, although was outdated by another history that came out later since what seemed to be the end of the war was not. It actually contained on as a guerilla war for nearly two years. Regardless, the book was successful and in the last chapter, Doyle suggested what he believed were some necessary military reforms. They caused a great stir and included the concealment of large guns (two batteries had almost been lost at one battle because a commander foolishly pushed them ahead of the infantry and provided no cover for them); the abandonment of cavalry swords and lances; and the development of a highly-trained infantry that could be supplemented by national volunteer militia units. These ideas seem quite sensible today but shocked the Army establishment of the time.
Doyle also found himself immersed in the controversy that surrounded the final months of the war as well. The guerilla war that continued brought a severe response from the British military. The Boers fed off the land and moved around constantly, striking at British forces and then vanishing. The military established s series of block houses to try and contain the guerillas, burned their farms and established concentration camps for the women and children who were burned out. The camps were dirty and badly run and various epidemics like measles and typhoid continually swept through them. A number of articles and pamphlets appeared that described the conditions of the camp but which also made false claims about the conduct of British soldiers. They articles inflamed man European countries and Britain became widely criticized. In response, Doyle penned a small booklet called The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct and it was put together from eyewitness accounts in less than a week. He made a good case against the claims that British soldiers were raping Boer women and using dum-dum bullets that expanded on impact. He also admitted that while the camps had their shortcomings, they were necessary alternative to allowing the women and children to starve to death. The booklet had its effect, especially in other European countries, and managed to counter the anti-British feelings. We would consider it to be propaganda today but it was done in support of a cause that the author truly believed in.
Before Doyle wrote the booklet, he had stood for Parliament in the 1900 general election. He was a Conservative candidate and while not in opposition to the Liberal policy of social reform at home, he joined the conservative Unionist party because they were the pro-military and Empire party. He ran for office in Edinburgh but had little chance of winning in the mostly Liberal area. His campaign was very effective however and he spoke to workmen, gave informal speeches in the street and rented out an opera house for formal speeches in the evening. He ended up making 14 appearances in less than three days, genially acknowledging the hecklers who called him "Sherlock Holmes" and focused on the importance of military reforms, national defense and the Empire. Things looked well for him until, on election day, a fanatical Protestant hung posters all over the district that proclaimed Conan Doyle to be a Jesuit-educated, Catholic agent -- a lie that must have galled a man who had long ago abandoned the Catholic faith. The posters likely swayed many voters but Doyle did improve the Unionist vote by 1500. Regardless, he lost the election. Years later, he admitted that he was glad that he had never ended up in politics. He would have never have been a good party man and he disliked electioneering. He was never that interested in politics anyway but he was a fighter by nature and fighters never like to lose.
By this time, Doyle was not only a famous author but a famous man and he was offered a knighthood, which he immediately refused, stating that a knighthood was a discredited title. His mother was furious and persisted with her demand that he reconsider until she eventually got her way. In 1902, he became Sir Arthur. Interestingly though, years later, in one of the last Sherlock Holmes stories, "The Three Garridebs", Dr. Watson mentions in passing that Holmes had refused a knighthood and named the year in which this occurred. Not surprisingly, it was 1902.
THE WAR YEARS
In 1911, Conan Doyle took part in a motor car race called Prince Henry's Tour. He had long been fascinated with the automobile, having purchased his first in 1903, and looked forward to a great sporting event. Prince Henry was Prussian and the race began in Germany and ended in London, after a circular tour of England and Scotland. It also pitted 50 British drivers against 50 German drivers and Conan Doyle drove his favorite motor car and took Jean along as a passenger. The race was won by the British team and Prince Henry presented them with an ivory lady called "Peace" but from what Doyle saw and heard during the race, he feared that war with Germany was not far off. He had been accompanied by various Prussian officers as observers and several of them made the assumption that war between the two nations was inevitable.
Doyle began preparing for war in the best way that he knew how -- with his pen. He told his brother Innes that he did not like the look of things and feared that England was not ready to fight. He exaggerated the effectiveness of the airship in those days but he was almost uncannily accurate about the threat posed by the recent vessel, the submarine. He wrote a lengthy story called "Danger", in which Britain's enemy has a fleet of submarines that ignored the British Navy but made merciless attacks on merchant shipping, causing famine and forcing England to surrender. His warning of the submarine threat was laughed about at the time it was written but three years later, the German Naval Secretary would write that Conan Doyle had been "the only prophet of the present form of economic warfare" as the Germans began preying on merchant vessels.
And while Conan Doyle was always an agent of reform and change when it came to politics and the military, he was not always so forward thinking with his ideas. He was a stoutly old-fashioned man and while embracing movements like Spiritualism in his later years, he was steadfastly opposed to others. He detested the suffragette movement and often spoke out against the actions of the radical members of the movement, calling them "wild women". The suffragettes responded by putting a hazardous sulfate called vitriol through the letter box of Windlesham, the home that Doyle had moved to in Crowborough in 1909. Doyle's opposition to the suffragettes was based on the belief that it was pointless for women to have the vote, but he also felt that was very unwomanly. On the other hand, he was sympathetic to the reform of the Divorce Law, by which a husband could gain a divorce on the grounds of his wife's adultery but a wife had to prove not only adultery but brutality or desertion as well. He campaigned hard to get the law changed but this all was placed on the back burner when war was declared in August 1914.
Conan Doyle was again galvanized into action. He said after the fighting had ended that the Great War was the physical climax of his life, a remarkable statement considering that he was 55 years-old at the time it started. Within a day or two, he had organized a Crowborough civilian group called the Volunteers. He received requests for their rules and methods from over 1,200 other towns and villages, even thought eh volunteer force was disbanded by an order from the War Office a few weeks after it was founded. It was replaced by an official body that boasted more than 200,000 men, although Doyle served in it as a private during the entire War. Most of the men were Sir Arthur's age or older but thought nothing of marching as many as 14 miles each day, singing along the entire route.
He was invigorated by the war effort but it was not enough for him. He wanted to see action and volunteered for the Army. Needless to say, he was not accepted but he did send a flurry of ideas, many of them ingenious and practical, to the War Office. Since many of the military ships had few lifeboats, the sailors on board them had little chance of surviving if they lost their ship or fell into the sea. Doyle suggested the idea of inflatable rubber rafts that could be used and while this idea was turned down, he did suggest the development of inflatable rubber collars for seamen to carry with them in their pockets. He also came up with an idea for soldiers to be fitted with body armor but it too was rejected. Unfortunately, many of those who worked in the office agreed with his innovative notions but there was little they could do about it without approval from the high command. At the Ministry of Munitions, when he went there to argue for his body armor idea, he was told: "Sir Arthur, there is no use arguing here, for these is no one in this building who does not know that you are right!"
Ideas aside, his principal endeavor during the war was to rally Britain's spirits. Within a month of the war's beginning, he published a booklet called To Arms and quickly set to work on a history called of the British campaign in France. he maintained contact with many of the British commanders and chronicled their efforts extensively, sometimes posting and receiving as many as five letters each day to and from the front. But he was not content to work from home and in 1916, he accepted an assignment to write about the Italian Army and to visit the British front on the way. As a deputy-lieutenant of Surrey, he had the right to wear a uniform and his tailor "rigged me up in wondrous khaki garb which was something between that of a Colonel and a Brigadier, with silver roses instead of stars or crosses upon the shoulder straps." He looked impressive, especially wearing his medals from South Africa, and was treated with respect everywhere that he went. He went to France on a destroyer in the company of several generals and was allowed to meet up with Innes, who was now a Colonel.
His trip to the Italian front turned out to be a hazardous one. His hosts tried, without success, to keep him out of harm's way but the party was shelled and nearly hit and had to turn back. Doyle put together volumes of notes about the Italian troops, wrote them up on his return and was told that his trip was a great success. The expedition led to his having breakfast with Lloyd George, the new Prime Minister, and also to an invitation from the Australian government to see their section of the line. While on this trip, he saw part of the battle of St. Quentin. The end of the Great War must have brought mixed feelings to Doyle. He was undoubtedly overjoyed with the Allied victory but in another sense, his greatest adventure had come to an end. The marching and the drilling, the war correspondence, the dangerous journeys that took him into the heart of historical events all combined to indulge his boyish love of adventure.
But the War and its aftermath also brought him the deepest grief that he had ever known.
First, his wife's brother and Doyle's friend, Malcolm Leckie, had been killed and then two nephews and several other friends and relatives. And then Kingsley, the only son of his first marriage, and his beloved brother Innes, both died within a few weeks of one another. Kingsley had been badly wounded on the Somme and had died of pneumonia in October 1918. Not long after, Innes, now a Brigadier General, also came down with pneumonia and died. Conan Doyle said and wrote very little of these deaths but they must have hit him quite hard, perhaps even harder than the death of his mother two years later.
Although these deaths were not responsible for his belief in Spiritualism, they surely must have had a great effect on the strength of his convictions. He had long been interested in the occult but at the beginning of the war had merely been sympathetic to the movement. The wartime deaths and the suffering that he witnessed must have convinced him of the need for our spirits to live on. It was a time when the public at large felt a great urgency to turn toward spiritual things and as Spiritualism had seen a great revival following the Civil War, it would see another following World War I. The movement had just entered its modern heyday and standing at the forefront was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
CONAN DOYLE -- AMONG THE SPIRITS
Conan Doyle's interest in Spiritualism began when he was still an almost penniless young doctor living in Southsea. It was during a time when science was just starting to question the idea that another world might exist beyond our own and Doyle became caught up on the study, as well as in the burgeoning Spiritualist movement. He avidly followed the research that was being done and even attended a number of séances and kept detailed notes of what occurred there. Early in his research, he began to consider the idea that a great amount of the phenomena that he witnessed was genuine and that the knocks, raps, horn-blowing and messages from the dead were worthy of at least a cautious belief.
Somewhere along the line, his cautious skepticism gave way to outright acceptance and there has been much debate as to what finally immersed Doyle completely into the Spiritualist movement. Most believe that it was the series of deaths that occurred during the Great War that led Doyle to embrace the movement as he did. Soon after Kingsleys' death, he was convinced that he heard the voice of his son during a séance with a Welsh medium. On the other hand, two years later, he would also be convinced that he embraced the materialized spirit of his mother with the help of two American mediums, William and Eva Thompson. Within days, these mediums were exposed as frauds and were arrested at another séance by police officers who found wigs, costumes and fluorescent makeup among their belongings. In spite of this, Doyle was not swayed from his newfound beliefs.
Even before this, a short time after the death of Malcolm Leckie (Doyle's brother-in-law), a sick friend of Lady Jean Doyle came to stay at the Conan Doyle home. Her name was Lily Lauder-Symonds and she had a reputation for being a gifted medium. While she was there, she offered to conduct a séance for the family and delivered a message from Lady Jean’s brother, Malcolm. He had been killed during the Great War and he and Conan Doyle had been close friends. Years before, the two men had shared a private joke about a guinea that Leckie had had given to Sir Arthur as his first “fee” when he became an Army doctor. Doyle had cherished the small token and wore it on his watch chain. The message that Conan Doyle was given by Lauder-Symonds concerned the guinea, an item that most people, including the medium, knew nothing about. This was likely the incident that finally convinced Sir Arthur of the legitimacy of Spiritualism. Shortly after, he began his full-fledged conversion to the movement, although he did not go public with his beliefs right away due to his involvement with British war efforts.
Soon after the war’s end, he announced his conversion to the public in the Spiritualist magazine, The Light. While Spiritualists around the world applauded his valiant efforts, his critics were instantly unkind. None of them could understand how the creator of the logical detective, Sherlock Holmes, could so gullible about the so-called “wonders” of Spiritualism. But Conan Doyle’s convictions came from his supreme self-confidence, and whether the public shared his beliefs of not, he never doubted that he had found the true path. Conan Doyle plunged into Spiritualism with all of the vigor that he showed to everything else, which could be considerable. Despite some set backs and the exposure of frauds like the Thompson's, Doyle could not be shaken from his beliefs. He was firmly convinced of life after death and the possibility of making contact with the spirit world.
Doyle began lecturing for the Spiritualist cause in October 1917, appearing in Bradford and London. In the years that followed, he visited almost every town in Britain, finding what he described as critical but attentive audiences. It's possible (and perhaps even likely) that most people came to hear the creator of Sherlock Holmes rather than because of their interest in the spirit world, but if this was the case, he didn't care. After storming through London, Doyle and his family also visited Australia and the United States, all on behalf of Spiritualism. He also lectured all over Europe and in South Africa, Kenya and Rhodesia. In 1926, he published a spiritual adventure story called The Land of the Mist, which featured the popular Professor Challenger character from his earlier book, The Lost World. He also wrote a massive, two volume book called The History of Spiritualism and throughout the 1920's spent a quarter of a million pounds advancing the Spiritualist cause.
During this same time period, Lady Jean began to develop the skills of a medium, which was in sharp contrast to her earlier feelings about the movement. She had disapproved of her husband's interest in the occult and disliked his concerns with Spiritualism, which she called "uncanny and dangerous". However, her brother Malcolm's death during the war changed her feelings and in 1921 she was suddenly given what her husband called the "gift of inspired writing". She soon began to receive messages from the other side and the loved ones they had lost soon began to make regular appearances at the Doyle's home circle.
In his books, writings and personal appearances, Doyle recounted dozens of bizarre and seemingly unexplained occurrences, but whether they were the product of the supernatural or his own willingness to believe, is unknown. He often claimed to touch phantom hands, to see objects move about, to witness the wondrous works of talented mediums and to possess notebooks will with information that had been given to his wife from spirits -- information that Doyle believed was "utterly beyond her ken." He also came face to face with at least one ghost and investigated a haunted house in Dorset. He chronicled this adventure in his book On the Edge of the Unknown, which makes compelling reading whether you believe in the mysteries of Spiritualism or not. Strangely, the house burned down after Doyle's investigation and a child's body was found buried in the garden. After the body was found, the haunting ceased and Doyle came to believe that the child's spirit may have been responsible for it since nothing out of the ordinary ever occurred at the site after the blaze.
Conan Doyle also collected a huge number of spirit photographs, most of which he believed to be genuine, including one of a ghostly woman that was taken at a haunted inn in Norwich. In 1922, he penned a book on the subject called The Case for Spirit Photography. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the photos that Conan Doyle championed appear blatantly fake today, the obvious results of fraud and double exposure. He became particularly involved with a group of spirit photographers led by William Hope of Crewe. The so-called "Crewe Circle" produced several hundred alleged spirit photographs during its heyday and Doyle posed for a number of them. Not surprisingly, all of the developed plates portrayed spirit "extra" lurking over his shoulder. The credulous author believed all of them to be authentic.
Doyle's fascination with unusual photographs led to what most would offer as his greatest embarrassment in the early 1920's. He was never embarrassed by the photographs or they outcome however, although not for the reasons that most might think. He simply could not conceive of the idea that the whole thing could have been a hoax!
Later on in that same year, Conan Doyle met a man with whom he would maintain a rather strange friendship over the course of the next fours years. He was the famous magician Harry Houdini and the two of them met in England and began a good natured but antagonistic relationship that last for about two years. Doyle believed that Spiritualism was of great importance to the world, while Houdini actively campaigned against it and its "mediumistic parlor tricks". The two men, both of whom possessed a vast knowledge of the movement, argued long and inconclusively but remained close until a series of incidents caused the friendship to abruptly end. A rift developed between the two men and was never repaired, resulting in both public and private battles between them until Houdini's death in 1926.
Houdini and Doyle were each regretful about the way their friendship ended but both men were too stubborn to back down from their opposing positions and continually waged in a war of words.
And Houdini was not the only friend that Doyle lost because of his unquestioning support of Spiritualism. Another was novelist and "Fu Manchu" creator, Sax Rohmer. He and Doyle met because of the author's previous friendship with Houdini. Rohmer was a member of the Magician's Club of London, of which Houdini was also a member, and their friendship was firmly cemented in 1919 when Houdini helped the writer out of an impossible situation that he had created with a writing error in a serial story for Collier's Weekly magazine. Houdini suggested a possible solution and got Rohmer out of the trap that he had written his characters into. Rohmer's friendship with Conan Doyle was strengthened thanks to each writer's interest in the occult. Rohmer himself had written a 1914 history called The Romance of Sorcery but did not share Doyle's obsession with the Spiritualist movement. His friendship with the other author ended after Houdini's death, when Conan Doyle began publicly criticizing the late magician's campaign against fraudulent mediums. Rohmer sprang to Houdini's defense and the previous friendship with Doyle was ended as a result.
Until his final days, Conan Doyle clung tenaciously to his belief in the afterlife and to the reality of the Spiritualist movement. In fact, he believed that his final hours in 1930 were the beginning of perhaps his greatest adventure. Throughout the 1920's, Doyle had suffered several small heart attacks and his doctors warned him about his excessive travel and speaking engagements. The robust author ignored them however, maintaining that he simply had too much to do. Eventually though, it all caught up with him and he was diagnosed with serious heart disease in the spring of 1930. He began a decline that ended in July and worsened after he caught a serious cold while lecturing about Spiritualism in Scandinavia.
On the morning of July 7, his family gathered around him and held on to the slight pressure that he still hand in his hands. Around half past eight, Conan Doyle revived himself a little but did not speak. He looked at each of his loved ones and then settled back and closed his eyes forever. His son Adrian Doyle gave the anxious public a short account of his father's last moments: "His last words to us were to my mother and they show just how much he thought of her. He simply smiled up at her and said that she was wonderful. He was in too much pain to say a lot, his breathing was very bad and what he said was during a brief flash of consciousness. I have never seen anyone take anything more gamely in all my life. Even when we all knew that he was suffering great pain, he always managed to keep a smile for us."
Conan Doyle's death caused an immediate sensation among the world's Spiritualist community. Mediums everywhere waited anxiously for his first message from the other side and while it took some time, they never gave up hope. Soon, he became a frequently reported presence as séances the world over and also began appearing in a number of questionable spirit photographs as well.
The Doyle family never had any doubts that he would return. When asked if he would, Adrian Doyle replied: "Why, of course! My father fully believed that when he passed over he would continue to keep in touch with us. All of the family believes so too. There is no question that my father will speak to us just as he did before he passed over."
There is no question that Conan Doyle lived a life of action, romance and literary greatness but what drove this author and adventurer to cling to the tenets of Spiritualism as strongly as he did, sacrificing almost everything, from his writing career to his friendships and often even his credibility, for the movement?
He is often criticized today (as he was then) for his gullibility and foolishness but could the creator of such a analytical character as Sherlock Holmes have seen something in Spiritualism that the rest of us do not? It is not up to us to judge the correctness or credulity of Doyle's personal beliefs but we do know that he believed in the reality of the movement whole-heartedly, and right or wrong, we cannot find fault with him for his convictions.
It has been said that the final moments of a man's life will define his entire existence in the next world and if this is true, then Conan Doyle lived his final moments as a man who was at peace with himself and his beliefs. What better life could be asked?