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Christopher SandfordNovember 19, 2020

On Sept. 7, 1919, the 60-year-old Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, doctor, lecturer, seafarer, sportsman, indefatigable social campaigner—and globally renowned author of the Sherlock Holmes tales—shared the platform of a spiritualist rally at a hotel in the naval town of Portsmouth, England, with a 38-year-old spiritual medium named Evan Powell. World War I had ended just 10 months earlier, and it had taken a fearful toll on Conan Doyle’s family. He lost no fewer than 11 relatives either to combat or disease, among them his 25-year-old son Kingsley, who had been invalided out of the front line in France but then succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic. It was a blow from which many felt his father never quite recovered. 

After several departed souls had apparently materialized on the stage of the Portsmouth hotel, Conan Doyle, his wife Jean and five colleagues repaired to a private upstairs room where they searched Powell, tied him semi-naked to a chair and turned off the lights.

“The times hungered for something,” remarked Harry Houdini, a skeptic who knew something about escapism, in every sense of the term.

“We had strong phenomena from the start,” Doyle later wrote to his friend the physicist Oliver Lodge. “The medium was always groaning, muttering, or talking, so that there was never a doubt where he was. Suddenly I heard a voice.

“‘Jean, it is I.’

“My wife cried, ‘It is Kingsley.’

“I said, ‘Is that you boy?’

“He said in a very intense whisper and a tone all his own, ‘Father!’ and then, after a pause, ‘Forgive me!’”

Conan Doyle, who assumed Kingsley was referring to his earthly doubts about the paranormal, concluded his account by saying that he had then felt a strong hand pressing down on him, followed by a kiss on his forehead. “I am so happy,” his late son assured him.

Whatever the legitimacy of this encounter, it was to have a profound effect on Conan Doyle, hitherto best known as the creator of English literature’s most formidably rational human calculating machine. Soon the author turned away from detective stories and toward a steady stream of papers and speeches on the subject of what he called collectively the “new revelation.” It was now clear to him, he wrote, that this insight into the ultimate meaning of life was not for his benefit alone, “but that God has placed me in a very special position for conveying it to that world which needs it so badly.”

Conan Doyle wasn’t the first celebrity, or even the first literary giant, to apparently commune with the dead.

Conan Doyle wasn’t the first celebrity, or even the first literary giant, to apparently commune with the dead. In 1849, Charles Dickens had begun to attempt “mesmeric cures” of his young sister-in-law, who was said to be suffering from “intestinal evil.” The great novelist reported that his performances of “animal magnetism,” as hypnotism was then called, afforded him clairvoyant power. Personalities as diverse as Queen Victoria, the poet William Butler Yeats and the Norwegian Symbolist painter Edvard Munch all later engaged in spiritualistic efforts to reach a departed loved one. There was a dramatic surge of interest in the paranormal both during and in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, with its 620,000 military casualties and undetermined number of civilian deaths. In the White House, Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, held a series of candlelit séances following the loss of their 11-year-old son, William, to typhoid fever—by no means the last time a U.S. president would dabble in the occult.

But it was not until the early 1920s that the spiritualist message really gripped the imagination of the American public. It did so as a consequence both of the Great War and of the period of unrivalled national prosperity that followed. It sometimes seemed that the concept lying deepest at the heart of American life as the country embarked on its extended period of 20th-century world dominance was that of illusion. The nation had bread, but it wanted circuses—and now it got them, in an explosion of music halls and other places of entertainment offering a rich variety of fare whose most common artistic theme was the idea of mystification, legerdemain or some other form of deception. 

‘The Times Hungered’

In 1909, there were 427 officially licensed “Mentalists, visual deluders, and [other such] artistes” active in the seven core eastern seaboard states; a decade later, the figure had jumped to 6,390, quite apart from the profusion of “street fakirs, jongleurs, bunco merchants, miracle workers, healers and seers” one New York City newspaper found at work in the city.

“The times hungered for something,” remarked Harry Houdini, a skeptic who knew something about escapism, in every sense of the term. “A war memorial had appeared in every town, and many people naturally sought some divine solace for their grief.” Unfettered by an established church, the United States was particularly rich in alternatives, among them such sects as the Holy Rollers, the Holy Jumpers and the estimated three million followers of the evangelist Frank Buchman, whose core gospel of “inclusiveness” eventually led him to try to convert Adolf Hitler.

But none of those groups, however well-patronized or devoted to their various causes, compared in size or intensity to the worldwide spiritualist crusade with Conan Doyle at its head. By early 1923, there were reported to be some 14 million “occasionally or frequently” practicing occultists, served by a network of 6,200 individual churches or lodges, in North America alone. Barely a week passed without some sensational paranormal claim appearing in the newspapers or over the radio. “‘MY FRIENDLY CONTACT WITH DEPARTED SOULS: MESSAGE RECEIVED FROM MURDERED CZAR,’ by Grand Duke Alexander of Russia” ran one such headline in The New York Times. A few weeks later, Doyle explored this same historical turf when he and some friends sat down in a darkened room of a London home and apparently made contact with the recently deceased Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. The revolutionary hero left the sitters with the cryptic advice: “Artists must rouse selfish nations.”

By the spring of 1922, the spiritualism debate was the theme of several prominent Easter Day church services.

There were several reasons other than the shock of war—and the extended economic boom that followed—for this loss of momentum in the traditional religious dynamic. For one thing, science. Who needed the church, the theory went, when the answers to day-to-day life could be found in the laboratory? Presented at every turn with new labor-saving devices that owed their existence to breakthroughs in automation (this was the era of the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine and the refrigerator), the American man—and, increasingly, woman—in the street was ready to believe that technology could accomplish almost anything. On the loftier philosophical level, people were now reading daily about scientific developments that seemed to lend respectability to psychic beliefs. Among the newly evolving doctrines that purported to question man’s role in the universe was quantum field theory—on one hand, a structure designed to analyze the creation and annihilation of minute particles, and on another, a contemplation on the “non-observable” material world. 

It was one of several such “seismic jolts” (as the lapsed Catholic Conan Doyle called them) of an era that also saw the belated confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, as well as the invention and rapid availability of the household radio, which Oliver Lodge, one of its pioneering figures, insisted was itself a medium that allowed the spirit world to communicate with the living. Many people shed their traditional religious beliefs in the face of rational scrutiny, while, to others, science diluted religion to a watery sort of social work.

'The root of Spiritism...is the diseased moral condition of the age,' one Catholic author wrote.

By the spring of 1922, the spiritualism debate was sufficiently ingrained in all walks of American life for it to be the theme of several prominent Easter Day church services. In fact, opposition to the occultist message seems to have united the ordained ministry of New York, in particular, to a degree not seen since their similarly stout defense of prohibition in 1919-20. At the city’s Seventh Day Adventist Temple, for instance, an overflow audience of 672 heard the Reverend Carlyle Haynes speak on the topic of “Can the Dead Come Back? An Answer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” The minister of the Community Church of New York was compelled to move proceedings hurriedly to the nearby 800-seat Lyric Theater in order to accommodate a congregation reportedly “seething” for his own views on the subject. Rabbi Lewis Newman, preaching at Temple Israel on Central Park West, roundly mocked the idea that “the departed ever bring tidings from the grave,” a notion that “could surely only be visualized by a writer of fiction.” 

Meanwhile, what might be called the more enlightened, or charitable, Roman Catholic attitude was expressed by the British Jesuit priest Herbert Thurston, when he wrote:

If Spiritualism has the merit of upholding the belief that man is not purely material and that a future life awaits him, the conditions of which are in some measure dependent upon his conduct here on earth, it must be confessed that there is very little else to set to its credit. Catholic teaching recognizes one divine revelation which it is the appointed office of the Church, in dependence upon the living voice of the Supreme Pontiff, to maintain inviolate. For this, Spiritualism substitutes as many revelations as there are mediums…all these communications being open to suspicion and, as the briefest examination shows, abounding in contradictions about matters most vital.

Many contemporaneous Roman Catholic views on the spirit world were not as benign as that. The Catholic author J. Godfrey Raupert, a psychic investigator who abandoned his initial sympathy on the subject, wrote in the 1920 edition of his book The Dangers of Spiritualism:

The root of Spiritism...is the diseased moral condition of the age…. Too powerfully dominated by intellectual pride to submit to the law of Christ, men seek another world capable of demonstrative proofs…. That they should build a system upon phenomena which elude rational examination, that they should stake their hopes for time and eternity upon manifestations which have so much in common with the juggleries of the magician, while at the same time they shut their eyes to the proofs of supernatural life and supernatural power which living Christianity offer them, is a melancholy example of that fatuous superstition which is so often the punishment of unbelief.

Even this was mild compared to the likes of the Rev. Arnold Pinchard, who in July 1920 wrote to enlighten Arthur Conan Doyle about his views on the “deplorable tendency” of spiritualists to put curiosity-seeking before the cardinal requirement of seeking God. “You probably do not realise that I speak as a Catholic,” he wrote, “and that Catholics have certain knowledge upon such matters which others like yourself...lack.” Some of Conan Doyle’s critics took a more robust tone even than that. The author was to remark of a telephone conversation with one Lord Dunraven, a self-appointed “Catholic authority” on a wide range of spiritual matters, that “he was so furious that I felt it best to hold the instrument away from my ear.”

A Theatrical Showdown

Perhaps the greatest, and certainly most theatrical, showdown between the two foremost public performers of their day, respectively representing the pro- and anti-spiritualist camp, came when Conan Doyle and Houdini met in the author’s suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City one sunny afternoon in June 1922. Even the occult can have produced no stranger sight than that of the birthright Catholic, then a stout, mustachioed 63-year-old figure of military gait, seated alongside his equally substantial wife and the “little chap,” as Doyle affectionately called their guest, the latter dressed in an ill-fitting white tropical suit, with their heads bowed over a table in their candlelit room. 

Lady Doyle, who had recently begun to show a gift for channeling the spirits, sat motionless, poised over the blank writing pad before her.

They were there in an attempt to bring Houdini news from his sainted mother, Cecilia, who had died nine years earlier. In time the three sitters joined hands, and said a prayer. For some moments after that, Lady Doyle, who had recently begun to show a gift for channeling the spirits, sat motionless, poised over the blank writing pad before her. Then, with a jolt, the pencil in her hand began to move.

“It was a singular scene,” Conan Doyle later wrote, “my wife with her hand flying wildly, beating the table while she scribbled at a furious rate, I sitting opposite and tearing sheet after sheet from the block as it was filled up, and tossing each across to Houdini, while he sat silent, looking grimmer and paler every moment.”

Lady Doyle was eventually to produce 15 sheets seemingly full of the late Mrs. Houdini’s expressions of love for her son, including the statements “I am so happy in this life” and “It is so different over here, so much larger and bigger and more beautiful,” and concluding, “God bless you, Sir Arthur, for what you are doing.” It was “profoundly moving” for all parties, Doyle himself later wrote, and a “striking affirmation of the soul’s immortality.”

When they met in New York two days later, Houdini gave Conan Doyle the impression that he believed “my mother really ‘came through’...I have been walking on air ever since.” Over the next few weeks, Doyle spoke effusively of the event in public meetings and in a full-length book he called Our American Adventure, while the “little chap” apparently did nothing to contradict him. 

But perhaps it was all another case of artifice by a master of the craft, because Houdini later marked a newspaper report of the event “Ha! Ha! Ha!” while coming to wonder why it was that his dear mother should have chosen to communicate with him in fluent English, a language she had never spoken.

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