Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is one of Britain’s most acclaimed authors. His creation of Sherlock Holmes and the subsequent novels featuring the Victorian sleuth made him, and Holmes, household names across the globe. Of less renown, however, are his later works in which he considered and discussed what he eventually saw as his life’s true mission; to spread the message of Spiritualism.
His interest in Spiritualism was not something he came to in later life. He was already attending séances and researching life after death as far back as the early 1880’s and by 1887 he had publicly announced his belief in Spiritualism when he wrote two letters to Spiritualist publication ‘The Light’.
He continued his research on the subject and expanded on his beliefs and as the years went by he wrote extensively on the topic. His earliest published book on the subject was ‘The New Revelation’ which appeared in 1916 which was quickly followed by ‘The Vital Message’ in 1918.
In 1920 Sir Arthur went on a tour of Australia and New Zealand spreading his vital message and would continue to tour the world for the remainder of his life at his own expense proselytising for the cause. In 1924 He translated a French book, ‘The Mystery of Joan of Arc’ by Leo Denis that postulated the theory that Joan of Arc was a medium; this was two years before penning his magnum opus on the subject, ‘The History of Spiritualism’, in 1926.
‘The Edge of the Unknown’ was Conan Doyle’s last published work and in it he discussed many things, most interesting of which was his thoughts on his one-time friend and eventual nemesis Harry Houdini. Houdini and Conan Doyle had a volatile relationship with Houdini’s constant debunking of Spiritualism in public, enraging Sir Arthur, who believed that Houdini himself was a medium.
In the book Sir Arthur also discusses ghosts and haunting which was something he had been looking into for many years. In 1893 he joined the British Society of Psychical Research, an organisation that contained many of the time’s great scientific, philosophical and political minds amongst its number. The Society was set up so as to get a more concrete understanding of the many paranormal incidents that were reportedly occurring in the UK at the time and in 1894 Sir Arthur was sent out with two other psychical researchers to investigate a haunting. The panel were not immediately satisfied by their investigation but a later twist in the tale resulted in a positive verdict and the case served to strengthen Conan Doyle’s belief in life after death and he continued to investigate cases of haunting for the rest of his life.
The book also concentrates on the phenomenon of ‘automatic writing’. Automatic writing is the term given to the act when a medium receives words from another entity which are written down on paper with the medium’s hand not under their own control. Using this process many famous people have allegedly ‘come through’ and in ‘The Edge of the Unknown’ Sir Arthur delves into the afterlife writings attributed to Charles Dickens, Jack London and Oscar Wilde, amongst others.
Although the book was his last and written shortly before he died, Conan Doyle wasn’t aware of any illness so it shouldn’t be seen as the final words of a dying man although it does contain his most detailed descriptions of some of the key elements of his research and is one of the crucial works in his Spiritualist canon.
About the author
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of Britain’s most celebrated writers with his invention of the ultimate detective, Sherlock Holmes, completely altering the crime-fiction genre. As well as this he was a pioneering sportsman, doctor of medicine and champion of the underdog, helping to free two men who were unjustly imprisoned. Of most importance to the man himself, however, was his belief in Spiritualism and the spreading of the ‘vital message’.
He was born Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle into a strict Roman Catholic household. He was sent away to Jesuit boarding schools until he was 17 years old and although some aspects of the religion appealed to him he believed that the foundations of Catholicism, and all Christian based faiths, were fundamentally weak so he chose to be an agnostic.
He received his degree in medicine from the University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1881 and by this time had already began investigating Spiritualism and had began attending séances, a fact that rebuffs the more common idea that he found Spiritualism after his son Kingsley died in 1918. In fact by that point not only had Arthur believed in Spiritualism for almost 30 years but he had even declared this fact in ‘The Light’ magazine in 1916 and spoken publicly about his beliefs in 1917. His first book to deal with the subject, ‘The New Revelation’, was published before Kingsley’s death too so it is fair to say that Arthur’s belief in Spiritualism was not a knee-jerk reaction to his son’s death.
Arthur didn’t immediately fill the void left by his loss of faith in Catholicism with Spiritualism. It took him until 1887 to write 2 letters to ‘The Light’ in which he discussed his conversion to Spiritualism, a fact that once again plays down any talk of an overnight and rash change of faith. Arthur joined the British Society for Psychical Research in 1893 which at that time counted groundbreaking naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, philosopher William James, scientists Williams Crookes and Oliver Lodge and future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour amongst its members.
During one of his investigations for the Society in 1894 he was involved in a case that re-enforced his beliefs when he, along with fellow researchers Frank Podmore and Dr. Sydney Scott, was asked to look into a possible haunting case at the Dorset home of a Colonel Elmore. The Elmore family had reported strange loud pained sounds that were so disturbing that most of the staff left their jobs and the family dog would not enter the rooms where the noises emanated from. After spending some evenings at the home and hearing some very loud sounds the party left unsatisfied as their findings were inconclusive. Not long after this the body of a young child was found buried in the garden and Conan Doyle believed that it was the spirit of the dead child that was responsible for the phenomena in the house.
Although Arthur had continued his research into Spiritualism he hadn’t spoken publicly about his beliefs although he did drop hints about his thoughts on the subject through his character Stark Munro in 1895’s ‘The Stark Munro Letters’. This relative silence all changed as a result of World War I as he himself is quoted as saying;
“I might have drifted on my whole life as a psychical researcher…but the War came, and it brought earnestness into all our souls and made us look more closely at our own beliefs and reassess our values.”
In 1916 he wrote an article in ‘The Light’ discussing his change of attitude and reinvigorated belief in Spiritualism and from that moment on his life’s work became the spreading of the ‘new revelation’ even though he was fully aware of the damage it would do to his reputation.
‘The New Revelation’, which was his first published work to deal with Spiritualism, arrived in 1918 and the following year he released ‘The Vital Message’ which, again, was solely concerned with Spiritualist matters. By 1920 he had embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand promoting Spiritualism and had also wrote about the infamous ‘Cottingley Fairies’ which would prove to be very damaging to his credibility.
In the early twenties he toured America and Canada and in 1924 he translated Leon Denis’ ‘Jeanne D’Arc Medium’ from the French and in the following year travelled through France lecturing. His book, ‘The History of Spiritualism’, was published in 1926 and from then on until his death in 1930 he continued to go from country to country proselytizing, taking in Rhodesia, South Africa, Uganda, Tanganyika, Kenya, Scandinavia and Holland on his way. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle continued his staunch belief that some part of us survives our physical death right up to his own death of a heart attack at his home in Crowborough, East Sussex, on 7 July 1930.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published June 1st 2010
Size: 5.5 x 8.5" 140 x 216 mm