Last week I reported how famous writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had turned to Spiritualism as way of dealing with a number of tragedies in his family circle.
As a young man he had been agnostic but as is so often the way when a person converts to a faith or some other persuasion, Conan Doyle embraced his new interest with frightening zeal.
Let’s first run the rule over Conan Doyle’s life up to the time where a need to search for evidence of something beyond mortality took root in his fertile imagination.
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859. His childhood was a troubled one mainly due to his father, Charles, being a hopeless alcoholic. Despite this, his mother, Mary, instilled a keen sense of literature and history in the youthful Arthur.
Funded by money made available by family connections, he went to Stonyhurst, a leading Roman Catholic public school, where he often found himself forced to stay over during holidays, so bad was the atmosphere at home. As his father became worse he would steal from his family to buy alcohol. If there was no money, in desperation he would even drink furniture varnish. Eventually he was placed in an asylum.
Conan Doyle won a place at Edinburgh University where a classmate was Robert Louis Stevenson - later famous for the book “Treasure Island”. After qualifying as a doctor in 1881, Conan Doyle served as a ship’s surgeon on voyages that took him to Greenland and West Africa.
He then set up a medical practice in Portsmouth before training as an eye specialist. Both ventures were failures, most likely because his burning ambition was to be a successful author.
Conan Doyle’s first work featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson was “A Study in Scarlet” published in 1886. The book earned some good reviews. Holmes was modeled on his university teacher Joseph Bell. The writer acknowledged this in a letter: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes ... round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.”
Sherlock Holmes went on to feature in 56 short stories and four books, the last appearing in 1927. In the process, Conan Doyle became one of the best-paid authors of his time. His literary friends included Bram Stoker, author of “Dracula”.
In 1902 Conan Doyle received a knighthood from King Edward VII in recognition of his work on a pamphlet supporting Britain’s prosecution of the Boer War. He had worked as a doctor in South Africa during the conflict.
Conan Doyle’s first wife Louisa died in 1906 from tuberculosis. The next year he married Jean Leckie, a woman he was already involved with - although on a platonic level out of loyalty to Louisa. From the two marriages, Conan Doyle had five children. One of them, Kingsley, was badly wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Within two years he was dead from pneumonia. The author’s brother, Brigadier-General Innes Doyle died from the same disease in February 1919. From around this time Conan Doyle immersed himself in Spiritualism. In 1922 he wrote “The Coming of the Fairies”, a book that advanced his belief that a series of photographs purporting to show living fairies were genuine.
Over time Conan Doyle met and was taken in by a whole succession of people who claimed contact with the spirit world. Most were fraudsters. Displaying a stubborn contrariness, Conan Doyle even convinced himself that the ace illusionist Harry Houdini possessed supernatural powers – this despite Houdini’s own protestations that he was just a very clever magician.
Conan Doyle also joined the Ghost Club, a secretive body founded in 1862 that was dedicated to investigating the existence of unexplained phenomena. Women were barred and membership was limited to men who believed in a spirit world, albeit an elusive one.
Other famous Ghost Club members included Charles Dickens and the Great War poet and writer Siegfried Sassoon. Another poet member was W B Yeats. The late Hammer horror film actor Peter Cushing also joined. Ironically Cushing played Sherlock Holmes on more than one occasion on the big screen and on TV.
One Ghost Club ritual required that the names of all members – both living and dead – were solemnly recited every 2nd November and each was considered as still being a member of the Club. The Ghost Club still exists but I don’t know if this ritual is continued. I’ll listen out for an update over the ether.
In recent times Ghost Club members investigated tales of spectres at Michelham Priory in East Sussex. Former Chairman Alan Murdie has also written a book called “Haunted Brighton”.
Following the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on 7th July 1930 at his Crowborough, East Sussex, home, a séance was conducted at the Royal Albert Hall. Thousands attended.
A row of chairs was arranged on the stage for his surviving family members, with one left empty for Sir Arthur. He may well have turned up but if he did nobody spotted him.