January 16, 2018
The Spirits of Sir Arthur Conan DoyleSir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically, in almost all genres, and whether the public wished to read him or not. Leaving the plays, poems and pamphlets aside, the overwhelming popularity of the Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger stories are balanced by seven non-fiction books on the topic of spiritualism, in which Conan Doyle's public found little or no sense. These were all written in his last decade, a period during which Conan Doyle -- by book, pamphlet, letter-to-the-editor or lecture, across England, America, Africa and Europe -- grew so messianic about the spiritualist cause that the London Sunday Express wondered if he had gone "stark, staring mad on the subject of the dead."
Conan Doyle continued to write Sherlock Holmes stories throughout his last decade too, and these too caused regret -- the unstumpable one was in "mental decay," said T. S. Eliot -- but most accepted that the fine wine had reached the dregs. Unpalatable was that the nation's most beloved rationalist should now have wandered off half-corked to the world of seances, ectoplasmic quiverings and automatic writing. Worse, he had returned bringing such books as Pheneas Speaks: Spirit Communication in a Home Circle to his loyal readers -- Pheneas being an Arab scribe in the Sumerian city of Ur some three thousand years ago, come back to be the personal spirit-guide of Conan Doyle, and to assist his efforts to spread the word among the doubtful: "Their unbelief will fall as a dark garment from them," he encouraged.
The unbelief turned to cartoons and snickering when Conan Doyle, along with many others, got hoodwinked spectacularly by the famous episode of the Cottingley fairy photographs. The father of one of the Yorkshire girls who took them knew the kids had "been up to summat," but Conan Doyle was so convinced of their authenticity by his photographic experts that he published a book on The Coming of the Fairies, in which he speculated on the devising of "psychic spectacles" for seeing their arrival. Looking back sixty years later, in 1982, one of the girls said that the joke not only got out of hand when Conan Doyle and his friend, Edward Gardner, became involved, but was maintained because of them: "He had lost his son recently in the war," explained eighty-one-year-old Elsie Wright, "and I think the poor man was trying to comfort himself in these things, so I said to Frances, we are a lot younger than Conan Doyle and Mr. Gardner, so we will wait till they die of old age and then we will tell."
Ground that Conan Doyle had lost to the fairies may have been won back by his work in the Agatha Christie case. In December of 1926, Christie mysteriously disappeared, her car found abandoned with its lights still on near her Berkshire home, her packed suitcase and driver's license inside. Though only 35, and just 5 books into her career, Christie was already famous, and heir-apparent to Conan Doyle. The mystery had made headlines for a week, and foiled all attempts at solution -- tracker dogs, spotter planes, underwater divers, civilian search (one searcher being the other heir-apparent, Dorothy Sayers) -- when Conan Doyle took action. Not by magnifying glass, or deductio findum, but by psychic. Upon pressing one of Mrs. Christie's gloves to his forehead, Conan Doyle's psychometric friend reported, "Agatha." Pressed for more, the psychic delivered this: "There is trouble connected with this article. The person who owns it is half dazed and half purposeful. She is not dead, as many think. She is alive. You will hear of her, I think, next Wednesday." He further indicated an impression of water.
And all this was true, or as provable as anything ever was about the bizarre case. Distraught over her husband's announcement that he was in love with another, Christie had found her way to a luxury spa called the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel, where she registered by design or amnesia as Teresa Neele. The husband later reported her as extremely ill, with a three-year memory loss; the Happy Hydro Boys reported her dancing the Charleston to "Yes, We Have No Bananas." Conan Doyle reported his psychic to be correct on all counts: Christie was alive, near water, and though found on a Tuesday, revealed as so in the Wednesday papers.
Five days after Conan Doyle's death on July 7th, 1930, an overflow crowd at the Royal Albert Hall witnessed the medium Estelle Roberts contact him. She conveyed a message from Sir Arthur, though apparently only his wife in the front row heard it, everyone else being overmatched by a burst from an enthusiastic organist.
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