The Madness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Do not sneer at the humble beginnings, the heaving table or the flying tambourine, however much such phenomena may have been abused or simulated, but remember that a falling apple taught us gravity, a boiling kettle brought us the steam engine, and the twitching leg of a frog opened up the train of thought and experiment which gave us electricity. So the lowly manifestations of Hydesville have ripened into results which have engaged the finest group of intellects in this country during the last twenty years, and which are destined, in my opinion, to bring about far the greatest development of human experience which the world has ever seen.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The New Revelation.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle needs no introduction. Over eighty years after his death, this big, Melchett-moustached Victorian still dominates bestseller lists all over the world.

I owe Doyle more than a nod as an inspiration. In fact it was Doyle’s frequent usage of the term ‘Summerland’ that gave me a title for this book. ‘Summerland’ was first coined by a self-styled ‘seer’ named Andrew Jackson Davis, and while Doyle later gently disparaged Davis’ autobiography as ‘being disfigured with too many long words’, he adopted Davis’ term for the afterlife and brought it into common usage among spiritualists.

‘Summerland’ spoke of eternal youth and bliss and lent weight to the gooey, joyful pronouncements of séance visitors. It seems that nobody ever went to a séance to discover that their dead relatives were in Hell, having their pubic hairs removed one by one by demons wielding red hot tweezers.

The trouble with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was that he would believe anything. Did you ever do that magic trick where you slide your thumb in such a way that it looks like you’ve cut your thumb in two? Remember that one? When Harry Houdini performed this schoolboy trick to amuse his friend, Sir Arthur thought Houdini had genuinely detatched his thumb. When Lady Jean Doyle claimed to be psychic, her husband didn’t question her sanity for a second and in fact a made ‘a trusted family friend’ of his wife’s spirit guide. By the early 1920s most Sherlock Holmes fans were quietly dying of vicarious shame, and the publication of The Coming Of The Fairies only cemented the widely whispered opinion that poor Sir Arthur had finally gone bye-byes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualist and occult works are astoundingly silly books. Don’t take my word for it – read them if you can. They’re available on Project Gutenberg. They’re silly enough to raise Graham Chapman from the grave, purely for the purposes of him putting on his Colonel’s uniform and declaring them too silly to continue.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s two volume History of Spiritualism is a series of unsubstantiated puff pieces on mediums such as Eusapia Palladino, Florence Cook and high octane super-grifter Daniel Dunglas Home, all of whom were exposed as frauds on more than one occasion in their respective careers. The quote above, from The New Revelation, pretty much sums up the tone of Doyle’s spiritualist tracts – polemic, evangelical and entirely credulous. In The Vital Message he nailed his theses firmly to the door and proclaimed spiritualism to be the new way to Christ.

In the mindboggling Pheneas Speaks Doyle recorded conversations with spirits. Pheneas was the name the Doyles gave to Lady Doyle’s ‘control spirit’, an Arabian high priest who had allegedly lived in Ur before the time of Abraham. By the early 1920s Pheneas had taken up residence in Lady Jean’s head and was prophecying the end of the world, a sort of Spiritualist Rapture in which the true believers would be saved and sceptics, scoffers and opponents of spiritualism would suffer and perish. This was supposed to happen around about 1925, so you can work out for yourself how much of that revelation turned out to be true.

Further embarrassment came when the Cottingley photographs led Sir Arthur to publicly proclaim that he believed in fairies, and everyone died a little inside.

So what on earth happened? How did one of the most beloved and respected authors of rational detective fiction suddenly go full on David Icke and start babbling feverishly about the ‘little folk’?

Dolly Postlethwaite’s Trip To Mars* 

Sir Arthur, a medical man by training, once described himself as ‘a convinced materialist as regards our personal destiny.’ Somewhere along the line he began reading the books of John Worth Edmonds, an American judge who had become a loud advocate for the Fox Sisters, the two adolescent girls whose ‘phenomena’ had started the whole Spiritualist craze back in 1848.

Doyle was also swayed by the word of various scientists, such as Sir William Crookes and Sir Alfred Russell Wallace. To Sir Arthur’s credit he did admit that for every Russell Wallace there was a Charles Darwin, and for every Crookes there was a Faraday, or the famously fanged T.H. Huxley, who remarked that spiritualism was an excellent argument against suicide, lest your ghost be resurrected by a medium and forced to ‘talk twaddle for a guinea an hour’.

‘But when I learned that their derision had reached such a point that they would not even examine it,” Sir Arthur went on to say, “…I was bound to admit that, however great, they were in science, their action in this respect was the most unscientific and dogmatic.”

All well and good, you might say. Why did these sceptics not investigate further? Why did science not apply its methods to the séance room?

The answer, of course, is that it did and found absolutely nothing to investigate. In the earliest years of the spiritualist craze Sir Michael Faraday experimented extensively with table tipping and came to the conclusion that consciously or unconsciously, the sitters were the ones moving the table and that no unseen force was at work here.

Science doesn’t tend to hang about investigating things that repeatedly turn up nothing of note or interest, because what would be the point?

Somehow this small nugget of Obvious passed Sir Arthur by and he dipped further into the world of spiritualism.

“I had no psychical powers myself,” he said. “And those who worked with me had little more. Among us we could just muster enough of the magnetic force, or whatever you will call it, to get the table movements with their suspicious and often stupid messages.”

See what I mean? Magnetic force – or whatever you will call it. There was no magnetic force. If there had been a magnetic force, Michael Faraday (and others) would have observed it.

Faraday needn’t have bothered where the likes of Doyle was concerned – it’s an exasperating trait of true believers that they continually cry for science to investigate paranormal phenomena and then completely dismiss the findings (or lack of) as being wrong, prejudiced or somehow motivated by some form of evil. These are James Randi’s ‘Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’ – push ‘em down, they bob right back up. They will always return to their previous positions because they can’t seem to do anything else. No weight of evidence in the world will sink them.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the King of Unsinkable Ducks. If things didn’t go his way or his ‘studies of phenomena’ didn’t come up with the results he was expecting, he made excuses.

“It is to be remembered that I was working without a medium,” he wrote. “Which is like an astronomer working without a telescope.”

This, Doyle felt, accounted for the ‘suspicious and often stupid messages’, messages that almost swayed his faith for a moment.

For much of the 1880’s Doyle had a medical practise in Southsea, where he also wrote short stories. (A Study In Scarlet was written there and accepted for publication in 1886.) He also befriended one General Drayson, who set him straight on the stupid messages. Drayson explained that “This world is full of weak or foolish people. So is the next. You need not mix with them, any more than you do in this world.”

So, there you have it. The reason your ouija board is turning up things like bArksLOB ngl fsf POOHOLES looooooo is because you’re mixing with the wrong class of ghosts. Got it? Good.

After finding himself some slightly more comme il faut ghosts, Sir Arthur had more luck at the séance table. Now, brace yourselves. You might want to skip this account if you’ve just had stitches or a baby.

“Two communicators sent messages, the first of whom spelt out as a name ‘Dorothy Postlethwaite’, a name unknown to any of us. She said she died at Melbourne five years before, at the age of sixteen, and that she had been at the same school as one of the ladies.”

Fair enough, you might say. Except the lady who had allegedly been at school with Dorothy Postlethwaite had never heard of Dorothy Postlethwaite. Would you forget a girl named Dorothy Postlethwaite? I know I wouldn’t.

“On my asking that lady to raise her hands and give a succession of names, the table tilted at the correct name of the head mistress of the school. This seemed in the nature of a test.”

So, just to be clear, what happened is that the lady who had allegedly been to school with Dolly Postlethwaite (But couldn’t remember her.) was asked to call out a selection of names of school teachers, presumably. And when she named the headmistress the table tilted!

Obviously it was ghosts. It couldn’t be that the medium or anyone else at the table knew any details of this lady’s schooling. Or the lady herself, in fact. Anyone who was in contact with the table could have moved it. And it’s not like the name of the headmistress is a really specific detail. If she’d been able to describe everyone’s favourite smoking spot, or how Mitzi Pumpington got fingerbanged by the assistant-groundsman then maybe we could talk. But you know – you can always rely on ghosts to be non-specific.

Okay – anyway. Hold onto your gussets, girls. Here comes the money shot.

“She went on to say that the sphere she inhabited was all round the earth; that she knew about the planets; that Mars was inhabited by a race more advanced than us and that the canals were artificial.”

Any questions?

Sir Arthur insists that he was still, if not a sceptic then at least an ‘inquirer’ at this point. However, he was sitting around in darkened rooms hungrily absorbing the words of dead sixteen year old girls who told him they had been to fucking Mars.

Not only that, Dolly Postlethwaite was no Curiosity Rover, let’s face it. Her knowledge of Mars was…well…Wells. Herbert George – 1866-1946. Granted, Dolly Postlethwaite took her trip to Mars a couple of years before The War Of The Worlds hit the book shops, but Wells’ science fiction masterpiece draws on a lot of popular contemporary speculation about the red planet and its inhabitants. The ‘canals’ of Mars were as keenly discussed in the late 19th Century as the ‘Face of Mars’ was discussed in the 20th. You can probably figure out for yourself how true these things turned out to be.

“I have given this synopsis of a communication,” writes Sir Arthur, in The New Revelation. “To show the kind of thing we got – though this was a very favourable specimen, both for length and coherence. It shows that is not just to say, as many critics say, that nothing but folly comes through.”

I mean, really. You’d have to be a hardcore, vinegar-titted, miseryguts sceptic to call it folly when the ghost of a teenager tells you that she’s been to Mars.

I’m being unfair – of course. I’m cherry picking Dolly Postlethwaite’s silliest utterances and not giving you the full communication.

“There was no bodily pain in her sphere, but there could be mental anxiety; they were governed; they took nourishment; she had been a Catholic and was still a Catholic, but had not fared better than the Protestants; there were Buddhists and Mohammedans in her sphere, but all fared alike; she had never seen Christ and knew no more about Him than on earth, but believed in His influence; spirits prayed and they died in their new sphere before entering another; they had pleasures – music was among them. It was a place of light and of laughter. She added that they had no rich or poor, and that the general conditions were far happier than on earth.”

No wonder Dolly Postlethwaite went to Mars – the afterlife sounds awful. And if they were governed then no wonder they suffered from mental anxiety. Some governments are enough to give you nightmares in this life. Who the hell wants them in the next?

Doyle writes that this séance took place in 1896. The next year, aged thirty eight, he met Jean Elizabeth Leckie, a beautiful woman nearly fifteen years his junior. Jean was not only beautiful and ‘accomplished’ but she was also deeply interested in spiritualism and expressed her interest in ‘developing’ as a medium.

It was love at first sight. The ‘astronomer’ had found his ‘telescope’. Doyle had no doubt from the start that the lovely Jean Leckie was the woman he was meant to spend his life with, the helpmeet who would assist him in his continuing exploration of what was becoming, to him, a personal religion.

There was just one slight problem – Doyle was already married.

To Be Continued…dot…dot…dot…

* Good name for a band. Just saying.

Further reading:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The History of Spiritualism Vol I & II (

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The New Revelation (Available at Project Gutenberg)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Vital Message (Project Gutenberg)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Pheneas Speaks (Available in PDF form online)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Coming of the Fairies (Online PDF.)

Andrew Jackson Davis – The Magic Staff (Available on Googlebooks)

James Randi – Flim Flam! (Recently converted for Kindle. Probably the best debunk of the Cottingley Hoax.)

Richard Wiseman – Paranormality (Contains an excellent account of Faraday’s experiments.)


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