Seeing Spirits

by Hunter Liguore

Arthur Conan Doyle is mostly known as the author of the detective fiction and adventures featuring Sherlock Holmes. With television series, Elementary, hitting its third season, not to mention the rebooted movie franchise, along with comics and books, Holmes has infiltrated every corner of daily life. And Doyle—perhaps cursing in his grave—is known for little else. One aspect of Doyle’s life that is often overlooked are his final works, a series of writings on his die-hard belief in fairies and channeled spirits.

Arthur Doyle grew up in the Victorian age, with a father who made a living as a cartoonist. As a result of drinking and bouts of “madness,” his father, Charles Doyle, was sentenced to an asylum. He lived there most of his life, until a long line of epileptic episodes claimed him. While at the asylum, Charles continued to draw. Some of those drawings were of fairies. Other pictures have been deemed “schizophrenic” in nature, or at very the least, the drawings of a “mad” person. For the young Doyle, however, this might’ve been his first contact and consideration of the existence of an “other” world.

As Arthur Doyle grew up, his father’s illness was a driving force behind his motivation to pursue a well-paid medical career, in order to help support the family. After college, and several false starts, he eventually opened his own practice. His first year did not result in a profit, forcing him to borrow funds from his mother. It was somewhere around the second year that he began to send out his short stories and get paid for them, including Holmes’ debut, A Study In Scarlet.

Doyle conceded that he could make more money from writing – obviously something that is different now than a hundred years ago. He sold his medical practice to write full time. He churned out magazine adventure and detective stories for cash, always seeking to define himself as a professional writer.

From his journals, we can gather that writing Sherlock Holmes was work that he did quickly. Each took one week to write and made him money, but it did not secure the image of a good writer. Doyle was perceived as a serial writer, similar to today’s romance authors who aren’t always considered real writers by the literary world. To change this, he tried writing historical novels and plays, and these eventually led him to teach lectures. As notoriety built, so did his reputation. Not as a serious writer, but through the alter ego of Sherlock Holmes.

For a period of time in Doyle’s life, he – or rather, Sherlock Holmes – even received letters from people seeking his help in solving an array of mysteries and cases. The most famous of these cases involved George Edalji, who wrote to Doyle seeking to clear his name from animal abuse charges. Edalji’s family had a long history of being hated in the community, and supposedly, George was taking the fall for someone else’s crimes.

Doyle stepped up, and used his mastery of deduction to clear George’s name. While his celebrity status helped, he also found and connected threads of evidence the police hadn’t considered. He also got a little carried away, sometimes spinning fiction without evidence. But he proved himself an authority on solving real crimes.

Throughout his life, Doyle continued to be a person the public could turn to when someone went missing. When mystery writer, Agatha Christie, disappeared, Doyle was called. But rather than search for clues, he deferred to psychic means—a medium. Doyle is one of the first to consider this as a method for solving crime, and it was highly questionable in the 1920s.

The spiritualist movement was in its prime during Doyle’s reign as a detective novelist. A product of his times, in 1918, Doyle released a book on the subject called, The New Revelation, which begins his path away from science and into speculation on the existence of spirits. In the introduction, Doyle explains:

“I had always regarded the subject as the greatest nonsense upon earth, and I had read of the conviction of fraudulent mediums and wondered how any sane man could believe such things.”

Through further research into the lives of “great” and “learned” men, like Judge Edmunds, General Drayson, and the Earl of Home, people with titles and in the public eye, much like himself, he found some merit in the idea that spirits existed. Each public figure reported and took oaths claiming to have experienced psychic phenomena. It was through their admissions that Doyle began to take the subject more seriously, and he conducted his own experiments.

With a reputation as a man who used science and proof in order to make a deduction, Doyle began to go down a different path: one that sought the counsel of spirits. Following The New Revelations, Doyle continued to attend and hold séances, with the hope of making contact and proving the existence of spirits. In his next book, The Vital Message, Doyle presented a compelling case that spirits are real, and that séances are a worthy form of communication. The opening of the book, though, was meant to entice the reader:

“In the VITAL MESSAGE, the blending of two phases of existence, namely, the ascent of the material plane to the spiritual, is shown as the gate to that wonderful land which stretched so clearly before those eyes which are open to see it.”

This could read like a review to L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was published in this same era. It was less empirical, and more about showmanship, something Doyle was good at. After all, he created Sherlock Holmes, who knew how to put on a good show when solving a case. The book did well in his small circle of spiritualists, but the majority of the public only wanted Holmes.

In 1917, when two children in Cottingley, England took photos of what they claimed were real fairies, Doyle was called in to investigate. But instead of using his Holmes-like intuition and skills to debunk them as fake, he gave them his seal of approval, and wrote an article for The Strand in defense. Anyone taking a peek at the Cottingley fairy photos will have a good chuckle to think anyone believed that they were real. Despite three different professional opinions asserting they were faked, Doyle maintained they were authentic. His finding and opinions on the subject of fairies and spirit photography can be found in the books, The Coming of the Fairies (1921) and The Case for Spirit Photography (1925), both of which propel Doyle further toward the world of fairies and the supernatural.

In an era that supported the spiritualist movement of mediums, fairies, and ghosts, Doyle was at the forefront advocating for its authenticity. In his later life, his second wife, Jean, began to channel a spirit named Pheneas, who became Doyle’s direct connection to, and perhaps proof of, the spirit world. What started as friendly advice for family and friends, turned into Doyle seeking daily guidance from the spirit. He even took a trip to America on the spirit’s say-so.

During a séance, shortly after Doyle returned from his trip abroad, the spirit Pheneas made the startling declaration that the end of the world was coming. Doyle, the same person who penned fifty-six short stories and four novels featuring one of the world’s best detectives, believed all of the doom-and-gloom predictions, which included war, famine, pestilence, environmental disasters and more. Doyle even published Pheneas’ words and predictions in the book, Pheneas Speaks, and started his own publishing press and bookstore called The Psychic Bookshop to sell the work. Whether some of what Pheneas said was true or not, the world did not, in fact, end.

Doyle’s last two books were perhaps an attempt to sum up his ideas and prove them once and for all. The History of Spiritualism (1926), served as a collective history of his findings and research on mediums and spirits. In his last book, The Edge of the Unknown (1930), he attempted to prove that Harry Houdini was not merely a magician, but rather channeled psychic abilities, thus making him a wonder and expert magician. His ideas on the latter were not well-received and considered unimportant in years to come.

Is it because Doyle and Holmes were so intertwined that Doyle was overlooked as an authority on spiritualism? Doyle used his abilities to reason and seek evidence to debate the spirit world, but he was never taken seriously for it. Even today, the work is often missed or forgotten. One might argue that his books on spiritualism offer a compendium of psychic phenomena—well before Ghost Hunters came about. At the least, Doyle can be credited for supporting the authenticity of mediums, enough that eventually, psychic persons even work to solve crimes. Something that seems less far-fetched in our own times.

While we will never know to what lengths Doyle might’ve experienced the “other” world, we are left with a collection of work that few have read, but should, if they have interest in the spiritualist movement, early séances, early mediums and channels. Perhaps then, Doyle will be remembered for more than his alter-ego, Holmes.



Hunter Liguore is an American writer with degrees in history and writing. She’s been named the 2015 Writer-in-Residence at the Edwin Way Teale Nature Preserve. Her work has appeared in: Bellevue Literary Review, The Irish Pages, New Plains Review, Writer’s Chronicle, DESCANT, The Rattling Wall: Pen USA, and more. Her forethcoming novel, “Next Breath,” is represented by Regal Literary Agency.