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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Blind Spiritualist

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Herbert Rose Barraud, Public Domain



Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (born on the 22nd of May 1859, died on the 7th of July 1930), an acclaimed author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, had an unexpected side to him. This devotee of logic, fact, and deduction became so incredulous of his beliefs, it’s hard to grasp.

His story is that of human pertinacity and fighting a losing war to protect what you found to be your meaning of life. It’s about losing what you believe in most because of your devotion.

Road to Spiritualism

Doyle grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland and was brought up by his alcoholic artist father (who has seen his last days locked away in an asylum). He was a fierce Catholic and attended a Jesuit school. Arthur was very serious about his religion and beliefs, though he had some doubts about the Sacrament of the Holy Communion. His education made a mark on his character – Doyle was an example of Jesuit traits and values. After finishing the school, he underwent medical studies and began practising medicine.

Regardless of his faith, he had a long-time and deep interest in arcane, mystical and dark things. He joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1887, as well as the Ghost Club, a supernatural organisation. He was also initiated as a Freemason in 1887 but resigned from the Lodge in 1889 only to re-join in 1902 and resign again in 1911.

After the heart-breaking series of deaths in his family (he lost his wife, son, two brothers-in-law as well as some nephews), he sank into a deep depression. He found solace in spiritualism and its attempts to prove the existence of life beyond the grave. He favoured Christian Spiritualism, though in 1916 he publicly announced he had left the Catholic Church and converted to spiritualism.

Exploration of the Beyond

Doyle became very invested in his new-found faith. He claimed to have had psychic experiences and decided to investigate the plethora of spiritual and supernatural phenomena using both his senses and modern technology. According to Doyle, he had his first psychic experiences while developing the character of Sherlock Holmes in 1886 and 1887.

When conducting experiments, he used 8 to 10 witnesses, saying “I don’t want to risk hallucinations.” His mind was critical and logical, at least at the beginning.

Spiritualism has grown to be the most important thing in his life, overshadowing even literature. He read a lot, he experimented. He also wrote a novella on the subject of spiritual phenomena, the Land of Mist. Doyle was also an author of multiple articles on the subject, one of which is worth mentioning.

Doyle believed in the veracity of the Cottingley Fairies’ photographs: a series of five stills taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths showing small winged women. He chose them to illustrate his Christmas article concerning fairies for the Strand Magazine. The magazine had the photographs analysed by Kodak, which – without any rock-solid evidence – said it believed the photographs were not genuine. Nevertheless, Doyle considered them a physical evidence for the existence of fairies and was very enthusiastic about them. This article had become a foundation for his 1922 book, the Coming of the Fairies.

In the end, the photographs turned out to be hoaxed. Elsie and Frances admitted faking them using cardboard cut-outs from a popular children’s book – though they maintained that at least one of the photographs was genuine.

Blindness and Hatred

Doyle invested a lot of time in taking part in public debates on the subject of spiritualism. His arguments grew less and less factual, more and more accusative. At some point, he stopped accepting any confessions or proofs that defied his beliefs.

Harry Houdini, the famous illusionist, worked hard to expose spiritualists as frauds and was strongly against the spiritualist movement. That, however, did not prevent him from becoming close friends with Doyle. What is surprising is that Doyle believed Houdini had supernatural powers, even though Houdini denied that. Houdini went as far as showing Doyle the methods he used to perform his acts – every trick. But Doyle still maintained that without supernatural powers, Houdini wouldn’t be able to perform his illusions. Houdini failed in his attempts to convince Doyle otherwise.

Doyle fought with anyone exposing frauds in spiritualism and still believed in supernatural powers of people who publicly came out and confessed they were frauds. His hatred of the scientific community, an enemy of the spiritualists, grew strong. So strong that, according to Richard Milner, Doyle may have been one of the perpetrators of the Piltdown Man hoax as a revenge.

The Piltdown Man was a hoaxed fossil, supposedly “found” by Charles Dawson in 1908. It was believed for a time to be the “missing link” between apes and humans and that belief affected the early research on human evolution. It was revealed to be a hoax only after 45 years, in 1953. The fossil was, in fact, a mix of human and ape bones.

If Doyle was in fact behind this hoax, it would show how petty he became. Even if he didn’t – his early devotion to facts and truth was long gone.

The Blind Spiritualist

Doyle’s fascination with spiritualism was in tune with the Victorian era. He devoted more than 40 years of his life to the studies of spiritualism and being a significant advocate of the spirit life and communication with the beyond. He was convinced, as he said, that “there will be whiskey and cigars on the other side.”

But Doyle lost a lot due to his beliefs: he abandoned his beloved literature and devotion to facts. He lost friends. It’s not that he was alone: he managed to build a large and loving family. But he lost his principles due to his tragic past.


Bartosz Makuch

Blogger. Publicist. Translator.
Book lover and pizza enthusiast.
You can find him at or follow him on twitter @b_makuch.

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