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The man who believed too much

One hundred years ago, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lectured at Yale—not about Sherlock Holmes, but about talking to the dead.

Betsy Golden Kellem ’01 is a historian and media attorney. She has written for the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Atlas Obscura, and the Washington Post, among others.

Just after sunset on May 8, 1922, a thick crowd of Yale students, professors, curious locals, and women in mourning dress filed into Woolsey Hall, abuzz and murmuring. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was in New Haven for the evening and proposed to solve, live and on stage, a mystery beyond the ability of even Holmes and Watson. He titled this tale “The Proofs of Immortality.”

Doyle was not just a famous crime author and a physician, but also a passionate member of the spiritualist movement. Spiritualism, which professed that mere mortals could readily speak to and even photograph spirits in the hereafter, had spread rapidly in the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to an earnest would-be seer named Andrew Jackson Davis and three roguish sisters. Once Davis met the Fox girls and heard the mysterious rapping noises produced when they were channeling communications from the dead, a national craze was on. The girls and their claimed psychic abilities kicked off a fad that persisted in séances, lectures, spirit photography, and spiritualist groups.

The fad retreated into the fringe after one of the sisters admitted that all they’d done was drop apples or crack their toes under the table in front of gullible visitors. But spiritualism didn’t disappear. It bloomed again in the 1920s, when a combination of public pressures started to make the comfort of talking to one’s departed loved ones seem like an excellent idea. Take into account the number of World War I dead, the postwar recession, the Red Summer race riots in 1919, a clutch of extreme weather events (including more than 30 tornadoes on one day in 1920 alone), and the devastating flu pandemic of 1918–19, and it’s easy to see why Americans might welcome a message that promised relief from sorrow and fatigue.

This was true across the pond, too: Doyle’s England weathered economic depression, unemployment, rising fears of socialism, and political upheaval, all in addition to the crushing death toll of the preceding few years. Ten members of the Doyle household had fallen to war and disease; the author was particularly hard-hit by the death of his son Kingsley, who survived military service only to die of influenza shortly before the armistice in 1918. For Doyle, spiritualism was not only a science but a salve. He would write more than a dozen spiritualist books and take on a leading role in the movement, and by the 1920s, he was focused on little else.

Encouraged by the success of Sir Oliver Lodge, a scientist and spiritualist who had gauged American appetite for the occult in 1920, Doyle lined up a lecture tour for 1922. He arrived in New York on April 9 of that year and packed Carnegie Hall. He then traveled the United States through late June, beating the drum for spiritualism. Yale was an appealing stop between the New York dates and the journeys inland, offering not only scholarly validation (in Doyle’s mind), but also a literal breath of fresh air: he wrote in Our American Adventure that “The outside of the colleges . . . with the old trees in front of them, and the great green common, gives the European visitor an impression of mellow growth which he seldom receives in this bustling community.”

And Yalies definitely wanted to see Arthur Conan Doyle, for a host of reasons. Some were Holmes fans. Some wanted to see spirits. Still others wanted to blow holes in the whole scheme. A lot of people were curious about “ectoplasm,” a mysterious material that entered press coverage in the run-up to Doyle’s tour and was described as “a thick, vapory, slightly luminous substance which exudes from some materializing mediums.” The Yale Dramatic Association was all too happy to sponsor Doyle’s appearance.

The author was introduced by Roswell P. Angier, a member of the Yale psychology faculty. Doyle apologized for his hoarseness—he had a bad cold—and then got right to business. Stating his bona fides up front, he played on his reputation as a logician, on his decades of study, and, yes, on the fame of his fictional friend in the deerstalker cap. “I am supposed to know something about detective work,” he told the crowd, “and I am not easily imposed upon. I always want proof.”

For Doyle, the events around the séance table were proof enough. He reminisced aloud about his first personal experiences of spiritualism and about receiving messages from the spirits of his brother and his son Kingsley in darkened rooms, feeling their faint caresses and gratefully receiving a kiss on the forehead. A Welsh medium, Doyle said, had connected with his mother in a wash of red light, producing a sample of her distinctive ghostly handwriting. These spirits and many more had assured Doyle that their present situation was nothing short of glorious. And all of them knew details about their earthly correspondents that seemed, surely, impossible for any medium to be in on.

As for the afterlife, the Yale Daily News reporter sent to cover the event related that “the transition from this world into the next was described as being a glorious reunion of loved ones and the realization of everything that is beautiful.” Doyle flattered his Yale audience by assuring them they would be equally intelligent in the world to come: “When we die our physical body dies but our etheric body continues to live,” he claimed. “There is no change in our intellectual standing. If we were brainy here, we will be brainy there. If we are fools on this side we will be fools on that side. Those spirits who send messages signing themselves Shakespeare, Milton, or others and write atrocious verse over those names are the fools of the other side.”

His remarks floating into Woolsey’s ringing expanse, Doyle styled an afterlife of refinement and light, a cosmic picnic ground offering only the rosiest, the most comfortable circumstances. This required a lot of world-building and a fair number of caveats. He described, as Dante had, a realm of increasing enlightenment and virtue as the soul ascended higher into its heaven, but unlike the poet, his eschatology had no room for hell: only a mild sort of purgatory, a “spiritual hospital,” awaited the imperfect.  

There were technicalities. Doyle explained that souls waited three days before beginning their astral journey, to allow earthly relatives the chance to grieve. One could not use death by suicide to bypass their required earthly trials. Yes, the ectoplasmic soul may be transcendent, but it can yet be photographed here on earth. Spirits have great difficulty in crossing their plane to speak to the living, but they get better at it the more they try. In response to criticism that he was supplanting Christianity, Doyle answered that spirit messages “have not revolutionized religion in any way, but have merely added their convincing testimony” to New Testament text.

And as for the passage of time, well, it seemed largely arbitrary: “If a child of five should die now and its mother 15 years from now,” Doyle explained, “when she passed to the other side she would find him 20 years old. She would not know him but he would know her. An aged person upon reaching the next world is gradually rejuvenated until he or she reaches the best point in life. Beauty and health is regained. We have the best in the next world of what we had in this world.” The New York Evening World put it more succinctly in a headline following a Carnegie Hall performance on the same lecture tour: “All Women Pretty and 25, Men 30, in Doyle’s Heaven.”

The stories—and Doyle’s lantern slides of spirit photography, softly illuminated in the dark hall—certainly convinced some attendees: the program was briefly paused when one audience member fainted under the weight of the ideas being discussed. (The other pause in the action was, because some things never change, due to difficulties with the slide projector.) Under the headline “A. Conan Doyle Describes Details of Future Life,” the Yale Daily News stated that “a lecture by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Woolsey Hall last night revealed many definite proofs of the existence of a spirit world which is far more beautiful and ideal than this earth.”

In the story The Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes famously preached that “when you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In his own mind, Doyle—a physician and a legal scholar—was as rigorous as his creation in seeking the truth of the hereafter. The problem was that he was too easily fooled: too reliant upon the hearsay of séance queens, utterly unaware of techniques like “cold reading,” by which mediums can glean key details about their subjects, and too blind to contradictory information. (Skeptics going back to P. T. Barnum had debunked spirit photography as a parlor trick; and “ectoplasm” in the séance chamber was commonly gauze or meat scraps, props that looked ghoulish in a dimly lit room.) Doyle nonetheless believed—at fair risk to his public reputation—in fairy photos, extrasensory powers, ectoplasmic emanations, and the idea that then-new wireless radio technology might reveal psychic truths.

Doyle would brook no dissent. When Scientific American offered a contest to authenticate the practice of spiritualism in 1922, he said that they would only attract charlatans, since no medium worth her salt would compete for a cash prize. Lured into sitting for a rigged spirit photography session, he responded that trained sleight-of-hand artists were merely using earthly means to do what the spirits could manage with one ectoplasmic arm tied behind their back. Harry Houdini and Doyle for some years carried on a slightly antagonistic friendship—the magician urging skepticism, the author claiming that Houdini might well have psychic powers even if he didn’t believe in them.

Whenever an opponent poked at spiritualism’s balloon, Doyle and his fellow enthusiasts simply moved towards an unprovable claim, found an exculpating detail, or leaned harder into their beliefs (when in doubt, blame the spirits!). In an era indelibly marked by heartache and fear, spiritualism offered people like Doyle sure footing, a sense of agency, and a seat on the winning side. Evidentiary gymnastics were little trouble compared with the promise of triumph: “The next world is the place where you are all going sooner or later,” he assured his New Haven audience, adding: “and I hope sooner.”   





6 comments

  • Michael Tymn
    Michael Tymn, 4:10pm December 31 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Sir Arthur was certainly a zealot and may have misjudged a phenomenon or two, but anyone who has done an in-depth study of the psychical research carried out by some very esteemed scientists and scholars between 1850 and 1920 should recognize that his zeal was not misplaced. If you are interested in knowing more about this research, google "Bigelow Essay Winners" and read my essay there.

  • Michael Tymn
    Michael Tymn, 4:15pm December 31 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    A little addendum to the prior comment. Please note that Professor Robert Hare, one of the witnesses testifying in my essay, was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by Yale, and also by Harvard.

  • Bob Michaelson
    Bob Michaelson, 10:02am January 13 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    "Michael E. Tymn is an American pseudoscience promoter and spiritualist author known for his books on life after death."
    https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Michael_E._Tymn

    "Tymn has no formal training in science, but he promotes his work as being grounded in scientific ideas. His work does not acknowledge studies which have debunked many of the early mediums. Tymn ignores any evidence of fraud in mediumship."

    And, I am pleased to note, he is not a Yale alumnus.

  • Rebecca Weiner
    Rebecca Weiner, 12:02pm January 13 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Thank you Bob Michaelson! And thanks for this lovely article, subtly pointing out parallels across the centuries of dire personal and national circumstances that lead many toward ignoring the evidence of science and their senses, in favor of beliefs that seem comforting at the time. Kudos!

  • T. Mary Williams
    T. Mary Williams, 3:24am January 23 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I think Michael E. Tymn is brilliant, and his scholarship worthy of more than the unbridled supercilious scorn of typical (today) closed-minded Yalies. And yes, I am an alumna. TD, Class of '91.

  • T. Mary Williams
    T. Mary Williams, 3:28am January 23 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    And yes, Heaven is real. And so is the after-life. Not everything is proven or provable by "muh science!" You guys were bleeding people with leeches at one point and studying people's heads for their personalities and believing that germs spontaneously generated, and more, while those of us in the humanities were writing enduring philosophy, literature, and religion that have stood the test of time, i.e., truth. Yes, that may "seem comforting," but is no less true. I just can't with intellectual, pseudo-scientific-philes!

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