Spirtualist Sherlock?

July 13, 1930: A memorial tribute and séance was held for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at London’s Royal Albert Hall on this day in 1930, six days after his death. The highly publicized event drew an overflow crowd, many of them hopeful that the well-known medium Estelle Roberts could, as promised, deliver some sign or semblance of Conan Doyle to his family, who had confidently assembled to receive it. If, as claimed afterwards, the medium did indeed convey a message from Sir Arthur, only his widow in the front row heard it, everyone else apparently overmatched by a burst from the Albert’s enraptured organist. But most sided with the skeptical reporter for the Saturday Review: “I should like to have heard Sherlock Holmes examining the medium at the Albert Hall last Sunday, for the methods that were employed were hardly reminiscent of Baker Street….”

Over his last decades, Conan Doyle’s obsession with séances, ectoplasmic quiverings, automatic writing and the like had inspired a flood of crusading pamphlets and letters, a three-continent lecture tour, and a half-dozen books — for example, Pheneas Speaks: Spirit Communication in a Home Circle, Pheneas being a 3000-year-old scribe from the Sumerian city of Ur, believed by Conan Doyle to be his personal spirit-guide. As early as 1918, this sort of thing had the London Sunday Express wondering if the nation’s most beloved rationalist had gone “stark, staring mad on the subject of the dead.” The wonder turned to laughter when Conan Doyle was thoroughly hoodwinked by the Cottingley fairy photographs and the Yorkshire girls who tricked them up. Many were fooled, but Conan Doyle had hired his own photographic experts to authenticate the photos, and then published The Coming of the Fairies (1922), in which he forecast an imminent spirit-world invasion and discussed the devising of “psychic spectacles” for best witnessing it.

The fairies did not visibly arrive, unless we count the dust which settled sixty years later, when one of the girls explained that the joke not only got out of hand when Conan Doyle and his friend, the paranormal researcher 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.”