When many first learn that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mystery series, was fascinated with psychical research and an investigation of life after death, they make the immediate assumption that he may well have been allied with the likes of the great magician Harry Houdini (1874–1926) (especially when it is learned that the two men were friends), devoting his intellect and his experience to exposing fraudulent spirit mediums. They may visualize the author much like Holmes, his famous fictional detective, unveiling the trickery by which a charismatic, but phony, medium has deceived the unwary, then climaxing his explanation of the deception with the casual utterance of, "elementary, my dear Watson." In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Doyle was an ardent believer in the reality of spirit communication, and he became such a missionary for Spiritualism that he came to be known as the "St. Paul" of the movement. While Holmes, the quintessential proponent of deduction, and his creator did not share the tendencies to be unfailingly skeptical, extremely rational, and shrewd, there were other aspects of the fictional detective which did manifest in Doyle. Arthur Conan Doyle was tall, upper-class, thoroughly English, self-confident, and successful at his chosen profession, which, like that of Holmes's loyal associate, Dr. Watson, was the practice of medicine.
Doyle was first invited to witness mediumistic phenomena while he was a physician at Southsea in 1885. For the next three years, he participated in a number of sittings in the home of one of his patients, who was a teacher at the Greenwich Naval College. The medium at the center of these experiments was a railway signalman who seemed capable of producing a wide range of astonishing phenomena. So astonishing, that Doyle, the young man of science and medicine, eventually concluded that the man was occasionally faking the manifestations, and that the other sitters either chose to ignore the trickery in the hope that more genuine phenomena would manifest—or else were too gullible or too eager to accept the miraculous to protest.
While his early encounters with mediumship were not greatly impressive, Doyle's interest in exploring the unknown was stirred, and he joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) shortly thereafter. In 1902 he met Sir Oliver Lodge (1851–1940), and the experiences and research of this highly respected scientist had a great impact upon him. Doyle became convinced that telepathy was a genuine phenomenon that could also account for a great deal of apparent mediumistic knowledge of the deceased. Perhaps, he theorized, the medium was picking up thoughts about the dead from the various sitters in the seance circle who had lost loved ones. During the same period of time, Doyle read Fredric W. H. Myers's (1843–1901) Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), which had a great effect on his acceptance of mediumship and spirit communication.
In 1916, after 30 years of intense study, Doyle accepted the phenomena of Spiritualism as genuine. He was 58, at the height of his literary career, and filled with self-confidence, so he openly associated himself with the cause of modern Spiritualism in two books, The New Revelation (1918) and The Vital Message (1919). In that same year, with World War I creating turmoil in both the physical and spiritual worlds, his second wife, Jean, lost her brother at the Battle of Mons. In the midst of her grief, she began experimenting with automatic writing, a mediumistic technique whereby one allows the pen to flow across the page under the guidance of spirit writers. When her early attempts at spirit communication proved successful, Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle became convinced that their earthly mission was in large part to be devoted to relaying messages from those who had fallen in battle to their bereaved families.
In 1918, Doyle's oldest son, Kingsley, died of pneumonia during the Battle of the Somme. A year after his son's death, Doyle attended a seance held by a Welsh medium who spoke in Kingsley's voice and referred to matters that would have been completely unknown to the medium. Shortly after the remarkable direct voice communication, the medium materialized Doyle's mother and nephew. Contemptuously brushing aside the efforts of those who attempted to explain the phenomena, Doyle declared that he saw his loved ones as plainly and as clearly as he had ever seen them in life.
After the war ended in 1918, Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle began the first of their extensive lecture tours. For the next 12 years, they were seldom at home for very long periods of time as they traveled throughout Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, northern Europe, South Africa, and the United States. Among the members of the large crowds that gathered were those who were eager to meet the author of their favorite detective fiction and those who wished to hear words of comfort from the Doyles concerning the kind of existence that their deceased loved ones were living on the other side.
The December 1920 issue of Strand magazine contained several allegedly authentic photographs of fairies that had been taken with an inexpensive camera by two young girls, Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffiths, in a little valley through which ran a narrow stream near the village of Cottingley. One snapshot taken by Elsie in the summer of 1917, when she was 16, captured her 10-year-old cousin seated on the grass surrounded by four dancing fairies. Another, taken a few months later, showed Elsie with a tiny gnome.
Doyle managed to obtain the negatives and brought them to one of England's most eminent photographic analysts. At first the expert dismissed the very notion of fairy photographs, but he ended up staking his professional reputation by saying that not only were the pictures all single exposures, but he said that he could detect that the tiny beings had actually been moving while having their images snapped by the girls' camera. Furthermore, he stated firmly, he could not detect the slightest evidence of any fakery in the photographs. Doyle wisely sought another opinion, so he took the negatives to the Kodak Company's offices in Kingsway. While these experts declined to acknowledge that the photographs actually depicted fairies, they did issue a statement that they could find no evidence of trick photography or any tampering with the film. Yet a third analyst expressed his opinion that the most significant factor in the Cottingley photographs was that the fairy figures seemed clearly to have been caught in motion as they hovered over the flowers and the girls.
As the British press spread the charming story of the Cottingley fairy photographs, numerous individuals came forward to testify that they, too, as children had played with the little people. Fortified by the photographic analyses of several experts that the photographs were genuine, Doyle obtained the services of one of Great Britain's most gifted clairvoyants to see if he might be able psychically to verify the girls' accounts of fairies near Cottingley. The psychic sat down with Elsie and Frances in the little valley and found that he was able to see even more of the fairy realm because of his mediumistic abilities. According to his great sensitivity, the entire glen was alive with many types of elemental spirits—wood elves, gnomes, fairies, and graceful water sprites around the valley and stream. Try as he might, though, the clairvoyant was unable to project to the fairies the amount of psychic energy necessary to allow them to materialize. It appeared that only the young girls had the unique blend of innocence and wonder that could somehow supply the fairies with the necessary energy to permit them to attain a material form.
Doyle issued his summation of the case of Elsie and Frances and their fairy photographs, along with his interpretation of the phenomena, in which he stated that while the proof offered by the Cottingley experience was not as "overwhelming" as in the case of spiritualistic phenomena, "there is enough already convincing evidence [for the authenticity of fairies] available." Later, the photographs were exposed as fakes, and Doyle was embarrassed by his having endorsed both the girls and their pictures in his book The Coming of the Fairies (1922) as being authentic examples of the ability of certain sensitive individuals to take genuine spirit photographs.
Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle had met Harry Houdini after one of the famous magician's performances at the Hippodrome in Brighton, England, in 1920, and while many have pondered how Doyle, a true believer in Spiritualism, and Houdini, the determined nemesis of spirit mediums, could ever have become friends, a bond of friendship was formed between the two families. Some writers and researchers contend that Houdini didn't disbelieve in survival after death, but, rather, was seeking proof that he could find completely acceptable by his standards. His attack against certain spirit mediums may have been inspired by his feeling that their evidence for the afterlife had been faked. Indeed, the friendship between Doyle and Houdini may have been inspired by the entertainer's sincere desire that the Doyles might somehow be instrumental in providing him with the proof of the afterlife that he so desired. Sadly, their friendship ended quite explosively after Lady Doyle conducted a seance in the United States.
In 1922, Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle were lecturing in the United States, and Houdini asked them to join him and his wife Beatrice (Bess) for a brief vacation in Atlantic City on June 17. That particular date was sacred to Houdini because it was his beloved mother's birthday. Expressing the belief that she could establish contact with his mother on that special day, Lady Doyle entered a light trance and began producing lovely and sentimental messages from the magician's mother in the spirit world. Although Houdini was grateful for the kind sentiments, he later publicly expressed his strong doubts that the spirit of his mother had written such words, especially since she had never learned to write English. Also, since the Weiss family (Houdini's birthname) was Jewish, Houdini doubted that his mother would have begun the message by drawing a cross at the top of the page of automatic writing. Houdini's public denials of Lady Doyle's mediumship created a breach between the friends which never healed.
Doyle was nominated honorary president of the International Spiritualist Congress that was held in Paris in 1925. In 1927, he published Pheneas Speaks, revelations relayed through automatic writing to Lady Doyle from her spirit control Pheneas. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930.