A Study in Spiritualism: What happened when the creator of Sherlock Holmes visited Tacoma

Arthur Conan Doyle in a “spirit photograph” purportedly with his deceased son, Kingsley.
Arthur Conan Doyle in a “spirit photograph” purportedly with his deceased son, Kingsley. Toronto Public Library/Public domain

Whenever you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author and physician, 1859-1930

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

But what many Sherlock fans might not know is that the man who created the world’s most famous fictional detective — a character who epitomizes the rational and the scientific — also championed a mystical practice called spiritualism.

Spiritualism posits, among other things, that the living can communicate with the dead. Conan Doyle wrote several books on the subject, attended seances and traveled the world proselytizing for the cause.

And, in June 1923, the famous author stopped in Tacoma as part of a North American spiritualism speaking tour.

This week, as Holmes comes to life once again in a new BBC special airing on American public television, it’s a good moment to learn more about the time Conan Doyle visited the City of Destiny to talk about the afterlife, ghostly ectoplasm and a grisly Tacoma murder.

I have held the ectoplasm between my fingers, and it seems to be alive, vitalized

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Spiritualism gained popularity in the early 20th century, thanks in part to famous disciples such as Conan Doyle.

Back in 1923, The Tacoma Daily Ledger treated his visit as a celebrity event. It was front page news. The Ledger offered an advance story — a fanciful account of a supposed encounter on a train between the great author and a Ledger reporter. The surprise ending reveals all, and it turns out to be a case of mistaken identity on the part of the reporter.

But when the real Conan Doyle came to town, The Ledger was ready.

The newspaper covered his lecture, delivered at what then was called the Scottish Rite Cathedral, a type of Masonic lodge. Today, the building next to Wright Park is the home of the Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church and Western Reformed Seminary.

The Ledger reported on the author’s visit in its June 11 edition under the headline, “Religion futile, says lecturer; mysteries of ectoplasm are explained by English author and scientist.”

The Ledger offered Conan Doyle’s description of ectoplasm: “a plastic substance, not yet fully understood, which comes from the body of the medium” (a person with psychic power who can communicate with the dead).

“I have held the ectoplasm between my fingers, and it seems to be alive, vitalized,” Conan Doyle continued. “It must not be confused with the spirits, for they are only using it.”

Conan Doyle described his views on the afterlife, which he likened to a beautiful park or a bucolic countryside.

He told Tacomans why he believed spiritualism was on the rise: “Old religions have lost their power and the new revelations have come to give man something tangible to comfort him … what we have got to find now is a religion that will be compelling — and that is exactly what we get in these new revelations.”

Read the word ‘prophet’ as ‘medium,’ and ‘angel’ as ‘high priest.’

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Perhaps the most interesting Ledger article was one in which Conan Doyle speculated on the outcome of an unsolved Tacoma murder.

More than a year before the writer came to Tacoma, a husband and wife had disappeared from their home. Circumstances, The Ledger revealed, led police to believe the wife had been murdered and cremated in the heating stove of their house. The husband had not been found, The Ledger reported.

As Conan Doyle and the reporter strolled through the rear garden of the Tacoma Hotel, The Ledger asked whether a medium might help crack the case.

“Many mysterious cases have been solved with the aid of mediums, when all other means have failed,” Conan Doyle said.

He recommended a medium named Van Berg, who then was in Portland and reportedly coming to Tacoma soon. Van Berg had found a missing banker’s body in London by “surrounding himself with the dead man’s effects and concentrating on a crystal ball,” Conan Doyle related.

“Could you solve the case?” The Ledger asked.

“No,” Sir Arthur admitted. “I could not. I do not posses mediumistic powers myself.”

Conan Doyle then went on to discuss several other phenomena. He said Ouija boards, in the hands of the right mediums, could be used by the spirit world to send messages to us.

And he spoke of his belief that even the Bible supports spiritualism: “Read the word ‘prophet’ as ‘medium,’ and ‘angel’ as ‘high priest.’ ”

By the time he was in his late teens, Arthur Conan Doyle had fallen away from the Catholic faith of his childhood

What drew Conan Doyle to this mysterious practice?

Born into a Catholic family in Edinburgh, Scotland, Conan Doyle was the son of an artist who also suffered from mental illness and alcoholism.

Young Arthur attended a Jesuit school, then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. That is where he met Joseph Bell, a brilliant diagnostician whose powers of observation, Conan Doyle would later say, inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes.

By the time he was in his late teens, Conan Doyle had fallen away from the faith of his childhood. He declared himself an agnostic, but at the same time he started reading about what were called the “new religions.”

As a young physician, he was fascinated by practices such as hypnotism, mesmerism and other paranormal experiments that coexisted with science in his era.

Conan Doyle attended his first seance in 1880. He would later write: “After weighing the evidence, I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa.”

Spiritualists believe the dead continue to evolve as they make their way into an afterlife that is more advanced than human existence. They believe the spirits of the dead can serve as a moral and ethical guide for the living.

Conan Doyle came to fully embrace spiritualism after the death of his son, Kingsley. Wounded at the Battle of the Somme in World War I, Kingsley was recovering from his battlefield injuries when he was struck down by the Spanish influenza epidemic.

Like other relatives of the war dead, Conan Doyle was grief-stricken, and bitter. He declared: “Christianity is dead. How else could 10 million young men have marched out to slaughter?”

Conan Doyle and his wife attended a seance, where the writer was convinced he heard a message so personal that it had to have come from Kingsley.

“It was his voice and he spoke of concerns unknown to the medium,” Conan Doyle said.

Most of the spirit photographers were eventually discredited

His fascination with the supernatural soon grew to include other phenomena as well.

Spirit photography purported to show the dead appearing to the living in the form of photographs. A portrait of an individual would appear, with a ghostly image of a deceased loved one peering just over the subject’s shoulder.

Conan Doyle wrote a book, “The Case for Spirit Photography,” and he posed for photos, including one that shows him and what he believed to be the spirit of his dead son.

Today, so-called spirit photographs can be recognized for what they are: double exposures. But photography in Conan Doyle’s day was not yet the familiar art it would later become with the invention of smaller, more portable cameras that made photos accessible to everyone.

Most of the spirit photographers were eventually discredited as frauds. But Conan Doyle continued to defend them.

He also took up the cause of two cousins from Cottingley, England. The two young ladies became famous for their appearances in a series of five photographs that seemed to show them frolicking in the woods with miniature fairies.

Conan Doyle wrote about the photos in The Strand magazine, the same publication that had published some of his Sherlock Holmes stories. Although the photos of the Cottingley Fairies, as they came to be known, were widely criticized as fakes, Conan Doyle said they offered more evidence of the existence of the supernatural world.

Again, he fought back with a book, “The Coming of the Fairies.”

Many years later, the two cousins admitted most of the photos had been faked, using cardboard cutouts. But one of the girls still maintained that the fifth photo was real.

In the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Final Problem,” Conan Doyle tried to kill off his detective

Conan Doyle met Harry Houdini when the magician and escape artist toured Europe. They found they shared a mutual interest in the afterlife and seances, where Houdini sought to contact his beloved deceased mother. The writer and the master of illusion struck up a friendship.

But Houdini’s knowledge of how to pull off a good trick soon led him to believe that mediums were nothing but scam artists who preyed upon the grieving and were trying to profit from the spiritualist movement.

He set out to debunk them. That led to a public feud between Conan Doyle and Houdini that played out in an exchange of letters in The New York Times.

Houdini wasn’t alone in criticizing Conan Doyle. Throughout his lifetime, the author faced opposition from skeptics and scientists. But his fame from writing the Holmes stories — not to mention the wealth the stories generated — meant Conan Doyle could afford to dismiss his critics. And he often did so in print.

But celebrity was a double-edged sword for Conan Doyle. He came to regard the fame that the Holmes stories brought him as something of a curse, and a distraction from more serious writing.

In the story, “The Final Problem,” Conan Doyle tried to kill off his detective. At the end of the story, readers were led to believe that Holmes and his evil arch-rival, Professor Moriarty, had tumbled to their deaths as they fought above a Swiss waterfall.

But Holmes fans wouldn’t allow their beloved Sherlock to die. Public pressure eventually forced Conan Doyle to resurrect Holmes in what many regard as one of the finest Holmes stories, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Shortly after Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930, a large gathering was held in his honor in the Royal Albert Hall in London. Four years later, more than 500 people turned up at a seance at which a recording was made, allegedly of Conan Doyle speaking from “the other side.”

You can listen to the recording at the website of the British Library, where Conan Doyle delivers a message that says, in part, “Take care of my boys and my good wife, Jean,” and “God help our movement forward.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo


This is supposedly a recording of Arthur Conan Doyle speaking from beyond the grave: bit.ly/1QX3tvy

This is a recording of Conan Doyle speaking about spiritualism: bit.ly/1NSXv93

This is a short film in which Conan Doyle talks about both Sherlock Holmes and spiritualism: bit.ly/1OUSwod

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