Contacting the First World War dead – Sherlock Holmes would never have approved
It is almost midnight. The only light emanates from a few candles placed around the room. In the middle of the drawing room is a round table adorned only with a pale linen cloth. Around it sits a couple and a companion. The man is in his fifties, barrel-chested with a long moustache. He holds his wife’s hands. The third person, a medium, rocks to and fro, her eyes tightly closed. She is mumbling in a high-pitched voice, groaning, breathing hard, but, frothing slightly from the mouth, her words are unintelligible. The couple watch her intently, waiting, hoping for a communication.
Suddenly it comes. Her tone changes. ‘Jean, it is I,’ she says in the voice of a young man. Instantly, the couple recognise the voice. The woman, Jean, gasps, ‘It is Kingsley.’ ‘Is that you, boy?’ says the man, his hands tightening over his wife’s. Lowering his voice to a whisper, Kingsley says, ‘Father, forgive me.’ The man’s heart lurches, ‘There was never anything to forgive. You were the best son a man ever had.’ He feels a hand on his head then a kiss just above his brow. It takes his breath away. ‘Are you happy?’ he cries. There is a pause and then very gently, ‘Yes, I am so happy.’
‘Christianity is dead’
Contacting the dead was a popular pursuit post-First World War, when so many parents had lost loved ones in the killing fields of the Western Front, Gallipoli and further afield. The war was without precedent in terms of fatalities, and people, throughout Europe, haunted by a generation of slaughtered men, found themselves struggling for answers. The technology of warfare had defeated everything they previously held dear – and religion had failed to provide the answers. Instead, many turned to spiritualism as a means to contact their dead directly.
And the leading proponent for spiritualism was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His greatest invention, the straight-laced Sherlock Holmes, would have thoroughly disapproved of his creator’s conversion to séances, Ouija boards and mediums. But the great writer had lost his son, Kingsley, in October 1918, and like so many grief-struck parents, he was desperate to commune with his dead son from beyond the grave. ‘Christianity is dead,’ he once declared, ‘How else could ten million young men have marched out to slaughter? Did any moral force stop that war? No. Christianity is dead – dead!’
Kingsley Conan Doyle had been wounded in the neck on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. 20,000 British soldiers were killed that day, plus another 40,000 wounded – the worst, single day in Britain’s military history. Two years later, however, Kingsley was recovering. But in the summer of 1918, the whole world was swept by Spanish Flu, the most devastating pandemic in modern times, which claimed at least 50 million lives. Among them, on 28 October, was 25-year-old Kingsley, his resistance compromised by his battlefield injury.
Four months later, the pandemic claimed Conan Doyle’s brother, Innes. Conan Doyle fell into a deep depression but consoled by the fact he knew he could, at some point, reach out and contact them on the other side. But Conan Doyle’s belief in spiritualism was not caused by his son and brother’s deaths – it had been his firm conviction for many decades.
Born into a strict Roman Catholic family, Conan Doyle had all but lost his faith by the time he was 17. Declaring himself agnostic he nonetheless felt an emptiness in his being. So, as a young newly-qualified doctor practising in Southsea, near Portsmouth, he researched what he called ‘new religions’. In 1880, the 21-year-old doctor attended his first séance. It made a huge impression on him.
Seven years later, Conan Doyle published the first of a series that would make him a rich man and make his name the world over – A Study in Scarlet, starring Sherlock Holmes. But it was also in this same year, 1887, that Conan Doyle declared himself a spiritualist.
Conan Doyle formed a small group that met regularly in Southsea, trying their hand, with mixed results, at séances. But it was the appearance of a real medium, experienced at summoning the dead, that convinced Conan Doyle. ‘After weighing the evidence,’ he wrote, ‘I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa.’
The Death of Sherlock Holmes
Conan Doyle wrote more Sherlock Holmes and the pipe-smoking detective made him rich. But very soon Holmes and his erstwhile companion, Dr Watson, were keeping Conan Doyle from what he really wanted to do. Writing to his mother, Conan Doyle said, ‘[Holmes] takes my mind from better things’. For Conan Doyle, ‘better things’ meant spiritualism. The death of Holmes was not long in coming. In 1893, only six years after his first appearance, Conan Doyle killed off his indomitable sleuth, drowning him in the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps.
Now, free of the demands of his detective, Conan Doyle was able to devote all his energies to spiritualism. But not for long. So outraged were his fans by the death of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle had no choice but to bring him back to life, employing a literary sleight of hand. Sherlock Holmes was to remain his occasional and mostly unwelcome companion for the rest of his life.
In 1914, the Great War, as it was originally called, broke out. No war has been so associated with the paranormal as the First World War. The first and most notorious case occurred in August 1914. British forces had just been beaten by an advance of Germans near the Belgium town of Mons and were forced into a retreat. As the army retreated, British soldiers claimed they saw apparitions either in the form of angels or archers from the Battle of Agincourt, 1415, depending on who was telling the tale, that provided them safe passage.
Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law and good friend, Malcolm Leckie, was killed at Mons. Together with his second wife, Jean, Conan Doyle immediately began trying to dredge Leckie up from the dead through a series of séances.
The Other Side
In 1916, with the war at its height, and still seeking answers, Conan Doyle stepped up his interest in spiritualism. Whereas before he had only ‘dallied’ with the subject, now he was prepared to embrace fully a ‘breaking down of the walls between two worlds, a direct undeniable message from beyond, a call of hope and of guidance to the human race at the time of its deepest affliction’. Spiritualism was the answer to the world’s problems.
Kingsley, a firm Christian, had had no truck with his father’s spiritualism, which is why, when talking to him from the ‘other side’, he begged his father’s forgiveness for having always doubted him.
Following the war, Sir and Lady Conan Doyle stepped up their campaign – they toured the country and journeyed to Australia and the US. With the energy and enthusiasm of committed converts, they embarked on a series of gruelling tours, proclaiming their message to huge audiences.
Many of his friends and contemporaries found him foolish, not least his friend, the American Harry Houdini, the famous escapologist and magician. Houdini, momentarily interested in spiritualism following the death of his mother, soon realised it was nothing but hoax and trickery, performed by mercenary conmen exploiting the bereaved and vulnerable. The two men went to great lengths to prove each other wrong to the point of falling out. Following Houdini’s death in 1926, Conan Doyle hoped to settle it for once and all by summoning the magician from the dead. But Houdini, even from the other side, held to his guns.
The Cottingley Fairies
Conan Doyle’s reputation was questioned even more when he declared his utter belief in the Cottingley fairies. Two young girls, cousins, had used paper cut-outs of fairies and photographed themselves with them in their garden in the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire. By the time Conan Doyle, a great believer in fairies, was declaring the photos’ authenticity to the world, even going so far to write a book on the subject, The Coming of the Fairies, the two young girls dared not say that it was no more than a silly prank.
Conan Doyle dutifully continued to write Sherlock Holmes; the last collection of short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, was published in 1927, three years before Conan Doyle’s death. But despite the ridicule and the antagonism, Conan Doyle stuck to his spiritualist beliefs as he entered old age. In 1930, aged 71, he wrote, ‘The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now’. He died soon afterwards, on 7 July 1930.
The greatest and most glorious adventure
At his memorial service, held on 13 July in the Albert Hall, an empty chair was placed next to Jean, his widow. 6,000 people crammed in, many out of respect but most, perhaps, in the anticipation of a memorial service with a difference – an appearance from the man himself. They were not to be disappointed. After the usual sombre service, a woman admired by Conan Doyle for her qualities as a medium, Estelle Roberts, took to the stage. Proceedings now resembled a spiritualist stage show as she passed on messages of comfort from the other side to members of her audience. After thirty minutes or so, she turned to the empty chair and shouted, ‘He is here.’ Only she, as the medium, could see him and, later, she said that Conan Doyle had been there throughout congratulating her on her performance. Speaking to Lady Jean, Roberts said, ‘I have a message for you from Arthur.’ She whispered a few words in Lady Jean’s ear.
What those words were, Lady Jean never said and we will never know, but she smiled and took obvious comfort from them.