Conan Doyle Ridicules New York Psychic Tests

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Conan Doyle Ridicules New York Psychic Tests is an article published in The New-York Times on 16 december 1924 where Conan Doyle gave his point of view about scientific psychic tests under a sub-article titled "Doyle's Reasons for Rejecting Findings".

Below is the Arthur Conan Doyle article only.

Doyle's Reasons for Rejecting Findings

The New-York Times (16 december 1924, section 8 p. 8)

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The findings of The Scientific American inquiry upon spiritual phenomena are in my opinion, as I have pointed out from the beginning, vitiated by the fact that there is no experienced Spiritualist among them who can state the case for the medium. I could have named several gentlemen of high honor and intelligence who might have served, and who would be as little likely to connive at fraud as any member now present. It would have given assurance to every Spiritualist that the medium was having complete fair play, if such a representative had either joined in the decisions or had been in a position to give his reasons for dissenting from them.

I write with the disadvantage of distance and imperfect information, but there are a few remarks which I would make. At about the time when Mr. Valentine was turned down by the committee as a fraud he gave a sitting to Mr. Dennis Bradley, a man of good judgment and one of the most rising authors in this country. Mr. Bradley was agnostic and even antagonistic. At this seance Mr. Bradley's deceased sister engaged in a conversation with him which lasted for a quarter of an hour and was absolutely evidential. Mr. Bradley was so moved by it that he wrote an account of it to The London Daily News, declaring that he was moved by conscience to recant his former views, as he had done an injustice. Such evidence is more valuable than that of The Scientific American, since in scientific inquiry a positive is always more valuable than a negative, and in the face of it I hold that it is not possible to accept the general proposition that Mr. Valentine is a fraudulent medium.

Let us, however, descend from the general to the particular. It is true that Mr. Valentine was not under a trance at the S. A. sittings, but every psychic student knows that a medium is never normal when phenomena are being produced. I have no doubt at all that he rose front his chair. I have, however, every doubt whether this rising was premeditated or guilty. I have known mediums when sitting in my own rooms insist that I should tie them in their chairs, because, they said, misunderstandings might arise from their involuntary rising. I have studied one famous medium closely and am convinced that there is rising from the chair, which occurs even when the sitters sit so close that after rising the mediums cannot move to right or left. I should wish to know more clearly in the case of Mr. Valentine whether there were not other phenomena, such as the nature of the voices, the information conveyed, touches, lights, &c., which could not be covered by the mere rising in the chair, which may, I repeat, have been involuntary. The committee was, of course, bound to judge by its own experience, but the public may take a broader view, and I claim that the experience of Mr. Bradley is far more weighty in favor of Valentine than that of the committee against him.

Regarding Mrs. Stewart.

I now pass to Mrs. Josie Stewart, where again I am at a disadvantage. I have never sat with this medium (nor with Valentine), so that I cannot check the committee by my personal knowledge. But taking their own report, it seems to me to be very open to criticism. According to this report, upon the first sitting Mrs. Stewart carried off no less than five of the cards. This was in itself a considerable feat with to many lynx-eyed gentlemen around her. It is then suggested that she had similar cards matched at some stationer's shop. This is a thing which could, we would think, be easily decided by a discreet inquiry, especially among those shops in the neighborhood of her hotel. But why in the world should she go to the trouble and risk of matching them if she actually had the five blank originals which she could use? This seems quite incomprehensible, unless she ended by producing more than five results, which apparently was not the case.

But we will suppose that she brought back the original five cards, secreted on her person. She was now in a position to perform her trick upon the second or third sitting. This did not occur, through we can see no reason why it should have been withheld unless she detected not only the pen marks but the shaving of ends. If, on the other hand, she was dealing not with a trick but with an evasive psychic phenomenon, it would be natural enough that she should have had failures. A conjurer, I am sure, would never have had one.

Now we come to the fourth sitting in the garden, where effects were actually produced. If we accept the committee's report as it stands, then they knew at that time for certain that Mrs. Stewart had the cards secreted upon her person. Why else could she have taken them? Therefore it was all important to them to warn the female searchers that they were there, and that Mrs. Stewart's dress and person were to be minutely examined. As practical men they must have adopted this course. And yet no cards were found. How was this?

During the sitting they must all have been keenly on the lookout for substitution. Yet not only did they fail to find it but they issued a report to say that there was no fraud evident. They must have felt very sure of their ground and of the impossibility of substitution if, in spite of their previous knowledge, they went as far as that.

And now the issue a further report to show that there was fraud. Imagine what this would entail. First of all, it means that five cards, which must not be crushed or stained, could be concealed on the person in spite of a systematic search for them. Secondly, that those five cards could be brought from the concealed place and made accessible. Thirdly, that they could then be palmed or passed into the general pack. Finally, that five of the pack could be withdrawn and concealed, since the total number was the same at the end. All this is supposed to be done by a woman who is not a conjurer and who is working not from a distant stage but in the middle of a group of acute observers, who are all around her. What would her position have been if one of them had suddenly said "Hullo, what is that in your hand?" The reference to the size of the pockets of the overcoat which she borrowed is surely irrelevant and absurd. If she wanted pockets for concealment, would she not have brought her own overcoat? The report issued at the time seems to show that the idea of fraud was an afterthought.

Ridicules Card Measurement.

And now comes the meticulous measurement of the cards. When it comes to micrometer measurements in ten-thousandths of an inch I am not impressed. As to the cards being different in shade, they would not be so if they were the original cards taken from the same pack, and I can see no possible reason why, having such cards, she should substitute others. It is impossible to feel that this evidence is to strong as to counterbalance the difficulty of finding any solution for the contradictions involved.

Consider, also, the messages given and the difficulty of believing that they were brought with her by Mrs. Stewart. One of them was signed by a living friend in New York, so the report informs us. But would a fraudulent medium with all the spirits of the dead to draw upon deliberately sign her message with the name of a living friend and so weaken her own case? It seems to me in the last degree improbable. The incident might be quoted as a sign that the messages were precipitated by some unconscious psychic power from Mrs. Stewart herself, but it seems incompatible with deliberate fraud.

The general proposition so constantly advanced that because a professional conjurer can produce a colorable imitation of some effect, therefore that effect, when produced by men, women or children who are not professional conjurers, is due to the same cause is surely too absurd for argument. Our mediums would not be living in poverty if they were so clever at sleight-of-hand.

Finally, I would greatly deprecate the air of levity with which this inquiry appears to be conducted. It is either self-evident nonsense, in which case no inquiry is needed, or it is a very serious matter. These physical phenomena are at their best very crude and unimportant things, useful only for shocking a certain type of mind into inquiry. None the less they are an integral part of a huge scheme which may sink low, but can also rise high. Therefore, it is to be handled with dignity. In the last issue which reaches me Mr. Bird is quoted — possibly misquoted — as saying, with regard to the next two inquiries: "Mrs. Tomson's forte consists in enclosing herself in a cabinet and directing a parade of ghosts around the room. The other goes into a cabinet, but all he can do is to summon up weird noises."

Why mediums should present themselves if they have been publicly talked of in this fashion cannot understand. No possible results can crime from an inquiry so flippantly conducted, and it appears to justify those Spiritualists who have said all along — with no agreement from me — that the sole object or the inquiry was to make fun of spiritual phenomena, not to examine them.

I may remark in conclusion that other more fruitful and serious examinations are proceeding. I have already mentioned in your columns that of Dr. Geley, with Gulik in Paris, which covered 100 sittings and received the unanimous endorsement of forty picked observers, including the scientific editor of the Matin. Since then another strong ectoplasmic medium, Mme. Vollhart, is reported from Berlin. She has been investigated by Dr. Schwab of Berlin. who has demonstrated her ectoplasm to numerous scientific observers. I enclose a photograph of it, which shows how exactly similar it is in its crude form to that which was independently photographed from Eva.