Doyle Makes Reply to Recent Critics

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Doyle Makes Reply to Recent Critics is an interview of Arthur Conan Doyle written as an article by George C. Henderson published in the Oakland Tribune on 3 june 1923.

The article is included in a bigger headline: "Sherlock Holmes" Creator Tells of His Bridge to Land of Hereafter with another article by Arthur Conan Doyle: Doyle Admits he Met Spirits Via Medium Route.

Doyle Makes Reply to Recent Critics

Oakland Tribune (3 june 1923, p. B-4)

The article questioning Sir A. Conan Doyle's spiritualistic accuracy was submitted to the novelist and he has written the following reply for the Oakland TRIBUNE:

By George C. Henderson

How did Sir Conan Doyle learn the secrets of "spookland?"

Where does he get his information about ghosts?

Who told him that spooks, wearing clothes, reading books, quarreling and lying, live in a region of concentric circles about the earth?

Why is Doyle so certain that spirit hands can carry live men through space, discover hidden treasure and bring back ancient Assyrian tablets from Babylon?

I asked him all these questions. Him answer was:

"I get this information through the mediums. I am not a psychic myself."

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bases all his knowledge of the spirit world upon the information that he has gained through mediums. It is all second-hand information.

Sir Arthur does not receive messages himself. He is not mediumistic.

Therefore the accuracy of his deductions depends wholly upon the honesty of the clairvoyants, slate writers, spirit photographers, materializers, clairaudients, crystal gazers and levitators whom he has consulted.


Modern "miracles" convinced Doyle. Whether these miracles were tricks of magic or the work of the supernatural forces determines the soundness or unsoundness of Sir Arthur's doctrine of supernaturalism.

In Doyle's case is the wish father to the thought? The terrible sights that he witnessed during the World War turned his mind more strongly than ever to the occult, although even before this he was a student and writer on the subject. The death of his son completed this mental change which, he admits had been going on within him for 35 years. Sir Arthur confronted the quackeries and frauds of the mediums with a great, consuming desire to believe that the dead can return and talk with us. The greatest work of these all-seeing spirits is to solve for us the riddle of life - to teach us unselfishness, he says. His motives were of the highest. His sincerity undoubted.

Following are some of the out-standing "miracles" which completed the conversion of Sir A. Conan Doyle to spiritism:

1. Doyle declares that D. D. Home, an English medium, floated in through a third-story window, supported only by ghostly hands and settled in a room in the presence of Lord Lindsay. Lord Dunraven and Captain Winne. According to Doyle, Home came wafting into the room through a window, opened but a little way from the bottom, and that he spoke to those present so they recognised him. When they questioned Home as to how he came through such a small aperture, he turned up feet first and slid through the window again and disappeared. Sir Arthur vouches for this. On the other hand, the London Psychic Research Society discredits Home's performance.


2. Doyle thoroughly endorses and vouches for the mediumship of Miss Ada Besinnet of Toledo, formerly of London. "Miracles" were performed in his presence by her. Twice during sittings with her Doyle saw faces, one of his mother and the other of his nephew, Oscar Hornung. He denies that this was the vision of overwrought nerves or self-hypnosis imposed by the desire to see these people. At the beginning of Besinnet's trance, brilliant lights flew up in graceful curves as high as the ceiling. It was a cold light like that of a firefly and it did not befog photographic plates, says Doyle. Voices began to sing. Doyle admits that the medium's throat and lips showed movement during this singing, but he swallows the whole thing when, as he says, the "Intelligence" glibly explained that the medium's throat and organs are used by the spooks. Faces glimmered out of the darkness, glowed and vanished. Doyle says that one of his party recognized "Shackleton," the Arctic explorer. He further avers that Katie King appeared in ghostly form in replica of the spirit photograph that Doyle uses in his lectures, even to the same dress and drapery. It does not occur to the author that this would be the most obvious way to "hoax" him, yet he admits that a committee from the Psychic College in London investigated Miss Besinnet and denied that she exhibited spiritualistic powers. Her control merely formed an ectoplasmic mask on her face. The Society for Psychic Research caught her in fraud and dropped her.

3. When a medium like Palladino in caught kicking the leg of the table to produce spirit "raps," Doyle speaks of it as the "possible short-circuiting of the control during the trance."


4. William Hope's photographs of spirits and spirit writing aided in Doyle's conversion. In his first visit to Hope, Doyle took his own plates, opened them, put the plates in the plate holder and Medium Hope inserted same in camera. Doyle and two other men were photographed. Doyle then developed the exposed plates. A peculiar shape containing writing appeared on the photograph over the faces of the men. Upon this was writing purported to be be by the spirit of one Colley. Doyle calls this white mass ectoplasm. He recognised Colley's handwriting. But Conan Doyle did not examine the camera. Any photographic novice knows that a small image containing the writing might be placed in the camera box, that Hope might by sleight-of-hand have changed plates when Doyle's attention was distracted or that celluloid cut to the shape seen in Fig. 1 might have been fastened against the camera lens. Hope must have anticipated that sooner or later so noted an investigator as Doyle would seek him out. Certainly he could have forged Colley's writing to a communication so illegible.

It was at the second sitting with Hope that Doyle obtained the likeness of his son as he appeared eight years before. He took no precautions this time, evidently being convinced by the first test of Hope's honesty. Hope used his own plates. These plates might have been doctored in any number of ways as Houdini has described in the previous articles of this series, by leaving on part of the old emulsion or by double exposure. As Houdini has explained, Hope could have taken a picture of Doyle's son's photograph, exposing the plate for a small fraction of a second, or just long enough to impress the image very dimly on the sensitive. Then he could have covered this plate up and held it against the time when Doyle should again visit him. When Doyle first called Hope could not use this "doped" plate because of the precautions taken. But on the second visit, when no "test" conditions were imposed, he was able to perform the miracle by the process described. It must be remembered that Hope's future as a medium almost was at stake. If Sir A. Conan Doyle vouched for him it meant fame and wealth. If Doyle denounced him he would be ruined as a medium. Under such circumstances it would not be strange that the spook photographer should resort to all the magic and legerdemain known to the profession.


Yet this is one of the "miracles" which helped to make a confirmed spiritualist out of Doyle.

Sir Arthur endorses Hope, who has been exposed by the Society for Psychic Research. He goes still farther, however, and vouches for Mrs. Deane, who would submit to no test conditions, but on the other hand insisted that plates be sent to her in advance for "magnetizing" before she would grant a photographic seance.

5. Doyle saw no trickery, only "miracles" in his first slate-writing experience, which occurred during his present trip to America at a seance with a Mrs. Pruden of Cincinnati. A dark cabinet was made by draping a table and holding a slate under it. Doyle held the other corner. Mrs. Pruden's other hand was free and visible above the table cloth. The slate was double, with a bit of pencil between.

After half an hour writing began. Sir Arthur says he could feel the thrill and vibration of the pencil working away inside. Each member of Doyle's party had written a question on a bit of paper and cast it down, carefully folded, on the floor in the shadow of the drapery so that the "psychic forces" might have correct conditions for their work. Presently, each sitter got an answer to his or her question. Doyle had called on Dr. Gelbert, a French inventor. He had asked in his question if this were wise. The answer on the slate was, "Trust Dr. Delbert, Kingsley." Sir Arthur's wife received a long message from a dear friend, signed with her name. Doyle does not say whether this was in answer to a question or not.

Mrs. Pruden could have worked a hoax on Conan Doyle very easily and, considering the great value that his indorsement would be to her, is it not possible that she did?


Her first problem was to discover what was in the messages that had been cast down on the floor in the darkness. The fact that the questions were thrown there is suspicious in itself. A hand could reach up through a trap door (the room was dark) and secure these slips of paper and read them. The substance in them could have been telephoned through a telephone receiver in her hair. These receivers are often hidden in the turbans of mediums for this purpose. She would not have to be connected with wires to this telephone. Even she might walk around. A copper rivet in her shoe, placed in contact with a piece of metal on the floor might easily have conveyed the message through a wire that ran up under her clothes from the rivet to the headpiece.

Or the messages might have been written on a prepared tablet conveyed through sleight-of-hand, heretofore described by Houdini, to the assistant.

Having once learned the contents of the messages, Mrs. Pruden's next task was to write the answer on the double slate, the other end of which was held by Conan Doyle.

There are two very simple ways of doing this. Mrs. Pruden is her twitching and shuddering might suddenly pull the slate out of Doyle's hand, just for an instant. The next minute she would thrust another slate between his fingers. This slate, of course, would be the one prepared by the accomplice, who had read the questions. The assistant, having read the questions and written the answers, could have thrust the "prepared" slate up through the trap into Doyle's hand, just at the instant the medium jerked the other one away. Then he could have taken the unprepared slate out of the medium's hands. The writing sound is made quite frequently by the medium scratching the plate with her finger nail.

On the other hand, cases have been known where mediums have written on double slates with a piece of a pencil concealed in the finger nail. A "flap" might have been used or the message might have been written on the slate in chemicals, which were invisible when the slate was wet, but which became visible when the surface dried.


When Sir Arthur declares that the mediums could not possibly know of his business with the inventor, he of course does not figure that his question has been read and the name secured there. Neither does he take into consideration that the wily mediums, knowing that he is on an investigating tour, have prepared against his coming by gathering every iota of information about himself that can be gleaned from the story of his life and his writings.

It is impossible to discuss all the cases of spiritualistic phenomean with which Sir Arthur has come in contact and of which he has written. But, judging from those described, is it unreasonable to suggest that perhaps the popular author of Sherlock Holmes has not exercised due precaution to exclude fraud in the performance of these "miracles?"

As Sir Arthur admits, his whole defense of spiritualism stands or falls upon the honesty or dishonesty of mediums, he has no other method of communicating with the dead.

Through mediums only has he learned that hell is a gray waiting room, that spirits live in a region of concentric circles around the earth, that ectoplasm exudes from the body of the medium and surrounds the embryo "spook," parting to make it visible when the spirit face or form is completely formed. Spooks speaking through the lips of mediums have told him that there are good and evil spirits, that the intellectual dead live on a different sphere in heaven than the ignorant, that there are libraries and books in the other word and that inhabitants of Ghostland do not know anything about those who live on the other planets — Mars, Jupiter, Venus, etc.


If the mediums are false, Sir A. Conan Doyle must admit that his information is faulty, because the visions, writings and messages that he has seen have come to him only through mediums.

A certain scientific periodical in the United Stated has offered $5000 to any medium who can produce genuine spirit manifestations. Although this offer was made public months ago, nothing genuine has been discovered as yet.

The Seybert Commission of the University of Pennsylvania, after advertising far and wide for mediums to submit to tests, and after examining many, announced in a report that no genuine phenomena was induced.

And on top of this Harry Houdini, J. N. Maskelyne and others have duplicated by magic some of the most miraculous feats which the mediums claimed could be done only through "spirit forces."

On the other hand, some of the phenomena for which Sir Arthur vouches is unexplainable on the grounds of trickery. The only ethnical answer to this is that the observation of the persons present was faulty. Otherwise the acceptance of the genuineness of the "miracle" must be admitted.

Doyle vouches for the levitation of Mrs. Guppy, who was picked up in the middle of London by spirit forces and transported to a room four miles distant, where she "plopped" down on a table before several noted men, still wearing her dressing gown and with a notebook and pencil in her hand. If this thing actually happened, it could have been performed only by some supernatural means.

That the World War was foretold in advance by a medium in Melbourne, that spirit eyes and spirit fingers have discovered and pointed out hidden wills, that Assyrian tab lets from Babylon have been deposited in a room in New York City — all these things are declared to be facts by Doyle. If they are true, then they can be accounted for only by admitting that super-normal forces performed the miracles.

However, it is an open question and not a definitely established proposition, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have us think.