You Start in There Where You Leave Off Here

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

You Start in There Where You Leave Off Here is an interview of Arthur Conan Doyle written by Bruce Barton, published in the The American Magazine in september 1922.


The American Magazine (september 1922, p. 11)
The American Magazine (september 1922, p. 12)
The American Magazine (september 1922, p. 13)
The American Magazine (september 1922, p. 68)
The American Magazine (september 1922, p. 70)

An interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on Life after Death

This magazine is devoted to the collection and distribution of information that will be of interest and individual service to its readers. The possibility of communication between the living and the dead has always been a subject of lively speculation and debate. Just now the interest in it is particularly active. We hold no brief either for or against spiritualism — but we have obtained this interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because he is one of the greatest living authorities on a widely discussed topic. THE EDITOR.

In any complete collection of hard-headed Americans of the last generation my grandfather's name would have been included prominently among the B's. He was a country doctor, a pioneer in the rugged backwoods of Illinois, where he achieved considerable local reputation for his habit of reaching back behind the symptoms and putting his finger upon the cause.

There was plenty of sentiment in his big heart, but no more sentimentality than you would expect to find in a crowbar. If you were selecting an audience to be fooled by a sleight-of-hand performance you would have preferred not to have my grandfather among those present.

Hard-headed as he was, he used to tell the following story, and shake his hard head and confess that it was more than he could understand:

A man named Wade lived in the little town, a friendly neighbor who tilled his few acres and died poor. Outwardly he was no different from the other farmers thereabouts, but he had a strange gift, which was termed "second sight." People came from long distances to avail themselves of his help and he charged them nothing, saying that if he were to take money for his services he would forfeit his gift.

One day two slave-holders visited the town, looking for a fugitive slave. Wishing to conceal the actual object of their search and so to test Wade's power, they told him that they were seeking a strayed horse. Wade tied a red bandanna over his eyes and sat musing and waiting for the vision. Finally he said:

"I see the horse you are hunting. He is going on a boat; he is a black horse. He is too black to be a horse. He is not a horse but a negro, and you will not get him."

The two men followed the negro's trail to Chicago and learned that he had actually embarked on a boat for Canada at about the hour when they were conferring with Wade.

My grandfather was present another night when a group of neighbors had gathered at Wade's house in search of some important object that was lost. Again Wade covered his eyes; and, while the neighbors waited, my grandfather and another man carried on a conversation in low tones in another -corner of the room. One of them mentioned the name "Lewis."

Wade was irritated.

"There, you put me all off the track!" he complained querulously. "I've got to hunt for that man Lewis."

There was a moment of silence, then Wade continued:

"I see him," he said. "He is tall and has a sandy beard; he speaks so rapidly that his words get in the way of each other. He is standing in a room with red paper on the walls, talking with a short, stout, dark-eyed man. The man is handing Lewis money. Lewis is looking this way. He is coming here."

The name Lewis had been mentioned very casually in the conversation, according to my grand-father's story. There was nothing to indicate to Wade whether it was a given name or a surname, or to suggest a family relationship. Yet the description which Wade gave of Lewis fitted my grandfather's elder brother exactly.

He lived in New Jersey, and none of the Illinois relatives had seen him for years. But later that week my grandfather received a letter from his brother Lewis, saying that he had sold his farm and decided to move to Illinois. The announcement came as a complete surprise; for the move had not been mentioned in any previous correspondence. When the family arrived, my grandfather, who had carefully recorded the date of the session at Wade's home, told the story to his brother.

"That was the very evening I concluded the deal for my farm," Lewis exclaimed. "The room was just as Wade pictured it; and the man who bought my farm and paid me the money that evening was a short, dark man, just as Wade said."

My grandfather used to relate this experience, shake his hard head, and remark that there are things in this universe of ours that are way outside the reach of our laboratories.

I have told the story occasionally to groups of business men, and this is what happens. Invariably every man in the group comes back at me with some story from his experience or the history of his family. Generally the anecdote is introduced with the remark, "Of course, I don't take any stock in spiritualism or that sort of thing; but how do you explain this? It's beyond me."

We all have these stories. At some time in our lives, almost everyone is conscious of standing in the presence of the Unknown. Most of us, like my grandfather, merely shake our hard heads and say, "I do not understand," or, "I wonder," or, perhaps, "I believe—"

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shakes his hard head — and it looks like a hard head, sure enough — and answers decisively, "I know."

For a man of sixty-three years Sir Arthur is as fine a physical specimen as one would want to meet. He is somewhat under six feet and must weigh well on toward two hundred pounds — all of it solid muscle and bone. If you will recall the pictures you have seen of ruddy-checked English squires tramping sturdily over their broad acres, you will have a very good likeness of Sir Arthur.

He is proud of his rugged strength and his lack of nerves; they constitute, according to his way of thinking, one very substantial reason why his message ought to be believed. Sallow-faced gentlemen of the so-called "spiritual type" are perhaps properly under suspicion; but surely there is nothing abnormal in the biceps or the appetite of Conan Doyle.

"All my life I have been an open-air man," he said. "I have boxed and played football and driven my own car in an international automobile race. I spent my youth on a whaler in the Arctic seas; and, while I have never been a soldier, I have been often under fire. Would you pick me out as the kind of man who loses his critical faculties in a medium's dark room? Do I look as if I would be easily swept off my feet?"

I said that he looked as substantial as the Bank of England or the British tank from whose cabin he, himself, had witnessed the drive against the Hindenburg Line.

He chuckled and settled back in the neat hotel chair which had been built for a man of more "spiritual" mold.

"It is well to remind people what kind of men and women are bearing testimony to spiritualism these days," he continued. "It is not the unthinking crowd that buys the books on spiritualism, or that fills the chairs at my lectures. Look over one of those lecture audiences; you will find the most cultured, most thoughtful, most healthy-minded people of the city. These are not the kind of folks who are carried away by a passing fad.

"I have read the criticisms in your newspapers," he went on. "There was one condescending, almost compassionate article, expressing regret that the death of my son should have unsettled my faculties and set me wandering along a false trail."

He rose, and stepping over to the mantelpiece brought back a photograph of a handsome young chap in uniform.

"There is my son," he said proudly. "He is not dead! I have talked with him, asked him questions, and heard his own voice as distinctly as I hear yours. On three different occasions I have carried on sustained conversations with him. Why should I grieve when I know he lives? As for my interest in spiritualism it is no recent thing. It began more than thirty years ago.

"When I finished my medical education I found myself, like many young doctors, a convinced materialist as regards our own personal destiny. To be sure, I believed that there must be some great intelligent Force behind the operations of Nature; and I saw Right and Wrong as obvious facts that needed no divine revelation.

"But when it came to the survival of our own little personalities after death, it seemed to me that the whole analogy of nature was against it. When the candle burns out, the light disappears; when the electric cell is exhausted, the current stops.

"Every man, in his egotism, may feel that his own survival is important, but when he looks at the ordinary loafer — of high or low degree — he wonders if there are any real reasons why that personality should carry on.

"So I argued in those days. From time to time I heard reports of spiritual phenomena, but I regarded them as pure nonsense. Later, however, I met a group of friends who were interested, and I sat with them at some table-moving seances. We got connected messages, but I am afraid the only effect they had on me was to make me regard these friends with some suspicion. The messages, very often, were long ones, spelled out by tilts of the table. It was impossible that they should come by chance; someone, obviously, was tilting the table. I thought it was my friends; perhaps they thought it was I.

"I was puzzled and worried; for these were people whom I could not imagine as cheating — and yet I could not see how the messages could come except by conscious pressure.

"About this time I came across a book written by Judge Edmunds, of your New York Court of Appeals. It told in detail how he had held communication with his wife for many years after her passing. The book interested me, but did nothing to remove my skepticism. I regarded it as a striking example of how even the most sober-minded man may have a weak side to his brain.

"What was this 'spirit' of which he talked? With alcohol, or with drugs, one could apparently quite change the nature of a man's spirit. The spirit, then, depended upon matter, I reasoned. Therefore, I decided, when the matter was destroyed the spirit was destroyed with it.

"Later I came to realize that the spirit uses and works through matter, just as a violinist uses and works through his violin. You may break or stretch the strings, and the instrument which once gave forth beautiful music will yield only discords. But this does not disprove the existence of the player, nor indicate that his essential character has changed.

"I continued to read, without being convinced; but I found my skepticism somewhat weakened, in spite of myself, by the character of the men who were giving testimony to spiritualism.

"To be scornful in the presence of table-tippers was easy. But here was Crookes, the most eminent of the younger British chemists; here was Wallace, the rival of Darwin; here was Flammarion, the best known of astronomers. These men were not fools! No one might dismiss their judgment by a wave of the hand, without casting reflections upon his own.

"I went on attending seances; but all this time I was working without a medium; which is like an astronomer working without a telescope. I kept notes of our meetings and have them now. Some of the messages were impressive, but some seemed to be merely puerile, and I could not reconcile that fact.

"Why should spirits take the trouble to come to us from another world, merely to discuss trivialities or jest at our expense?

"I was a practicing physician in Southsea at this time, and dwelling near me was General Drayson, a very remarkable character and one of the pioneers of spiritualism in England. When I mentioned my doubts to him one evening he met them with a laugh.

"'Of course some of the messages are foolish, for there are foolish spirits as well as wise ones!' he exclaimed. 'You haven't yet got hold of the fundamental truth of the matter — that every spirit in this world passes over into the next exactly as it is hire. There is no miracle at death. The fool starts in as a fool over there, and the wise man starts in as wise.

"'Now what has happened to you in your seances is this,' the general continued: 'you are like a man who is shut up in a house and who puts his head out of the window for the first time. What would happen to such a man? Very likely some naughty boys passing by might say something foolish or rude. At any rate, the man would get no vision of the real greatness or wisdom of that outside world. He would draw his head in, thinking the world a very poor place.

"'Now, that is exactly what has happened to you. You have taken a glance at the other world, inspired only by curiosity, and you have met some naughty boys.'

"This was the general's explanation; and while it did not satisfy me at the time I know now that it was a rough approximation of the truth. Spirits do pass over unchanged into the other world. We start in there where we left off here. Death removes our physical bodies, but it leaves our spirits just what we have made them; and from the point to which we have carried them we must start to go forward.

"I went on reading whatever I could find and attending such seances as seemed to offer an opportunity for enlightenment. I joined the Psychical Research Society in 1891, and had the advantage of reading all their reports. Through all these years I kept careful records of my investigations; and gradually, as the evidence accumulated, I was forced to the conclusion that there was no rational explanation of the phenomena which I myself had witnessed except the explanation of the spiritualists. I confessed myself a spiritualist, though my interest was still impersonal — merely the interest of a scientific observer eager to add to his evidence.

"Then came the war, filling England with agonized mothers and wives, and fathers and children. And suddenly I realized that this thing with which I had dallied was not merely a subject to be studied, or a pastime with which to be entertained. It was really something tremendous; a breaking down of the walls between two worlds; a call of hope and of guidance to the human race in the time of its deep affliction. To be sure, the bits of evidence varied in their importance; but what of that? What if some of them seemed even childish? The telephone bell is a childish thing, but it may be the signal of a very vital message. So with these phenomena, large or small: they were merely a telephone bell signaling to the suffering race. 'Rouse yourselves! Be at attention! Here are signs for you! -They will lead up to the message which God wishes to send!'

"From that point I ceased to be a mere observer," Sir Arthur concluded simply. "I sought mediums — who are like the telescope of the astronomers — wherever they could be found. My mass of evidence became overwhelming. And what I have seen and heard I pass on to others. It is the greatest work a man can do for his fellow men — so much the greatest that I have put aside all other work."

Whatever one may think of Sir Arthur's philosophy, there can be no two opinions about his sincerity. It shines in his eyes and speaks in every tone of his voice. Of those who hear his lectures a very large proportion must go away deeply impressed.

"What about the thousands who want some evidence in this matter but cannot find it?" I asked him. "They cannot talk to you; and there are few mediums. What should the man or woman do who wants to know more?"

"In all sciences we agree to take the word of unbiased experts," Sir Arthur answered. "Very few of us have seen the rings of Saturn, yet we commonly accept the fact that they are there. The roll of scientific authorities who have investigated spiritualism and have gone on record in its behalf is too imposing to be any longer doubted. Take Alfred Russell Wallace, for example, the foremost European naturalist of his time; he says:

"Spiritualistic phenomena in their entirety will require further confirmation. They are proved quite as well as any facts are proved in other sciences.

"Doctor Herbert Mayo, professor of Anatomy and Physiology in King's College, London, wrote:

"Twenty-five years ago I was a hard-headed unbeliever. Spiritual phenomena, however, suddenly and quite unexpectedly developed in my own family. This led me to inquire and to try numerous experiments in such a way as to preclude the possibility of trickery and self-deception. That the phenomena occur there is overwhelming evidence, and it is too late now to deny their existence.

"Or listen to William M. Thackeray, the novelist:

"It is all very well for you who probably have never seen any spiritual manifestations to talk as you do [said he]; but if you had seen what I have witnessed you would hold a different opinion.

"So one might quote almost indefinitely," Sir Arthur continued. "Your man or woman who approaches the subject with an honest, open mind will find evidence enough. 'Seek,' says the Bible, 'and ye shall find.' Or if the testimony of books is not convincing, look at these." He pointed to a huge mass of letters on his desk, some opened and some unopened—the unending stream of testimony from private individuals which flows in on him wherever he lectures.

"See the quality of these letters," he said. "Note the letterheads and the handwriting. Are these writers fools, these fathers and mothers who tell me that what I have experienced in the messages from my boy and other relatives they, too, have experienced? I have sent hundreds of mothers to a professional medium in England. In every case, I ask the applicant to give me an exact report of what happened. Here are extracts from some of the letters:

"Thank you for this interesting and beautiful experience. She did not make a single mistake about their names, and everything she said was correct...

"It was a most successful sitting. [The writer in this case is a man.] Among other things I addressed a remark in Danish to my wife, and the answer came back in English without the least hesitation...

"We were quite successful [one mother writes]. My boy reminded me of something that only he and I knew.

"And another says:

"My boy reminded me of the day when he sowed turnip seed upon the lawn. Only he could have known of that.

"No thoughtful man could dismiss those letters as meaningless," Sir Arthur continued. "I have literally hundreds of them, and almost every mail brings more. I spoke of them one day to Sir Oliver Lodge, mentioning the fact that in only a very few cases had there been a complete failure. He remarked that his experience with another medium had been almost identical. Of course there have been failures; but the telephone fails frequently to connect you with the person whose voice you want to hear. In proportion to the number of calls involved, this professional medium whom I mention fails hardly less often than the telephone.

"But if neither books nor letters are conclusive," Sir Arthur continued, "we have yet another source of evidence." He stepped over to a drawer in the desk and brought out a handful of photographs. "We have not only heard the voices of our dead;" he said, "we have not only seen their writing; we have actually photographed them. Here is the proof—"

He tossed across the table a miscellaneous collection of photographs. I picked them up curiously. They looked at first glance like the crude mistakes of an amateur; rather blurred images, apparently out of focus; I laid them down and waited for his explanation.

"To understand how photographs of spirits are possible," said Sir Arthur, "you must know that the soul is a complete duplication of the body, resembling it in even the smallest particulars of outline and color. In ordinary conditions these two are so intermingled that the identity of the finer is completely obscured, but at death they divide. The eye is seldom keen enough to see the etheric body, though this has happened. But astronomy taught us long ago that the sensitized plate is a more delicate recording instrument than the human retina; it can show stars, upon a long exposure, which the eye has never seen. So in the spiritual realm, it would appear that the spirits of those we love are often so very near to us that a very little help, such as the camera can give under correct conditions of mediumship, will make all the difference.

"There are four mediums in England I who have had success with spirit photographs. One of them is a carpenter, a religious little man, at Crewe. I went to him, taking my own photographic plates with me; I wanted a picture of my boy. I sat before the camera, with two friends as if for an ordinary photograph. Afterward, I took the plate from the camera and developed it with my own hands. It bore no likeness of my son. Instead, written in fine script across the faces of the three of us was this extraordinary and totally unexpected message:

"Well done, friend Doyle. I welcome you to Crewe. Greetings to all. T. Colley.

"T. Colley was Archdeacon Colley, of England," Sir Arthur explained. "I never had met him, although I knew of him as a man greatly interested in spiritualism during his life here. I was at some pains to get a letter bearing his signature. Here it is."

He handed me another photograph showing a paragraph in the archdeacon's handwriting, signed by his name. The signature at the bottom of the letter was identical with the signature on the spirit photograph; to my eyes, at least.

"Do you see that mark on the upper left-hand corner of the first photograph?" Sir Arthur asked. "That is the identification mark which I put on the plate before my departure from Crewe; it disposes of any idea that another plate could have been substituted for the one which I placed in the camera with my own hands and remember, the developing of the plates was also done by me. How can the critics continue to disregard such evidence as this?

"I was greatly impressed by the visit to Crewe, yet I was not satisfied. I wanted a portrait of my son. On my second visit, he came; and here" — handing me another photograph — "is his picture."

The photograph, which is reproduced with this article, showed above Sir Arthur's left shoulder a filmy, indistinct portrait of a young man. "The likeness," Sir Arthur explained, "shows him as he looked at sixteen or seventeen, though he died at twenty-two. Obviously, there must be certain laws on the other side which spirits must learn before they can function effectively. When they come the second time, they do better. Yet there is no doubt that this is my boy; the features are undeniable. And the plate, again, is one of my own which I took down with me and developed later myself.

"If there was fraud in this case, how and where did it creep in?" Sir Arthur demanded. "By what magic does that simple-minded little carpenter, who accepts only a pittance for his work, outwit the trained scientific observers who come to him? Explain, if you can, how one of your own American scientists, Dr. Allerton Cushman, visiting England — where his name was not known — and calling on a medium without previous appointment should secure a picture of his daughter which was as unmistakable as any taken of her in life?

"Here is the picture," he continued, running through the collection on his desk and producing a portrait of a very appealing young woman's face, a girl in her early twenties. "I showed that picture in my lecture the other night, and several women spoke or wrote to me afterward, saying, 'I knew Agnes Cushman; that was she.'

"Were they all deceived? Is it reasonable to suppose that Doctor Cushman, her father, is mistaken in the features of his own child? Is it not far more reasonable to accept the sensible explanation of the spiritualists — that those we love are near us still, eager to accept any proper opportunity for making their presence known and understood ?"

One of his youngsters, a boy of nine, slipped into the room with some request, Sir Arthur nodded and the boy went away smiling.

"I believe I have the three happiest children in the city of New York," said the father. "Everybody who sees them speaks of their high spirits and happy faces. And why not? There is no fear in their lives; they know that if their mother and I should pass over to-morrow, it would be no occasion for sorrow. They know we would be happier than we have ever been, and that we would be waiting for them on the other side.

"For the spirits leave us no doubt as to the conditions over there. They say that they are exceedingly happy, and that they do not wish to return. They are among the friends whom they had loved and lost, and are busy in all sorts of good work. The old ideas of heaven as a place of eternal rest — ideas which most of us had discarded as intolerable long ago — have no relation to the messages they bring us. On the contrary, this happy ... ... consists in the development of those gifts we possess on this side. There is action for the man of action; intellectual work for the thinker; artistic, literary, dramatic, and religious activity for those whose gifts lie in these directions. Only the impediments and barriers are removed, and progress is easier, more satisfying and faster. It is a world of sympathy and opportunity wherein men may make of themselves what they will."

He was silent for a while, looking out at the hurrying life of the city — men and women rushing from here to there, and all of them to death. And I thought to myself: What a refreshing thing it is to sit and talk of death so dispassionately, with so much interest and anticipation — as if it were a trip to Europe, or a visit to a place just across the street. Surely, whether Sir Arthur be right or wrong, he and his like, when they stand beside an open grave, are a far more Christian company than most who claim the Christian name, but belie the hope of heaven by their tears.

It was nearing the hour of his next engagement. He came and walked with me to the door.

"Of course, all this has a very direct bearing on life here and now," he said. "It ought to mean three very definite things to thoughtful men and women, it seems to me: In the first place, eternity is not something that comes later on; we are living in eternity right now. You are an immortal spirit; I am an immortal spirit; the people with whom you will do business to-day are immortal men and women. It will not do to treat them lightly, to say, 'It does not matter, I shall probably never see him or her again.' The influence of to-day goes on into the far future; the impress that you leave on the characters of other men and women is made in imperishable stuff. You are molding them, and they are molding you, for the long life wherein all things are revealed and we are to 'know even as also we are known.'

"In the second place, an understanding of spiritualism ought to change very radically our unworthy attitude toward those who have passed on. How often a painful silence greets the mention of a loved one's name. How often you have been warned, in entering a home, not to mention the mother who has departed, lest the daughter burst into tears. I tell you the spirits are impatient at such false reticence. Why should we shrink from the mention of their names, when they are still with us? Why should we weep for them, when they are happier than ever before?

"I have seen the face of my own mother, seen it as clearly, as unmistakably as I see you standing there. I have, on three different occasions, and in the presence of a half-dozen witnesses, held extended conversations with my son. Surely there is no reason for suppressing their names and their memories, as though by a great deprivation they had ceased to be. Rather we should emulate the example of Sir Oliver Lodge, who sets a chair for his son Raymond at the table when the family gathers for its Christmas feast. That is real respect for those who have passed on before us. Isn't it reasonable to suppose that they appreciate it, and that failure to mention them, out of a false sense of delicacy, causes many a heartache in the other world?

"They tell us that it does. One of the saddest messages I have ever read is that in which Raymond describes the feelings of the dead boys who want to get word back to their people and who find ignorance and prejudice are a perpetual bar.

"'It is revolting to hear the boys tell how no one speaks of them ever,' he said.

"'No one speaks of us ever.'

"How often must that unhappy sentence have been uttered over there!

"Finally, there is the message of cheer which I mentioned to you earlier in our talk — that no element of character gained in this world is lost in transition. Death works no miracles, as I said before. We are Rot suddenly transformed into entirely different beings with finer characters and infinite knowledge. We know nothing over there which we have not acquired by hard work here. If a man be eighty years of age, it is still worth while for him to keep on studying, growing, deepening this spiritual nature. We are like ships carrying precious cargo; all the good that we take on here is carried over. Nothing is subtracted, nothing added. For those who have been handicapped by circumstance there will be wonderful opportunity for rapid development on the other side.

"But, on the other hand, no man who fails to live up to his best on this side will have his shortcomings repaired by the experience of death! This is the message of spiritualism — a message of the eternal importance of work and growth: 'Go on! Make the most of yourself by every means in your power; for you start in over there where you leave off here."'

The evening after I had this talk with Sir Arthur, two friends dined with me at my house. Neither of them was in his usual good spirits.

"I had a hard afternoon," said the first; "I went to see Miss M. The doctors have told her definitely that she will not live the year out. It was tragic to see her apparently so well, so eager to live, yet knowing that she cannot. Over and over again she kept saying, 'I want to live. Oh, I want to live! I don't want to die!' And the tears ran down her cheeks."

"That is an odd coincidence," said the other. "To-morrow I am leaving town to see a very dear friend for the last time. A wire arrived this afternoon warning me that I must start at once or I should be too late. And what shall I say when I arrive? What can one say?"

So they continued to discuss the last great mystery, as men and women have discussed it from the beginning — hopelessly, rebelliously, with a sense of injustice and wrong. It was a striking contrast to Sir Arthur's calm confidence. I wished he were there at the table, I would like to have had them hear his voice: "Death is not an enemy, but a friend. It is pleasant, not harsh. Those who have gone on are far happier than they could possibly be here. Be sure of this: I know."

If, as he says, spiritualism is only in its beginnings; if, as the spirits tell him repeatedly, mankind is on the threshold of some new, more compelling revelation which will banish all doubt and sorrow and fear; if this be true, surely those who love their fellow men can make only one answer: "Our minds are open. God speed the day."