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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Some Journalistic Inquiries

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Some Journalistic Inquiries is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in Light on 22 december 1923.

Some Journalistic Inquiries

Light (22 december 1923, p. 805)

To The Editor of Light.

Sir, — There is in the United States, a medium of the above name whose curious speciality is that in her presence cards show messages, written in ink, these messages purporting to be supernormal. I met Mrs. Stewart for a few moments in my hotel at Cleveland, but I had no time to go into her case. 1 gave her a letter however, to Mr. Bird, of the "Scientific American," because his committee had run dry of material, and he had begged me to send on anything which I might encounter in my travels. I was not in a position to sponsor her in any way. I give this explanation as the "Sunday Express" has published my photograph in connection with an account of the case, with the obvious intention of endeavouring to give the impression that I was a credulous person. Let me say once for all, here and now, that since I took up this movement seven rears ago, amid all the thousands of statements which I lave made, by pen or by tongue, I have never once been proved guilty of any inaccuracy as to fact, save in the case of one misquotation. I am compelled to make this point clear as sensational journalists continually endeavour to misrepresent the facts, as in this instance with which I am now dealing.

Mrs. Stewart went eight hundred miles to New York, and was examined by the Committee, who now proclaim her to be an impostor. This may be so, and it is hard for one at a distance to give due weight to every point. But I have examined the Committee's statement, I have received an account from Mrs. Stewart’s husband—author of an excellent booklet upon St. Paul — and I retain a strong impression that Spiritualists should be slow in accepting the theory of guilt which Mr. Bird has advanced. The Hope case should be a warning to us not to turn upon a medium until we are very sure of the facts.

Let us take the story as built up by Mr. Bird, and see if we can construct any sort of reasonable and probable sequence of events. Mrs. Stewart met a sub-committee at the offices of the paper. A packet of blank cards was given her: She obtained no results. According to her own account the office was noisy, tobacco-laden, and altogether unsuitable for psychic experiment. She arranged to come again.

But already she had done, according to Mr. Bird’s theory, a most desperate thing. She had extracted and carried off five of the blank cards. It was clever of her to do this with several pairs of sharp eyes watching every movement. It was also desperate since clearly it was probable that the cards would be missed. However, we will suppose that the prosecution is right, and that she did this remarkable feat. Mr. Bird says five cards were short. The possibility of an original miscount is not entertained. What would Mrs. Stewart now do with the five cards? Obviously she would write messages upon them, and then at the next sitting reintroduce them with the same dexterity with which she had abstracted them. That is surely clear. But the Bird theory is complex and incomprehensible. According to this she went round to stationers' shops to have the cards matched. So far as I can learn no stationer has been named who can corroborate this. It is mere assertion on the part of the prosecution, and is senseless from the point of view of Mrs. Stewart.

Let us grant it, however. Mrs. Stewart has now five cards ready for the next seance. The Committee, if they are really sure that five cards were missing, must be sure she has them on her. they have only to search her and to find them. But they do not find them. The sitting proceeds and has no result. If she really had the cards, what did she take them for, save to use them P But she does not use them, and again protests that the surroundings are unpsychic. This happens yet a second time. Mr. Bird's excuse is that he had made a minute mark upon the cards of the pack so as to detect those she added. He thinks she may have seen this mark. She was, indeed a clever woman if she could detect the tiny prick of a needle. But if she did so, is it not clear that she would have realised that her theft had been discovered, that the game was up, and that she had best make some excuse and return home? That is obviously what a fraudulent person would have done.

What did she actually do? She proposed that the next sitting should be in a better-lighted place — in the open air of a garden. A strange choice for a sleight-of-hand expert to make. She arrived at this rendezvous. She was stripped of all her clothes by a Committee of ladies some at least of whom had presumably been informed that it was certain, according to the knowledge of the Committee, that she had five cards upon her. Nothing was found. She was then brought into the garden. She had a dozen people around her, and a cinema camera working. Under these conditions she produced five written messages. One of them was signed by William James, and, according to the Stewarts, when it was shown, Mr. Bird exclaimed, “that is Professor James' own signature." Another was from a man who was supposed to be alive. On inquiry it was found that he had recently died. These results were given to the Press by the Committee at the time as being true results so far as they could see.

What occurred afterwards to alter their opinion? Mr. Bird says that they were found to be on cards which did not belong to the pack. But in that case the whole story of the abstraction of cards, in the first instance, becomes senseless. Why should cards be abstracted if other cards were to be used? But did these cards really differ from the others? Mr. Bird says he measured them with a fine instrument and there was a minute difference. The- Stewarts claim that a man of science has since measured a similar pack and that these minute diversities were found in it. Then, Mr. Bird talks of shade of colour. But how slight this must have been if it was not detected in the garden! If an occult process is really applied to a card, who can say how far it might effect some delicate shade of colouring ?

Mrs. Stewart was allowed to depart with the full belief that she had satisfied the tests. It was only when she was eight hundred miles away that she was proclaimed to be a fraud. I hear and can readily believe that this was a great shock to her, and that her health suffered severely in consequence. The report was, according to the papers, accompanied by jeering words from Mr. Bird about her already reckoning upon the five hundred pounds, as, it r seems to me. she had a good right to do. This five hundred pounds really poisons the whole investigation, for granting, as I willingly do, that Mr. Bird is an honourable man, it is an abuse of words to say that a verdict is impartial if it will cost the judge five hundred pounds to give it.

These are the circumstances so far as I can gather them at this distance. It was a trial with a prosecution, and no counsel for the defence, since there is no Spiritualist upon the Committee. The fact that many thousands of people, some of whom were surely as capable as these judges, have tested and fully endorsed Mrs. Stewart's strange alleged powers must surely be taken into account in considering the case. Is it to be supposed that she always extracted and afterwards substituted cards? One fact stands out clearly, if Mr. Bird is right; Mrs. Stewart is the champion prestidigitateur of the world. Her feat, before a camera and twelve witnesses, after a bodily search, surely must eclipse the fame of every conjurer.

I have slowly and painfully been forced to the conclusion that none of these newspaper inquiries are honest or useful. They are not carried out to find truth, but they are carried out to disprove truth at any cost. This is done by accentuating all the cons and ignoring all the pros. I spent time and trouble Rowing Mr. James Douglas round, and all that I taught him is to impose freak tests on the celestial spheres, and to declare that unless they condescend to answer them the obsession of Spiritualism — that is the considered results of men like Lodge, Barrett, Crookes, Lombroso and Wallace — will have passed away for ever. There is a point where want of proportion seems to me to verge upon megalomania. I have helped inquirers also like Mr. Sidney Moseley, who assured me in private that he was really a Spiritualist, and so obtained my assistance, after which he publicly denied that he was one. I had been warned against such men. and I find now that my more generous view was a mistaken one. I abjure it for ever. It is time which will prove our cause — time and that radical love and instinct for truth which lie in the hearts of the mass of mankind. Time will also prove to those who have misrepresented us that they are playing with fire, and that a misuse of their responsibilities will most certainly bring a very terrible reckoning in its train. They are not judging the Unseen. The Unseen is judging them.

Yours, etc.,

Arthur Conan Doyle.