The Spiritual Life of Arthur Conan Doyle | Modern Society of USA

The Spiritual Life of Arthur Conan Doyle

The Spiritual Life of Arthur Conan Doyle

As a young doctor living in England in the 1880s, Arthur Conan Doyle began attending séances where mediums offered contact with the dead. He also observed displays of psychic telepathy, automatic writing and table tipping, and became convinced that there was an unseen world out there. A lapsed Catholic, he now announced himself a Spiritualist, but did not begin proselytizing for his new creed until World War I. The deaths of his oldest son, Kingsley (in 1918), his brother (the following year) and two nephews (shortly after the war) led him to embrace Spiritualism with all his heart, convinced it was a “New Revelation” delivered by God to console the bereaved.

In 1920, Conan Doyle, now long famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, received a letter from an excited friend who was in possession of a photograph in which tiny females with diaphanous wings are cavorting in front of an entranced adolescent girl. The girl was 16-year-old Elsie Wright, who lived near the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire, and the photo had been taken by her 10-year-old cousin, Frances. The girls reported having previously seen the fairies by a stream and then gone back with a camera borrowed from Elsie’s father so Frances could take a picture of her with the mystical creatures.

Had Sherlock Holmes seen that initial image, he would no doubt have noticed that although a breeze had caused the leaves on the trees to blur, the wings of the flying fairies showed no movement. Conan Doyle, however, regarded the photograph as genuine. When more photographs of fairies showed up the same year, he wrote two articles and a nonfiction book, “The Coming of the Fairies,” in which he insisted that the figures depicted were actual fairies. His belief earned him condemnation from the press, the public and, ironically, Christian churches, whose own belief system encompassed winged angels and devils.

The writer remained convinced of the existence of fairies until his death in 1930. Both his family and Spiritualist friends refused to wear mourning clothes to the funeral as a way of expressing their conviction that the author had simply moved on to exist in another dimension. Six thousand people crowded into Albert Hall that day, many hoping that their departed mentor would make contact. His widow was not alone in swearing he did.

In 1983, a much older Elsie Wright finally owned up to the hoax: She had cut the fairies out of an illustrated children’s book and then held them up with invisible threads so Frances could photograph her smiling at the cutout. Regrettably Elsie did not live long enough for the world to witness what she could have done with Photoshop.

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