The Strange Adventure of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and My Aunt Pauline
by Jeff Plude (November 2019)
Séance, Josef Vachal, 1907
At first glance it seems incredible and almost blasphemous that the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whose powers of observation and deduction seemed superhuman, believed that you could talk with dead people. Believed isn’t the right word.
“When I talk on this subject, I’m not talking about what I believe. I’m not talking about what I think,” said Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a sort of self-interview filmed in 1927, just a few years before his own death, sitting on a bench outside his home in the English countryside with his dog and a book, looking and sounding the epitome of the grandfatherly British gentleman. “I’m talking about what I know.”
Sir Arthur immersed himself in occult phenomena of all sorts for four decades, and wrote several nonfiction books about spiritualism. In those books, among other fantastic revelations, he reported that he’d attended slews of séances and had witnessed many living people of good character (including himself) who were told things by mediums who were supposedly channeling messages from spirits of dead people (at least their earthly bodies had died), things that the mediums themselves could not have known. There was much fraud, Sir Arthur admitted, but there was also much that was truly unexplainable except by a supernatural means or agency.
I too was once told something by a medium about a dead person that could not be explained other than by a supernatural means or agency. Like Sir Arthur, I too am not a materialist. But he and I are worlds apart when it comes to the source of these otherworldly communications.
I stumbled onto my first and only séance almost thirty years ago when I was frantically thumbing through the yellow pages of the phone book, in the days just before the internet, desperate for a feature story idea for the Sunday edition of the daily newspaper I worked for. Suddenly I saw something that stunned me: séances? It was a spiritualist church in one of the suburbs of Albany, New York. Halloween wasn’t far away.
So the next Friday evening there I was sitting in the dark, in the corner of a second-floor room of a so-called psychic institute in a strip mall, scribbling in my reporter’s notebook with one hand while holding a small flashlight in the other. I didn’t want to disrupt the delicate proceedings. I was an observer, that was it.
A dozen women and three men sat in a spread-out circle. An end table in the middle, well out of anyone’s reach, held a vase of flowers, two long funnels or “trumpets,” and two glass bowls, one with salt and the other with water—items the spirits had reportedly asked for at previous séances. Five of the participants were newcomers; the two weekly séances were open to the public for a fee of $6. The cost of a movie at the time, but a lot more expensive if you’re counting the spiritual price.
As they all held hands, the leader of the séance, a guy in his late thirties and co-founder of the spiritualist church, recited the invocation: “Divine parent, we thank you for the opportunity to join together in this circle ....” After a sort of warmup, in which he tried to telepathically send the group two images from pictures he later held up, he lead them through a guided meditation: “With your mind’s eye, you see a shaft of light in this room . . . This light is protection and peace. It is through this light that our spirit friends travel.”
Ever the impresario, he then announced: “I don’t know if you sensed it during the meditation, but there are quite a number of spirit people here.” And for the next hour and a half, the mediums took turns relaying messages to each other from these so-called spirit people.
Well into the séance, one of the women, a middle-aged student in the psychic institute, asked if she could relay a message to the reporter. Oh no, I thought, now I’m part of the story! The subject was sketchy enough, but now my editors would surely give me a hard time if I became involved in the whole circus myself. But what could I say? After all, I was a reporter, an investigator.
“I’m picking up several things about you,” she said. “Kind of like a shotgun.”
Several of the messages were general (I wasn’t letting the child in me out—if she only knew!), and a couple were misses (she saw me taking a trip to London within six months; it was two years). She also said she was getting something from somebody I hadn’t heard from in a while named Greg; I’d been friends with a former newspaper colleague named Greg, who was still very much alive.
That was it. I’d dodged a bullet. But then a few minutes later the same woman dropped a bomb—she had one more message for me.
“Aunt Pauline says hi,” she said. “I got someone with a cotton dress standing on a porch with a swinging door. She says hi. I’ll leave that with you.”
I nearly fell out of my chair! A direct hit! In fact Aunt Pauline, my great-aunt on my father’s side, who had died a half dozen years before, would always mention to me that she saw my byline in the local paper I used to work at. She was an elderly but jolly longtime widow who used to wear housecoat cotton dresses and sit in her upstairs apartment in a two-family house and look out the kitchen window and smoke Pall Malls and drink coffee into the wee hours. Kitty corner from the kitchen window was the swinging screen door on the back porch that was the entrance to her apartment.
Right after the séance the leader and church co-founder, who wore a dress shirt and tie and dress pants along with a Three Stooges watch, joked that one of the church members had called my co-workers to find out all about me. I wasn’t amused. No one I worked with would’ve known about Aunt Pauline. Not even my close friends would’ve known about her.
(What amazed me almost as much was that my editors never questioned a word in my story! That was unheard of even with the most straightforward and innocuous of subjects.)
Now I had proof of the supernatural, that was the upshot of it.
It might appear that it was a coincidence I was at the séance—I needed a story and it was that time of year—but it was more like a natural progression. I’d been interested in the occult since I was a boy. I was, like many, a big fan of the Twilight Zone, which I watched religiously in reruns. I had another great-aunt (Aunt Pauline’s sister in fact), a devout Catholic and a sweet French Canadian-American lady, who used to watch over me and my little brother when my parents went out and she’d regale me with tales of psychics and aliens in the latest edition of The National Enquirer. Around fifth grade, I stumbled onto a recent book at the time in the library of my elementary school, no less, called The Interrupted Journey; it was about a famous and very detailed UFO abduction case, and it captivated me. In high school I did my first term paper on ESP, which included research by J.B. Rhine at Duke University in the new academic field of parapsychology. As an undergrad I took a philosophy course called “The Borders of Science,” which was about paranormal phenomena and their implications and ramifications for humanity.
Though I was raised a Catholic, I saw nothing wrong with all this. It all seemed harmless to me, and endlessly interesting. And if even some of it turned out to be true, then what? I never remember it being preached against in a homily. And just a few years before I attended the séance, I’d read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation for the first time, but I didn’t remember that the Mosaic Law declared necromancy to be an “abomination” to God. I didn’t remember the story about the witch of Endor and how Saul, the first King of Israel, was condemned to die a disgraceful death, apparently because he coaxed the witch to call up the deceased spirit of his anointer, Samuel. And I didn’t remember that Paul the Apostle rebuked a fortuneteller who kept harassing him, and declared in an epistle: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood . . . ”
For almost twenty years after Aunt Pauline supposedly sent me greetings from beyond the grave, which I couldn’t explain or ignore, I delved deeper into the occult. Nothing too serious, mostly just reading. I thought it would lead to the truth about God, the afterlife, and even this life. I was dead wrong. One day I suddenly realized that all the occult books and blogs I couldn’t get enough of seemed to have one chief opponent: orthodox (with a lowercase o) Christianity. That’s exactly what every diehard occultist must fight against in the end, along with one other heavyweight: materialism, which is most visibly embodied today in the modern scientist.
As an ardent occultist himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was no exception, and in many ways is typical.
He traces his interest in spiritualism back to his late twenties, when he was conjuring up Sherlock Holmes, which I don’t think is irrelevant. The arts can be seen as a kind of magic and mesmerism, and I think many artists and writers are especially drawn to the occult. Occult essentially means things that are hidden, secret. And in many ways art is in the business of revealing such things, even if the things are hiding in plain sight, the kind of things an uber-perceptive detective might notice but the rest of us mortals would tend to gloss over. Poet William Butler Yeats, for instance, is a notable example.
But even scientists can cross the materialist divide, especially before the modern era. Isaac Newton, it was discovered after his death, had written much about religion and esotericism, and had many books in his library on those subjects. More recently Carl Jung, perhaps the guru of gurus of modern occultists and the son of a Protestant minister, even started his psychoanalytic career with a doctoral dissertation called “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.” His memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, reads at times like it was written by a shaman. Sir Arthur himself was trained as a medical doctor (an ophthalmologist, appropriately enough, given Holmes’s seemingly all-seeing eyes).
In my own lifetime, when I was a kid in the 1960s, a house with a Ouija board in it wasn’t uncommon. Later on, by the first few years of the new millennium, you could watch another New York stater, John Edward, pass on messages to a TV studio audience from their loved ones who had passed on.
Of course necromancy is nothing new. There’s the proscription against it in Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, written by Moses in about 1400 B.C.; the gentiles in the promised land were widely practicing it. A millennium or so later and farther west, Homer shows Odysseus using a ritual to call up spirits of dead comrades, heroes, and his mother. And more than a millennium after that, Hamlet converses with the ghost of his royal father, who came to him unbidden. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” has become the motto of anti-materialists everywhere.
Three centuries after Shakespeare, modern spiritualism took shape in 1848 in western New York state in a hamlet called Hydesville, with three sisters named Fox, who used rapping sounds to supposedly communicate with spirits. Even Abraham Lincoln, whose beloved eleven-year-old son died while Mr. Lincoln was president, became a closet spiritualist, attending séances (at least one of which was in the White House) with his wife. The first spiritualist community was founded in 1879 near Buffalo, in Lily Dale, New York, which is still teeming with mediums. A decade later, Sir Arthur was caught up in the wave of spirit communication mania, and rode it out for all it was worth for the rest of his life.
Though his first article on the popular phenomenon appeared in the journal Light in 1887, it was three decades before his first nonfiction books about spiritualism appeared. His first two were published in 1918 and 1919, and have proved prescient, foreshadowing the rise and wide-spread acceptance of what has become known as the New Age Movement. In fact these books, taken together, could serve as a manual for the movement, since it uses many of the same specious arguments as Sir Arthur does. The New Revelation and The Vital Message are short chronicles of his otherworldly excursions and his exhortations to overthrow all that stood in the way of what he considers enlightenment and contentment—in this life and the one to come. In other words, orthodox Christianity and what he saw as its stranglehold on the souls of the Western world would have to be broken.
The timing of these books is significant. The First World War was just ending, and millions of young men in the West, more than in any other war, were cut down in their youth. Sir Arthur, who was turning sixty and was too old to serve, did not escape unscathed: his 26-year-old son, Kingsley, died from wounds he received in battle. Shortly after the war Sir Arthur also lost a brother, two brothers-in-law, and two nephews. Spiritualism turned out to be a convenient balm; to not only hear from loved ones who are no longer here, that they’re not only still alive in actual spirit but that they’re even doing well, was apparently too comforting for Sir Arthur and millions of bereaved parents, wives, and children of the war to resist.
But for an orthodox Christian, who by definition is a supernaturalist in the strict sense (as I am), it was more than just cold comfort. Sir Arthur quotes Paul the Apostle’s instruction to “test the spirits,” but mischaracterizes the truth that Paul is testing for: not physical facts (as Holmes might), but spiritual ones.
Of course there was much hocus-pocus regarding Sir Arthur’s investigations (his memoir The Wanderings of a Spiritualist was published in 1921, and his two-volume The History of Spiritualism in 1926). Houdini, longing to reach his deceased beloved mother, debunked medium after medium in séance after séance, which lead to a rift between him and Sir Arthur. It’s evident that Sir Arthur was gullible to the point of absurdity, or pity perhaps is the better word, given the circumstances of his private life after the great war had ravaged him and Europe. One of the most glaring and embarrassing examples was the case of the “Cottingley Fairies,” which two girls in England purportedly captured in photos they took, known as “spiritual photography.” Sir Arthur disregarded several photographic experts who said they were faked, enthusiastically considered it the proof the public needed to finally accept his “new revelation,” and wrote an article about it for The Strand (which also published his Sherlock Holmes stories), and even a book. The girls who took the pictures, cousins, eventually admitted that they were a hoax.
But there are many instances, just like in my own, where evidence of the accuracy of supernatural occurrences was irrefutable, at least to somebody who had not already made up his mind and was a militant materialist. This does not, however, lead to truth.
Many times, the creator of the greatest deductive power in all literature falls prey to the common fallacy that if some of what somebody says is true, in fact even if most of what he says is true, then everything he says must be true. In other words, if one of the assertions relayed by the medium turn out to be accurate, especially a remarkable one, as in my case with my Aunt Pauline, then it must be from the person whom the spirit says it’s from. It never seemed to have crossed Sir Arthur’s mind that it could be a spirit impersonating the dead person, feeding the recipient tidbits of accurate information that are clearly unknowable except through a supernatural means or agency; that it was, actually, an evil, deceptive spirit with the ultimate ulterior motive.
Jesus said Satan is a liar, and by extension so are his minions. Paul the Apostle said Satan could transform himself into an “angel of light.” And Peter said Satan was like a marauding and roaring lion “seeking whom he may devour.” Sir Arthur seemed to believe nearly everything but this.
Both materialists and spiritualists alike tend to see the reality of such demonic spirits as fictional, even farcical. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape—a fictional creature who speaks the truth—sheds some light on this ingenious strategy in one of his letters to his nephew Wormword regarding his “patient,” the young man whose soul the neophyte demon has been charged with ensnaring for eternity:
Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves . . . I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.
But why then, you might ask, would God allow mediums to give information that is accurate? And why do the demons impersonating these disembodied souls transmit false information too?
To the first question: because people don’t trust in God and his word, that is the Bible, and even more specifically the gospel as explained in the New Testament. So, as Paul the Apostle says:
And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
In con-man parlance, the mark got what he or she wanted: a get-to-heaven-easy scheme. One of the Cottingley Fairy girls, as an old woman, said much the same thing.
And to the second question: Satan has great power, but as portrayed in the Bible he’s not omniscient, and neither are his lieutenants. Or perhaps God has ordained that mostly false information be given by the mediums, like unmistakable clues leading to the murder weapon, so nobody has a valid excuse in the end that they couldn’t have known who the true murderer was.
Though Sir Arthur spoke of a Christian spiritualism, what he advocated was anything but Christian. In fact he attacks orthodox Christianity vehemently, especially in The Vital Message. After all, how could his poor son, who hardly had a chance to live, and who presumably was not a true Christian, be in hell? It was evidently inconceivable to the father, so he doubled-down, so to speak, on the pagan heaven. In fact, Sir Arthur tells us that the mediums and the spirits that speak through them have taught him that there is no hell. Conveniently, there’s a purgatory—which the Bible does not even hint exists—a sort of remedial program for souls who were unrepentant on Earth. In truth it was created by the Catholic Church (and popularized by Dante’s Divine Comedy), which found it good for business, but which evangelicals reject as clearly false.
Sir Arthur’s portrayal of the afterlife is also reported by many who have had so-called near-death experiences, in books that now have their own genre, “heaven tourism.” Their heaven, though the various reports are all a little different, seems to have various elements in common. In the majority of cases they contain the requisite platitudes of spiritual security and universal salvation no matter what a person believes while he or she is alive on Earth. In other words, it’s just what an unbeliever, or an anti-Christian, wants to hear.
Sir Arthur is careful (most of the time) in expressing his admiration for Jesus Christ, whose teachings, he believed, have been greatly distorted. He singles out one of the Pharisees’ very own, who went from being a great persecutor of Christians to one of their great champions, Paul the Apostle. Also blamed for tainting the Messiah are his descendants, the Jews of the Old Testament, whose God is, to Sir Arthur, intolerable.
What Sir Arthur objects to about Christ is what I think of as the Tough-but-Just Jesus—the one who will acquit or condemn everybody in the end to either eternal bliss or suffering; the one who says that only those who obey him love him; the one who rejects unrepentant sinners, even ones who have done good things but didn’t believe in him. But the chief thing Sir Arthur hates about Jesus, that really galls him, is the same thing that Satan hates but true Christians celebrate: his crucifixion, his substitutionary atonement for sinners by the shedding of his blood on the cross, and his resurrection. Sir Arthur‘s disgust is palpable:
Such expressions as “Saved by the blood of the Lamb” or “Baptised by His precious blood” fill their souls with a gentle and sweet emotion, while upon a more thoughtful mind they have a very different effect.
So according to Sir Arthur, the minds of mediums and their dupes are presumably more thoughtful than that of, say, Augustine, or Aquinas, or Pascal, or Bunyan, or Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Edwards, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis—in other words, some of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers who believed in the most crucial Christian doctrine of all.
These are the kind of arrogant assertions that Sir Arthur repeatedly makes in The New Revelation and The Vital Message, which are neither new nor vital, but merely old and virulent. In the end he says orthodox Christianity must be revised, that is, denuded of its power, for the sake of “reason and progress” (which are, I think, often opposed to each other). After all, orthodox Christianity’s failure to conform to the modern world forced people to turn away from the religion that had been the moral bulwark of Western civilization for a millennia and a half and therefore caused the First World War (he believed that), the same war that killed his oldest son. It couldn’t have been that humans were simply following their own corrupted nature.
Screwtape also covered this angle with his protégé:
It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful . . . Now if we can keep men asking “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?” they will neglect the relevant questions . . . As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.
In the end, you might say of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle what Dr. Watson said of his brilliant, inscrutable friend soon after meeting him for the first time in A Study in Scarlet: “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.”
As for Aunt Pauline, I can still hear her throaty voice and her spry laugh. Maybe one day we’ll see each other again, but that’s not for me to decide.
Jeff Plude has been a freelance writer for more than twenty years. He is a former daily newspaper reporter and editor, and he has written for the San Francisco Examiner (when it was owned by Hearst), Popular Woodworking, Adirondack Life, and other publications. His poetry has appeared in the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal.
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