Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often wished that he would be remembered for his writings on Spiritualism rather than his Sherlock Holmes novels. That didn't happen. But he would no doubt be pleased that the British Library has provided a unique public service — posting rare recordings of the author, both before and after his death.
More than 80 years after he passed away, it's still hard to reconcile that the man who created the literary embodiment of empirical thinking would become a prominent global figure in the Spiritualist movement.
Spiritualism had emerged in mid-19th century America. Ironically, some scholars attribute it to the growing role of science in public life — people craved tangible evidence for their belief in the afterlife. Likewise, the invention of the telegraph awed Americans, and Spiritualists saw their faith as an extension of that technology, tapping into the same natural forces. As one practitioner wrote in 1857:
Human free-will may impress on an object a vibration that communicates itself to the ether or to the universal electricity, which certainly encounters the spirit to which your will or thought addresses itself; and as this spirit possesses an intelligence and a free-will like yours, he will send back to you, if he be so disposed, a signal through the same channel… one of the sublimest inventions of the Creator of the world is to have annihilated for spirit both time and space, a fact which it would have been impossible to admit before the invention of the Electric Telegraph.
Yet, above all else, it was war that attracted people to Spiritualism. First, after the Civil War, when people sought the help of mediums to communicate with their departed loved ones. And, again, after the First World War. Although Arthur Conan Doyle had been intrigued by psychic phenomenon since the 1880s, his belief in Spiritualism was affirmed after attending a séance in which he believed he had been contacted by his son Kingsley, who had died from pneumonia in 1917 after being wounded in France.
Twenty of Conan Doyle's over sixty books are about Spiritualism, including a two-volume tome, The History of Spiritualism (1924). The most intriguing part of this chapter in his life was the friendship he developed with Harry Houdini—who was likewise a believer in an afterlife, but devoted his efforts to debunking the mediums and other scam artists who were cashing in on the Spiritualist movement. Their relationship came to a bitter end when Conan Doyle invited Houdini to a private séance, during which Conan Doyle's wife, Jean, claimed to have contact Houdini's mother. It was an embarrassing sham — a written message from his "mother," the wife of a rabbi, began with the sign of the cross — and Houdini deeply resented it.
At the website of the British Library, you can hear a rare recording from a speech on spiritualism that Conan Doyle delivered on May 14, 1930, just two months before his death. He opened his talk by saying:
People ask, what do you get from spiritualism? The first thing you get is that it absolutely removes all fear of death. Secondly, it bridges death for those dear ones whom we may lose. We need have no fear that we are calling them back, for all that we do is to make such conditions as experience has taught us, will enable them to come if they wish. And the initiative lies always with them.
As for what happened after Conan Doyle died, the British Library says:
In July 1930, one week after Conan Doyle's death, thousands of people attended a séance at the Royal Albert Hall at which a medium claimed to have communicated with him (an event featured in Julian Barnes's 2005 novel Arthur & George).
Four years later, on 28 April 1934, a séance held by Noah Zerdin at the Aeolian Hall, New Bond Street, attracted a capacity audience of 560 people, with many turned away. It was the first large gathering of its kind to be recorded, and Conan Doyle was one of 44 people heard speaking from the 'other side'.
Noah Zerdin …. fled the Tsarist regime in Russia for London and established a successful business in Oxford Street as a furrier. It was only after a devastating fire, in which his wife Bertha died and his business was destroyed, that he began holding séances, apparently believing that he had successfully made contact with his late wife.
The Aeolian Hall proceedings were professionally recorded on 26 acetate discs. These were to lay undisturbed in a trunk for 67 years before being discovered in 2001 by Dan Zerdin (Noah's son).
You can listen to the recording, in which the alleged "spirit" of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sends the message, "Take care of my boys and my good wife, Jean."