Sunday Essay: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Conversations with the Dead, New Zealand, 1920
Having declared Sherlock Holmes dead, the writer turned to the spirit world, bringing his lectures and psychic photographs to the antipodes. Redmer Yska writes.
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Original artwork by Anna Crichton
When the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sailed to Auckland a century ago, he arrived in a land shocked by sorrow. Over 18,000 New Zealanders died in World War I in four years; the flu epidemic of November 1918 killed half that number, including many rural Maori, in two terrible months.
For 15 days, Doyle, a literary superstar, took the country by storm. He had pivoted to a new calling – an expert in the spirit world and relating to the dead. But his practice of spiritualism was controversial. As he neared Australia, the first stop on his 1920 down under lecture tour, local Presbyterians reportedly prayed to God to sink Doyle’s incoming ship and drown it. Once ashore, a Melbourne newspaper called her beliefs “witchcraft” and “a force which we believe to be purely evil”.
The old ship’s medic with the walrus mustache was quite serious about fellowship with the dead; he wasn’t a hyper-rational “sleuth-dog” like his tweedy protege Holmes. Doyle lost a son and a brother during the Great War and the search for channels to the dead dominated his life thereafter. He claims to have spoken to his boy Kingsley in session. He chatted with the dead (all male) like Joseph Conrad and Cecil Rhodes, and hit tables with Harry Houdini.
His demands resonated in English-speaking colonies like New Zealand where his name had resonated for a generation. And by the time he arrived from Sydney, our population of just over a million was still overwhelmingly grieving, made worse, in the case of the Great War, by the fact that the bodies of those killed never made it home. them. It was not uncommon to see makeshift shrines in living room corners across the country, with framed studio portraits of the loved one surrounded by flags and medals.
Evangelizers like Doyle have insisted that it is possible for everyone to reconnect with the dead, through sessions, Ouija boards and other means. So it was no surprise that Aotearoa’s Doyles Whistlestop tour had its moments, surely the strangest one being his session with a clairvoyant Christchurch dog.
The crowds on the Auckland wharf had been waiting for 12 hours when Doyle’s ship arrived on December 8, 1920, some there to protest the blasphemy of spiritism; other lifetime Sherlock Holmes fans. Doyle was already bored with the detective, having killed him in 1893, five years after his literary debut. A decade later, he was forced to bring him back to life, ironically an encounter with a ghostly dog ââin The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The Kiwis were the first to adopt Sherlock. In July 1892, the Golden Bay Argus, a Collingwood-based daily newspaper, serially published The Man With The Twisted Lip, as the Lyttelton Times called the “wonderfully popular” stories. The touring dramatizations of the stories drew crowds. In 1903, the Theater Royal in Greymouth hosted repeat performances, with late theater trains going to Hokitika, Kumara and Brunner.
In 1920 Doyle told the world, âHolmes is dead. I’m done with him â; he wanted to focus on the spirit world. In Auckland, his numerous two-hour lectures featured an exhibition of psychic photographs displayed by a magic lantern, the PowerPoint of his day. Some have presented people with ectoplasm coming out of their mouths. Others showed fairies, one playing a reed pipe, the other spinning on a mushroom. They were part butterflies, part humans, he explained.
The Herald was tolerant: “If the speaker’s guarantees as to the authenticity of these remarkable images were accepted, it can be said with certainty that the most doubtful might have left the room in the spirit of ‘I wonder’ . It must also be said that the whole attitude and speech of Sir Conan [sic] spelled sincerity and conviction.
Doyle’s 1921 memoir, Wanderings of a Spiritualist, recalls his joy with the crowds of Auckland. âI couldn’t have gotten better reception or got my message across more successfully. All the hateful and offensive advertisements in the newspapers had produced (as is natural in a generous people) a friendlier feeling for the stranger.
Aucklanders, like other Kiwis, had mixed feelings about the visitor. The “ragging” was a reference to vocal media reviews of “six great photographers” eager to scrutinize images of “fairies”. After meeting them, Doyle rejected the request: “I refused to let my photographs pass into ignorant hands … Their challenge then appeared in the press with a long tirade of abuse attached to it, based on the absurd theory that all the photos had been taken by me, and that there was no proof of their truth except at my word.
On the Sunday after Doyle’s lectures, Auckland clergy urged pulpit parishioners to pray for this “apostle of spiritualism.” The Anglican Bishop of Auckland, Dr Averill, lamented “the habit of resorting to sessions, seers and mediums”. But it was restricted from the response across the Tasman.
In Auckland, Doyle also spoke with mothers of dead soldiers, an extremely large community. The Face of War, Sandy Callister’s brilliant study of WWI photography, describes ‘The Casualty List’, a painting featured in the Auckland Weekly News in 1916: âA lonely woman leans against the fireplace in ‘an Edwardian living room, with his back to the viewer, his head bowed, his left hand resting on the fireplace and touching a framed photograph of a man in uniform, his right holding a copy of the New Zealand Herald.
IAt the moving moment of the session at the Doyle Hotel, one of the mothers produced a so-called “intake”, an occult term for an item literally transferred into the air during a session. Spirits are said to have transported the sandstone fragment from her son’s grave in Gallipoli to a farm in south Auckland: âThe peasant woman with the trembling fingers took a small silver box from her breast. From this she took an object, wrapped in white silkâ¦ She said it had been thrown on her table while she and her family were having a session.
Even Doyle seemed in conflict. âA message came with him saying it was from the boy’s grave in Gallipoli. What should we say to this? Was it a fraud? So why were they playing tricks on each other? If it was, indeed, a contribution, it is surely one of the most remarkable for the distance and for the registered goal of any private circle.
In Auckland, Doyle first heard of the Psychic Dog. His source was magistrate and fellow spiritist Joseph Poynton, âPoynton told me about a dog in Christchurch who had a power of thought comparable, not only to a human being, but even, as I understood it, to a clairvoyant, as he barked. the number of coins in your pocket and other similar mattersâ¦ He was a very fast and precise thought reader, but in some cases the power seemed to go beyond that.
Wanderings of a Spiritualist relates how the dog was already worshiped in spiritualist circles: âMr. Poynton, who had studied the subject, mentioned four learned beasts from the story: a wonderful horse in Shakespeare’s time, which was burnt with its master in Florence; the Boston skipper’s dog; Hans, the Russian horse and Darkie from Christchurch. “
Doyle traveled by night train to the capital, where he met Prime Minister William Massey, filled Wellington Town Hall and had his hat ripped off. He then took the Lyttelton ferry to the South Island. On December 15, a crowded Christchurch Theater Royal heard his talk on “Death and the Afterlife, the New Revelation”. The press reported how the speaker “steered the audience along the unexplored coast which borders the unknown land”.
The next morning, from the Warners Hotel in Christchurch, Doyle wrote to his father-in-law back in England: âHere I am running like a mad bull down the length of New Zealand, only stopping to push. a prolonged howl or throwing an occasional parish priest. They think (and say) the devil is unleashed and that there will be a general jubilee when I disappear either over the sea or into the sea, the latter by choiceâ¦ People as a whole are with me.
The highlight of the visit to Christchurch, however, was meeting the dog. From his owner, a Mrs. McGibbon, Doyle heard how his son discovered the powers of the animal. âHe once remarked, ‘I’ll give you a cookie if you bark three times.’ He did it immediately. âNow six times. He did it. âNow take out three. He barked three more times. Since then, they have hardly found a problem that he could not tackle.
But the dog had a day off. âHe was a dark, lively, sixteen-year-old fox terrier, blind and deaf, which visibly altered his powers. Despite his blindness, he rushed at me the moment he was allowed to enter the room, kicking me around and shaking with excitementâ¦ Once he started barking, he didn’t. could not be brought to stop. Every now and then it stabilized and gave us a touch of its true quality.
When asked about the number of six pence in the half-crown placed in front of him, the dog gave five correct barks. But his psychic powers failed when asked further questions about the old pounds, shillings, and pence. Doyle was, as always, polite: “I took my hat off anywayâ¦ I have no doubt the dog had these powers, although age and excitement have now altered them.”
Like all wise visitors, Doyle praised New Zealand. Wanderings of a Spiritualist celebrates “a charming place which contains within its moderate limits the agricultural plains of England, the lakes of Scotland, the glaciers of Switzerland and the fjords of Norway, with good, warm people, who do not treat the British newcomer with ignorant contempt or hostility.
The journey into the spirit world continued long after Doyle left. In the end, 10 of his 60 books would tackle the subject. In 1922, Doyle produced another, The Coming of the Fairies, even though his “psychic photos” were exhibited – and ridiculed – as the clumsy work of two young girls. Auckland’s “ignorant” photographers were right.
* In 2020, Benedict Cumberbatch, the most famous Sherlock Holmes of our time, flew to the South Island to star in Jane Campion’s new film Power of the Dog, which is due out on Netflix soon.
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