Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Spirits

August 19, 2014

Note: The following essay is based on a segment from Skepticality.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is known for many things: the creation of Sherlock Holmes, a spectacular mustache, and his belief in spirits and fairies.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Hairy Friend

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Hairy Friend

M’colleague, Bob Blaskiewicz, has discussed Doyle’s* seemingly ludicrous belief in the Cottingley fairies, but spiritualism was Doyle’s burning passion. He possessed a religious, missionary, perhaps even messianic zeal to promote belief in discarnate spirits and life after death. He lectured and wrote voluminously on the subject, including a two volume History of Spiritualism.

It’s easy to make fun of Doyle’s beliefs. Really easy. Stunningly easy. In fact it’s quite hard to refrain from making fun of them. In his writings on spiritualism, he displayed the same degree of levelheadedness and perspicacity that led him to conclude that this is an actual picture of a fairy:

"And his mustache is THIS big!"

“And his mustache is THIS big!”

His credulity seems almost infinite. By the time he published The History of Spiritualism, most of the mediums he discusses had been exposed resorting to fraud, in some cases repeatedly. Some of the mediums had even confessed. None of this deters him. He is able to defend the supernatural abilities of anyone who seems to display gifts that in some way bolster his religious beliefs:

In the light of our later, fuller knowledge we know that much that bears the appearance of fraud is not necessarily fraud at all.–The History of Spiritualism, Vol. I

How can an apparent fraud not be a fraud? Oh, so easily. For instance, he defends medium Eusapia Palladino although everyone–including Doyle and Palladino–admits that she sometimes did cheat. He, like Palladino, blames her trickery on skeptics who were looking for trickery. In other cases, the fraud wasn’t really fraud. On more than one occasion, an investigator grasped the foot Palladino was using to produce effects. Doyle doesn’t deny that a foot was grasped or that it was attached to Palladino’s body; however, he suggests it may have been a pseudopod, an ectoplasmic limb extruded from her body. This explanation assumes that skeptics are incapable of counting up to three.

Doyle even believed that magicians, like his erstwhile friend Harry Houdini, possessed real supernatural abilities but refused to admit it. Doyle genuinely believed that when Houdini appeared to walk through a wall that he was actually dematerializing and walking through a wall (Brandon 168).

Doyle’s credulity, rationalizations, and cognitive biases are not particularly unusual. They were shared by many contemporaries and are still common today. Doyle, however, combined credulity with arrogance, condescension, and an unswerving belief in his own rightness. He railed against scientists for not taking spiritualism seriously. He claimed that

[T]he attitude of organized science during these thirty years was as unreasonable and unscientific as that of Galileo’s cardinals, and that if there had been a Scientific Inquisition, it would have brought its terrors to bear upon the new knowledge. No serious attempt of any sort, up to the formation of the S[ociety for] P[sychical] R[esearch] was made to understand or explain a matter which was engaging the attention of millions of minds.–The History of Spiritualism, vol. I

 

When scientists did take spiritualism seriously, he railed against them for being too skeptical. In discussing the work of the Society for Psychical Research he says,

In an exaggerated striving after what was considered to be an impartial, scientific attitude, a certain little group within the society has continued for many years to maintain a position, if not of hostility to, yet of persistent denial of, the reality of physical manifestations observed with particular mediums. It has mattered not what weight of testimony was forthcoming from trustworthy men whose qualifications and experience made them worthy of credence.–History of Spiritualism, Vol. II

While dismissing many scientists and sciences, he praises to the high heavens those scientists who shared his credulity and biases, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. He is inordinately fond of the argument from authority, frequently citing the testimony of eminent men.

He can be both snobbish and anti-intellectual. He even quibbles with other spiritualists and many mediums who don’t understand the true significance of spiritualism–that is to say, they do not interpret it the way he does.

Worst, he can be uncharitable. Inevitably, he spends a considerable amount of time discussing Katie and Maggie Fox, who sparked the craze for spiritualism when they heard (or produced) knocks and raps in 1848.  They were eleven and fifteen years old at the time. They were relentlessly exploited by their much older sister Leah. Leah ended up wealthy and secure and lived to a ripe old age. Kate and Maggie both descended into poverty and alcoholism, and Leah abandoned them when they became scandalous.

Doyle believes in the Fox sisters’ gifts and has great respect for Leah, but he says of her sisters,

[T]hey misused their gift in the direction of giving worldly advice, receiving promiscuous sitters, and answering comic or frivolous questions. If in such circumstances both their powers and their character were to deteriorate, it would not surprise any experienced Spiritualist. They deserved no better, though their age and ignorance furnished an excuse.–History of Spiritualism, vol. I

Despite all his flaws, though, I find myself getting angry on Doyle’s behalf. He became a fervent, evangelizing proponent of spiritualism in the wake of World War I. His eldest son was seriously wounded in the war. After he had largely recovered, he died of Spanish flu. Doyle’s brother and two brothers-in-law died during the war and two nephews shortly after. Doyle’s devotion to spiritualism sprang from deep grief. He needed to know that his loved ones were all right, that they still existed in some form, that he would see them again, that he could still communicate with them.

People who claimed they could communicate with his loved ones took advantage of his grief and betrayed his trust, just as psychics continue to take advantage of grieving people today. A wise man has asked “What’s the Harm?” Doyle provides an answer.

ES

References:

Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism. Vol. I (1926): https://archive.org/details/historyofspiritu015638mbp; Vol. II: http://www.gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301061.txt

Ruth Brandon, The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, New York: Knopf, 1983.

*There is some confusion about Doyle’s name, specifically, whether “Conan” was a middle name or part of a compound surname. It seems to have been a middle name, but Doyle sometimes used it as a compound surname. For instance, his second wife was known as “Jean Conan Doyle” rather than Jean Doyle. Strictly speaking, however, his surname was simply “Doyle.”

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In Praise of Sutton Hoo Woo

September 14, 2011

All right, I admit it, I am writing this post mostly as an excuse to use the phrase “Sutton Hoo woo.” It’s a lovely phrase. Try saying it. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

See, wasn’t that satisfying?

More seriously, though, we’ve all heard psychics claiming that they have worked with the police and provided material assistance in finding missing persons and dead bodies and in solving cases. In every instance, these claims have proved to be dubious, at best. We’ve also heard of dowsers claiming to have found…well, all sorts of things using their magic sticks.

The excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial may be an instance where fringe beliefs actually did contribute to the discovery of a great treasure and human remains (sort of). Now, right off the bat, I should make two things clear: in the first place, it’s unclear to what extent unconventional beliefs contributed to England’s greatest archaeological discovery. Secondly, I’m not saying that anything extraordinary actually happened. Ghosts and magic sticks didn’t actually lead to the discovery, but the belief in ghosts and magic sticks may have acted as a catalyst. I guess what I’m saying is that someone who is a bit of a woo can also be a Big Damn Hero.

In this case, our Big Damn Hero is the delightfully named Mrs. Pretty. Edith May Pretty was the daughter of a wealthy northern industrialist. In 1926, she married Col. Frank Pretty, and the two of them bought Sutton Hoo House, a large Edwardian mansion near Woodbridge in Suffolk. In 1930, Mrs. Pretty found herself pregnant at the age of 47. Four years later, her husband died.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Pretty became interested in spiritualism, frequently travelling to London to consult with a spiritualist medium. According to Joseph Allen McCullough, Mrs. Pretty “claimed to have strange dreams and visions of the place, including a vivid dream where an Anglo-Saxon funeral procession buried the body of their king inside a ship in the largest of the mounds.”  According to the video below, it was a friend of Mrs. Pretty’s who saw the ghosts:

Mrs. Pretty also had a nephew who was a dowser. He said there was treasure under Mound 1. Armed with this supernatural information, Mrs. Pretty decided to hire herself an archaeologist. She consulted with Guy Maynard, curator of the Ipswich Museum, who suggested Basil Brown, a self-taught but conscientious and successful excavator. She paid him 30 shillings a week and provided him with accommodation in the chauffeur’s cottage and the assistance of two estate workers (one of whom was named Tom Sawyer).

Based (allegedly) on the supernatural insights she had gained, Mrs. Pretty suggested that Brown excavate Mound 1.  Brown did begin to excavate Mound 1 (using a long probe designed by Mrs. Pretty), but concluded, logically if erroneously, that Mound 1 had been looted. Instead he turned to Mounds 2, 3 and 4. Mounds 3 and 4 were cremation burials that had been looted. Mound 2–one of the largest mounds–produced a number of scattered rivets. It was a ship burial, but it too had been looted.

The next year (1939), Mrs. Pretty again suggested that Brown excavate Mound 1. He did so, with extraordinary results. As with Mound 2, he found ship rivets, but in Mound 1, they were still in place. The dark coloration of the sandy soil also showed the outline of an enormous ship (larger than any other Migration Era or Viking Age ship yet discovered).  At this point, the Office of Works and the British Museum got involved, even though they had other things to worry about: the Office of Works was busy building airstrips, and the British Museum was busy crating up its treasures and sending them to the London Underground for safekeeping in anticipation of WWII. Consequently, the initial excavation was a rather hurried affair, but worth it. Mound 1 proved to be an unlooted, probably royal Anglo-Saxon ship burial:

The ship

The helmet

Recreation of helmet made by Tower of London armourers

Buckle

Shoulder clasp

No body or bones were actually found, but in subsequent excavations, phosphate traces were found in the soil, suggesting that a body had once lain there. The soil is highly acidic; almost no wood from the ship survived either.

After the treasures were unearthed, a coroner’s inquest was held to decide who was the rightful owner: the crown or Mrs. Pretty. The court decided that the treasure belonged to Mrs. Pretty. Martin Carver, who led the most recent excavations at Sutton Hoo, describes what happened after the inquest:

Charles Phillips [who led the British Museum excavation] mentions family pressure to keep the jewellery, but Mrs. Pretty’s own position is less certain. Her spiritualist counsellor soon came to stay with her, and Phillips took a stroll with him that evening on the heath, volunteering his opinion that a presentation of all the finds to the nation “would be a splendid gesture” (Carver, p. 22)

Ultimately, Mrs. Pretty did donate the treasure to the British Museum, “thus making the most generous donation to the Museum ever made in the lifetime of a donor. Mrs Pretty was offered the honour of Dame of the British Empire, which she declined” (Carver, p. 22). The treasure was then taken to the London Underground for the duration of the war.

So, how much influence did spiritualism and dowsing have in the discovery of the ship burial? I have no idea. Certainly, some of the claims seem exaggerated. Carver downplays the influence: “whatever her sensitivity to the attentions of solicitous phantoms, Mrs Pretty was no stranger to scientific archaelogy” (p. 4). She had visited the pyramids in Egypt, and her father had gotten permission to excavate the remains of a Cistercian Abbey near their family home in Cheshire:

She would have been aware of the responsibilities of excavating burial mounds, and had already refused to allow enthusiastic amateurs to try their hand. In her case a keen eye and an educated curiosity would have encouraged investigation as surely as any interest in the other world. (Carver, p. 4)

More importantly, there is nothing mystic about the discovery: Mrs. Pretty lived on an estate that had big, honking mounds in the back yard. No one knew exactly what they were, but the idea that they were burials was hardly outlandish. And with pagan burials comes treasure. There had been rumors of treasure for centuries. Certainly the looters thought there was treasure. Nor is the interest in Mound 1 particularly surprising. It’s really big (admittedly, so is Mound 2).

Still, it seems likely that Mrs. Pretty’s interest in spiritualism and her faith in her nephew’s dowsing may have played some role in her decision to hire someone to excavate, and her spiritualist medium may have encouraged her to donate the treasure to the British Museum.

Edith May Pretty: First Class Woo.  Big Damn Hero.

ES

REFERENCES:

Bruce-Mitford, Rupert. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: A Handbook. London: British Museum, 1972.

Carver, Martin. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.