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Anna Chrichton
Anna Chrichton

The Sunday EssayMay 30, 2021

The Sunday Essay: Arthur Conan Doyle’s conversations with the dead, New Zealand, 1920

Anna Chrichton
Anna Chrichton

Having declared Sherlock Holmes deceased, the writer turned to the spirit world, bringing his lectures and psychic photographs to the antipodes. Redmer Yska writes. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Anna Crichton

When Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sailed into Auckland a century ago, he arrived in a land reeling from grief. More than 18,000 New Zealanders died in the first world war over four years; the flu epidemic of November 1918 killed half that number, including many rural Māori, in two terrible months.

Over 15 days, Doyle, a literary superstar, took the country by storm. He had pivoted to a new vocation – an expert on the spirit world and connecting to the dead. But his practice of spiritualism was controversial. As he neared Australia, the first stage of his “down under” lecture tour of 1920, local Presbyterians reportedly prayed to God to sink Doyle’s incoming ship and drown him. Once ashore, a Melbourne paper called his beliefs “witchcraft” and “a force we believe to be purely evil”.

The former ship’s doctor with the walrus moustache was utterly serious about communing with the dead; he was no hyper-rational “sleuth–hound” like his tweedy protege Holmes. Doyle lost a son and brother in the Great War, and seeking channels to the dead dominated his life thereafter. He’d claim to have spoken to his boy Kingsley in seances. He chatted away with dead people (all males) like Joseph Conrad and Cecil Rhodes, and rapped tables with Harry Houdini.

His claims resonated in English-speaking colonies like New Zealand where his name had rung out for a generation. And at the time he arrived from Sydney, our population of just over a million was still massively bereaved, made worse, in the case of the Great War, by the fact that the bodies of those killed never came home. It was not uncommon to see makeshift shrines in the corners of living rooms up and down the country, featuring framed studio portraits of the loved one, surrounded by flags and medals.

Evangelisers like Doyle insisted that it was possible for everybody to reconnect with the dead, via seances, Ouija boards, and other means. It was not surprising, then, that Doyles whistlestop tour of Aotearoa would have its moments, surely the weirdest being his session with a clairvoyant Christchurch dog.

The crowd on Auckland wharf had been waiting for 12 hours when Doyle’s ship pulled in on December 8, 1920, some there to protest against the blasphemy of spiritualism; others lifetime fans of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was already bored with the detective, having killed him off 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 in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Kiwis were early Sherlock adopters. In July 1892, the Golden Bay Argus, a daily paper based in Collingwood, serialised The Man With The Twisted Lip, as the Lyttelton Times called the stories “wonderfully popular”. Touring dramatisations of the stories drew crowds. In 1903, Greymouth’s Theatre Royal hosted repeat performances, with late theatre trains running to Hokitika, Kumara and Brunner.

By 1920, Doyle was telling the world: “Holmes is dead. I have done with him”; he wanted to concentrate on the spirit world. In Auckland, his packed two-hour long lectures featured an exhibition of psychic photographs displayed by magic lantern, the PowerPoint of its day. Some featured folk with ectoplasm issuing from their mouths. Others showed fairies, one playing a reed pipe, another turning on a toadstool. They were partly butterfly, partly human, he explained.

The Herald was tolerant: “Granted that the speaker’s guarantees of the genuineness of these remarkable pictures were accepted, it can safely be stated that the most doubting might have left the hall 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 delight with the Auckland crowds. “I could not possibly have had a better reception, or got my message across more successfully. All the newspaper ragging and offensive advertisements had produced (as is natural among a generous people) a more kindly feeling for the stranger.”

Aucklanders, like other Kiwis, had mixed feelings about the visitor. The “ragging” was a reference to vocal media criticisms from “six leading photographers” keen to scrutinise the “fairy” images. After meeting them, Doyle turned down the request: “I refused to allow my photographs to pass into ignorant hands … Their challenge thereupon appeared in the Press with a long tirade of abuse attached to it, founded upon the absurd theory that all the photos had been taken by me, and that there was no proof of their truth save in my word.”

Truth newspaper, December 11, 1920

The Sunday after Doyle’s lectures, Auckland clergy urged parishioners from the pulpit to pray for this “apostle of spiritualism”. Auckland’s Anglican Bishop Dr Averill lamented “the habit of recourse to seances, seers and mediums”. But it was restrained compared to the response across the Tasman.

In Auckland, Doyle also sat down with mothers of dead soldiers, an extremely large community. The Face of War, Sandy Callister’s brilliant study of World War One photography, describes ‘The Casualty List’, a painting featured in the Auckland Weekly News in 1916: “A solitary woman leans against the fireplace of an Edwardian parlour, her back to the viewer, her head bowed, her left hand resting on the mantelpiece and touching a framed photograph of a uniformed man, her right clutching a copy of the New Zealand Herald.”

In a poignant moment during the session at Doyle’s hotel, one of the mothers produced a so-called “apport”, the occult term for an article literally transferred through the air during a seance. Spirits had reportedly carried the sandstone fragment from her son’s grave at Gallipoli to a South Auckland farmhouse: “The country woman with quivering fingers, produced from her bosom a little silver box. Out of this she took an object, wrapped in white silk … She said it was thrown down on her table while she and her family were holding a seance.”

Even Doyle sounded conflicted. “A message came with it to say that it was from the boy’s grave at Gallipoli. What are we to say to that? Was it fraud? Then why were they playing tricks upon themselves? If it was, indeed, an apport, it is surely one of the most remarkable for distance and for purpose recorded of any private circle.”

In Auckland, Doyle first heard of the psychic dog. His source was magistrate and fellow spiritualist Joseph Poynton, “Poynton told me of a dog in Christchurch which had a power of thought comparable, not merely to a human being, but even, as I understood him, to a clairvoyant, as it would bark out the number of coins in your pocket and other such questions … He was a very quick and accurate thought-reader, but in some cases the power seemed to go beyond this.”

Wanderings of a Spiritualist relates how the dog was already revered in spiritualist circles: “Mr Poynton, who had studied the subject, mentioned four learned beasts in history: a marvelous horse in Shakespeare’s time, which was burned with its master in Florence; the Boston skipper’s dog; Hans, the Russian horse, and Darkie of Christchurch.”

Doyle travelled by overnight train to the capital, where he met premier William Massey, filled the Wellington Town Hall, and had his hat blown off. He then took the Lyttelton ferry for the South Island. On December 15, a packed Theatre Royal in Christchurch heard his lecture on “Death and the Hereafter, the New Revelation”. The Press reported how the speaker “piloted the audience along the uncharted coast fringing the undiscovered country”.

The following morning, from Warners Hotel in Christchurch, Doyle wrote to his father-in-law back in England: “Here I am charging like a mad bull down the length of New Zealand, only pausing to utter a prolonged bellow or to toss an occasional parson. They think (and say) that the devil has got loose and there will be a general jubilee when I disappear either over the sea or into the sea, the latter for choice … The people in the main are with me.’

The high point of the Christchurch visit, however, was his meeting with the dog. At the home of its owner, a Mrs McGibbon, Doyle heard how her son discovered the pet’s powers. “He remarked one day: ‘I will give you a biscuit if you bark three times.’ He at once did it. ‘Now, six times.’ He did so. ‘Now, take three off.’ He barked three times once again. Since then they have hardly found any problem he could not tackle.”

But the dog was having an off-day. “He was a dark, vivacious fox terrier, sixteen years old, blind and deaf, which obviously impaired his powers. In spite of his blindness he dashed at me the moment he was allowed into the room, pawing at me and trembling all over with excitement … Once he began to bark he could not be induced to stop. Occasionally he steadied down, and gave us a touch of his true quality.”

Asked how many sixpences were in the half-crown placed before him, the dog issued five correct barks. But his psychic powers failed when asked other questions about the old pounds, shillings and pence currency. Doyle was, as always, polite: “I took my hat off to him all the same … I have no doubt that the dog had these powers, though age and excitement have now impaired them.”

Like all well-behaved visitors, Doyle praised New Zealand to the skies. Wanderings of a Spiritualist celebrates “a lovely place that contains within its moderate limits the agricultural plains of England, the lakes of Scotland, the glaciers of Switzerland, and the fjords of Norway, with a fine hearty people, who do not treat the British newcomer with ignorant contempt or hostility.”

The voyaging into the spirit world continued long after Doyle’s departure. In the end, 10 of his 60 books would tackle the subject. In 1922 Doyle produced another, The Coming of the Fairies, even as his “psychic photos” were exposed – and ridiculed – as the clumsy handiwork of two young girls. The “ignorant” Auckland photographers were right.

* In 2020, Benedict Cumberbatch, the best known Sherlock Holmes of our times, jetted into the South Island to star in Jane Campion’s new film, Power of the Dog, reportedly soon to be released on Netflix. 

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