An Introduction to “Spiritualism” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Whenever I explain Steampunk to the uninitiated, I have to say, “oh yeah, and also” several times to try to encompass it all. I usually get them on board when I go from Jules Verne to punking technology. But then I have to back up and include all of the supernatural creatures that also make regular appearances in Steampunk literature. Belief in ghosts, ghouls and other things that go bump in the night were big trends of the era. (On a side note, Gaslight Fantasy is an emerging genre that also often contains supernatural elements. Though generally, these writers use less technology than works most often included in the Steampunk canon.)

My first brush with the Spiritualist movement came from a wonderful and funny book by my favorite non-fiction writer, Mary Roach. She has written several books worth reading, but for the full skinny on communicating (or pretending to communicate) with the dead, you should consult Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. A few years later, I had a chance to visit the headquarters of The Edinburgh Association of Spiritualists housed in The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Center. This splendid Victorian-era building has been the home of the Association since 2011, though its roots go back to its founding in 1901.

Despite his fame and connection to Edinburgh, Conan Doyle does not have a museum dedicated to him in Edinburgh. There not much info about the Center’s namesake on site, which is mostly used for Spiritualist gatherings and as a space for artists. I attended a lecture there about Conan Doyle in their chapel, which is used on Sundays as a place of worship and demonstrations of mediumship.

What is Spiritualism?

Spiritualism does not have a hard set of dogmatic rules like make other religions. According to their website, It “celebrates the diversity of opinions of individuals by encouraging them to question our philosophy and way of life.” During the steam era, some people approached it as a religion, while others viewed it like more of a science.

The Seven tenets of Spiritualism are:
1. The Fatherhood of God.
2. The Brotherhood of Man.
3. The Communion of Spirits and the Ministry of Angels.
4. The Continuous Existence of the Human Soul.
5. Personal Responsibility.
6. Compensation and Retribution Hereafter for all the Good and Evil Deeds done on Earth.
7. Eternal Progress Open to every Human Soul.

Where does Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Fit In?

First of all, he was an avid believer in Tenet #4. He became a member of the Psychical Research Society in 1887, and wrote several books on the subject. He is best known for his detective stories, he did also imbue some of his later fiction with Spiritualist ideas. For instance, it creeps into his 1917 release, The Land of Mist. As with his other Professor Challenger novels, Edward Malone narrates the story. He starts with a professional interest in the afterlife that spreads to his personal life.

Conan Doyle also visited countless mediums during his life, looking for those who possessed “the gift.” Harry Houdini often accompanied him on many of these visits, even though he was an outspoken skeptic. The pursuit of the truth drove them both, and they respected each, so they could work together.

On a Whimsical Side Note…

He also believed in the existence of fairies. Like so many others, the iconic photos of Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright took him in hook, line, and sinker. I only mention it here because these charming snapshots of little girls and their fairy friends came up in the discussion. Several audience members claimed the photos were authentic even though the women themselves confessed to the hoax in 1983.

As far as I could tell, the only real connection between Spiritualism and fairies is that people believe the fantastic can exist alongside the mundane. They take the view that our world is constantly bumping up against things we don’t understand. And though it is easy to deride people for being taken in by hoaxes, the drive to believe in something bigger than ourselves is common. It is simply the object of that belief that varies.


Want to find our more about mediums and ghosts? Check out my article on the Rise of Ghost Stories in Victorian Literature later this week!


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