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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Conan Doyle Assists Our Psychic Competition

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Conan Doyle Assists Our Psychic Competition is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in the Scientific American in january 1923.


Conan Doyle Assists Our Psychic Competition

Scientific American (january 1923, p. 57)

To the Editor of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN :

I had no idea of issuing a challenge to you. My complaint was that so many of our bitter critics, such as this Mr. Black, are quite ignorant of the subject which they treat. I am, however, delighted that you should take it up, and would do my best to assist you.

There are, however, some points to bear in mind, and I hope that you will not think me officious if I mention them. I speak from an experience of 36 years and from a very wide reading and converse with experienced confreres.

1. You have already done a very dangerous thing. A large money reward will stir up every rascal in the country, while the best type of medium is unworldly and would not be attracted by such a consideration. For the sake of the cause and their own reputations they would help you if you got the personal support and endorsement of leaders of the movement. If not they would avoid you, for "tests" are often deliberate traps. We are at present disentangling a so-called "exposure" of Hope, the photographic medium, where we find that the responsibility for deception rests undoubtedly with the experimenters and not with the medium. Such cases, and they are not rare, make honest mediums cautious. But if spiritualist leaders are with you they will give all they can.

2. If the money offered as a prize could be spent in sending your representative to the various towns of America and also to London, Glasgow and Paris, it would be far more useful. In fact you cannot give your report until you have done this. You must have the same width of experience which we have.

3. Everything depends upon your man, or men. The laws are still obscure, but roughly it is a case of tuning a receiving instrument to a transmitter. Harmony of vibrations is essential for good results — human sympathy, kindness, courtesy, not necessarily mental agreement. I went to Eva with an open, expectant mind, but with sympathy for her, and I had ectoplasm in my hand before I left. Miss Scatcherd had a similar experience. Four professors of the Sorbonne sit 'round her like four terriers 'round a rat, and they get nothing. In the same way I may go to a clairvoyant and get a most evidential message, and I may be followed by a policeman in disguise, who will get such gibberish that the court will laugh at a palpable fraud. Thus it works.

4. But it is not merely sympathy; it is deeper in some cases. I know at least one very famous spiritualist whose presence stops all psychic phenomena. He is convinced, as one well may be, on other people's results. His case is really not uncommon. It seems to be the positive, aggressive type that has this inhibition, and this is just the type that so often becomes the researcher. Therefore, if you want truth, as I am sure yon do, you must have a gentle, quiet, courteous, sympathetic man for your representative.

5. However honest and sympathetic, he is liable to fall into errors if he has not some honest spiritualist to whom he can refer his doubts and from whom he can receive explanations. There are many such. To exemplify what I mean: I took a clever journalist, with n o experience of psychic matters, to a direct-voice sitting with Mrs. Roberts Johnson, a famous medium. When the direct voice began he recognized in it the tones of the medium's voice, and began to make a row which not only spoiled the seance, but got into the press and was considered to be a set-back to spiritualism. This man was Mr. Tilson Young. Now the whole difficulty arose from his own ignorance, and any experienced spiritualist would h ave told him that the direct voice is often in its first stage very like that of the medium, but that if you await developments you will soon find it change, and after a while you may get several simultaneously, and the subject will be beyond the medium's knowledge. I can only suppose that the ectoplasm derived from the medium partakes of the medium's characteristics until such time as the outside forces get more complete control. Anyhow that is the fact, and a hurtful scandal was caused by the ignorance of the sitter and his folly in not waiting and asking explanations.

6. Which leads me to the next point, that the investigator should read a few sound books on the subject: Crookes' researches, Crawford's "Psychic Structures," Schrenck-Notzing's "Materializations," and a general view of the subject such as Charles Tweedale's "Human Survival." He should not be a professed conjurer or psychic observer, but rather a good level-headed man of affairs, with plenty of tact and patience.

7. If such a man came here I would do my best to show him what I could, but he would do best as a visitor introduced by me, rather than as an accredited researcher, the very thought of which makes a medium nervous and abnormal.

I wish you well, but have no delusions as to "final" results. The London Dialectical Society in 1869 were some 80 strong, all impartial men. Their committee's report on physical phenomena was on animously in favor — and that was 50 years ago. The same occurred with the Paris Committee of Impartials in the 90's, of which Bergson was a member. The mass of prejudice is less than it was, but it is still great and nothing will be final unless we get presently, as I think we may, a new line of evidence.

The problem could, it seems to me, be solved merely on the basis of the wax molds taken by Professor Richet and Dr. Geley from the hands of a materialized spirit, which could only get out of their brittle paraffin molds by dematerializing, since the wrist openings are far too small. I have inspected these hands at Paris. They are quite final in themselves to any open mind. But I admit that these phenomena are quite distinct (and inferior) to the religious side of the question. I enclose a picture of one, from the Revue Metaphysique of January, 1922.

I am impelled to reiterate that this unfortunate money offer acts badly in two ways. It not only attracts the worst and repels the best, but it makes it impossible that the investigator should be really, absolutely unbiassed; for so long as in the back of his mind he says, "Well, if I admit this it will cost my employer thousands," he cannot be judicial. But I think that if the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN could really master and proclaim the facts it would be a great thing for America and for the world.

A. CONAN DOYLE.
Windlesham, Crowborough, Sussex.


[Most of Sir Arthur's points with regard to the proper conduct of an investigation like ours are so well met by the article of pages 6-7 that a suspicious person might be pardoned for not believing that the article was in type before we received the letter. Sir Arthur's final paragraph, however, calls for specific comment. The statement was originally written into Mr. Bird's text that the five Judges were donating their services to the investigation, out of their interest in its subject. This statement was eliminated, on the ground that it was nobody's business save the Judges'. Sir Arthur, however, makes it rather clear that it is everybody's business. We therefore point out that the conditions conducing to the state of the Judges' minds pictured by him do not exist. — THE EDITOR.]




Illustration description: The cast, in paraffin, of a hand materialized before Richet and Geley. It will be seen that a normal, anatomical hand could not have been withdrawn from the mold.





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