Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Bizarre Occult Obsession

How is it possible that the creator of the most famous rational mind in all of literature also believed in ghosts, fairies, and ancient Egyptian curses?

Sherlock Holmes debunked supernatural phenomenon, such as the legend of the spectral beast in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Yet Conan Doyle was an ardent Spiritualist in real life who believed that so-called mediums could speak with the dead.

A Lifelong Passion for the Occult

With his walrus mustache and tweed suits, Conan Doyle is the very picture of a respectable Victorian middle-class man. Despite the common belief that people of the era were sensible and emotionally restrained, Victorians were wild for the occult.

From the wealthiest aristocracy to the lowest costermonger, Spiritualism provided both entertainment and hope of reaching loved ones on the other side.

In 1887, the very same year “A Study in Scarlet” was published, Conan Doyle decided to undertake an in-depth study of the occult. He attended almost two dozen séances, and at the end of his study, Doyle was convinced. His belief in psychic powers and supernatural phenomenon only grew after the devastation of World War I.

Falling for Famous Hoaxes

In 1920, Conan Doyle fell for the “Cottingley Fairy” hoax–hard. Two girls took a series of photographs that claimed to show real fairies in their garden. Conan Doyle used the images to illustrate an article about fairies for “The Strand,” the newspaper that had published the majority of his Sherlock Holmes stories.

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Conan Doyle believed the photos were real, even going so far as to have the negatives examined by Kodak and two other photography companies. He did not accept their opinion that the photos might have been faked and published the images anyway.

“The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life,” Conan Doyle wrote. “Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.”

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For their part, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths insisted for most of their lives that the photos were legitimate. However, in 1983 Elsie and Frances confessed that the photos were fake. Well, most of them. Frances claimed that the fifth and final photo they took was real.

The Curse of the Mummy

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously believed in the curse of King Tut’s mummy. You can read more about the curse in our coverage here, but the gist is that Conan Doyle thought that “an evil elemental” might have caused the death of Lord Carnarvon following the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

King Tut funerary mask
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He gave more than one newspaper interview about the subject, repeating his idea that some kind of dark sorcery was afoot. The respected author and medical doctor was very influential, and his opinion helped cement the idea of a mummy’s curse in the public imagination.

Feud with Harry Houdini

Conan Doyle struck up a friendship with Harry Houdini in 1920. He believed that the escape artist was not a clever illusionists but an actual magician with occult powers.

Illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini performs his famous stunt whereby he was submerged in the East River in a crate, New York City, 7th July 1912. He escaped in just under a minute. (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, their friendship was doomed. In the years before his death in 1926, Houdini tirelessly sought to debunk fraudulent mediums. Meanwhile, Conan Doyle’s own wife, Jean, was making a name for herself as a psychic. Jean claimed to have recorded a message from Houdini’s deceased mother using “automatic writing,” a popular spiritualist trick, that left the illusionist angry and betrayed.

Houdini and Conan Doyle parted ways; not long after, Houdini died from a ruptured appendix. Despite his ardent skepticism, Houdini’s widow held a séance every year for a decade in the hopes of contacting her husband.