Searching for the Spirit

In cultural news, the BBC confirmed that a new “Sherlock” detective series will begin filming next spring. The popular series is a modern take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his ever-faithful companion, Doctor Watson. The game is afoot!

I did not know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was educated Catholic. That’s a nugget I picked up from “The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World” by David Jaher (Crown, $28). Doyle renounced his Catholicism as a young man and became enchanted by spiritualism.

Spiritualism was essentially the belief that the living can speak with the dead through a “medium” at a ritualistic seance. The conversation takes place by means of everything from disembodied voices, so-called “ectoplasmic” displays, trumpets blasting or tambourines playing. Quite a show.

The Church condemned spiritualism bluntly as a misguided worship of ghosts rather than God that generally consists of frauds attempting to separate the living from their money.

So how did a man like Arthur Conan Doyle get drawn into it? It’s a sad story that goes back to the horror of World War I and its aftermath. That war saw the brutal, senseless killings of hundreds of thousands, devastating an entire generation of young men in England, France and Germany.

And as if that was not enough, the great flu epidemic of 1918-19 killed more than the war itself (estimates range from 20-40 million worldwide). The flu was particularly deadly for young men and women. Doyle’s son, who had been wounded at the Battle of the Somme, survived the war only to die from the flu two weeks before the armistice.

In the wake of all this horror, and in an age of growing disbelief in traditional Christianity among European intellectuals, an answer was needed to what Doyle saw as the fundamental question: “Where are our dead boys?” It became an intellectual fad in the Roaring ’20s to embrace spiritualism as the scientific answer to that question.

Demonstrable proofs were “spirit photography” — phony photos that allegedly captured ethereal ghosts surrounding the living — and all the whatnot that went on at a seance. Doyle became its most prominent and popular advocate.

Enter Harry Houdini, the son of a rabbi and perhaps the greatest entertainer of his time. A magician and escape artist, Houdini made clear that his act consisted of physical dexterity, not otherworldly interventions. He would spend much of his final years exposing various mediums by showing that their manifestations were nothing more than reworked vaudeville tricks. His reward was anti-Semitic invective and charges that he was in league with the pope. Houdini made very clear that he was not against belief in the afterlife. He was speaking out against the claim that spirits came back to rap tables and float lamp shades across darkened parlors.

The bulk of Jaher’s book then examines the case of Boston’s “Witch of Lime Street” — Mina Crandon — who was Doyle’s great hope for proving the truth of spiritualism. She conjured up her dead brother, “Walter.” Eventually, she was debunked by Houdini.

Jaher’s book is a study of the almost pathological impulse to embrace nonsense once true faith is abandoned. It usually begins with scientism, the belief that science alone knows truth, then moves on to all kinds of self-concocted foolishness in a desperate search for something — anything — to believe in.

Witness the neo-atheists of today. But don’t laugh. As in Doyle’s case, it can be a terribly sad thing to watch.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.