London People: 1920: Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Annus Horribilis’

One hundred years ago, the reputation of the legendary creator of Sherlock Holmes began to take a tumble. The Soul City Wanderer investigates.


Perhaps it was inevitable. There had always been an alternate side to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which would led him towards controversy in his later life.

After he became an established detective fiction writer, Doyle received many letters asking him to solve real life crimes. He often used the Holmes deduction methods and techniques to investigate. You can imagine how the police authorities reacted, being treated as bumbling ‘Lestrades.’

To be fair, Doyle had some success. In one case regarding a serial mutilator of animals in 1903, he proved the police had imprisoned the wrong man. In another more famous case, Oscar Slater, a German-Jewish businessman, was imprisoned in the UK for murder in 1908. Doyle eventually exposed a police cover-up and Slater was given a public pardon after serving 18 years in prison. Doyle wrote a book on the case.

During World War One, in which he served both on the French and Italian fronts, he became frustrated by the domestic war effort. To compound his misery, he lost a fortune in poor business investments, and was coerced into setting up an independent British Olympic body that collapsed amidst accusations of greed.

After the war, during which his son died, Doyle strengthened his long-held beliefs in Spiritualism and reincarnation. This manifested itself in various directions.

But it was in 1920 that the writer’s reputation hit a low. In that year, he defended Spiritualism at a public debate in London, but many believed the author was being duped by tricksters and fraudsters. Nevertheless, later that year, he poured money into a ‘missionary tour’ to Australia and New Zealand giving lectures about his Spiritualist convictions. Based on his tract Wanderings of a Spiritualist, he carried on with his expensive psychic quest with a visit to France and the USA.

Also, in 1920, he met one of the greatest magicians of all time, the famous escape artist, Harry Houdini. Like Doyle, Houdini was interested in Spiritualism, and the two initially got on well. Doyle believed Houdini possessed psychic gifts.

Houdini revealed that he wished to contact his own dead mother but had become frustrated with charlatan mediums. Doyle’s wife Jean was convinced that she could make contact with the afterlife, and arranged a séance with Houdini’s wife, Bess. Despite their good intentions, Houdini began to believe he was being hoodwinked again, and fell out with the Doyles. Their friendship never really recovered.

Finally, in December 1920, The Strand magazine featured an article by Doyle about some extraordinary photos of fairies in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley. Doyle was convinced they were genuine, and wrote The Coming of the Fairies a couple of years later. But it was proved the photographs were obviously faked (the contemporary hairstyles alone enough to give them away). It was an embarrassing, but at least endearing, error of judgement.

So how did Doyle win back his adoring public’s trust? In a way, it was his own literary creation who rode to the rescue, in the form of the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes written between 1921-27. The detective proved as popular as ever.

The police obviously bore no grudges about Doyle’s earlier investigations into their handling of cases. Scotland Yard invited him to investigate the disappearance of fellow crime writer Agatha Christie in 1930.

This was Doyle’s last ‘case’. He died later that same year. The newspaper headlines read: ‘Sherlock Holmes is Dead’.

But was there to be one last twist? Before Doyle died he predicted he would be resurrected at the Albert Hall one week after his death. In July 1930, a week after he passed away, 10,000 people turned up at the the venue convinced he would appear. Sure enough, nothing happened. Doyle was buried in All Saint’s Church, Minstead (New Forest), Hampshire.

Despite these diversions into ‘otherworldliness’, Doyle’s great made-up creation lives on. Sherlock Holmes is now officially the most performed fictional character. Over 130 actors have played the role. Most notably on screen, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch.


Sources

Doyle, Arthur Conan. Memories and Adventures. Wordsworth. 2007.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Complete Sherlock Holmes. Penguin. 1981.
Miller, Thomas Kent. Sherlock Holmes in the Fullness of Time. Rosemill House, 2017.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: