The Wanderings of a Spiritualist – Sherlock Holmes Creator Visits Christchurch

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle began writing at an early age. He edited his school magazine at age nine, became the dormitory storyteller paid in “tarts and other delicacies” and sold his first story The Mystery of the Sasassa Valley at the age of 19 for three guineas (£25).

Conan Doyle at the ages 2, in his cricket gear 14, as a scholar age 22 and 32. Original publication unknown. Source: http://www.allposters.ieLife was hard for the Doyle family. Doyle’s father Charles was a talented and prolific illustrator but a deeply troubled men. He had been employed as the deputy head of the Office of Works in Edinburgh, and had been responsible for designing the fountain of Holyrood Palace, but ill health forced him into an early retirement. He suffered from alcoholism and a mental condition which separated him from his family, forcing him into institutional care for the last 20 years of his life. During this time he kept a sketchbook diary which when it resurfaced in 1955 revealed Charles Doyle to be one of the most accomplished fantasy artists of his period. He painted fairies, maidens and birds, interwoven with sketches of a dapper Doyle dancing with Death, along with and a stream of quips and puns.

Arthur, the eldest son amongst ten children, inherited his father’s creativity which materialised in storytelling and writing, and his mother’s military heritage dating back to the Plantagenets. With his father’s illness isolating him from the family, it was Doyle’s mother who became the controlling interest in his life.

An untiring fighter for justice

Conan Doyle (he later adopted one of his middle names as a surname) was “a man with a wonderfully tidy mind, an amazingly keen observer with enormous energy, and huge range of interests – and an untiring fighter for justice.”

The skills he attributed to his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes were the skills of Conan Doyle himself. In 1907 he used his brilliant deductive powers to prove the innocence of solicitor George Edalji, who had been sentenced to seven years penal servitude in 1903 for maiming cattle and horses – a kind of countryside ‘Jack the Ripper’.

He had done the same for Adolf Beck in 1904 when, in a case of mistaken identity, he had been found guilty in 1896 for defrauding a woman. These two cases were said to have been responsible for the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Conan Doyle had put equal passion into his service for his country both during the Boer and First World Wars. Although has mother strongly objected on the grounds his gigantic stature made him too much of a target, Doyle embraced service in the Boer War as an opportunity to “see something of the actual fighting”, to assist the wounded, and to gather material necessary for the writing of his “History of the War”.

Armed with his extensive knowledge and bold views on armament, Conan Doyle was sent by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill on inspection missions to the British, French and Italian Fronts during the First World War. It was due to his efforts that the Navy were equipped with rubber lifebelts and dinghies, and the infantry with flat bullet-proof helmets.

In October 1893 his wife, Louise – now the mother of two children – was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She was not expected to live long, but defied the odds and lingered until 1906. The marriage appeared to be one of companionship than real love. In March 1897 Conan Doyle met and fell in love with Jean Leckie, a young trainee singer. Although he tried to keep the relationship quiet to avoid scandal, Jean was often seen at the Doyle family home in Hindhead, Surrey. Doyle also holidayed with her in the company of his mother. The year following Louise’s death the couple married after which Conan Doyle was said to have all but cut off his two children from his first marriage and focused on his new family.

One of the famous Cottingley Fairies photographs made famous by Conan Doyle, shows Frances Griffiths aged 9 photographed by her cousin Elsie Wright allegedly with 'fairies' in 1917.

Spiritualism and fraudulent fairies

In 1886, one year after his marriage to Louise (who had been the sister of one of his patients) Doyle felt unable to retain his belief in the Catholic faith he was reared in and turned to spiritualism. He devoted the remainder of this life to the pursuit of spiritualism – which he claimed to have taken up ‘intelligently and soberly’. He was convinced to the truth of spiritualist claims and spent years studying it, travelling the world and addressing people on his conviction. “People do occasionally talk a terrible lot of nonsense about me and my connexion with Spiritualistic research,” he said. “My investigations were cold, unbiased, and very patient. I took nothing for granted.” [1]

Ardent spiritualism lead Conan Doyle to become the victim of a hoax perpetuated by two young Yorkshire girls; Elsie Wright, who was 15, and her 10 year old cousin Frances Griffiths. In 1917 the girls faked photographs of themselves with fairies using hatpins, coloured cut outs drawings and superimposition.

Conan Doyle made them famous. He believed the photos proved “ectoplasmic thought forms” that were coming from the girls’ auras. He travelled extensively, displaying and talking about the images. In 1922 he published a book entitled “The Coming of the Fairies”. Not wishing to disappoint Conan Doyle, the girls kept quiet until 1882 when they confessed – some 50 years after his death –  although the younger girl maintained she was telepathic and had really seen the fairies. The faked photos were sold in 1998 for £21,620.

Sherlock Holmes’ creator wanders into Christchurch

Although Sherlock Holmes had made him a rich man, he had grown to dislike his most famous creation. After killing him off in The Final Problem, Conan Doyle explained  “I am tired of him. From the beginning he represented a type of literature in which I was little interested. But it was an excellent way for a struggling young man to get a foothold and earn some money.” Like many writers of his time, Conan Doyle toured the world promoting what he considered to be his more serious work.

In December 1920, as part of a tour of Australia and New Zealand, he came to Christchurch and delivered lectures at the Theatre Royal. The theatre was packed and people had to be accommodated on the stage. During his first lecture he talked on death and the hereafter and the ‘new revelation’ – covering the whole subject of spiritualism. His second lecture introduced, explained and ‘guaranteed’ the girls’ fairy ‘Pictures of psychic phenomena’ – which were advertised as “A series of Modern Miracles” and “The Final and Positive Proof”.

Evening Post, Volume CXIV, Issue 12, 14 July 1932, Page 9.

During Conan Doyle’s time in Christchurch he stayed with Sir Joseph and Lady Kinsey at their home ‘Warrimoo’ on Papanui road, where many big names of literature (such as Mark Twain), the performing arts and polar exploration had also stayed during visits to the city. Conan Doyle gifted Lady Kinsey one of the fairy photographs, which he inscribed as having been passed as genuine by experts.

Another most pleasant friendship which I made in Christchurch was with Sir Joseph Kinsey, who has acted as father to several successive British Arctic expeditions.

Sir Joseph is a passionate and discriminating collector, and has but one fault in collecting, which is a wide generosity. You have but to visit him often enough and express sufficient interest to absorb all his treasures. Perhaps my protests were half-hearted, but I emerged from his house with a didrachm of Alexander, a tetradrachm of some Armenian monarch, a sheet of rare Arctic stamps for Denis, a lump of native greenstone, and a small nugget of gold. No wonder when I signed some books for him I entered the date as that of “The Sacking of Woomeroo,” that being the name of his dwelling. The mayor, in the same spirit of hospitality, pressed upon me a huge bone of the extinct Moa, but as I had never failed to impress upon my wife the extreme importance of cutting down our luggage, I could not face the scandal of appearing with this monstrous impedimentum. [2]

The Mayor of Christchurch at this time was a well know Christchurch doctor, Henry Thacker, who had had the same teachers as Conan Doyle at Edinburgh University. The two men meet during Conan Doyle’s visit and Thacker told him that he “did not care ‘two straws’ for his spiritualism, but he wanted to shake hands with the man who wrote Sherlock Holmes.”

In the midst of a staunchly Anglican colony it was unsurprising that Conan Doyle received large volumes of outspoken criticism.

“He leaves a nasty taste in the month over his crankiness on spiritism and disappoints many people who would have been delighted to do honour to one of the most entertaining of modern novelists…” [3]

Sir Arthur and the Christchurch psychic

At Christchurch I came across one of those little bits of psychic evidence which may be taken as certainly true, and which can be regarded, therefore, as pieces which have to be fitted into the jig-saw puzzle in order to make the completed whole, at that far off date when a completed whole is within the reach of man’s brain. It concerns Mr. Michie, a local Spiritualist of wide experience.

The psychic Conan Doyle refers to was one William John Michie, a ‘Metaphysician’ who lived on Papanui road with his wife Annie Jane. At the time of Conan Doyle’s visit in 1920, Michie had consulting rooms on Kilmore street west opposite Cranmer Square, where between the hours of 9.30 am- 12.00 noon and 6.00-7.30 pm he treated patients suffering from nervous diseases. He was a registered member of the Psycho Therapeutical Association of New Zealand, and had been practicing in Invercargill and Nelson for many years prior to his move to Christchurch. He also took in students who wanted to develop the ‘latent powers of the mind’.

On one occasion some years ago, he practised a short cut to psychic power, acquired through a certain method of breathing and of action, which amounts, in my opinion, to something in the nature of self-hypnotisation. I will not give details, as I think all such exercises are dangerous save for very experienced students of these matters, who know the risk and are prepared to take it. The result upon Mr. Michie, through some disregard upon his part of the conditions which he was directed to observe, was disastrous. He fell into an insidious illness with certain psychic symptoms, and within a few months was reduced to skin and bone. Mr. Michie’s wife is mediumistic and liable to be controlled. One day an entity came to her and spoke through her to her husband, claiming to be the spirit of one, Gordon Stanley. He said: “I can sympathise with your case, because my own death was brought about in exactly the same way. I will help you, however, to fight against it and to recover.” The spirit then gave an account of his own life, described himself as a clerk in Cole’s Book Arcade in Melbourne, and said that his widow was living at an address in Melbourne, which was duly given. Mr. Michie at once wrote to this address and received this reply, the original of which I have seen:

“Park Street,
“Melbourne.

“Dear Sir,—I have just received your strange—I must say, your very strange letter. Yes, I am Mrs. Stanley. My husband did die two years ago from consumption. He was a clerk in Cole’s Arcade. I must say your letter gave me a great shock. But I cannot doubt after what you have said, for I know you are a complete stranger to me.” [4]

Darkie the psychic Christchurch dog

Whilst in Auckland, Conan Doyle was told of the psychic powers of an old blind and deaf dog by the name of Darkie who was owned by a family in Christchurch. He wrote in Wanderings of a Spiritualist:

Whilst I was at Auckland Mr. Poynton, a stipendiary magistrate there, told me of a dog in Christchurch which had a power of thought comparable, not merely to a human being, but even, as I understood him, to a clairvoyant, as it would bark out the number of coins in your pocket and other such questions. The alternative to clairvoyance was that he was a very quick and accurate thought-reader, but in some cases the power seemed to go beyond this. Mr. Poynton, who had studied the subject, mentioned four learned beasts in history: a marvellous horse in Shakespeare’s time, which was burned with its master in Florence; the Boston skipper’s dog; Hans, the Russian horse, and Darkie of Christchurch. He investigated the latter himself, as one of a committee of three. On the first occasion they got no results. On the second, ninety per cent. of the questions were right, and they included sums of addition, subtraction, etc. “It was uncanny,” he wrote.

Darkie the psychic dog pictured in 'Under the Southern Cross A Record of a Pilgrimage' by Horace Leaf, during his visit to Christchurch in 1923 following in the footprints of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I called, therefore, upon Mrs. McGibbon, the owner, who allowed me to see the dog. He was a dark, vivacious fox terrier, sixteen years old, blind and deaf, which obviously impaired his powers. In spite of his blindness he dashed at me the moment he was allowed into the room, pawing at me and trembling all over with excitement. He was, in fact so excited that he was of little use for demonstration, as when once he began to bark he could not be induced to stop. Occasionally he steadied down, and gave us a touch of his true quality. When a half-crown was placed before him and he was asked how many sixpences were in it, he gave five barks, and four for a florin, but when a shilling was substituted he gave twelve, which looked as if he had pennies in his mind. On the whole the performance was a failure, but as he had raised by exhibiting his gifts, £138 for war charities, I took my hat off to him all the same. I will not imitate those psychic researchers who imagine that because they do not get a result, therefore, every one else who has reported it is a cheat or a fool. On the contrary, I have no doubt that the dog had these powers, though age and excitement have now impaired them.

The creature’s powers were first discovered when the son of the house remarked one day: “I will give you a biscuit if you bark three times.” He at once did it. “Now, six times.” He did so. “Now, take three off.” He barked three times once again. Since then they have hardly found any problem he could not tackle. When asked how many males in the room he always included himself in the number, but omitted himself when asked how many human beings. One wonders how many other dogs have human brains without the humans being clever enough to detect it.

An ‘amusing controversy’

I had an amusing controversy in Christchurch with one of the local papers, The Press, which represents the clerical interest, and, also, the clerical intolerance of a cathedral city. It issued an article upon me and my beliefs, severe, but quite within the limits of legitimate criticism, quoting against me Professor Hyslop, “who,” it said, “is Professor of Logic at Columbia, etc.” To this I made the mild and obvious retort in the course of my lecture that as Professor Hyslop was dead, The Press went even further than I in saying that he “is Professor at Columbia.” Instead of accepting this correction, The Press made the tactical error of standing by their assertion, and aggravated it by head-lines which challenged me, and quoted my statement as “typical of the inaccuracy of a Spiritualist.” As I rather pride myself on my accuracy, which has seldom been challenged, I answered shortly but politely, as follows:

“Sir,—I am surprised that the news of the death of Professor Hyslop has not reached New Zealand, and even more surprised that it could be imagined that I would make such a statement on a matter so intimately connected with the subject upon which I lecture without being sure of my fact. I am reported as saying ‘some years,’ but, if so, it was a slip of the tongue for ‘some time.’ The Professor died either late last year or early in the present one.”

Advertisement. Press, Volume LVI, Issue 17010, 6 December 1920, Page 1

I should have thought that my answer was conclusive, and would have elicited some sort of apology; but instead of this, The Press called loudly upon me in a leading article to apologise, though for what I know not, save that they asserted I had said “some years,” whereas I claim that I actually said “some time.” This drew the following rather more severe letter from me:

“Sir,—I am collecting New Zealand curiosities, so I will take your leading article home with me. To get the full humour of it one has to remember the sequence of events. In a leading article you remarked that Professor Hyslop is Professor of Logic. I answered with mild irony that he certainly is not, as he had been dead ‘some years’ or ‘some time’—which of the two is perfectly immaterial, since I presume that in either case you would agree that he has ceased to be Professor of Logic. To this you were rash enough to reply with a challenging article with large head-lines, declaring that I had blundered, and that this was typical of the inaccuracy of Spiritualists. I wrote a gentle remonstrance to show that I had not blundered, and that my assertion was essentially true, since the man was dead. This you now tacitly admit, but instead of expressing regret you ask for an apology from me. I have engaged in much newspaper controversy, but I can truly say that I can recall no such instance of effrontery as this.”

This led to another leader and considerable abuse.

The controversy was, however, by no means one-sided, in spite of the shadow of the Cathedral. Mr. Peter Trolove is a man of wit as well as knowledge, and wields a pretty pen. A strong man, also, is Dr. John Guthrie, whose letter contains words so kindly that I must quote them:

“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stands above it all, not only as a courteous gentleman, but as a fair controversialist throughout. He is, anyhow, a chivalrous and magnanimous personality, whether or not his beliefs have any truth. Fancy quoting authorities against a man who has spent great part of his life studying the subject, and who knows the authorities better than all his opponents put together—a man who has deliberately used his great gifts in an honest attempt to get at truth. I do think that Christchurch has some need to apologise for its controversialists—much more need than our distinguished visitor has to apologise for what we all know to be his honest convictions.” [5]

Dark spirits and daylight scenery

Conan Doyle was accused of being a propagandist, and of being “more obsessed by the spiritualists he met in the dark than with the unique beauty and freedom of the daylight scenery of this fair land.” But this later claim was far from the truth as his own writing shows:

Every man looks on his own country as God’s own country if it be a free land, but the New Zealander has more reason than most. It is a lovely place, and contains within its moderate limits the agricultural plains of England, the lakes and hills of Scotland, the glaciers of Switzerland, and the fiords of Norway, with a fine hearty people, who do not treat the British newcomer with ignorant contempt or hostility. There are so many interests and so many openings that it is hard to think that a man will not find a career in New Zealand. Canada, Australia and South Africa seem to me to be closely balanced so far as their attractions for the emigrant goes, but when one considers that New Zealand has neither the winter of Canada, the droughts of Australia, nor the racial problems of Africa, it does surely stand supreme, though it demands, as all of them do, both labour and capital from the newcomer.

“The Wanderings of a Spiritualist” by Conan Doyle.

New Zealand – home of the first known séance

During his visit to New Zealand, Conan Doyle called in at the Turnbull Library in Wellington to see a copy of  “Old New Zealand” written by the settler, writer and Judge of the Native Land Court Frederick Maning and published in 1863 . It contained a record in Chapter 10 of the first séance known, in which Maning took part.

The particulars were briefly as follows: A young chief had been slain in battle, and soon after his death a tohunga was engaged to call up his spirit to speak to his friends and relations and answer questions they wished to put to him. The appointed time came, and at night all met the priest in a large meeting-house. The only light was that from a small fire in the centre of the building. The priest retired to a dark corner. All was expectation, and the silence was only broken by the sobbing, of the sister and other female relations of the dead man. They were in an agony of excitement and grief. About 30 persons were seated on the rush-strewn floor. The door was shut; the fire had burned down, and the room was almost in darkness, and the part where the priest sat was in perfect darkness. Suddenly a voice of a most peculiar whistling sound came out of the darkness. “Salutation! Salutation to you all! Salutation to you, my tribe! Family, I salute you! Friends, I salute you!” A cry expressive of affection and despair came from the sister of the dead chief, who was rushing in the direction from whence the voice came. She was restrained by her brother by main force till, moaning and fainting, she lav still on the ground. Another voice was also heard from a woman, wife of the deceased, who was also held back by her friends. “Is it you’.’ Is it you? Truly is it you’. ‘Aue! Aue! They hold me, they restrain me; wonder not that I have not followed you; they restrain me, they watch me, but I go to you. The sun shall no rite, the sun shall not rise; Aue! Aue!’ She fell insensible on the floor, and with the sister was carried out. The rest of the women were all weeping and exclaiming, but were silenced by the men who were themselves nearly as much excited. After answering a questions the spirit exclaimed, “Farewell, O trice!, Farewell, my family—l go!” Farewell!” again came from deep beneath the ground. “Farewell!” again from high in air. “Farewell!” again came moaning through the darkness of the night. Farewell. [6]

 

Maori were of European descent

Conan Doyle, along with notable and respected Canterbury College Professor John Macmillian Brown – who had devoted years to the study and investigation of the origin of Polynesians – believed Maori were of European descent. “Sir Conan Doyle is quite right, and Andrew Lang, who said Homer’s Greeks were people similar to the Maoris of the present day was quite right,” said the Professor. The basis of his theory was that languages of the Polynesians compared with those of Indo-European.

“You only have to look at the Maori’s language to see that wherever you touch it you will find European words coming up”, commented Conan Doyle.

A ten year old Sherlock Holmes

At the same time Conan Doyle was touring New Zealand in December 1920, an eleven year old Australian boy by the name of Nathaniel Julius Copeland – known professionally as “Argus the Prophet” – was appearing before a Christchurch Magistrate for telling fortunes. “It had been contended that every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes or using any subtle craft, means or devise, by palmistry, or otherwise, to deceive, and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond.” The boy and his manager father – who had previously visited Christchurch and given demonstrations of their occult powers before a ‘committee of reputable citizens’ – were regarded sceptically by the law of the country although some whose role it was to enforce the law were open to an alternative view.

Argus the Prophet had toured New Zealand for two years displaying his telepathic and clairvoyant skills by carrying out complex calculations and describing in detail items in people’s possession. The court case in Christchurch was dropped in favour of a test case which was to be taken in Auckland by the same Magistrate who related to Conan Doyle the story of Darkie the clairvoyant Christchurch dog.

The boy gave a private demonstration of his powers before the Magistrate who believed it a genuine case of telepathy. He said that the boy undoubtedly had certain powers in which the father believed. They had no right however to predict the future which the law did not allow. Although an offence had been proved he did not wish to convict the pair. The boy was admonished and discharged, and the father was ordered to pay costs. [7]

Whilst touring Australia the previous year, Argus the Prophet had been promoted as “a ten year old Sherlock Holmes”. Legal battles would dog his career. Whilst performing in Whangarei in 1928, 18 year old Nathaniel and his father came before a packed courtroom again. This time the pair were convicted and fined £20. [8]

A detective by another name

By this time Sherlock Holmes was well entrenched as the world’s most famous detective – albeit a fictional one. Conan Doyle’s creation may well have gone by the name Sherrington had it not been for two young Nottinghamshire cricketers named Mordecai Sherwin and Frank Shacklock. Some believe that the name Sherlock came about from the amalgamation of the names of these two cricketeers who Doyle, himself a keen cricketer, had known. Shacklock’s team mate and fellow fast bowler William Mycroft is also said to have been the inspiration for the name of Sherlock’s brother.

As coincidence would have it, Frank Shacklock moved to New Zealand in 1903 and eventually became coach for Canterbury Cricket. He died in 1937 – three years after the death of Conan Doyle – and is buried in Bromley Cemetery.


  1. THE CONAN DOYLE LECTURES. Press, Volume LVI, Issue 17018, 15 December 1920, Page 8.
  2. Notes and Comments. Conan Doyle, Disappointist. Feilding Star, Volume XVI, Issue 4175, 21 December 1920, Page 2.
  3. The Wanderings of a Spiritualist. Chapter IX, page 215
  4. The Wanderings of a Spiritualist. Chapter IX, page 200
  5. The Wanderings of a Spiritualist. Chapter IX, page 205
  6. DANGERS OF SPIRITUALISM. New Zealand Herald, Volume XLIII, Issue 13190, 30 May 1906, Page 6.
  7. A Young Prophet. Northern Advocate , 24 January 1921, Page 4.
  8. “ARGUS” CONVICTED.Auckland Star, Volume LIX, Issue 221, 18 September 1928, Page 8.
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