Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lecture in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on May 11, 1923

by VALERIE JOHNSON

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for creating Sherlock Holmes, became a fervent Spiritualist during the latter part of his life. He strove to prove the existence of spirits through psychic photography and exposed fraudulent psychics. According to an interview he gave to the Deseret Evening News on May 11, 1923, he became interested in spiritualism about 35 years before, or around 1888, when A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, was published. After his son and his brother died in World War I, Conan Doyle turned his attention towards Spiritualism, the Daily Utah Chronicle reported on May 9, 1923. This was his second academic tour of the United States and his first time visiting Utah and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both of which had been featured prominently in A Study in Scarlet, the latter unflatteringly so. With some arrangements from the extension division of the University of Utah, Conan Doyle headed to Salt Lake City.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Salt Lake City on May 11, 1923, around 12:50 p.m. He was accompanied by his wife, Lady Jean Elizabeth Conan Doyle, his three children, Denis, 14, Malcolm, 12, and Miss Jean, 10, his business manager Wallace Erskine, and the children’s governess, Miss French. Conan Doyle was immediately impressed with the Salt Lake Valley that he was seeing for the first time. According to a May 11, 1923, Deseret Evening News article, he described the valley as “very lovely and so well cultivated and neatly done. It is quite inspiring.” The same article neglected to mention that not only did he have one more son who died in World War I, but he also had two other daughters, one of whom was traveling with him. The Salt Lake Tribune and The Salt Lake Telegram both mention that Conan Doyle was traveling with his three children, but the Deseret Evening News either forgot about his daughter, or chose to omit her altogether. It’s possible that they didn’t feel the need to mention her because she was a girl.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was scheduled to lecture in the Tabernacle at 8:15 in the evening. Tickets were priced from $0.50 to $2.00, and all 5,000 seats were sold out, according to the May 12, 1923, Salt Lake Telegram article. His topic, “Recent Psychic Evidence,” sparked great interest. A May 11 Salt Lake Tribune article attributed the unprecedented popularity of Conan Doyle’s lecture to the fact that he could answer the question of what might lie beyond the grave. The other reason was that he was the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. The Salt Lake Tribune expected the crowd to consist of “pastors of many churches, attorneys, doctors, men of science, students of literature, bankers, merchants, mechanics, salesmen, railroad men, from executive down to the clerical force; women, from social leaders down to house servants – representatives of every type and station.” All came to see the exciting psychic photographs or to meet the author of the famous Sherlock Holmes stories.

The most popular feature of Conan Doyle’s visit were his photographs proving the existence of spirits. The Salt Lake Telegram published several stories on Conan Doyle’s work in Spiritualism in the weeks before his arrival. One of these pictures was described in detail in The Salt Lake Tribune on May 9, 1923. It described the scene of a crowd around a soldier’s tomb, with the presence of spirit faces amongst the living. It was to this photograph that women reacted so emotionally. On the same day, The Salt Lake Telegram described a photograph of a paraffin glove created by a spirit during a séance. Conan Doyle explained that only a spirit could have made the glove of wax because the thin layers were unbroken.

In order to show these photographs, a special screen was erected in the Tabernacle. On May 9, 1923, the Deseret Evening News asked for “an expert slide operator and a machine with an adjustable carrier since the slides which Sir Conan will use are of English manufacture and a little different in style from the American make.” According to an article in The Salt Lake Telegram on May 11, Russell E. Enger was put in charge of the visuals so that everyone could see the slides. Levi Edgar Young was chosen to introduce Conan Doyle’s lecture. He was also the toastmaster at a luncheon given at the Alta club, where Conan Doyle and his wife were guests of honor.

A May 13, 1923, article in The Salt Lake Telegram detailed the luncheon given by F. W. Reynolds, director of the extension division of the University of Utah. It was through his arrangements that Conan Doyle was able to lecture at the Tabernacle. During his stay, Conan Doyle was able to visit a pioneer museum and compared the items to those he had seen in South Africa after the Boer War.

The Deseret Evening News seemed hesitant to print anything about Conan Doyle’s psychic endeavors. The paper focused on what Conan Doyle had to say about Salt Lake City and on the literary achievements of his 12-year-old son, but had little to say about Conan Doyle’s photographs. On May 12, 1923, a summary of his lecture gave the overall impression that spiritualism was an optimistic religion that promoted tolerance. It hardly mentioned the photographs that were supposed to be the main feature. Like Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle kept his lecture free of “the uncanny” and explained the difference between the tricks used by swindlers and real psychic phenomena.

The Salt Lake Tribune took a different stance to covering Conan Doyle’s lecture. On May 12, 1923, it described the process for photographing spirits, how the spirits were able to become visible for brief periods, and what kind of life one should expect beyond the grave. It took as clear and calculated a tone as Conan Doyle was likely to have taken with his lecture. The Salt Lake Tribune took Conan Doyle’s methods seriously, but with a grain of salt and didn’t take his theories to be fact.

The Salt Lake Telegram was possibly the most “spellbound” of the papers to summarize Conan Doyle’s lecture on May 12, 1923. It was impressed by Conan Doyle’s conversations with his dead brother and mother, and explained how his view of Spiritualism depended on the Bible and Christianity. It is the only paper to put some doubt in his lecture: “It was when he grew argumentative that his logic at times appeared to be far from invulnerable.” It also brought up an argument against Conan Doyle’s claim that life is mostly unhappy, reminding readers about the joy of childhood.

Most of the credibility of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s claims comes from Sherlock Holmes. Even though Conan Doyle was trying to shift his readers’ attention from his popular Sherlock Holmes novels to his more serious, historical works, the great detective still comes back into play. The public believed that someone who could create as analytical and clever a character as Sherlock Holmes must himself be a man of science and understanding. In The Salt Lake Tribune May 11, 1923, article, Conan Doyle’s sincerity and integrity was placed next to the mention of Sherlock Holmes. On the same day, The Salt Lake Telegram ran a story on Conan Doyle with a sub-head of, “Man Known to World as Sherlock Holmes Will Exhibit Photos Showing Evidence of Ectoplasm.” The mystery of what lay beyond the grave was akin to one of Holmes’ cases, and would be solved just as easily. Were it not for Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle wouldn’t have nearly as much credibility, and the articles about his “spirit” photographs or the sighting of spirits around a soldier’s tomb would not have been run in The Salt Lake Tribune on May 7 and 9 respectively.

Valerie Johnson is a junior at the University of Utah. She is majoring in mass communication and minoring in creative writing. She has also been a Sherlock Holmes fanatic for six years and is an aspiring Sherlock Holmes expert.

Sources

Primary Sources:

“Sir Conan Doyle is Accompanied by Family,” Deseret Evening News, May 9, 1923, sec. 1, 5.

“Doyle Delighted With First Visit to Western U.S.,” Deseret Evening News, May 11, 1923, sec. 2, 1.

“Most of Mankind Deserves Reward Says Sir Conan,” Deseret Evening News, May 12, 1923, sec. 2, 8.

“A. Conan Doyle to Lecture on Psychic Proofs,” Daily Utah Chronicle, May 9, 1923, 1.

“Doyle Will Exhibit ‘Sprit’ Photographs,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 7, 1923, 7.

“Doyle Will Arrive in City Friday Noon,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 8, 1923, 11.

“Doyle Film Pictures Dead Around Tomb,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 9, 1923, 7.

“Doyle Awakens Much Interest,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 11, 1923, 11.

“Spirit Proofs are Advanced,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 12, 1923, 18.

“Recent Psychic Evidence” (advert for Conan Doyle’s Lecture), The Salt Lake Telegram, May 7, 1923, 10.

“Conan Doyle Comes Friday,” The Salt Lake Telegram, May 9, 1923, 5.

“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Salt Lake Visitor: Noted Author Will Tell of Spirit Research,” The Salt Lake Telegram, May 11, 1923, 2.

“5000 Attend Conan Doyle Spirit Lecture,” The Salt Lake Telegram, May 12, 1923, 3.

“Conan Doyle is Entertained at Luncheon Here,” The Salt Lake Telegram, May 13, 1923, 3.

Secondary Source:

Michael W. Homer, “‘Recent Psychic Evidence’: The Visit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Utah in 1923,” The Journal of The Arthur Conan Doyle Society 6 (1995): 160-168.

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