Ransom Center researchers reveal spiritualist side of Arthur Conan Doyle

Eleni Theodoropoulos

Supersleuth Sherlock Holmes is well known for his logic and precise attention to detail that help him solve any crime. But Holmes’ famed creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had little in common with the main character of his mystery series.   

While the BBC show “Sherlock” has gained popularity in the United Kingdom and the U.S. since its premiere in 2010, few viewers know the intimate details of the character’s creator. But since 2012, researchers at the Harry Ransom Center have studied Doyle’s archives, personal letters and effects, revealing a far less rational side than his character Sherlock Holmes would lead fans to believe.

Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theater and Performing Arts at the HRC, said Doyle believed in ghosts and communicating with the dead. In 1918, there had been a surge in spiritualist believers because people longed  to communicate with their loved ones who had died in the First World War.

Ali Dzienkowski, a graduate student in the School of Information and intern at the HRC, said she has trouble reconciling the rational part of Doyle, a clinically trained doctor and creator of Holmes, with the abstract part, a believer in the supernatural.

“How can the person who created the most logical fictional character also believe in spiritualism?” Dzienkowski said.

Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, the director of UT’s comparative literature program, isn’t as puzzled, particularly because of the time period during which Doyle lived.

“In Victorian times, in Britain, there was more willingness to tolerate contradictory images,” Richmond-Garza said. “People tolerated conflicting identities and competing motivations.”

During the Victorian era, privacy was greatly valued. It was implied that a person’s personality would vary depending on the circumstances.

“It was the norm to act appropriately to the circumstances, allowing yourself to appear and disappear depending on whom you’re interacting with,” Richmond-Garza said. “It was about only giving a piece of yourself [to each person you met] –– almost like a mosaic.”

But still, the supernatural is typically debunked in the original Holmes adventures. The stories and Holmes’ character were even used by sceptics to contest spiritualist beliefs, Richmond-Garza said.

Dzienkowski said she thinks the character of Sherlock was a sort of coping mechanism for Doyle. He wanted to be more like Sherlock, finding resolutions to the big questions that baffled everyone, like life after death.

“It was like Doyle used him to wrap things up neatly, and unravel [the mysteries] that no one else could see,” Dzienkowski said.