A. Conan Doyle & the Fairies

Why Did the Creator of Sherlock Holmes Stake so Much on His Case for Little People?

Arthur Conan Doyle is known mostly for being the author of the detective fiction and adventures of Sherlock Holmes. With a recent television series, Elementary, not to mention the rebooted movie franchise, along with comics and books, Holmes has infiltrated every corner of daily life. And Doyle—perhaps cursing in his grave—is known for little else. One aspect of Doyle’s life that seems to go unnoticed is his final work, a series of fantastical writings on his die-hard belief in fairies and channeled spirits. With the same Holmes-like investigation, the author thoroughly came to astounding conclusions on the existence of fairies—but why hasn’t it stood the test of time like his other work? Let’s look closer.

Arthur Doyle grew up in the Victorian age, with a father who made a living as a cartoonist. As a result of drinking, then bouts of ‘madness,’ Charles Doyle was sentenced to an asylum, where he lived most of his life until a long line of epileptic episodes claimed him. While at the asylum, Charles spent most of his time drawing. Many of those pictures were of fairies, among other pictures that some have deemed ‘schizophrenic’ in nature, or at the least, the drawings of a ‘mad’ person. For Doyle, however, this might’ve been his first contact with considering the existence of an ‘other’ world.

As Arthur Doyle grew up, his father’s illness was one driving force behind his motivation to pursue a well-paid medical career in order to help support the family. After college and several false starts, he eventually opened his own practice. His first year did not result in a profit, forcing him to borrow funds from his mother. It was somewhere around the second year that he sent his short stories out, including A Study In Scarlet, Holmes’ debut, and got paid for them.

Doyle conceded that he could make more money from writing, and sold his medical practice to write full time. He churned out magazine adventure and detective stories for cash, always seeking to define himself as a professional writer.

From his journals, we can gather that writing Sherlock Holmes was the work that he did quickly—each episode took one week to write—and made him money, but it did not secure the image of a good writer. Much like today’s romance authors are often under-appreciated writers by the literary world, so too was Doyle perceived as a serial writer. To change this, he tried writing historical novels and plays, which eventually led him to teach lectures. As notoriety built, so did his reputation—but it was not as a serious writer but that of the alter ego of Sherlock Holmes.

A period of time in Doyle’s life is met with letters from people seeking his help in solving an array of mysteries and cases—or rather Sherlock Holmes’ help if he was available. The most famous case happens to be the one with George Edalji, who writes to Doyle seeking to clear his name from animal abuse charges: Edalji’s family had a long history of being hated in the community, and basically, George was taking the fall for some other local’s crimes.

Doyle stepped up and used his mastery of deduction to actually clear George’s name. While his celebrity status helped in part, he did find and connect threads of evidence the police hadn’t considered; he also got a little carried away, often spinning fictions without evidence. But he proved himself an authority on solving real crimes.

Throughout his life, Doyle continued to be a person the public could turn to when someone went missing. Like when mystery writer, Agatha Christie, disappeared, Doyle was called in. But rather than use the tried-and-true method of searching for clues, he deferred to psychic means—a medium. Doyle is one of the first to consider this as a method of crime solving, and it was highly questionable in the 1920s.

It goes without saying that the spiritualist movement was in its prime during Doyle’s reign as a detective novelist. A product of his times, starting in 1918, Doyle released a book on the subject called, The New Revelation, which begins his path away from science and into speculation on the existence of spirits. In the introduction, Doyle explains: “I had always regarded the subject as the greatest nonsense upon earth, and I had read of the conviction of fraudulent mediums and wondered how any sane man could believe such things.”

Through further research into the lives of great and learned men, like Judge Edmunds, General Drayson, and the Earl of Home, people with titles who were in the public eye, much like himself, he found some merit in the idea that spirits existed, since each public figure reported and took oaths claiming to have experienced psychic phenomena: it was through their admissions that Doyle began to take the subject more seriously and conducted his own experiments.

Once the man with the reputation for using science and proof in order to make a deduction, Doyle began down a different path, one that seeks the counsel of spirits.     Following The New Revelations, Doyle continued to attend and hold séances, with the hope of making contact and proving the existence of spirits. In his next book, The Vital Message, Doyle presented a compelling case in that spirits are real, and that séances are a worthy form of communication. The opening of the book, though, is meant to entice the reader:

“In The Vital Message, the blending of two phases of existence, namely, the ascent of the material plane to the spiritual plane, is shown as the gate to that wonderful land which stretched so clearly before those eyes which are open to see it.”

This could read like a review to L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was published in this same era. It is less empirical and more showmanship, something Doyle was good at—he did create Sherlock Holmes, who knew how to put on a good show when solving a case. The book did well in his small circle of spiritualists, but the majority of the public just wanted Holmes.

In 1917, when two children in Cottingley England took some photos, claiming they were real fairies, Doyle was, of course, called in to investigate. But instead of using his Holmes-like intuition and skills to debunk them as fake, he gave his seal of approval, and wrote an article for The Strand in defense. Anyone taking a peek at the Cottingley fairy photos will have a good chuckle to think anyone believed that they were real. Despite three different professional opinions asserting they were faked, Doyle maintained they were authentic. His finding and opinions on the subject of fairies and spirit photography can be found in the books, The Coming of the Fairies (1921) and The Case for Spirit Photography (1925). Both of these propelled Doyle further toward the world of fairies.

In an era that supported the spiritualist movement of mediums, fairies, and ghosts, Doyle was at the forefront advocating for its authenticity. In his later life, his second wife, Jean, began to channel a spirit named Pheneas, who became Doyle’s direct connection to—and perhaps proof of—the spirit world. What started as friendly advice for family and friends, turned into Doyle’s seeking daily guidance from the spirit; he even took a trip to America on the spirit’s say-so.

During a séance, shortly after Doyle returned from his trip abroad, Pheneas made the startling declaration that the end of the world is coming. Doyle—the same person who penned fifty-six short stories and four novels featuring one of the world’s best detectives—believed all of the doom-and-gloom predictions, which included war, famine, pestilence, environmental disasters, and more. Doyle even published Pheneas’ words and predictions in the book, Pheneas Speaks, and started his own publishing press and bookstore called, the Psychic Bookshop, to sell the work. Whether some of what Pheneas said was true or not, we can see the world did not in fact end.

Doyle’s last two books, perhaps, were an attempt to sum up his ideas, and prove them once and for all. The first, The History of Spiritualism (1926), served as a collective history of his findings and research on mediums and spirits. His last, The Edge of the Unknown (1930), attempted to prove that Harry Houdini was not merely a magician but channeled psychic abilities, thus making him a wonder and expert magician. His ideas on the latter were not well received at all and considered unimportant in years to come.

Is it because Doyle and Holmes were so intertwined that Doyle was overlooked as an authority on spiritualism? Doyle used his abilities to reason and seek evidence to debate the spirit world—but was never taken seriously for it. Even today, the work is often missed or forgotten. One might argue that his spiritualism books offer a compendium of psychic phenomena—well before Ghost Hunters came about. At the least, Doyle can be credited as having started the authenticity of mediums, enough so that we eventually see the rise of psychic persons working to solve crimes, something that seems less far-fetched in our own times.

While we might never know to what lengths Doyle might’ve experienced the ‘other’ world, we are left with a collection of work that few have read, but should, if they have interest in the spiritualist movement, early séances, early mediums, and channels. Perhaps then, Doyle will be remembered for more than his alter ego, Holmes.



Photographing Fairies

Founded in 1927, Britain’s Fairy Investigation Society (FIS) was established to collect reports and evidence of fairy sightings. In the years since, the society has gone through a number of dissolutions and reactivations. Currently, it exists primarily online as a website called, “The Fairyist.” Among its many artifacts is a photo, over a century old, of a tiny shoe—said to be a leprechaun’s—next to a thimble. The shoe, as the story goes, was given to scientists at Harvard University by Irish fairy enthusiast Dr. Edith Sommerville, while on a lecture tour in America. Close examination, reported the Fairyist, confirmed the shoe “had tiny stitches and well-crafted eyelets, but no laces”, and “was thought to be” made of mouse skin. The shoe, itself, has been lost, and all that remains is the photo shown above.

In Atlantis Rising #106 (July/August, 2014) we told you about the British college professor who insisted that he had taken real photos of fairies. Long believed by seers and occultists to be part of the subtle natural world—fairies were not just imaginary, but real, said John Hyatt, 53, a lecturer at Manchester’s Metropolitan University. According to news accounts at the time, Hyatt captured images of several of the tiny mythical creatures flitting about the Rossendale Valley in Lankashire.

Far from being just the stuff of children’s tales, fairies were actual beings, albeit, he insisted, very different from the way they were usually depicted. During the spring of 2014, Hyatt hosted a public exhibition of his photographs taken over the previous two years in Lancaster. “The Rossendale Fairies” was, he said, his homage to the famous Cottingley Fairies claimed to be photographed in 1917, by two British schoolgirls. The Cottingley episode caused a sensation, attracting the attention and support of Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and a spiritualist (see accompanying story). In 1997’s Fairy Tale: A True Story, a major Hollywood movie, was based on the episode. Even though the story became a major cause for the spiritualist movement, the pictures were subsequently debunked, when it was shown that they were of cutouts from published pictures. Late in life, the girls admitted that their photos had, indeed, been faked but continued to insist they had actually seen real fairies.

Unlike the Cottingly pictures, however, professor Hyatt said his images were the real deal. He had not, he said, even seen the creatures on his film until he had highly magnified them, and then was shocked by what appeared. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of skeptics, but Hyatt found more than a few adults willing to believe that magical creatures such as those in his photos may truly exist.

Hyatt’s show and exhibition, which became a viral Internet sensation have now been published online. The Rossendale Fairies by John Hyatt can be downloaded from Liverpool’s John Moores University at http://www.reseachonline.ljmu.ac.uk. For more details on the Leprechaun shoe, go to:


By Hunter Liguore