Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Visited Cincinnati to Chat With Spirits

The famed writer toured the U.S. in 1923 as a missionary for communicating with the dead.
From The New York Tribune April 19, 1922; image extracted by Greg Hand
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1923 U.S. tour was devoted entirely to promoting spiritualism and communication with the dead. Cincinnatians sold out the Emery Theatre to hear the famous author.

Cincinnati loved Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even though the great author left Sherlock Holmes behind on his only two visits here. On his first, in 1894, Doyle arrived not quite a year after he killed off Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. He told The Cincinnati Post [October 17, 1894]:

“Yes, it was a case of cold-blooded murder, and when I killed Sherlock Holmes I killed my best friend. But I had to kill him. It was a case of self-defense. I had written 26 stories about him and the mental strain consequent on the working up of the adventures was proving too much for me.”

During his brief stay, Sir Arthur was ensconced in the grand Burnet House. He lectured at the Odd Fellows Temple at the northwest corner of Seventh and Elm. His informal lecture, warmly received, consisted of a desultory memoir of his experiences as a writer.

While in town, he managed a couple of literary sorties, touring libraries and bookstores. At the Public Library, Head Librarian Albert W. Whelpley showed him around, but Doyle was more entranced by the young ladies of the staff. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [October 24, 1894]:

“Librarian Whelpley was conducting Mr. Doyle through the institution and introduced him to the lady attendants, with whom the great Englishman seemed charmed, while they were somewhat fluttered in the presence of the novelist, except one. She smilingly took his arm and led him toward an empty shelf. ‘See, Mr. Doyle, this empty shelf,’ she said with arch smile. Mr. Doyle nodded assent. ‘Well, there is the spot where your books are kept, but they are all in circulation.’ Mr. Doyle understood the delicate compliment and blushed like a schoolgirl.”

Doyle commended the Robert Clarke bookstore so effusively that Clarke used the quote in his advertising for years to come. Cincinnati dining, however, earned lukewarm reviews. Doyle had never eaten sweet potatoes before this trip to the Colonies and said he rather liked them, but had nothing good to say about corn on the cob, and he was diplomatically neutral about eggplant.

When Doyle returned to the Queen City almost 30 years later, he again left his iconic detective at home. Even though he had since resurrected Holmes for several stories and books, Doyle presented himself on his 1923 tour as a missionary for spiritualism. Although his interest in communicating with the dead grew over several decades, his fascination with the practice amplified after his son, Kingsley, was killed in military service during World War I.

Doyle took rooms in the Sinton Hotel and secured the Emery Theatre for a lecture on “The Promise of Immortality.” He was particularly animated about “spirit photographs” that purported to illustrate ghosts who appeared during séances. Local newspapers, although skeptical, reported that his enthusiasm for séances and spirit photos was sincere.

While his lecture sold out, critics swarmed. The Catholic Telegraph had been delighted to point out in 1894 that Doyle had Irish ancestry and a Jesuit education, but in 1923 a front-page report announced that Jesuits had proved spirit photographs were fakes. Cincinnati attorney W.W. Symmes told The Post [April 20, 1923] that spirit photography was nothing but hokum:

“I made some myself. I made a photograph of the new gate to the tomb of General Harrison. When the picture was developed and printed it showed the ‘ghost’ of General Harrison and John Cleves Symmes facing each other over the gate, as tho holding a conversation.”

Symmes explained in detail how he had faked the whole thing. Meanwhile, a Post reporter, Anne Gellenbeck, published a damning exposé of her own visit to Laura Pruden, a Price Hill medium much praised by Doyle. Mrs. Pruden energetically transcribed spirit messages from Gellenbeck’s mother, who happened to be very much alive at the time.

Doyle, not at all dissuaded by this negative attention, spent his time in Cincinnati trying to introduce Mrs. Pruden to J. Malcolm Bird, an editor at Scientific American who was researching what became a royal hatchet job on the whole spiritualist enterprise.

Despite the skepticism this time around, Doyle sold out the Emery and got a warm response from his audience. The Enquirer’s report [April 23, 1923] seemed mildly disappointed that everyone behaved politely:

“The entire address was graciously and often energetically received by the audience. Applause followed many of his remarks. Hecklers did not intrude.”

During his visit, Doyle managed to squeeze in a séance with his favorite medium, Mrs. Pruden. As he reported in his travelogue based on this tour, “Our Second American Adventure,” she predicted that Doyle would return to Cincinnati in 1925. On this, even he was skeptical:

“It was not my intention, and prophecy is the least reliable of psychic gifts. I have great hopes that Mrs. Pruden may come to London, where her pleasant personality and her remarkable powers, which are less sensitive to hostile influences than those of most mediums, would make her a very desirable demonstrator of psychic truth.”

Doyle proved the better prophet. While Laura Pruden did journey to London as Doyle’s guest, he never again returned to Cincinnati—except in the form of books, films, and radio serials based on his immortal characters.

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