Arthur Conan Doyle Part II: From the Grave?

Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930. Immediately, his blessed relief from the mortal coil was welcomed with the undignified spectacle of every half-way ambitious spiritualist medium in the world claiming to have heard from the man who, in his final decade, had been the most famous defender of their faith. In Britain, Canada, the USA and as far away as New Zealand (which is as far away from Britain as you can get), mediums received word from the now-deceased author about ‘conditions on the other side’.

One of the more well-publicized cases was a New Zealand medium named Violet May Cottrell. Later she was to achieve moderate local fame from her secular rather than her spiritualist writings. Her poem about a Maori maiden of her own invention called  ‘Pania of the Reef’ inspired a statue that still stands on the Napier waterfront.

For about a decade before Conan Doyle died she had been engaged in spirit or ‘automatic’ writing, a process where individuals enter some form of trance or state of concentration and write down messages from spirits and ghosts. It bears some resemblance to modern free-writing techniques. After early experiments with pendulums and tapping out messages she graduated to automatic writing, and received messages from her parents, grandparents and various other spirit guides. As she developed her automatic writing, she began to publish her ‘psychic recordings’ in the Australian spiritualist newspaper Harbinger of Light. She was a prolific automatic writer, and she recorded all manner of messages; from very personal and trivial notes about friends and family to apocalyptic warnings about the future of the world. However, as the editor of the Harbinger, W. Britton Harvey, noted, she ‘exhibited a very critical spirit and did not hesitate to place the Communications [sic] received by her in the crucible of strict analysis’.

Three days after Conan Doyle’s death Cottrell claimed that she began receiving psychic dictation from the great author. The message from Doyle eventually extended to over 100 pages and prophesied a great spiritual awakening, which he would help promote from the grave through the humble medium of Cottrell.  Throughout the Cottrell recordings, her concerns, preoccupations and doubts are very much in evidence. Doyle spent some time assuring Cottrell that he really was who he said he was, and authenticating the reality of his communication:

You are rather chary of me I know and not assured of my genuineness. You need have no doubt on that score, however, for I am very much here within the circle of your consciousness, which is amazingly wide they tell me. That is to say that your mind reached [sic] out and contacts other minds on this side of life, with an ease and certainty that is remarkable.

At various times the spirits – particularly Doyle – affirmed, cajoled, comforted, counseled, prescribed, teased, chided, gossiped with and dictated to Cottrell. In one sense these psychic experiences and writings provided a ready outlet for Cottrell’s literary talent. She was a Napier housewife with two small children, stuck at home and harried by emotional, physical and psychological problems. Her spiritualist recordings provided her with an international audience in a wide range of different spiritualist journals, including the Harbinger of Light, London’s Spiritual Truth, the Indian Hindu Spiritual Research and the Progressive Thinker in Chicago.  By claiming that the dead spoke through her, she was able to speak through the dead.

At the same time, even as the famous author spoke through her she was wracked by doubt. Cottrell suffered constant anxieties about the authenticity of her experience. When local clerics attacked Cottrell for her activities, Doyle asked: ‘Why should the foolish vapourings [sic] of an uninformed or wilfully blind preacher upset you who know the truth concerning spirit communication?’  Cottrell was guided on an intimate level by her spirits, but criticisms suggesting that her communications were evil or the inventions of an unstable mind still seemed to disturb her.

This case is interesting because, for all her doubts and for all the benefits that she accrued for her alleged contacts with the spirit world, Cottrell seemed to believe the experience genuine (even with the dozens of other mediums also claiming to have talked to Conan Doyle). Like many other forms of religious experience, her automatic writing was fictional but persuasive to her, even as much of the rest of the world was amused rather than convinced by Conan Doyle’s many posthumous ramblings. While Cottrell was not the only medium to say that she had contacted Conan Doyle, she was one of the more articulate, and news of her communication was hailed by the Harbinger of Light, and even made it into the New York Times.  Unfortunately, as spiritualists knew well, communications could get a little confused over long distances, so that readers in New York were told that Cottrell was based in Vancouver rather than New Zealand.

Source: Violet May Cottrell Papers, Alexander Turnbull Library

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