The enigmas of Erskine Childers

Image: Gary Woods
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers a gifted novelist and nationalist contrarian

The era either side of the First World War was a golden age for the spy novel. Perhaps there’s nothing like a really cataclysmic global shock to get the creative juices flowing. In July 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle put Sherlock Holmes aside long enough to publish a story with the unambiguous title of ‘Danger!’, a cautionary tale of the British Isles being starved into submission by an enemy submarine blockade – and in at least some accounts one that proved spectacularly counter-productive, in that it spurred the Kaiser and his naval chiefs to do exactly what Doyle had warned of. The following year, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps mixed jingoism and Germanophobia in a topical yarn involving a sinister anarchist gang, a man with part of his finger missing, and an extended chase scene through the Scottish highlands.  Somerset Maugham went one further and actually became a wartime spy, an experience he later put to good use in his celebrated Ashenden series.

But perhaps the pick of the literary crop was 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, by the Anglo-Irish writer, soldier, politician and latterly radical nationalist Erskine Childers. It had the lot. If some destructive process were to mysteriously eliminate the world’s entire spy-thriller library, only The Riddle remaining, we could surely reconstruct from it every outline of the basic formula, every essential character and flavour contributing to the genre. In essence, the novel mixes some gentle satire about the graded snobberies of the Edwardian class system (at least a generation ahead of its time in that respect alone) with a lively seafaring adventure involving a couple of topping British chaps going after German spies in the Baltic. It’s not only a riveting tale in itself, but so cogent in its account of the decrepit state of Britain’s maritime defenses that it prompted the Admiralty to hurriedly install a series of new coastal gun batteries, and The Times to call the author ‘a hero’ as a result; an ironic and perhaps poignant tribute in the light of what ultimately happened. Childers’s book was an instant bestseller, and still ticks over today. No less a judge than Ken Follett has called it ‘the first modern thriller.’ If you want a really gripping read, with plenty of white-knuckle action, some energetically sustained period idiom, and the sort of mass of technical description and verifiable detail later found in the James Bond series, The Riddle is for you.

Jenny Agutter in the 1979 film of The Riddle of the Sands

Curiously enough, about the one person seemingly unmoved by the book’s success was Childers himself, something of an odd bird, by all accounts, even by literary standards. Aged 33 at the time of The Riddle’s publication, he never wrote another novel, instead concentrating on dry military manuals and increasingly strident political tracts. To call Childers a man of humanising contradictions is an understatement. On the one hand, he served the Crown as a wartime intelligence and aerial reconnaissance officer, greatly distinguishing himself in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. On the other, he was busy on the side smuggling German-bought guns to supply the Home Rule nationalists in Ireland, running the weapons onto a moonlit beach north of Dublin on his racing yacht Asgard, accompanied by his wife Molly and a small crew. It was almost like a scene out of The Riddle, with the critical distinction that instead of sounding the alarm about German ambitions, Childers was in the curious position of serving the King while transporting arms from the Kaiser intended for a revolution behind the lines.

The 1916 Easter Rising that saw the deaths of 485 men, women and children, among them a number of swiftly enacted judicial executions, in a week of rioting around Dublin seems to have finally clarified any remaining questions of allegiance in Childers’s mind. ‘I am daily witness to the prostitution of the British Army I served to fulfill the many aims I loathed and combated,’ he wrote. ‘I am Anglo-Irish by birth. Now I am identifying myself wholly with Ireland.’

Having cemented his establishment credentials by winning the Distinguished Service Cross for his work at Gallipoli, Childers settled down to live as a sort of proto-hippy on a farm in County Wicklow, extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, enjoying an occasional toot of cocaine and, it’s said, a degree of freedom from the traditional monogamous ideal, while sending his three young sons to a progressive school where they would be taught nothing about religion until they were old enough to decide for themselves.

The war over, Childers was a victim of the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic, and barely survived. This was apparently another significant, or decisive, turning-point in his evolution from popular middlebrow author to radical activist. At least one of his biographers has speculated that he suffered a psychological breakdown during the winter of 1919-20 as a result, with a subsequent ‘addiction to danger that amounted almost to a death-wish.’ The following May, Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a stinging attack on British policy, and followed it by a series of articles in the weekly Irish Bulletin tearing the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George to shreds. Childers was secretary to the delegation that negotiated a treaty with Westminster in December 1921, providing for effective Home Rule a year later. Following that, the proposal went, the Dublin government would act as a self-sufficient dominion of the British Empire, much like Canada or Australia. Lloyd George wrote in his diary of a ‘sullen’ Childers, seething with ‘compressed wrath’ that his attempts to bring about total and immediate Irish independence had failed. Winston Churchill went one further, calling him a ‘murderous renegade’, and a ‘strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth.’

The Anglo-Irish Treaty spurred Childers, and others of his persuasion, to take direct action in the face of what they saw as a sellout to London. After a further series of articles in the perhaps provocatively titled War News, one morning in early November 1922 the now middle-aged and frail Childers set off by bicycle from his current home in County Kerry on the 200-mile journey to confer with Eamon De Valera and his fellow rebels in Dublin. There might almost be a certain wry comedy to the scene, which you could imagine, say, Alec Guinness later portraying on film, but for its consequences. Childers was soon arrested by British troops along the way, and found to be in possession of a small .32 calibre pistol, which may or may not have been in working order, in violation of the recently passed Emergency Powers Resolution.

The subsequent judicial proceedings were swift. Childers was indeed taken to Dublin, if under radically different circumstances than he would have wished, where he was put on trial a week later. The proceedings ended on 18 November 1922, after the defendant had refused to recognise the legitimacy of the British Military Tribunal convened for the event. The possession of the pistol was enough to condemn him to death. Childers lodged an appeal against the sentence, and this was heard the next day by a civil magistrate who said he lacked jurisdiction because of the ongoing paramilitary disturbances in the area. ‘The prisoner disputes the authority of the Tribunal and comes to this Court for protection,’ the judge wrote, ‘but its answer must be that its jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war that he himself has helped to produce.’

Early on the morning of 24 November 1922, Childers, now a stooped, gaunt-looking man of 52, was led into a tin-roofed shed used as a firing range on the Beggars Bush barracks in Dublin, where a row of twelve soldiers was waiting for him in front of an open coffin. Perhaps nothing in the life of this brilliant, troubled and sometimes perverse figure became him like the leaving it. After shaking the hand of each member of the firing squad, his final words were: ‘Take a step or two forwards, lads, it will be easier that way.’ A few hours earlier, Childers’s 16-year-old son – also named Erskine, and a future President of Ireland – had been allowed to briefly visit his father in his cell. The condemned man made him promise two things: that he would forgive every minister in the provisional government who was responsible for his death, and that if he ever went into politics he was never to seek to capitalise on his execution. The younger Childers did as he was asked, and in later years sometimes produced a scrap of paper on which his father had written his last testament: ‘I die loving England, and passionately pray that she may change completely and passionately towards Ireland.’

Crises of a confidence-man

The Man Who Conned the World: Victor Lustig

Christopher Sandford, The History Press, 2021, 300pp, £20

DEREK TURNER is forced to admire a brilliant rogue

Christopher Sandford is an acknowledged expert on the cultural history of the twentieth century, who has written to scintillating effect on subjects from the Rolling Stones to Arthur Conan Doyle, and cricket to Roman Polanski. But Victor Lustig may be his favourite subject to date – a man of boundless energy, ingenuity and resource, all of which were unfortunately expended entirely to society’s detriment, and ultimately did not even do him any good. The result is an engrossing, funny and wise account of the wasted (or worse than wasted) life of an extraordinary con-man, and a reflection on the constancy of human credulity.

Lustig was born Robert Miller/Molnar/Mueller in 1891 in Hostinné, presently in the Czech Republic, but historically part of battled-over Bohemia. This seems a suitably indeterminate birthplace for a Mitteleuropaïscher on the make, who during his fifty-six years on earth would use no fewer than forty-five aliases as part of his constant effort to separate marks from their money, and extricate himself from the criminal justice systems of several countries.

If he was frequently fortunate, he also made his own luck, and like the U.S. G-men and T-men who doggedly pursued Lustig during his 1930s and 1940s heyday as arch confidence-trickster (a C-man, perhaps), Sandford is compelled to admire Lustig’s intelligence, resilience and supreme self-belief. So are we, as we read about such exploits as the sale of the Eiffel Tower to a scrap-metal merchant, his elegantly carpentered “Rumanian box” which made hundred dollar notes, and his unique achievement in cheating Al Capone out of US$7,000, and living to brag about it. How can we not marvel at a man who forged a “newly discovered tale” by Mark Twain, and who when belatedly asked about its provenance by the suspicious magazine (that had already published it), not only talked his way out but managed to sell them a handwritten poem by “Walt Whitman”?

Gullibility is perennial in human history, a proposition famously proven by Charles Mackay in his 1841 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and encapsulated by the notorious aphorism usually attributed to P. T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute!” But Lustig was lucky in the period in which he started practising his sociopathic skills – the turbulent, badly-governed and later wounded world of the immediate pre-Great War and then interwar periods, when both Europe and America over-brimmed with charlatans, frauds, hoaxers, hucksters and showmen who knew how to capitalize on crises of civilizational confidence and economic volatility.

Some hoaxes were harmless. Virginia Woolf and several friends embarrassed the Royal Navy in 1910 by donning blackface and dressing gowns, and touring HMS Dreadnought as visiting Ethiopian royals. In 1912 came the fossil ‘Piltdown Man’, a sensational ‘missing link’ between apes and men, a science-upturning skull from Sussex which had in fact been confected from a medieval human, an eighteenth century orang-utan jawbone, and twentieth century baboon teeth. In 1917, two little girls cut out drawings of fairies and took photographs of them in their Yorkshire garden, which convinced Arthur Conan Doyle that there really was another reachable dimension in which fairies (and his war-fallen son) might co-exist. 

Other hoaxes were crueller, rooted in what Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls the ’culture of defeat’, that swept over much of Europe after 1918 – an umbrageous mood characterised by seething class and ethnic resentments, millions of displaced persons, cultural crazes from manic dancing to miracle cures and spiritualism, and desperate navel-searching for meaning, purpose and security. Even the victorious Allies had their Bright Young Things and frantic flappers, possibly overcompensating for the deep sorrows of older generations, whose complacent pre-war universe had been bespattered with the mud and blood of their sons. America, which had come best out of the conflict, and was about to enter the ‘Roaring Twenties’, was filled with restless excitement, and examples of real-life get-rich-quick schemes that many aspired to emulate.

We are introduced to, or reminded of, the existences of John ‘Maundy’ Gregory who sold peerages on behalf of David Lloyd George’s government – Stephane Otto who masqueraded so convincingly as a Belgian royal that she pinned the Order of Leopold onto the officer commanding the American troops on the Rhine – and Jerome Tarbot, a decorated combat veteran and respected lecturer on the Somme, who had in truth spent the war years stealing cars in California. In 1919, the fraudster Arnold Rothstein fixed the baseball World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. In 1920, came the collapse of Carlo Ponzi’s pyramid-buying scam, entailing an estimated loss to investors of some US$500 million in today’s terms, and giving the world a new, unwelcome word.

‘The world’ of course did not learn from these experiences. Most of us have naïve blind spots, and people can always be found to hearken to hucksters, and give credence to quick-thinking, respectably-dressed people who tell them what they most desire to hear. Some victims of confidence-tricksters become so ensnared that they remain loyal to them even after they are exposed, so reluctant to face up to their initial bad decision they make themselves double gulls.

Lustig was just one of many 1910s-1940s flim-flam merchants who knew how to present themselves convincingly, and proffer tantalizing easy answers, quick fixes and ‘sure-fire’ schemes. But he was almost certainly the most systematic, devising his own conventional morality-mocking ‘Ten Commandments of the Con’, which include such cold-blooded prescriptions as ‘Be a patient listener’, ‘Never look bored’, ‘Never boast’, ‘Never get drunk’, and letting the other person reveal their political or religious views and then agreeing with whatever those happen to be.

Lustig was also the most expert, thanks to his very considerable level of culture. He was able to speak five languages when still at school, and would later be an opera buff, and a competition-level chess player. With such acuity allied to unscrupulousness, he could pass himself off easily as millionaire, sober businessman, leading banker, insurance company executive, senior civil servant, medical expert, medium, art dealer, theatrical impresario, or displaced aristocrat.

Such a man could clearly have succeeded in many legitimate ways, but legitimacy would never be enough for this inveterate seeker after excitement and novelty. He said in later life that he had never wanted ‘a timid but steady progress [towards] the grave,’ and by the age of sixteen he was already cheating at billiards, running horse-race betting scams, hanging out in bars with what German police files called ‘louche and mutant types,’ and in rented-by-the hour rooms with prostitutes. Details of his early escapades are scanty and unreliable, revealed only by such police dossier vignettes and his own fragmentary and self-serving diary, and reminiscences to his daughter Betty, or to US federal agents at the end of his career.

Lustig always emphasised his hardships as a young man living by card-sharping, magical illusions and larceny in Vienna, and frequently portrayed himself as an understandable rebel – a kind of struggler against an unjust system, blaming his criminal transgressions and cynical worldview on abysmal examples set by society. He expressed support for women’s suffrage, and sympathy for black Americans. But all such pretensions to a social conscience were rarely, if ever, given practical effect. If sometimes he swindled people who were themselves swindlers, he never made any Robin Hood-style restitutions. When one of his schemes resulted in many working-class bank account holders in Kansas losing all their life savings, Lustig’s only recorded comment was ‘fools.’ As Sandford notes, ‘…he was really in the business of wealth redistribution for himself.’ He skated through life, largely unheeding of anything outside himself; on a day in October 1915 when the London press were reporting 60,000 British casualties at Loos, the then London-based Lustig’s diary contained three words: ‘Cleared another £400.’

He spent whatever money he accrued almost immediately, hedonistically on women, but also tactically on expensive clothes, luxurious accommodation, cars, chauffeurs, lavish sweeteners, and other appurtenances that allowed him a semblance of sleek respectability to facilitate his next con. He segued un-snobbishly from high society to low, and back again, along the way bumping into extraordinary people. He once gave a generous tip to, and had a pleasant conversation with, a young Indo-Chinese dishwasher working in London’s Carlton Hotel, who would later become Ho Chi Minh. He consulted Carl Jung about his dreams – ‘an odd juxtaposition,’ as the author notes, ‘the one man intent on revealing the inner psyche and the other one equally determined to conceal it.’ There is a story (unfortunately unprovable) from the FBI files that Lustig met his contemporary Adolf Hitler in Vienna, at that time like Lustig a charismatic and restless drifter in search of some kind of opportunity. He admired Lucy LeSueur’s ‘wide, hurt eyes’ and ‘great maternal orbs’ – assets which would prove useful in her later incarnation of Joan Crawford. Rudolph Valentino told him he should try for a Hollywood career.

He was almost always at least one step ahead of the harried Feds, and became an object of obsession for more than one lawman, most notably his eventual nemesis, the remorseless and tough Peter Rubano, a war veteran and mobster-buster of whom it was said ‘when he shook your hand, it stayed shook.’ Lustig’s slipperiness was legendary; he had a fine instinct that always allowed him to leave his hotel at just the right moment, sometimes in a swiftly-donned disguise, or shinning down drainpipes to join his chauffeur waiting out the back, perhaps literally with the engine running. Even when he was apprehended, he always managed to oil his way out, right up until the end of his career – through smooth argumentation, judicious bribes, jumping bail, or by simply promising to leave town immediately to save local blushes. Once, after being questioned for passing fake currency in Connecticut, he persuaded the judge that it was a case of mistaken identity – and was asked by the apologetic local police chief to lecture his officers on how to recognize forged notes. 

Victor Lustig

There is sometimes a tendency to view con-men as almost lovable rogues – “social anarchists”, to use Sandford’s phrase – whose crimes are ‘victimless’ because they prey chiefly on institutions or the rich. But he left a trail of anger, betrayal, disillusionment, embarrassment and financial ruin behind him as he moved from Europe to America, and then endlessly within his unlucky adopted country. His two wives, and daughter, were only the most obvious victims of his peripatetic, selfish and thrill-seeking mode of existence. He was even a victim himself. As the author notes;

At heart, the confidence man really deals in the disintegration of lives, his own as well as his victims.

His daughter said the first words she was taught were ‘Never speak to the police’ – a sad remembrance, which hints at the endless effort and sheer tension involved in a life like Lustig’s, who could never really relax. At times, even he showed signs of tiredness, like in a diary entry for 1935, just before Peter Rubano finally caught up with him:

We struggle. We reach. And what is there at the end? A clod of dirt flung down upon the coffin lid.

Nor could he ever really be himself. Did he even have an ‘himself’’ – any real feelings behind all those masks? Was he more than just a bundle of ingenious stratagems? A Times obituarist noted of another notorious fraudster, Horatio Bottomley, that he was ‘more a set of public attitudes than a person’ – and a similar sense of insubstantiality clings to Lustig. It is possible almost to feel sorry for him, a friendly man without friends, a restless and lonely whirligig whose superlative gifts in the end amounted to less than nothing.

But then we think again of the real victims – and of the irrepressibility of the man himself, who even after his arrest played games with Peter Rubano, and enraged FBI boss Edgar Hoover by his last great exploit – escaping spectacularly in the middle of the day from Manhattan’s maximum security prison, climbing down a rope made of sheets, watched by hundreds of passers-by.

By December 1935, he had been recaptured, and was sentenced to twenty years – fifteen for counterfeiting, and five for the escape. The following March, he was sent to Alcatraz, where he beguiled his ever-restless intellect by making vexatious medical requests (about one every three days). When the war broke out, he began writing long geopolitical screeds, and offered his services as an assassin, saying that if he could be airdropped into Germany he would make his way to Berlin and poison Hitler’s pastries – an offer inexplicably declined.

By the time he died, alone in a prison hospital in March 1947, this ultimate freewheeling individual had been largely forgotten. He had just over $93 in his only known bank account, and a few notebooks as personal possessions. But a strange kind of tribute came at his funeral, when the only mourner other than his daughter were two men from the Prison Bureau, as if the authorities were ensuring that this wasn’t just one last trick. It makes an apposite end to this story, of a man even now an enigma.

Spirits of the Jazz Age – the Spiritualist craze of the Twenties

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD evokes an age of desperate belief

On 7 September 1919, the 60-year-old Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GP, lecturer, seafarer, sportsman, indefatigable social campaigner – and globally-renowned author of the Sherlock Holmes tales – shared the platform of a Spiritualist rally at the seafront Grand Hotel in Portsmouth with a 38-year-old medium named Evan Powell. The Great War had ended just ten months earlier, and it had taken a fearful toll on Conan Doyle’s family. He lost no fewer than 11 relatives either to combat or disease, among them his 25-year-old son Kingsley, who had been invalided out of the front line in France but then succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic. It was a blow from which many felt his father never quite recovered.

After several departed souls had apparently materialised on the stage of the hotel ballroom, Conan Doyle, his wife Jean, and five colleagues repaired to a private upstairs room where they searched Powell, tied him semi-naked to a chair, and turned off the lights.

“We had strong phenomena from the start”, Doyle later wrote to his friend the physicist Oliver Lodge.

The medium was always groaning, muttering, or talking, so that there was never a doubt where he was. Suddenly I heard a voice.

‘Jean, it is I.’

 My wife cried, It is Kingsley’.

I said, ‘Is that you boy?’

He said in a very intense whisper and a tone all his own, ‘Father!’ and then, after a pause, ‘Forgive me!’

Conan Doyle, who assumed Kingsley was referring to his earthly doubts about the paranormal, concluded his account by saying that he had then felt a strong hand pressing down on him, followed by a kiss on his forehead. “I am so happy”, his late son assured him.

This encounter would have a profound effect on Conan Doyle, hitherto best known as the creator of English literature’s most formidably rational human calculating machine. Soon the author turned away from detective stories and towards a steady stream of papers and speeches on the subject of what he called collectively the “new revelation”. It was now clear to him, he wrote, that this insight into the ultimate meaning of life was not for his benefit alone, “but that God has placed me in a very special position for conveying it to that world which needs it so badly.”

Of course, Conan Doyle wasn’t the first celebrity, or even the first literary giant, to apparently commune with the dead. In 1849, Charles Dickens had begun to attempt ‘mesmeric cures’ of his young sister-in-law, who was said to be suffering from ‘intestinal evil.’ The great novelist reported that his performances of ‘animal magnetism’, as hypnotism was then called, afforded him clairvoyant power. Personalities as diverse as Queen Victoria, W.B. Yeats, and Edvard Munch all later engaged in Spiritualistic efforts to reach a departed loved one. There was a dramatic surge of interest in the paranormal both during and in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, with its 620,000 military casualties and undetermined number of civilian deaths. In the White House, Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary held a series of candlelit séances following the loss of their 11-year-old son William to typhoid fever, by no means the last time a US president would dabble in the occult.

But it wasn’t until the early 1920s that the Spiritualist message really gripped the imagination of the Western public. It did so as a consequence both of the Great War, and of the period of unrivalled national prosperity that followed. It sometimes seemed that the concept lying deepest at the heart of American life, in particular, as that country embarked on its extended period of 20th-century world dominance was that of illusion. The nation had bread, but it wanted circuses – and now it got them, in an explosion of music halls and other places of entertainment offering a rich variety of fare whose most common artistic theme was the idea of mystification, legerdemain, or some other form of deception. In 1909, there were 427 officially licensed “Mentalists, visual deluders, and [other such] artistes” active in the seven core eastern seaboard states; a decade later, the figure had jumped to 6,390, quite apart from the profusion of “street fakirs, jongleurs, bunco merchants, miracle workers, healers and seers” one New York newspaper found at work in the city.

“The times hungered for something”, remarked Harry Houdini, a sceptic who knew something about escapism, in every sense of the term. “A war memorial had appeared in every town, and many people naturally sought some divine solace for their grief.” Unfettered by an established Church, America was particularly rich in alternatives, among them such sects as the Holy Rollers, the Holy Jumpers, and the estimated three million followers of the evangelist Frank Buchman, whose core gospel of ‘inclusiveness’ eventually led him to try to convert Adolf Hitler.

But none of those groups, however well-patronised or devoted to their various causes, compared in size or intensity to the worldwide Spiritualist crusade with Conan Doyle as its de facto head. By early 1923, there were reported to be some 14,000,000 ‘occasionally or frequently’ practicing occultists, served by a network of 6,200 individual churches or lodges, in North America alone. Barely a week passed without some sensational paranormal claim appearing in the newspapers or over the radio. ‘“MY FRIENDLY CONTACT WITH DEPARTED SOULS: MESSAGE RECEIVED FROM MURDERED CZAR”, by Grand Duke Alexander of Russia’ ran one such headline in the New York Times. A few weeks later, Doyle explored this same historical turf when he and some friends sat down in a darkened room of a London home and apparently made contact with the recently deceased Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. The revolutionary hero left the sitters with the cryptic advice: “Artists must rouse selfish nations”.

In Edwardian Britain, the fashion for Spiritualism often came with a feminist subtext. Women were thought to be uniquely qualified to communicate with spirits of the dead, and in the séance room, at least, a medium could enjoy a degree of independence and authority not readily available to her elsewhere. There are no reliable figures on actual attendance at séances or services, although it was widely believed at the time that an increasing number of the nominally respectable were dabbling in psychic affairs. When reviewing the history of Spiritualism in the UK, Houdini would remark that

…by the turn of the new [20th] century an invitation to tea amongst London’s gentility would often conclude with a candlelit course in which the spirits would be asked to reveal themselves by rotating or lifting the table, among other manifestations, to the delight of the audience.

As early as 1882, the British movement as a whole was sufficiently widespread to bring about the creation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), with a committee of largely Cambridge-based academics promising

…to approach [Spiritualist] issues without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated

One can almost hear a foreshadowing of the ‘Follow the data’ mantra that distinguishes the great Covid debate of our own day. The SPR initially set up five subcommittees, to variously investigate Mesmerism, Mediumship, Reichenbach Phenomena (electromagnetic forces), Apparitions and Haunted Houses, and Séances, as well as a Literary Panel to study psychic history and conduct surveys. In one early census, the SPR asked 17,000 British adults whether they had ever experienced a “spiritual hallucination” while fully awake and in good health. Of the 1,684 who said they had, there were those who insisted that they had been psychically ‘embraced’ or ‘kissed’ by an unseen force, among several other less conventional liaisons.


There were several reasons other than the shock of war and the extended economic boom that followed for the early-20th century loss of momentum in the traditional religious dynamic. For one thing, science again. Who needed the Church, the theory went, when the answers to day-to-day life could be found in the laboratory? Presented at every turn with new labour-saving devices that owed their existence to breakthroughs in automation (this was the era of the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine and the refrigerator), the Western man – and, increasingly, woman – in the street was ready to believe that technology could accomplish almost anything. On the loftier philosophical level, people were now reading daily about scientific developments that seemed to lend respectability to psychic beliefs.

Among the newly evolving doctrines that purported to question man’s role in the universe was Quantum Field Theory – on one hand, a structure designed to analyse the creation and annihilation of minute particles, and on another, a contemplation on the ‘non-observable’ material world. It was one of several such “seismic jolts”, as the lapsed Catholic Conan Doyle called them, of an era that also saw the belated confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, as well as the invention and rapid availability of the household radio, which Oliver Lodge, one of its pioneering figures, insisted was itself a medium that allowed the spirit world to communicate with the living one over the ether. Many people shed their traditional religious beliefs in the face of rational scrutiny, while, to others, science diluted religion to a watery sort of social work.

By the spring of 1921, the Spiritualism debate was sufficiently ingrained in all walks of life for it to be the theme of several prominent Easter Day church services on either side of the Atlantic. In fact, opposition to the occultist message seems to have united the ordained ministry of New York, in particular, to a degree not seen since their similarly stout defense of Prohibition in 1918-19. At the city’s Seventh Day Adventist Temple, for instance, an overflow audience of 672 heard Revd. Carlyle Haynes speak on the topic of “Can the Dead Come Back? An Answer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”. The minister of the Community Church of New York was compelled to hurriedly move proceedings to the nearby 800-seat Lyric Theater in order to accommodate a congregation reportedly “seething” for his own views on the subject. Rabbi Lewis Newman, preaching at the Temple Israel on Central Park West, roundly mocked the idea that “the departed ever bring tidings from the grave”, a notion that “could surely only be visualised by a writer of fiction”.

Meanwhile, what might be called the more enlightened, or charitable, Roman Catholic attitude was expressed by the British Jesuit priest Herbert Thurston, when he wrote:

If Spiritualism has the merit of upholding the belief that man is not purely material and that a future life awaits him, the conditions of which are in some measure dependent upon his conduct here on earth, it must be confessed that there is very little else to set to its credit. Catholic teaching recognises one divine revelation which it is the appointed office of the Church, in dependence upon the living voice of the Supreme Pontiff, to maintain inviolate. For this, Spiritualism substitutes as many revelations as there are mediums … all these communications being open to suspicion and, as the briefest examination shows, abounding in contradictions about matters most vital.

Many contemporaneous Roman Catholic views on the spirit world were not as benign as that. The Catholic author J. Godfrey Raupert, a psychic investigator who abandoned his initial sympathy on the subject, wrote in the 1921 edition of his book The Dangers of Spiritualism:

The root of Spiritism … is the diseased moral condition of the age … Too powerfully dominated by intellectual pride to submit to the law of Christ, men seek another world capable of demonstrative proofs … That they should build a system upon phenomena which elude rational examination, that they should stake their hopes for time and eternity upon manifestations which have so much in common with the juggleries of the magician, while at the same time they shut their eyes to the proofs of supernatural life and supernatural power which living Christianity offer them, is a melancholy example of that fatuous superstition which is so often the punishment of unbelief.

Even this was mild compared to the likes of Fr. Arnold Pinchard, who in July 1921 wrote to enlighten Arthur Conan Doyle about his views on the “deplorable tendency” of Spiritualists to put curiosity-seeking before the cardinal requirement of seeking God. “You probably do not realise that I speak as a Catholic,” he wrote, “and that Catholics have certain knowledge upon such matters which others like yourself, more in an atmosphere of doubtful empiricism, lack.” Some of Conan Doyle’s critics took a more robust tone even than that. The author was to remark of one telephone conversation with the perhaps well-named Lord Dunraven, a self-appointed ‘Catholic authority’ on a wide range of spiritual matters, that “he was so furious that I felt it best to hold the instrument away from my ear.”

Arthur Conan Doyle and “the little chap”, Harry Houdini

Perhaps the greatest, and certainly most theatrical, showdown between the two foremost public performers of their day, respectively representing the pro- and anti-Spiritualist camp, came when Conan Doyle and Houdini met in the author’s suite at the Ambassador Hotel in New Jersey’s Atlantic City one sunny afternoon in June 1922. Even the occult can have produced no stranger sight than that of the birthright Catholic, then a stout, mustachioed 63-year-old figure of military gait, seated alongside his equally substantial wife and the “little chap”, as Doyle affectionately called their guest, the latter dressed in an ill-fitting white tropical suit, with their heads bowed over a table in their candlelit room. They were there in an attempt to bring Houdini news from his sainted mother Cecilia, who had died nine years earlier. In time the three sitters joined hands, and said a prayer. For some moments after that, Lady Doyle, who had recently begun to show a gift for channelling the spirits, sat motionless, poised over the blank writing pad before her. Then, with a jolt, the pencil in her hand began to move.

“It was a singular scene” Conan Doyle later wrote,

…my wife with her hand flying wildly, beating the table while she scribbled at a furious rate, I sitting opposite and tearing sheet after sheet from the block as it was filled up, and tossing each across to Houdini, while he sat silent, looking grimmer and paler every moment.

Lady Doyle was eventually to produce 15 pages seemingly full of the late Mrs. Houdini’s expressions of love for her son, including the statements “I am so happy in this life”, and “It is so different over here, so much larger and bigger and more beautiful”, and concluding, “God bless you, Sir Arthur, for what you are doing”. It was “profoundly moving” for all parties, Doyle later wrote, and a “striking affirmation of the soul’s immortality”.

When they met in New York two days later, Houdini gave Conan Doyle the impression that he believed “my mother really ‘came through’ … I have been walking on air ever since”. Over the next few weeks, Doyle spoke effusively of the event in public meetings, and in a full-length book he called Our American Adventure, while the ‘little chap’ apparently did nothing to contradict him. But perhaps it was all another case of artifice by a master of the craft, because Houdini later marked a newspaper report of the event with a satirical “Ha! Ha! Ha!”, while coming to wonder why it was that his dear mother should have chosen to communicate with him in fluent English, a language she had never spoken.