A Study in Head Scratching: Arthur Conan Doyle’s First Ghost Hunt

Ghostology 101aFor a while now, I’ve been interested in the ghost hunts conducted by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Lately I’ve been focusing on his first investigation, probably conducted in 1894, but trying to sort out the facts has left me scratching my head. There are a few different, incompatible versions of the ghost hunt.

Let’s start with Doyle himself. In a book titled The New Revelation (1918), he prefaces a personal anecdote by saying, “About 1891, I had joined the Psychical Research Society. . . . ” He then reminisces:

It was about this time I had an interesting experience, for I was one of three delegates sent by the Psychical Research Society to sit up in a haunted house in Dorsetshire. It was one of these poltergeist cases, where noises and foolish tricks had gone on for some years. . . . On the first night nothing occurred. On the second, there were tremendous noises, sounds like someone beating a table with a stick. We had, of course, taken every precaution, and could not explain the noises; but at the same time we could not swear that some ingenious practical joke had not been played upon us.

Doyle adds that, years afterward, he learned that a child’s bones had been discovered buried in the house’s garden. He ends the story by saying, “Haunted houses are rare, and houses with buried human beings in their gardens are also, we will hope, rare. That they should have both united in one house is surely some argument for the truth of the phenomena.” When it came to the possibility of supernatural intervention, Doyle wanted to believe.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)

He retold the tale twice again in print. Repeating the part about the quiet first night/noisy second night, he now introduces minor problems with dates along with some helpful details. In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures (1924), the date of the ghost hunt is “1892 or 1893,” and in The Edge of the Unknown (1930), the date that Doyle joined the Society for Psychical Research (a.k.a. the SPR) is given as “1893 or 1894.” Otherwise, the accounts are very similar. We learn that he went on the ghost hunt with “Dr. Scott and Mr. Podmore.” The haunted house, he says, was in Charmouth, and the manifestations there were primarily “senseless noises” that were taking a toll on the family forced to live with them. According to the latter work, that family consisted of an “elderly mother, a grown-up son and a married daughter.”

In both of these later works, Doyle concludes by saying that Frank Podmore submitted a report about the investigation to the SPR. That report attributes “the noises to the young man, though as a matter of fact, he was actually sitting with us in the parlour when the trouble began [on the second night]. Therefore, the explanation given by Podmore was absolutely impossible.”

Podmore
Frank Podmore (1856-1910)

Now, we have a promising third chronicle of the ghost hunt, one that clashes with Doyle’s slightly wavering memories of the investigation. I went searching through the annals of the SPR. A section of an article titled “Poltergeists” (1896-97), by Podmore, is the closest I could find to Doyle’s account in terms of 1) the date, 2) the haunted family, and 3) the manifestations. Podmore details eleven cases of poltergeists that had been investigated by SPR members. Case IX comes closest to the one he shared with Doyle, though he doesn’t mention the author. He also locates the haunted site in “a provincial town” instead of specifying Charmouth. However, the investigation occurred in 1894, and it involved “a widow lady, Mrs. D., and her two children — a girl of about twenty, C.D., and a boy of 15, E.D.” Are these the “elderly mother,”  “grown-up son,” and “married daughter” who Doyle mentions?

The poltergeist manifestations seem to match, too, if only roughly. Stones were mysteriously hurled, a bouquet of flowers vanished and reappeared, and some bones were discovered. (Podmore identifies the bones as those of a cat.) These might or might not be the “noises and foolish tricks” that Doyle mentions, but Podmore definitely concludes the case by pointing at the son as the hoaxster. In a private interview, he nudged the “nervous and delicate” son to admit that he was behind most of the manifestations. Summing up the various cases, Podmore ascribes five to trickery that was detected or confessed. “There is, therefore, strong ground for believing in trickery as the true and sufficient explanation in all these 11 cases,” he surmises. Here, we see Podmore, the skeptic, in stark contrast to the believer, Doyle.

Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927)

But wait! There is at least one more version of this story, and it also clashes with Doyle’s. Quite a lot! Jerome K. Jerome, a literary colleague of Doyle, gives a remarkably different version of the ghost hunt in his autobiography, My Life and Times (1925). He recalls Doyle telling him the story this way: Doyle “and another member of the Psychical Research Society were sent down to an old manor house in Somerset” to investigate a noise-haunted house. True to the version Doyle told in all three of his books, the vigil lasted two nights — a quiet first one and a second one with raucous noises. However, now the family is made up of a retired Colonel, his wife, and their unmarried daughter who’s well into her thirties. So as to not upset the womenfolk, Doyle and the other SPR member pretended to be the Colonel’s war buddies. Significantly, according to Jerome, Doyle said he himself discovered that the daughter was responsible for the noises.

None of the eleven cases reviewed in Podmore’s article really fits Jerome’s version. Some do end with Podmore suspecting a daughter, but either these occurred years too early or Podmore is relating another investigator’s report. (Case X might be a candidate if the daughter weren’t “barely twelve.”) Where does this leave us, then? Most likely, scratching our heads. I’ve only begun to look into this ghost hunt, though, and Doyle’s biographers offer a couple of interesting clues for further research. The first involves a Colonel Elmore, who is named as the head of the family residing in the haunted house. This man, the story goes, invited the SPR to investigate, and subsequent events match Jerome’s version of what happened pretty well. But Jerome never gives a surname for the Colonel, and I haven’t found a good, original source that does. Unless I missed it, none of the three sources by Doyle noted above specifies a Colonel Elmore. Did Doyle name him in another work or, perhaps, in a letter? Is there another source entirely I should be looking at?

A more specific lead is offered by Andrew Lycett, the author of The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Free Press, 2007). Apparently, there’s a letter that Doyle wrote to James Payn, another writer, and it includes an account of the ghost hunt that’s “as close to the truth as possible.” Here, according to Lycett, Doyle says the house “was inhabited not by a Colonel but by a cheerful though somewhat apprehensive, Irish family, comprising mother, son and daughter.” There’s a maid, too. Doyle admits that the noises of that second night seemed to have been a prank played by the son, perhaps in collusion with the maid. This would be an interesting letter to read, but as best I can tell, it’s in a private collection. Ho hum.

I’ll report on any further details that I’m able to locate. In the meantime, your comments are very welcome.

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