A great mess greeted the station sergeant who peered into London’s The Psychic Bookshop in the early morning hours of February 6, 1928. Books and papers had been pulled from the shelves and thrown on the floor; drawers were looted. Someone had broken into the building.
More importantly, someone had broken into the pride and joy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes in England. His bookstore was not focused on crime novels, but on spiritual secrets. The author was a strong believer in the inexplicable and the mystical, insisting that it was possible to communicate with the dead. His faith was so strong that later in life he devoted some of his fortune and time to creating his spiritual bookshop, which he once claimed was his most important mission – although he apparently lacked the predictive power to prevent the theft. see it coming.
Sherlock Holmes is arguably the ultimate pragmatist of fiction. The protagonist of 56 short stories and four novels used logic and searing powers of perception to solve seemingly unsolvable crimes. But its creator was happy to reject reason and rationality when it came to his fascination with spiritualism.
Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 22, 1859, into an impoverished and at times unstable household. He was eventually able to earn his MD, and after a brief foray as an ophthalmologist, Doyle went on to write full-time with an emphasis on the deductive Holmes, a character he debuted in 1887. (Holmes’ use of a magnifying glass, which may have been a first in detective fiction, was inspired by Doyle’s science background.) After eight years with the detective—he had grown tired of him—Doyle returned to Holmes in 1901 and brought it first quarter of the 20th century as one of the most recognized and admired writers of the time.
Holmes’ success allowed Doyle to indulge in his interest in spiritualism and paranormal phenomena, a curiosity sparked earlier in his life after he and a friend indulged in a “thought transference” experiment. Doyle drew on a piece of paper hidden from his friend’s sight and was surprised to see his co-worker draw similar figures. Although he had once described himself as a skeptic and Spiritualism as “the greatest nonsense”, Doyle became a believer and eventually convinced himself that it was possible to communicate with the dead. In 1917 he published an article in Metropolitan magazine entitled, in part, “My Conversion to Spiritism.” The loss of a son as well as a brother and a son in 1918 and 1919, respectively, probably reinforced his feelings about contact with the deceased.
“Apparently, according to the spiritual messages I have received, we are mainly in this world to improve ourselves,” he told reporter HC Norris in 1925. , when we become angels ourselves – we enter heaven, which is many miles above the earth in what is known as the seventh or outer sphere… after death we pass from one circle to another until we reach the outermost.”
Given the chance, Doyle would cite numerous examples of alien activity. He insisted he knew of a “Doctor Beale” in Exmouth who was a good doctor, despite being dead for 80 years. “The only unusual thing about it is that he gives his orders through the nurse’s mediumship,” Doyle explained.
At one point, Doyle invited his friend Harry Houdini to a séance led by Doyle’s second wife, Jean, in hopes of winning over the dubious magician. Despite Jean’s attempts to communicate with Houdini’s late mother, the illusionist was not convinced. For one thing, his mother couldn’t write in English, as Jean claimed to do on her behalf. To another, his mother was Jewish, which made Jean’s appeal to the sign of the cross a mystery. Houdini may have been unimpressed, but to Doyle he was only in denial: Houdini, the author believed, used psychic powers to accomplish his escapes.
Nothing could stop Doyle from being a believer. Perhaps his biggest blunder came in 1920, when he announced that he was convinced that the photos of schoolgirls Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths were real depictions of garden-dwelling fairies, who came to be known as the Cottingley Fairies. The imaginative story lent credibility to Doyle’s overall spiritistic beliefs, though the girls would admit – albeit much later – that they had faked the creatures. The fairies were just paper cutouts from a book.
Their recognition was decades away, and no amount of skepticism could convince Doyle that the world didn’t have some fantastic elements. He was so determined to convert naysayers that he decided to take the bold step of opening a bookstore that would specialize in spiritualism.
In January 1925, Doyle sent a letter to the Spiritist magazine light announcing his plans for a repository of literature related to the subject. Doyle praised the location “in one of the most central positions in London” and insisted the store would help solve “the complete disconnect” between the unfamiliar world and the average person on the street.
“Only psychic books will be sold and a large inventory will be held, while every effort will be made to meet the needs of customers,” Doyle promised. He ended the letter by asking for donations of any duplicate titles readers may wish to include.
The Psychic Bookshop opened that spring at 2 Victoria Street in London, not far from Westminster Abbey. light covered his debut, writing that:
“On opening day there was no rush from the public for the treasures in the store, but a steady stream of people throughout the day buying books and pamphlets. But the windows were a magnet and against and through, when these spectators from afar have overcome their first tremors, they will come in and make their first plunge into the psychic world.”
It didn’t take long before more than 100 people walked into the store every day. Undoubtedly, some customers were not spiritually inclined, but were eager to meet the famous owner and author, who posed for questions and often found himself in his office or even on shelves.
“I put everything of myself into this project, and from a business standpoint I certainly wasn’t looking for a big return from trading in the first year,” he said in 1926. “In a sense, to be sure, I’m losing money because although I work all the time it is almost exclusively on psychic books and of course they don’t pay at least I’m convinced I’m doing the right thing I intend to keep going steady with all the energy which I own.”
Among his collaborators was Mary Louise Conan Doyle, the author’s eldest daughter. Doyle and his associates assembled a substantial collection of titles, both classic and new, that could be purchased for retail price. The store also had a selection available for loan, where readers could borrow books for a fee. (If someone couldn’t make it to the store, Doyle would have the titles shipped to them.)
A few months later, Doyle expanded his business to include a “psychic museum” downstairs from the bookstore that contained relevant items beyond the printed material. There one could buy a “trumpet” which was said to be the correct method of communicating with spirits. He exhibited paintings that were claimed to have been created under the influence of ghosts, photographs that he claimed depicted the ghosts of deceased dogs, and of course the images of the Cottingley Fairies.
One exhibit seemed to outshine all others: a pair of washing hands. The hands, Doyle explained, were those of a ghost that had reached an ectoplasmic state. The entity dipped its hands in wax before it could dematerialize. Doyle insisted that the hands had to be real because the casts were narrow at the wrist, as if the spirit had become ethereal again. “And he left his wash gloves on the table, shaped like these hands,” Doyle said. Nearby was a soot-covered photographic plate with what he believed to be the fingerprints of a ghost.
Doyle also received guidance from ghosts when it came to the business of the store. In late 1925, he was preparing to implement some new ideas for the store. A few days later, he called from Paris and told his associates to forget it. The street, he said, would be flooded by spring, a warning given to him by his psychic advisers.
The street was not flooded. In fact, the store managed to survive Doyle — who died in 1930 — for a few years. There is no record of how profitable it may or may not have been, but given the esoteric subject matter and high rental costs in London, it was probably more of a passion project than anything else. Nor is there a clear answer about the whereabouts of the inventory. (The aforementioned thief took nothing more than stamps.) That The Psychic Bookshop even existed is a testament to Doyle’s fascination with the afterlife, a mystery that even his great detective could never solve.