Arthur Conan Doyle – Spiritualist and Freemason

“How are you?” (Holmes) said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit.
“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
“How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.
“Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself . . .
 - A Study in Scarlet (1887) 

Sir Arthur Conan DoyleThe name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is synonymous with Sherlock Holmes. Yet during Sir Arthur’s long and distinguished life his interests, and his work and writings, extended far beyond the stories published as the Canon, the collective term used for the sixty Holmes stories and novels. From the beginning of his career there was an element of spiritualism that always intrigued Doyle and influenced his work. It may well have been this particular interest that aroused Doyle’s somewhat erratic interest in Freemasonry.

Arthur Doyle – he only started to use one of his middle names, Conan, later in his life – was born into an Irish Catholic family at Picardy Place, Edinburgh, Scotland on 22 May 1859.  One of ten children, he was sent as a boarder to Hodder Preparatory School in 1868 and from there to Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school, where he spent five unhappy and lonely years.  He consoled himself by frequent letters to his mother and in playing cricket, at which he excelled.  By the time he left Stonyhurst, at the age of seventeen, Arthur had rejected his religion and embraced spiritualism, which was not to leave him even after his death in 1930.  His immediate family was neither wealthy nor happy. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, a civil servant in the Edinburgh Office of Works, suffered from epilepsy and was an alcoholic. His mother, Mary Foley Doyle, a vivacious book lover and story teller, took in lodgers, including one Dr Bryan Charles Waller, in order to survive financially.  Doyle’s father died in an asylum in 1893.

The same Dr. Bryan Charles Waller influenced Doyle to pursue a medical career, rather than follow in the family tradition of art and drawing. He did, however, begin his active pursuit of spiritualism soon after qualifying as a doctor from the University of Edinburgh in 1881. His father’s passing was to become an event of significance. The passing of his son Kingsley, who died of pneumonia at the end of the First World War, combined with that of his brother, his two brothers-in-law and two nephews, led many of Conan Doyle’s friends to comment that his fascination and commitment to life beyond the veil had elements of consolation rather than genuine beliefs.  Doyle always denied such criticism.

He initially set up in practice with someone who had been a fellow medical student, Dr Budd, but soon parted company, having been accused of not pulling his weight, and Doyle moved to Southsea, near Portsmouth in Hampshire, where he established himself as a General Practioner.  It was here between 1885 and 1888 that he attended a number of table turning sittings at the home of General Drayson, formerly a teacher at Greenwich Naval College, who was one of his patients. These sessions were experimental and Doyle was critical both of the procedures and the ritual involved, which he called a farce. He also questioned the intellect of the sitters.  But he was hooked.  In 1887, the year he became a Freemason, he joined the Society for Psychical Research.  This was a public declaration, as it were, of his interest and belief in the occult.

It was in this state of mind, exceedingly curious and now seriously delving into the world of spiritualism, that on 26 January 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle was initiated into Freemasonry at the Phoenix Lodge No 257 in Southsea.  He was 27 years old.  Among the members of the Phoenix Lodge present at Doyle’s initiation was Dr James Watson, with whom Conan Doyle became very friendly and whose name has been immortalised in the Holmes stories. The true Watson, unlike his fictitious counterpart, was a graduate of Edinburgh University in 1865 and served 19 years as a medical officer at a British Consulate in China.

It would be logical to presume that Conan Doyle came into Freemasonry expecting, maybe hoping, to discover elements of the spiritualism that now occupied his mind. He was certainly well-recommended.  His proposer was W D King, later Sir William David King, Deputy-Lieutenant for Hampshire, and a most prominent public man who was elected Mayor of Portsmouth on four separate occasions.  His seconder was Sir John Brickwood, a successful brewer and also very well respected in Portsmouth.  Conan Doyle rose rapidly through the degrees.  On 23 February1887 he was passed to the second degree and a month later, on 23 March, he was made a full-fledged Master Mason.  But he took no further active part in Lodge affairs, and in 1889 he resigned from the Lodge.

By this time he was writing more and more, and was on the verge of dedicating himself to authorship.  A Study In Scarlet, the story in which Sherlock Holmes is introduced for the first time, was published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.  But in 1889 his third novel, The Mystery Of Cloomber, was totally out of character. Here was a brilliant and exceedingly logical author writing about the paranormal, in a strange and confusing story about the afterlife of three vindictive Buddhist monks. It was his first work with spiritualist elements.  Was Conan Doyle, in writing this book, seeking a spiritual source and inspiration in Masonic ritual?  If so he will have found little in the ceremonies of the three degrees that would have been of practical interest to him.  It may explain his resignation in 1889.

This, however, was not the end of his Masonic career.  He attended Lodges as an unattached Mason and rejoined his Lodge in 1902.  He also received various honours before his final withdrawal from Freemasonry in 1911.  The circumstances of his full and exciting life, and the nature of the man, were manifest in this haphazard involvement with the Craft.

Adventurous as ever, in February 1900 Conan Doyle volunteered to serve in the Boer War.  He must have been dismayed to be refused enlistment because of his age (he was 40 years old).  Persistent, he gained a position as Secretary and Medical Registrar of the Langman Field Hospital, and sailed to South Africa.  Through observation and the reports of his patients he was able to write one of the most readable of the books on the war.  The Great Boer War was published in London on his return from South Africa.  His presence there has been the cause of considerable debate as to his Masonic activities whilst abroad.

In October 1901 the Masonic Illustrated magazine reported as follows:

Whilst at the seat of war he (Bro Conan Doyle) attended the never-to-be-forgotten scratch lodge at Bloemfontein in company with Bro Rudyard Kipling.

The Lodge concerned was the Rising Star Lodge No 1022, English Constitution. At a meeting on 7 November in the same year the Brethren of this Lodge expressed their dissatisfaction at being referred to as a scratch lodge and denied the statement made in the magazine.  Bro Haarburger, the IPM (Immediate Past Master), instructed the Secretary of the Lodge to write to the magazine expressing these sentiments. A scratch lodge is one set up on an ad hoc basis, under emergency circumstances, as a temporary measure for a one-off meeting.

Nearly thirty years later, on 8 July 1930, the day after the death of Arthur Conan Doyle, in a tribute to him by a member of the Author’s Lodge No 3456, the original statement was repeated and later published in the transactions, stating that Doyle was one of the brethren who formed the never-to-be-forgotten Emergency Lodge held at Bloemfontein in company with Bro Rudyard Kipling and other notable masons.

What has since emerged is that Doyle did indeed visit the Rising Star Lodge, but the date and circumstances remain a mystery. The first meeting of the Lodge during the war took place on 5 April 1900, following the British re-occupation of Bloemfontein. The Cape Argus reported the meeting in its 18 April issue, stating that

A communication was received from R W Bro Lord Kitchener . . . expressing his regret at not being able to attend the meeting . . .and a similar letter was read from Bro A Conan Doyle, both Brethren intimating that it was their intention to visit the lodge in the near future. 

Lord Kitchener did attend a later meeting of the Lodge on 23 April 1900 and signed a document, still in possession of the Lodge, proposing that a Royal Resolution be sent to the Prince of Wales.  Lord Roberts and Conan Doyle are also signatories to this document.  There is no evidence, however, that either of these two brethren was present on that occasion and the signatures appear to have been legitimately added to the document on a subsequent occasion.  That occasion may well have been the emergency Mourning meeting held on 31 January 1901, nine days after the death of Queen Victoria, and in her memory. Thirty-nine members of the lodge and sixty-one visitors, including many high-ranking and important personalities, were present. It is possible, even likely, that both Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling were present at this meeting.  It would have been an opportunity for Doyle to sign the document initiated by Lord Kitchener in April of the previous year.

The interesting circumstance arising from these various incidents is the attitude taken by Conan Doyle toward Freemasonry. Clearly he practiced the old adage once a mason always a mason. His attendance at a Lodge would have been perfectly legitimate as the Constitutions in effect at the time stated:

A brother who is not a subscribing member to a Lodge shall not be permitted to visit any Lodge in the town or place where he resides more than once during his secession from the craft  

On his return to England from South Africa, in a series of lectures given in Scotland, Conan Doyle praised the activities of the Freemasons during the Boer War.  On 23 March 1901, he was invited to propose the main toast to The Immortal Memory of Queen Victoria, and The Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No 1, Scottish Constitution, made him an honorary member following this speech, in which he spoke on Masonry in South Africa.  In 1902 he was knighted by Edward VII and this may have induced him to rejoin his Lodge in 1902, although he lost all interest and resigned for good in 1911.

Freemasonry features in various forms in his writings, not all of them related to Sherlock Holmes.

The Valley of Fear published in 1915 has references to the Ancient Order of Freemen (some editions state Eminent Order instead of Ancient Order) who are locally present as The Scowers Lodge No 341 in Vermissa Valley, USA.  Furthermore the statement is made that there is no town in the State without a lodge and that grips (meaning handshakes) and passwords are useful.  Another story (not featuring Sherlock Holmes) is The Lost World of 1912 where mention is made of Mr Hungerton’s bouncing off to a Masonic meeting and later Lord John Roxton uses a Masonic term in saying to Malone between you and me close tiled.  The most overt reference to Freemasonry appears in The Land of Mist published in 1926. One of the Professor Challenger series, the character Weatherby is described as follows:

… that is a pompous ass named Weatherby. He is one of those who wander about on the obscure edges of Masonry, talking with whispers and reverence on mysteries where no mystery is. Spiritualism, with its very real and awful mysteries, is, to him, a vulgar thing because it brought consolation to common folk, but he loves to read papers on the Palladian Cultus, ancient & accepted Scottish rites and baphometic figures.  Eliphas Levi is his prophet. 

Eliphas Levi is the pseudonym of Alphonse Louis Constant (1810-1875), the occultist, who was considered by some to be the last of the Magi.

As to Sherlock Holmes – who is not a Mason – he has sufficient knowledge about Freemasonry to make several relevant observations.  In his very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, there is a reference to a gold ring which identifies Enoch Drebber as a Freemason – probably the square and compasses device.  In A Scandal in Bohemia published in 1891 Holmes says to Watson “There is a wonderful….freemasonry among horsey men.  Be one of them, and you will know all that there is to know.” And in The Adventure of The Red Headed League, published in the same year, he identifies Jabez Wilson as a Freemason by his “arc-and-compass breastpin.”  A more extensive example appears in The Adventure of The Musgrave Ritual published in 1893.  As in Freemasonry, where each degree has its own catechism to be learnt, so in this story the eldest son of the Musgrave family has to learn the following catechism, not knowing why:

Q. Whose was it?
A. His who is gone
Who shall have it?
He who will come
What was the month?
The sixth from the first
Where was the sun?
Over the oak
Where was the shadow?
Under the elm
How was it stepped?
North by ten and by ten, west by five . . . .
What shall we give for it?
All that is ours
Why should we give it?
For the sake of the trust 

There are several more incidental references to Freemasonry in various adventures. One story featuring Holmes remains outstanding, although it is a film pastiche and not written by Conan Doyle.  It is the 1979 film Murder By Decree written by John Hopkins and starring Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson.  It is a Jack the Ripper story where Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and who in real life was an active Mason and the first Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, is confronted by Sherlock Holmes who claims special knowledge of The Royal Order of Freemasons, giving him some strange and curious signs and identifying Sir Charles as a 33rd degree Mason by the insignia on his ring. In fact, Sir Charles only reached the 30th degree in this particular order within Freemasonry.  Holmes and Watson are the principal characters in the story.

In Conan Doyle’s autobiography Memories and Adventures published in 1924 there is no mention of Freemasonry. It would appear that he had placed his interest in masonry within a spiritual context and within that context our Craft was simply of not sufficient consequence to him, in spite of his repeated participation and membership. He died on 7 July 1930.  On July 13 that year a large memorial reunion was held in the Royal Albert Hall in London.  A chair was left empty in his honour, and Estelle Roberts (1889-1970), who was one of England’s most respected and well known clairvoyants, stated publicly that she had made contact with Arthur Conan Doyle and offered a personal message from him to his family, which they gladly accepted as evidence of his eternal well being.

Sherlock Holmes has become immortal, and so, perhaps, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – every month a spiritualist or medium somewhere in the world claims to have had a message from Sir Arthur . . . . he has passed beyond and is well and happy!

Bibliography 

  • ACD – The Journal Of The Arthur Conan Doyle Society P.O. Box 1360, Ashcroft, British Columbia, Canada V0K 1A0
  • Boniface, A  On Conan Doyle  in AQC (Ars Quatuor Coronatorum : The Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No 2076) Vol 105 : London, 1993
  • Booth, Martin   The Doctor and the Detective: A Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle   Hodder and Stoughton : London, 1997
  • Carr, John Dickson  The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle  Harper : New York, 1949
  • Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan Memories and Adventures  Hodder and Stoughton : London, 1924
  • Pearson, Hesketh  Conan Doyle: His Life and Art  Methuen : London, 1943 (and Walker : New York, 1961)
  • Potter Barrett, G  Sherlock Holmes And The Masonic Connection Baker Street Miscellanea Vol . 45 1986
  • Runciman, Robert T. Sir A. Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes & Freemasonry in AQC (Ars Quatuor Coronatorum : The Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No 2076) Vol 104 : London, 1992
  • Ryder, Cecil  A Study In Masonry  Sherlock Holmes Journal  Vol. 11, No. 3, p.86
  • Stashower, Daniel  Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle  Henry Holt : New York, 1999

by W. Bro. Yasha Beresiner

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