| “Our Case Is Not Complete”:
Sherlock Holmes, Victorian Spiritualism, and the Scientific Use of the Imagination
Thesis Advisor: Professor Gauri Viswanathan
“Our case is not complete… It is not what we know, but what we can prove.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
In 1887, the year Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, he wrote to the Spiritualist journal Light, proclaiming his belief in Spiritualist phenomena. In his letter, Conan Doyle stated: “After weighing the evidence, I could no more doubt the existence of the [Spiritual] phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa, though I have never been to that continent and have never chanced to see one.”1 This message, and his later official conversion in 1916, have confused and irritated generations of readers, who often dismiss Conan Doyle’s belief as a rash decision prompted by the deaths of his son and brother in World War I. 2 The source of their perplexity stems largely from the seeming disparity between the irrationality of Conan Doyle’s beliefs, and the hyper-rationality of his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes.
Victorian Spiritualism can be best understood as an umbrella term—there was no single Spiritualist organization, but rather a number of groups with varying beliefs. These groups, however, shared a conviction that “reality as we are taught to understand it accounts for only a fraction of the ultimate reality which lies just beyond our immediate senses.”3 Conan Doyle broadly defined his Spiritualism as the belief that “death makes no change in personality, and that communication under proper conditions is possible.”4 Spiritualists often claimed their beliefs were derived through investigations, which they modeled on scientific experiments. The séance became the most commonly repeated test of Spiritualist phenomena. As Gauri Viswanathan notes in her article, “The Ordinary Business of Occultism,” the Western world required “that esoteric knowledge conform to the expectations of regularity, predictability, and control.”5
Conan Doyle has been ridiculed, and at times completely dismissed, for his Spiritualist beliefs by both his contemporary readers and modern critics. Alex Owen discusses early reactions to Conan Doyle’s Spiritualism, saying: “one American review of [Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist book] The Coming of the Fairies was entitled, ‘Poor Sherlock Holmes—Hopelessly Crazy?’, whilst Punch settled for a gentle lampoon showing Conan Doyle, head in the clouds, manacled to a scowling Holmes.”6 Michael Saler, in As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, stresses that this discomfort stems from the discord between Sherlock Holmes’s strict rationalism, and Conan Doyle’s professed Spiritualism:
Many readers of the early Sherlock Holmes stories assumed that his creator must have shared the attributes that made Holmes so quintessentially modern: his secularism, his rationalism, his skepticism. But from an early age, Conan Doyle expressed ambivalence about modernity…. He was not comfortable with modern atheism and materialism either; his disenchantment with these aspects of modernity and dissatisfaction with agnosticism led him to explore Theosophy in 1884 and Spiritualism shortly thereafter, before he wrote the first Holmes story.7
Saler’s examination of the reception of Sherlock Holmes reveals three key assumptions: firstly, that a literary character must resemble his creator. Secondly, that Sherlock Holmes was secular, rational, and skeptical. And lastly, that Conan Doyle’s spiritual explorations were irrational, and demonstrate the author’s extreme credulity. Saler shows that this belief continues among modern critics when he later refers to Spiritualism as a “premodern form of enchantment.”8 The perceived distance between Holmes and Conan Doyle has led some readers, most famously the Baker Street Irregulars, to ironically refer to Conan Doyle as Dr. Watson’s literary agent, while others have taken Sherlock Holmes existence to be literally true.9
In this essay, I will argue that Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist works and his Sherlock Holmes canon do, in fact, share an underlying philosophy. This philosophy is characterized by a belief in an objective truth that underlies reality, and creates an impression on the physical world. The chaos of the everyday world obscures truth and meaning for most people, but can be read using scientific techniques—both Sherlock Holmes and Spiritualist investigators apply forensic technologies to the material world in order to reveal life’s hidden order. Yet they also show that facts alone do not constitute reality; physical evidence must be interpreted by using the imagination in order to reveal truth. In doing so, they problematize the reconstructive sciences upon which their methods are based by showing that these sciences—such as archeology and paleontology—themselves rely upon imaginative leaps, despite claiming to utilize only scientific deductions. Rather than condemning these sciences for using imagination, Conan Doyle’s works emulate them, and in doing so suggest that the use of imagination is necessary in order to bridge the gap between the material world and the objective truth that underlies it. In both these bodies of work, therefore, imagination is held to have a unique and epistemologically valid access to truth. When an investigator relies upon his imaginative faculties he can not only accurately reconstruct the past, but also channel other people—an ability that Holmes uses in order to solve cases by apprehending criminals.
In the beginning of the second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes receives a letter from a French detective whom he has been helping with a case. Holmes explains to Watson that the detective “has considerable gifts himself. He possesses two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective. He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is only wanting in knowledge, and that may come in time.”10 This essay is structured after this triptych. I will begin by examining the worldview that underlies both the Sherlock Holmes canon and the Spiritualist works, and then explore how forensic technologies work in each. I will then interrogate claims of Sherlock Holmes’s rationalism in a section on deduction, suggesting that Holmes relies on a science of imagination, rather than a science of deduction. Finally, I will explore how observation, deduction, and imagination combine with knowledge, and are used to contain criminals, in the Sherlock Holmes canon by following Holmes’s method as he solves the mystery of The Sign of Four.
Before proceeding, I wish to briefly elaborate on my methodology. I will be approaching the Sherlock Holmes canon and the Spiritualist writings as two bodies of work by the same author, rather than treating the character Sherlock Holmes as if he literally existed. Relatedly, while I am arguing that Holmes is not as rational as he claims to be, and shares a philosophy and thought process with Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist work, I do not mean to suggest that the character Sherlock Holmes believed in Spiritualism. I will also not be approaching Spiritualism as either true or false. Rather, I will use Spiritualism as a window into the cultural beliefs and anxieties of the day, which I seek to explore, especially as they relate to the fields of anthropology, archaeology, paleontology, and forensics.
In Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes introduces his theory of a fundamentally ordered world, which can be seen only by the astute observer. After moving in with Holmes, Dr. Watson picks up a magazine and reads an article titled “The Book of Life,” which claims that its conclusions are “as infallible as so many propositions of Euclid.”11 Watson grows irate as he reads the grandiose claims of the “Science of Deduction and Analysis” outlined in the paper, which is authored by Sherlock Holmes:
‘From a drop of water,’ said the writer, ‘a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it… By a man’s finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent inquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.’12
The minutest physical details, when viewed correctly, reveal a world that is ordered and logical. Reality is a great chain of causes and effects, all of which are linked. Given any one event, Holmes claims, the logician can reason all of its sources and its consequences. In his essay “Sherlock Holmes vs. the Bureaucrat,” Marshall McLuhan argues, “[Holmes’s] is a mind for which situations are total and inclusive unities. Every facet, every item of a situation, for Holmes, has total relevance… In an organic complex all parts have total relevance, not just some relevance to the whole.”13 This applies to inanimate objects as miniscule and uniform as a drop of water, which can be used by the superior logician, to infer the existence of unimaginably greater counterparts. In Holmes’s system, therefore, even the smallest clue is a synecdoche; the clue reveals an interconnected and meaningful world because it is both a product and an integral part of the world.
For Holmes, the most important record of order and meaning is the body. Seemingly inconsequential physical details, usually made unintentionally, expose, among other things, a person’s habits and profession. This extends to an individual's inner-life as well. Watson notes when reading The Book of Life that “the writer claimed by a momentary expression, a twitch of a muscle or a glance of an eye, to fathom a man’s inmost thoughts.”14 In this way, individuals can be read like a text. A twitch of an eye, for example, is caused by a man’s innermost thoughts, and can therefore reveal those thoughts. In Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science, Ronald Thomas argues that to the forensic scientist and the literary detective, there is “an empirically definable identity – a series of discrete material signs that may be categorized, be documented, recorded, and compared to the corresponding traces of the criminal body left at the crime scene.”15 Sherlock Holmes’s Science of Deduction allows the investigator to read identity through these physical traces. In Holmes’s science, clues must first be noticed, and then be deciphered through deductive logic. In this section I will be examining how clues are observed in both the Sherlock Holmes canon and Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist writings, arguing that the reliance on physical minutiae in each signals a meaningful order underlying the material world. I will then explore the reliability forensic techniques are thought to have, and suggest that the both bodies of Conan Doyle’s work claim forensic technologies convey self-evident truths.
Sherlock Holmes’s London is a city that, on its surface, is disturbingly chaotic. In The Sign of Four, Holmes and Dr. Watson speed through London in a hansom cab. Holmes gazes out at the London streets and remarks to Watson: “See how the folk swarm over yonder in the gaslight… Dirty-looking rascals, but I suppose every one has some little immortal spark concealed about him. You would not think it, to look at them. There is no a priori probability about it. A strange enigma is man!”16 Sherlock Holmes lives in a world that is crowded and superficially disordered—it is full of dirty, swarming masses. Ever the elitist, Holmes grudgingly admits that even common people have both meaning and agency. He further remarks, “You can… never foretell what any one man will do.”17 On its surface, industrial London is unpredictable and threatening. It is overflowing with people who are simply anonymous workers to Holmes, whose actions cannot be anticipated or controlled.
By taking the correct approach, however, Sherlock Holmes reveals his world to be highly ordered. Though individuals are unique, populations are predictable. Holmes continues musing to Watson in the cab, saying: “While the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty… You can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.”18 For Holmes, there is a deep order to the world, which is both disguised by, and revealed through, the chaotic and seemingly mundane streets of London. Here Holmes reveals a dichotomy between the unpredictable individual and the comprehensible type. This opposition is present throughout the Canon. As Rosemary Jann remarks, “in the face of a universe that seems incoherent and incomprehensible, Holmes affirms a fantasy of control by implying that all it takes to uncover nature’s hidden order is a sufficient exercise of human intellect.”19 Holmes applies his intellect, and therefore control, by first identifying and isolating an individual from the crowded streets of London, and then predicting that individual’s actions by classifying him as a type of person.
This divide between the individual and the group is rooted in forensic sciences of the Victorian era. Thomas explores the historical trends underlying detective fiction, suggesting that Francis Galton, one of the foremost forensic scientists in England and inventor of eugenics influenced Conan Doyle. Galton “[used] the rhetoric of the ‘type,’ the ‘ideal,’ and the ‘generic’ to suggest the higher reality of an abstract yet authentic human norm, compared to which individuals are reduced to ghostly traces, existing literally as mere shadows of the more substantial type.”20 According to Galton, personality and behavior were innate and tied to physical features. Arsonists, for instance, might be defined not only by a predilection for setting fires, but also by a marked hooked nose. Galton attempted to determine the correlations between physiology and behavior by using composite photography—the technique of combining multiple images of individuals in order to generate the picture of a type. From its origins, therefore, forensics attempted “on the one hand, to isolate the deviant individual from everyone else by inscribing a unique identity on the body, and, on the other, to recognize a generalizable criminal type that can be made visible in a set of bodily traits.”21 This can be seen in the cases of Sherlock Holmes, in which forensics is used to first identify, and then group, the individual.
The first stage of this process requires Holmes to collect evidence, invariably in the form of material clues, which reveals the interior life of a person. Thomas notes “the detective always urges us to consider the objects of his investigation—persons or texts—as a series of discrete physical facts or functions, as data recorded by the machinery of his own scientific techniques rather than as a story to be told.”22 Holmes uses the cutting edge forensic sciences in order to find clues with unquestionable epistemological value. One of the strongest modes of evidence in the Sherlock Holmes canon is photography. In A Scandal in Bohemia, the King of Bohemia requests Holmes help him after being blackmailed by Irene Adler. Before knowing the form of the blackmail, Holmes is flippant about the King’s worries. Writing, Holmes states can be dismissed as “forgery,” private note-paper can be said to have been “stolen,” and the King’s seal “imitated.”23 When, however, the King states he and Ms. Adler were in a photograph together, Holmes replies “Oh, dear! That is very bad! Your majesty has indeed committed an indiscretion.”24 Thomas notes that this is because the photograph, “like the polygraph, is based on the principle that however a suspect might present himself or whatever he might say to defend himself, his photograph spoke the ‘real’ truth about him.”25 Photography, in the Sherlock Holmes canon is a medium that conveys indisputable and unintentional evidence. Holmes does not consider the possibility of the photograph being a narrative in itself; he never suggests that the Irene Adler’s photo is a forgery. Instead photography is believed to speak for itself. The value of visual evidence is seen even in paintings. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the key to the villain Jack Stapleton’s true identity is in a family portrait. Though Holmes inquires about the portrait instead of simply accepting it as he does with photography, he concludes that “the family portrait did not lie, and that this fellow [Stapleton] was indeed a Baskerville.”26
Holmes relies upon physical traces, because they are left involuntarily, unlike testimony, which is unreliable because of its intentionality. This is best demonstrated in A Study in Scarlet, when Watson first chronicles Holmes analyzing a crime scene. Holmes is shown a message—“Rache” or “revenge” in German—written on the wall of the crime scene in blood. He dismisses the meaning of word, however, as having no evidentiary value, and instead examines what the form of the word says about its author. Holmes explains his reasoning to the bewildered Watson:
As to poor Lestrade’s discovery, it was simply a blind intended to put the police upon a wrong track, by suggesting Socialism and secret societies. It was not done by a German. The A, if you noticed, was printed somewhat after the German fashion. Now, a real German invariably prints in the Latin character, so that we may safely say that this was not written by one, but by a clumsy imitator who overdid his part.27
One of the first appearances of writing in the Sherlock Holmes is immediately dismissed for its misleading nature. The writing on the wall, in A Study in Scarlet, is meant to manipulate its reader. Holmes, however, focuses on the mechanical process of writing, and in doing so is able to find meaning in the form, rather than definition of the word. Holmes’s gaze operates like the technologies he utilizes—he is able to reveal truth hidden in visual artifacts. Holmes “[personifies] the array of nineteenth-century observing machines that made visible what had always been invisible beforehand.”28 Ultimately, it is the blood in which the word “rache” is written that signals to Holmes key aspects of the killer’s identity. By examining the blood in the room, which was left without a wound, Holmes infers that the murderer had a nosebleed and was therefore “very full-blooded… robust and ruddy-faced.”29 Thomas argues that Holmes’s distrust of testimony reflected a Victorian anxiety about the role and reliability of testimony: “These suspicions coincide perfectly with the diminished value placed on the testimony of witnesses in Anglo-American courtroom practice in the latter half of the century and the rising authority in forensic science that was being accorded to material evidence and expert advice in the process of fixing an individual’s true identity.”30 For Holmes, testimony is suspect because it is produced intentionally, and therefore can be designed to manipulate. Physical clues, on the other hand, are left involuntarily and without intention to sway their interpreter. They are presumed to be truthful and reliable.
In his Spiritualist works, Conan Doyle reveals a similar philosophy—in which the everyday world is imbued with metaphysical meaning, and the minutest details reveal great hidden truths—despite his claims that Spiritualism is the enemy of materialism. Conan Doyle discusses the unique position of Spiritualism in his pamphlet, Spiritualism: Some Straight Questions and Direct Answers:
What does the religious movement aim at? It aims at destroying the present materialism by proving clearly that life carries on… How, then, does it differ from the present religious scheme? We propose to substitute proof for faith, and certainty for a vague belief. How do you get your certainty? By the testimony of the “dead” themselves, who send us long coherent messages, giving their actual experience.31
Conan Doyle frames his Spiritualism in opposition to the materialist position that nothing exists outside of physical realm. Spiritualism and materialism cannot be correctly classified as opposites, however, as while Spiritualism postulates a non-material realm, it believes that inhabitants of that plane may interact with the physical world, and in doing so, leave evidence. Because of this, Conan Doyle claims that his Spiritualism can be proven. By conversing with the dead, one can base their religion on fact, rather than faith.
Conan Doyle’s statement that his certainty is derived by testimony, however, actually obscures the role of forensic verification in his search for religious truth. Conan Doyle did not rely on testimony alone to inform his faith. Like many Spiritualists he participated in controlled, or “scientific” séances, in which testimony had to be corroborated.32 Sometimes in the course of a séance, a medium would summon a spirit hand, or claim that a ghost was moving an object. Conan Doyle investigated at least one of these occurrences by attempting to take fingerprints purportedly left by a ghost: “This morning Conan Doyle writes to me that the Crandons have got a print of Walter’s thumb, likewise a print of everyone’s in the room… He is going to submit them to further experts, at Scotland Yard and everywhere else, hoping that this will be regarded as conclusive.”33 Conan Doyle reaction to these phenomena reveals the same underlying philosophy seen in the Sherlock Holmes canon: a belief that immaterial things, such as personality, thoughts, and in this case spirits, create physical impressions in the material world. Testimony alone, however, was suspect. In a letter to Sir Oliver Lodge, a Spiritualist and renowned physicist, Conan Doyle considered a posthumous memoir—that is one ghostwritten by a dead author34—ultimately dismissing it because of the unreliable nature of its testimony: “I am convinced that harm would come from publishing [the manuscript]. There is not evidential matter enough… Can we satisfy ourselves that it is true? That is the all important question… It is an amazing document, more readable than most posthumous memoirs. But it really reminds me of Alice’s Adventures in parts.”35 For Conan Doyle, therefore, testimony is not sufficient proof. It must be corroborated by either physical clues or further testimony. Like the word “rache” written on the wall, words can lie in Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist documents.
Because of the unreliability of testimony, Conan Doyle utilized forensic techniques in order to validate his faith. One mode of evidence Conan Doyle relied upon was spirit photography—photographs which claim to depict ghosts, fairies, and spirit matter. In a letter to Conan Doyle, Oliver Lodge concisely states the most basic premise of spirit photography: “if [spirit] materialisations exist they must be photographable.”36 These investigations are predicated on the idea that the physical world both obscures and, under the right circumstances, conveys meaning and order, just as seen in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Sophie Schmit, in her overview of Conan Doyle and spirit photography states, “Conan Doyle… wrote prolifically on photography. He believed the process played an important role in communication with the dead and, like the rise of spiritualism, had been predicted from the beyond.”37 According to Conan Doyle, spirit photography not just reveals meaning in the world, but had a meaningful origin, being prophesied by spirits themselves. Thomas has interpreted Conan Doyle’s belief in spirit photography as a testament to the epistemological value of the photograph: “That a person of Doyle’s scientific turn of mind was so susceptible to the hoaxes these photographs turned out to be is a testimony to the prestige the photograph had achieved as a virtually unassailable form of evidence by the turn of the century.”38 Conan Doyle, however, did not blindly accept spirit photographs, and in his letters conveys more skepticism of photographic evidence than even his famous detective. This often meant conducting experiments in a photographer’s lab, or on one occasion, Conan Doyle “sent [a spirit photograph] to Sir Arthur Keith to take Anthropometric measurements.”39 In Conan Doyle’s Spiritual works and investigations, just as in his Sherlock Holmes canon, physical evidence is used to verify metaphysical truths. In doing so, Conan Doyle displays a belief that forensic sciences have access not only to the natural world, but also to the supernatural realm.