When Arthur Conan Doyle showed up at his own memorial service. (Maybe.)
On July 13, 1930, some six thousand people crammed themselves into London’s Royal Albert Hall. They had come to hear a missive from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the spiritualist, physician, and creator of Sherlock Holmes—who had, as it happens, died six days previous.
The hall had been rented out by the Spiritualist Association to hold a seance for the writer, an event so enticing that hundreds of people had to be turned away at the door. On the stage, a row of chairs had been set out for the Conan Doyle family: Lady Conan Doyle, her sons Denis and Adrian, her daughter Jean, her stepdaughter Mary, and of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. His chair was marked with his name, presumably to avoid confusion.
The night began like any typical memorial service, with tributes from friends, passages from scripture read, and hymns sung. But soon it was time for 41-year-old Estelle Roberts—a well-known London medium, and one of Conan Doyle’s favorites—to take the stage.
“The mesmerizing presence that had so impressed Conan Doyle was not immediately apparent,” writes Daniel Stashower in Teller of Tales, his biography of the writer.
For some time, Mrs. Roberts did nothing more than rock back and forth on her heels, and soon the sounds of coughing and restless movement could be heard from the audience. At this, she appeared to gather her resolve. Shielding her eyes like a sailor on lookout, Mrs. Roberts swept her eyes over the gallery, tiers, and boxes. Her attention fixed not on the faces of the expectant crowd, but on the empty space above their heads. “There are vast numbers of spirits here with us,” she announced. “They are pushing me like anything.”
She communed with these spirits for about a half an hour before the audience became restless, and then, as people began to leave, she shouted out “He’s here!”
“The skeptics stopped in their tracks,” writes Stashower. “All eyes locked on the empty chair.” Time for the headliner, then.
“There could be no doubt who she meant,” writes Russell Miller in The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, his biography of the writer.
Everyone switched their attention to the empty chair and Lady Conan Doyle jumped to her feet, eyes sparkling. The medium appeared to be following with her eyes an invisible figure moving towards her. “He’s wearing evening clothes,” she said, inclining her head as if to listen to something being said very quietly. Only those sitting nearby overheard the exchange that followed. “Sir Arthur tells me that one of you went into the hut this morning. Is that correct?” Lady Conan Doyle, beaming, agreed it was so. “I have a message for you,” the medium said. At this point someone signaled for the organist to strike up. Estelle Roberts could be seen whispering urgently to Lady Conan Doyle, who was smiling and nodding, for several minutes. She was still smiling broadly as the service broke up with a closing hymn and benediction.
The medium told reporters after the service that she had seen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle walk across the stage and take a seat in the empty chair before giving her a message for his wife and family. “It was a perfectly happy message,” she said.
Whatever it was, it was good enough for his widow. “I am perfectly convinced that the message is from my husband,” she said. “I am as sure of the fact that he has been here with us as I am sure that I am speaking to you. It is a happy message, one that is cheering and encouraging. It is precious and sacred. You will understand that it was secret to me.”
And so it has remained.