the rise of spiritualism -- 7/12/17

Today's selection -- from Through A Glass Darkly, by Stefan Bechtel and Laurence Roy Stains. World War I (1914-1918) and the Spanish Influenza (1918-1920) combined killed an estimated 67 million people worldwide. As those affected began to grieve for their loved ones, spiritualism became popular. Even those renowned for their logic became passionate spiritualists. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for Sherlock Holmes, tragically lost his son to the influenza pandemic in 1918 -- this, after his son had survived two bullets at the Battle of the Somme. He turned to spiritualism for comfort:

"In the decade just passed, the world had suffered not one but two tragedies of almost unimaginable proportion, and almost every family in America had an empty seat at the dinner table. In 1914, 'the war to end all wars' had hurled the world into a murder­ous darkness. It was at that time the bloodiest conflict in human history, and also likely one of the most futile. In the first day of the Battle of the Somme, more than fifty-seven thousand British soldiers were wounded or killed on the western front. By the time the offensive was over, more than a million men lay dead in the bloody mud. Yet the offensive had succeeded in moving back the German trenches by only about six miles.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with psychic extra, c.1922.

"But even before the war came to a close, another grim and relentless enemy began stalking new victims. In March 1918, a soldier at Fort Riley, Kansas, reported to the infirmary com­plaining of a clanging headache and fever; within months, an extraordinarily virulent strain of the Spanish influenza had killed between twenty and forty million people worldwide -- far more than the war. It came to be known as the Blue Death, because the sick turned blue before they died, horribly and very quickly. It seemed to strike the young and healthy first. There was no vaccine or medication to stop or even slow it. And the veloc­ity of its spread was astonishing; it spread far more widely and with more ruthless efficiency than the Black Death of medieval Europe.

"So it was perhaps not surprising that spiritualism had attracted millions of adherents by 1922. For so many, the scale of the car­nage brought on by these two great calamities raised the ancient questions, and the ancient hopes. Did human personality survive death? If so, was there some way of breaching the veil. ...

" 'The subject of psychical research is one upon which I have thought more, and about which I have been slower to form an opinion, than upon any subject whatever,' Doyle had written in a small book called The New Revelation. In fact, his interest in the subject went far back, to his days as a young doctor in his twenties, in the port city of Southsea, and now spanned forty years.

"But being a reticent man, he wasn't telling the whole story. Part of his absolute conviction of the truth of human survival after death grew out of his own grief not long after the outbreak of the war, his beloved son Kingsley had given up his medical studies to join the Royal Army Medical Corps.

"Eventually, he was sent to the front, where the life span of a typical officer was a fortnight. In the Battle of the Somme, Kingsley took two bul­lets in the neck but narrowly survived, only to succumb later in a military hospital, a victim of the influenza pandemic. It was October 1918. He was twenty-five years old. For years afterward, Doyle could hardly speak his name without tears welling up in his eyes.

" 'In the presence of an agonized world,' he would soon tell his audience, 'hearing every day of the deaths of the flower of our race in the first promise of their unfulfilled youth, seeing around one the wives and mothers who had no clear conception whither their loved ones had gone to, I seemed suddenly to see that this subject with which I had so long dallied was not merely a study of a force outside the rules of science, but that it was really something tremendous, a breaking down of the walls between two worlds, a direct undeniable message from beyond.' "



Stefan Bechtel and Laurence Roy Stains


Through a Glass, Darkly: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Quest to Solve the Greatest Mystery of All


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2017 by Stefan Bechtel


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