Thursday, October 30, 2008

Spirit Photography and How My Grandfather Earned $20 From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
As he would have looked
at the time of the Carnegie Hall Lecture

Can you imagine the conversation between my Grandparents when my Grandfather got home from work after projecting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spirit photographs at Carnegie Hall?

We’ve all seen the spirit photographs and are quite sure we wouldn’t have been fooled, we are much more sophisticated than the general population of the 1920s. My Grandfather was a photographer, a photographer who had traveled the world with Burton Holmes; I would wager he wasn’t fooled. Not for one moment. I’ve seen some of his photographic manipulations, done for his own amusement.

So what did my Grandfather tell my Grandmother when he came home from work?

It was April 21, 1922. It was the third in a series of lectures by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, at Carnegie Hall on the after life. This lecture was “Recent Psychic Evidence,” and was illustrated with spirit photographs projected on a screen by my Grandfather, Edward Jesse Greene.

The two previous lectures by Conan Doyle had been very successful and this one would be no different. Doyle had painted a very beautiful picture of Heaven. The papers were full of the skeptics as well as the believers. This lecture tour was quite a money machine, Doyle not only selling tickets, but books as well. Even Macy’s got in on the action selling books on spiritualism.

Every seat in Carnegie Hall was filled; filled for the sake of curiosity rather than belief. Doyle prefaced his remarks about the photographs with a short talk on the nature of ectoplasm. Ectoplasm he explained was “the raw material of psychic phenomena." Ectoplasm is the material that appears in the spirit photographs; a living substance of a viscous nature projected in rods from a medium’s body.

The Pictures

The first of them displayed a white streak running from the feet of the medium to the under [art of a table at which he was sitting. At the base it was spread out, as if it had been a semi-fluid substance, which had later solidified. So long as it was dark, except for the gleam of the ectoplasm, it was impossible to push down the table which had been lifted, Sir Arthur explained, but the moment the light was turned on the table came down with a crash, showing that the ectoplasm had dissolved.

He then showed a group of men and women who are working on the spirit pictures in England. It was suggested that an attempt be made to get a spirit picture from the group, and a plate was furnished by one of them to the photographer. When the plate was developed it showed in the centre the face of the father of one of the men, who had been dead for years.

The picture of a “strange apparition,” as Sir Arthur called her, showed a mass of ectoplasm which had been built up into a face, with a mass of the material hanging from her cheek. If the exposure had lasted a little longer this would have built up into her shoulders and bust, he explained.

Nearly every one of the pictures showed this white waving mass on the plate, sometimes apparently in folds, sometimes forming an arch over the head and hanging down on one side, often ragged at the edge as if there were more material than could be used. This, Sir Arthur said, was undoubtedly the material projected in quantities from the body of the medium, so much of it that the medium frequently loses twenty pounds at a sitting. He had no doubt that if some of it were cut off the medium would die.

The picture of Lady Glenconnor was shown with the hand of her dead son rising on her shoulder. She had dreamed that this would happen, and recorded it, before going to the medium.

Another picture she had taken, however, showed a face strange to her. Later, Sir Arthur said, another couple tried to get a spirit photograph of their son without success, and a medium told them that their son had materialized in Lady Glenconnor’s picture. They went to her and recognized their boy. He had a bullet hole through his head, having been killed in the war.

‘This doesn’t mean that people are disfigured in the next world,’ said Doyle. ‘It merely is there for purposes of identification.’

When Sir Arthur went to the psychic photographer, whom he described as a religious little man, a carpenter, who did his work for almost nothing, he took his own plates and put them in the camera himself. Later he developed them himself. The first one did not show his son, but did show a bulbous mass of ectoplasm on which was written, ‘Well done, friend Doyle. I welcome you to Crewe. Greetings to all. T. Colley.

The Colley Photograph
The first experience of spirit photography by
Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle in 1919.
The 'ectoplasm' contains a personal message to

Doyle from the deceased Archdeacon Colley.

“I never met Colley,’ said Sir Arthur, ‘although I knew him as a man greatly interested in spiritualism when he was alive. I was at some pains to get a letter bearing his signature. Here it is.’

The signature thrown on the screen was almost identically that written on the psychic picture. He took another picture.

Likeness of Dead Son Shown

‘Then my son came.’ he said. ‘It is not a good likeness and shows him at about the age of sixteen or seventeen, although he died at twenty-two. These pictures show that there are certain laws on the other side which have to be obeyed. When they come the next time they are better. They must learn how to do it. You may realize, however, how consoling it was to me in any circumstances, to see my son again.’

One of the most interesting pictures was one taken by Colonel Johnson of the Indian Medical Service. It was of a ‘venerable old spirit” named Malachi, who was a ‘control’ on the their side. Colonel Johnson got a picture of him with a book under his arm, and being curious about the book wanted to know if he couldn’t get a page of the book in another picture. Then Sir Arthur showed the weirdest photograph of all.

It was a shadowy reproduction of old Malachi, so diaphanous and unreal that it seemed as if the background showed through. He was a quaint old figure, with an ancient face like a carving, so many were the lines on it and crouched as if of great age. By his side, formed out of the mass of ectoplasm, was a printed page so distinct that it could be read, but the language strange to those that tried to decipher it.

Message Written in Singalese

‘That shows how crude these spirits are.’ said Sir Arthur, sarcastically. ‘Through a medium who could hardly read they sent this strange page. It was taken all over London in an attempt to find someone who could read it, and finally at the Indian Office it was found that the page showed the first five verses of St. Mark, written in Singalese. I think the critic who can explain this has a hard row to hoe.’

The psychic pictures were tried on a Chinaman who didn’t know what it was all about, and when the plate was developed it showed a little Chinese boy beside the man.”

Asian Spirit Photograph
Discussed in Doyle's Lecture

The applause from the audience was mostly sympathetic to the photographs the New York Times called unusually weird or pathetic. Bishop Berry of Philadelphia suggest Doyle be examined by a commission in lunacy.

To the end Doyle led the spiritualism movement and promised to contact his family from the other side.

I hope my Grandfather went home, put his feet up, and had a glass of wine; he certainly earned his $20.00


DOYLE SHOWS SPIRIT PICTURES OF DEAD: Some of Men Killed in War, One Exhibiting a Bullet Hole in Head. HE DENOUNCES SKEPTICS Audience, Filling Every Seat in Carnegie Hall, Seemed to Be Sympathetic. Large Audience Curious. DOYLE SHOWS SPIRIT PICTURES OF DEAD Description of the Pictures. Mother and Dead Son Shown. Likeness of Dead Son Shown. Message Written in Singalese. (1922, April 22). New York Times (1857-Current file),p. 1. Retrieved October 20, 2008, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005) database. (Document ID: 103587028).


Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The New Revelation. New York: Akasha Publishing, LLC, 1918.

Photographing the Invisible: Practical Studies in Spirit Photography, Spirit Portraiture, and Other Rare But Allied Phenomena. Chicago: L.N. Fowler Co., 1911.


Blogger Chery Kinnick said...

As it was with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so it has been with others--wishing so hard for a thing to be true that they must create "evidence" just to see the wonderment in the eyes of others (UFOs, anyone?). It certainly doesn't hurt to pad the pocketbook at the same time. Thanks for this great story, fM!

October 30, 2008 at 4:02 PM  
Blogger Lidian said...

Thank you for another fascinating post! Your grandfather certainly deserved a glass of wine after that...I think that Doyle's father was committed to an asylum, BTW (I used to own a copy his father's reprinted diary/sketches, I seem to remember, but I haven't tracked it down).

Oh, here's the Wikipedia link...

October 31, 2008 at 7:38 AM  

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