What do Sherlock Holmes and speaking to the dead have in common? The answer is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited Perth in 1921 as part of a world tour.
But he wasn’t here to plug his books. Instead, Conan Doyle wanted to talk about his latest obsession, spiritualism. And His Majesty’s was packed out for the lunchtime event, with almost everyone in the audience being female. But we’ll come back to that.
Conan Doyle briefly sketched out the history of contacting the deceased, announcing that anyone who denied the existence of life after death was “either ignorant or a moral coward”. Certainly, the audience were receptive to the idea.
Especially when the speaker mentioned that his good friend, the brilliant scientist Oliver Lodge, had talked with the boys who had been killed in World War I. Every person in the audience had either lost a son or a husband in that conflict, or knew someone who had. Their bodies might not have been brought home, but now someone was offering a chance to say farewell.
“That,” said Sir Arthur from the stage, “is the message we have tried to give Australian mothers.” Mothers. Conan Doyle clearly knew who his audience was.
He had even spoken to his own dead son, Kingsley, who died in 1918 from the flu epidemic which raged across the world. A medium had relayed the words to Conan Doyle, who discovered that Kingsley was happy in the afterlife, and he even felt the touch of his son on his forehead.
How much excitement would that have created in an audience of mothers? An undoubtable, serious writer was proclaiming the very real possibility of once again speaking with lost children. How many tried and failed after this, we will never know.
There is no doubting Conan Doyle’s sincerity. He was no con artist, and was prepared to face ridicule for promoting his beliefs. Many of his friends tried to discourage him, not least Harry Houdini, the famous escapologist. But for Sir Arthur, this would mean giving up the belief he had finally said goodbye to his own son.
Speaking to the WWI dead is not usually thought of as part of Anzac history, but it fully deserves a small place in the tales to be told about 1914 to 1918.