sherlock hovers: on the edge of the unknown

by Art Chantry (

THIS is a 1922 photograph of sir arthur conan doyle with a ghost hovering over him. i wonder what conan doyle’s main literary creation – sherlock holmes – would have made of such an image? but, you have to realize that conan doyle had a great sense of humor. he was a notorious prankster (he’s often suspected of being behind the infamous ‘piltdown man’ hoax) and wrote his sherlock holmes stories as pop entertainment for the dull witted (all originally published in pop magazines as light reading.). he thought the character of sherlock holmes was silly and boorish and he tried several times to kill him off in print in order to be done with him. he actually hated writing those holmes stories. he thought they were utter crap. this arthur conan doyle was a guy who was nobody’s fool.

AC:this photo of conan doyle was taken by ada deane - a little old lady with too many cats who also was one of the most renown 'spirit' photographers of her day. numerous scientists (aka - "learned men") of the time tried again and again to debunk her but failed (she was very clever.) there were many such (in)famous 'spirit' photographers. some of their names were edward wyllie, albert schrenck-notzing, w. j. crawford, william crookes, frederick hudson, m. j. vearnacombe, annie mellon, and william hope. many many 'spirit ' photos were taken by the notorious "society for psychical research"- an organization of spiritualist investigators who were looking for 'scientific' evidence of what they already believed to be true. sometimes, all you need is a cool name to be taken seriously....

however, after arthur conan doyle lost his son and his brother in the first world war, he became a big believer in popular new ‘religion’ of ‘spiritualism’ and began to contact the dead through mediums and seances in an attempt to talk to his lost family. he even wrote a respected book about his beliefs and experiences with spirits, titled: “the edge of the unknown” (in which he spends a lot of ink debunking that other debunker of spiritualism – harry houdini.) conan doyle was a noted promoter and explorer of the occult and dedicated his later life to travel all over the world lecturing on the afterlife and the scientific evidence of it’s reality – largely through the examples of ‘spirit photography’ like i show you above. for conan doyle – this was PROOF that the spirits of the dead hover around us all the time.

you have to keep in mind what a wonder miracle photography was back when louis daguerre invented photography in 1839. the first photographs of actual dead soldiers from the battlefields of the civil war were so unnerving and downright shocking to the population (nobody had actually seen war dead before, especially in such gross detail – believe it or not) that editorialists as famous as oliver wendall holmes waxed poetic about the reality of the dead being “too much for us to actually bear witness,” and encouraged journalism to bury these photos in the back of their file cabinets. nobody had ever seen anything like them before. it was only natural that the actual process of their creation would be as mysterious and awesome as the images they produced. there are people alive today who still think that photos are, in reality, the capturing of the actual soul of the subjects. at the time of it’s invention, the most popular way of describing the actual process of photography was by comparing it to the new and modern invention of the telegraph (something that people were actually familiar with). so, the idea that souls were ‘telegraphed’ into photos made complete sense to the common popular mind. so, why not the lost souls of the dead in the spirit world, eh? it’s all SCIENCE!

photography was discovered in 1839. the ‘science’ of spiritualism was officially ‘inaugurated’ in 1848 (when the fox sisters began to talk/knock with the notorious ‘bell witch’.). and the first ‘ghost photo’ was ‘discovered’ by william mumbler in 1861. since the very beginning, ‘trick’ photography has been suckering people out of their money. the most ridiculous and obviously fake images were taken as truth by the early believers. stuff that today would be laughed out of the room actually caused shock and hysterics and wonder when shown to the public. even p. t. barnum got in on the ‘spirit photo’ biz and ‘suckered the marks”. one famous series of mysterious photos taken by a couple of young sisters showing them playing with actual fairies was taken as direct evidence of the existence of the fairy world for decades – until somebody pointed out that these ‘fairies’ were actually arthur rackham illustrations cut out of magazines and glued to the surface of the photographs. people, it seems, will believe just about anything if you tell them it’s ‘truth’.

‘trick photography’ eventually became so common that you really couldn’t believe any photo you saw at all – even at the very beginning. the wonders of cinema only added to the falsification of our shared reality as people watched movies in rapt attention and actually believed that little mice sang songs and piloted steamboats. and you know what? we still think this is true today. we’re still total suckers for just about anything some huckster is willing to put before us and say is true. yet, we seem to think that we’re so sophisticated and all that we can’t be fooled. but, we are over and over and over. we’re all such total fools. we’re living breathing suckers waiting for the next ‘con’ man (short for ‘confidence’) to come use our blind hubris against us to get us to do what he wants. witness our current politics.

flying saucers, bigfoot, loch ness monsters, aliens, ghosts, criminal behavior, crop circles, terrorist acts, weather phenomena, gigantic crops, video games, tv shows, newscasts, advertising photography, every single tv commercial blasted into our retinas, etc. etc. etc have all been faked for ever and ever. through editing and darkroom efforts and easy illusion of even simple things like movement, no image we create with this process – none of it – can be considered evidence of anything at all. but, we still bring this junk out over and over to prove our points. today’s ‘sophisticated technology’ is tomorrow’s laughing stock. i wonder what those ‘emf’ detectors and ‘high end digital voice recorders’ on the ghost hunter tv shows will be thought of in, say, 50 years? will we laugh just like we laugh at this ghost photo of arthur conan doyle?

in an age of photoshop and the computer enabled ability to alter our shared visual reality, it’s never been more imperative that we learn to distinguish fantasy from reality. yet, just the opposite seems to be happening. we have never believed MORE in the unbelievable. unpleasant actual REALITY is dism

d as falsehood. in one of his movies woody allen describes mental illness as “neurotics build dream houses – psychotic move into them.” haven’t we all moved into our dream houses at this point? is anything we accept out there actually REAL? it’s frightening to think about. we all live in a cheaply faked photo passing for existence. and we love it.

this crummy fakery was good enough to fool sherlock holmes!


AC:you ALWAYS have to take these things in the context of their time. photography back then was a big cumbersome complicated (smelly and dangerous) activity that involved lots of equipment and chemical processes and working in complete darkness. what’s even better is that they used glass plates – and constantly cleaned and then re-used the same plates – over and over. it  was an extremely simple task to leave an image on a glass plate leftover from the time before and simply let it ‘ghost’ into the image as you print it. i imagine the first time this happened (due to sloppy cleaning) it was a bit of a surprise, but any photographer would understand what happened. but, then, actually using this error to make ‘spirit’ photos is a total fraud (and strangely – a fraud that other photographers didn’t spill the beans on. “like protects like?”). lots money to be made in fraud. witness our political/ economic system….

… i also love the composition of this conan doyle shot. the ghost is beautifully placed just above center. conan doyle is placed down and to the left, so the ghost can command center stage and look like a ‘thought balloon’ – just like the style convention familiarized in the newly popular funny pages of the era. so, even the composition points to popular fakery. there’s nothing unanticipated or natural about any of this. if you look close enough you can see the cut lines….

…a friend sent me this correction: Since I am a huge fan of The Bell Witch, I thought you might want to know that “Kate” (Bell Witch) only haunted the Bell Family in Adams County Tennessee back in 1817. The Fox sisters were located in western New York State and didn’t begin hearing their rappings until 1848. The Fox sisters were never associated with Kate, the Bell Witch. The Bell Witch haunted only those who were associated with the Bell Family….

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