Copyright © 1999 Daniel Stashower. All rights reserved.
The Empty Chair
I have learned never to ridicule any mans opinion,
As many as six thousand people crowded into London's RoyalAlbert Hall that night, while hundreds more were turned away at thedoors. Inside the great hall, men in evening dress and ladies in longgowns found their seats and whispered excitedly to one another.They had come to see and hear Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, perhaps themost beloved author of his generation, and he was expected todeliver startling news.
In most respects, the gathering was no different from the hundredsof lectures Conan Doyle had given in such places as Paris,New York, Melbourne, and Capetown. On this particular night,however, the sense of anticipation was especially intense. The reasonwas simple: Conan Doyle had died five days earlier at his homein Crowborough.
Even so, expectations remained high. Conan Doyle's death,according to the beliefs he himself passionately espoused, would notnecessarily prohibit his appearance on the lecture platform that evening.At the time of his passing on July 8, 1930, Conan Doyle hadlong been established as the world's best-known and most outspokenproponent of spiritualism, the belief that the dead communicatewith the living through an earthly conduit, or medium. Forfourteen years Conan Doyle had devoted the better part of his time,energy, and resources to this cause, which he often described as "themost important thing in the world." For those who found comfortand meaning in his beliefs, he was "the Saint Paul of spiritualism."For those who did not, he was a sad and deluded old man who hadsquandered his greatness. The Albert Hall memorial, many believed,would settle the issue once and for all.
Sir Arthur's widow, Lady Jean Conan Doyle, entered the hallaccompanied by her sons, Denis and Adrian, her daughter, Jean, andher stepdaughter, Mary. Denis and Adrian wore evening dress andcarried top hats. Lady Conan Doyle, in keeping with the beliefs sheshared with her husband, had chosen a dress of gray lace ratherthan traditional mourning garb, to signify that Sir Arthur's "translation"to the other side was not an occasion for sorrow. "I know perfectlywell that I am going to have conversations with my father,"Adrian Conan Doyle had told the press at his father's funeral. "Weshall miss his footsteps and his physical presence, but that is all.Otherwise he might have only gone to Australia."
At the edge of the lecture platform, a row of chairs was set out forthe family. A square of cardboard held one of them in reserve. Itread: "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." Lady Conan Doyle sat to the left ofher husband's chair, just as she had for twenty-three years at nearlyall of the many lectures, meetings, and other assemblies to whichher husband lent his name and influence. This gathering, she hadconfided to a friend, would be the last public demonstration shewould ever attend with her husband.
Conan Doyle's chair would have been the only empty seat in thehouse. Some accounts estimated the size of the crowd at ten thousand,though this would have seriously strained the hall's capacity.Extra seats had been set up to accommodate some of the overflow.
As the audience settled, Mr. George Craze of the MaryleboneSpiritualist Association stepped to the microphone to open the proceedings.He offered a few words of welcome, then read out a writtenstatement from Lady Conan Doyle. "I want in my children's, andmy own and my beloved husband's name, to thank you all from myheart for the love for him which brought you here tonight," her messagestated. However, she continued, she wished to correct an erroneousimpression that Sir Arthur's materialized form was expectedto appear in the empty chair. "At every meeting all over the world Ihave sat at my beloved husband's side, and at this great meeting,where people have come with respect and love in their hearts to dohim honour, his chair is placed, as I know that in psychic presencehe will be close to me, although our earthly eyes cannot see beyondthe earth's vibration. Only those with the God-given extra sight,called clairvoyance, will be able to see the dear form in our midst."
Ernest Hunt, a spiritualist colleague of Conan Doyle's, added aforceful elaboration. Pointing to the vacant chair, Hunt warned thatit would be "a very trifling thing if any people here with hecticimagination were to persuade themselves imaginatively that theycould see Sir Arthur's form there. Nor would it be to me of surprisingworth that some gifted clairvoyant could see the form. But itwould be a great thing for you to see in the vacant chair a symbol ofGod's call to you to qualify for being Doyle's successors."
These words, however heartfelt, did little to quell the mood ofcharged expectancy. Since the first reports of Conan Doyle's deaththere had been a wave of heated speculation about his possiblereturn. "Widow Indicates Hope of Message," declared a front-pageheadline in the New York Times. "Return of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle'sSpirit Awaited by Widow and Sons," reported the New York American.London's Daily Herald gave details of a secret code wordConan Doyle had left with his wife, to prove the veracity of anyspirit contact.
If Lady Conan Doyle clung to the hope of a message, however, shebelieved that such communication could only come through a"spirit sensitive." The notion that her husband's materialized formwould suddenly pop into view arose from a series of ambiguousstatements made by Conan Doyle's spiritualist colleagues. "I shouldimagine that he would be quite capable of demonstrating already,"declared one of the organizers of the Albert Hall event. "He wasquite prepared for his passing."
After five days of such statements, the attempt to inject a note ofmoderation had come too late. Throughout the hall eyes were kepttrained on the empty chair beside Lady Conan Doyle, hoping forsome telltale indication of an otherworldly presence.
For a time, the evening proceeded like any other memorial service.Friends and colleagues rose to pay tribute, hymns were sung,and passages of Scripture were read. A telegram from the prominentphysicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who shared Conan Doyle's spiritualistbeliefs, praised the author's unwavering dedication: "Ourgreat-hearted champion will soon be continuing his campaign onthe other side with added wisdom and knowledge," adding, "Sursumcorda!"lift up your hearts.
After nearly an hour, the more conventional portion of the servicedrew to a close. George Craze returned to the microphone and askedthe audience to stand for two minutes of silent reflection. "The completenessof the silence," wrote one journalist, "was unforgettable."
As the congregants took their seats, Craze stepped forward onceagain. "This evening," he began, "we are going to make a very daringexperiment with the courage implanted in us by our late leader. Wehave with us a spirit sensitive who is going to try to give impressionsfrom this platform. One reason why we hesitate to do it in such acolossal meeting as this is that it is a terrific strain on the sensitive.In an assembly of ten thousand people a tremendous force is centeredupon the medium. Tonight, Mrs. Roberts will try to describesome particular friends, but it will be the first time this has beenattempted in such a tremendous gathering. You can help with yourvibrations as you sing the next hymn, `Open My Eyes.'"
Mrs. Estelle Roberts stepped to the front of the platform as thelast notes of the hymn faded. A slimly built, fluttery woman withdark hair and large brown eyes, Mrs. Roberts stood at the microphonefor several moments wringing her hands. Her anxious, ditheryappearance belied a canny flair for the dramatic. She had been afavorite medium of Conan Doyle's before his departure for the spiritplane, and he had remarked more than once on her "mesmerizingpresence."
In one sense, George Craze had been correct to call the evening adaring experiment. Mrs. Roberts had been called upon to make contactwith departed soulsConan Doyle's among them. In so doing,she would also attempt to make believers out of skeptics. Thoughspiritualism was by no means uncommon in 1930, it was generallypracticed in the darkened confines of the séance room. There, underconditions set by the medium, one might expect to see tambourinesfloating in the air, or ghostly messages appearing on chalk slates, orany number of other discarnate effects taken to signify spirit contact.Under the bright lights of the Albert Hall, there would be no floatingtambourines. Instead, Mrs. Roberts would be expected to standbefore the microphone and pluck spirit messages out of the ether,apparently at random, and deliver them to individuals in the crowd.Any evidence of otherworldly phenomena, then, would show itselfsolely in the force of her spoken testimony.
The mesmerizing presence that had so impressed Conan Doylewas not immediately apparent. For some time, Mrs. Roberts didnothing more than rock back and forth on her heels, and soon thesounds of coughing and restless movement could be heard fromthe audience. At this, she appeared to gather her resolve. Shieldingher eyes like a sailor on lookout, Mrs. Roberts swept her eyesover the gallery, tiers, and boxes. Her attention fixed not on the facesof 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."
With that, she launched into a long unbroken monologue, apparentlydescribing a series of spirits whom only she could see. "Allaround was a great concourse of spirit people anxious to communicatewith their friends," she would later write. "For half an hour,by means of clairvoyance, I relayed their messages to individualsamong the mass of people in the hall."
In fact, she did more than relay messages. She described the featuresof the departed spirits, along with their characteristics, theirmethod of speech, and even their clothes. The audience sat in raptattention as she related tales of whole families reunited in the spiritworld, then pointed out their loved ones in the crowd. "There wassomething uncanny," one journalist noted, "in the sight of ten thousandpeople sitting in the Albert Hall, half afraid, yet half hopingthat they might be singled out."
"There is a gentleman over there with hardly any hair," said Mrs.Roberts, pointing to a man in the gallery. "Yes, there! That's right. Isee standing there in front of you, a spirit form of a young soldier."She peered into the lights, as if for a better view.
"He looks to be about twenty-four. In khaki uniform. Upright. Well-built.Mouth droops a little at the corners. He passed suddenly."Mrs. Roberts angled her head, as though listening to a soft voice.
"He gives me 1916 as the year of passing. He distinctly calls you`Uncle.' `Uncle Fred.'"
The man in the gallery stiffened, and nodded that the details werecorrect.
"He speaks of a brother Charles," she continued. "Is that correct?He wants to know if you have Aunty Lillian with you. Do youunderstand?"
From his seat, the man nodded more vigorously.
"The boy tells me that there is a little anxiety going on, and wantsme to tell you he is helping you. He" Abruptly, as if pushed byunseen hands, Mrs. Roberts broke off her discourse and took a fewlurching steps across the stage. She turned to an empty space on theplatform behind her. "All right," she said, as though addressing alarge and unruly knot of people. "All right."
She turned back to the audience and pointed to a woman seatedin one of the boxes. "There is a gentleman here, John Martin. Hesays he is looking for his daughter Jane. Correct?"
The woman in the box confirmed that her name was Jane, andthat her late father's name had been John Martin. Mrs. Roberts continued."He has got her mother, Mary Martin, with him. Little Willieis with them. Also your sister Mary. Your sister-in-law Elizabeth iswith him. You understand?" Mrs. Roberts opened her mouth to continue,then pitched forward as though shoved by invisible hands."All right!" she said, glaring at the empty space behind her. "Just aminute!" She turned to the front of the platform, gathered herself,and carried on.
Then as now, opinions differed sharply as to whether such revelationswere produced by psychic means or by more earthbound contrivancessuch as audience confederates and careful vetting ofpotential contacts. The crowd at the Albert Hall consisted mostly ofthose sympathetic to spiritualist phenomena, and at least one ofthose who received a message was himself a practicing medium. Toa large extent, it seems fair to say, Mrs. Roberts was preaching to theconverted.
But the audience also held a fair number of nonbelievers who hadcome only to pay tribute to Conan Doyle. "It was either an amazingproof of communication with the dead," said one skeptic, "or it wasthe most cold-blooded and cruel fraud." A reporter from the SaturdayReview was more blunt: "I should like to have heard SherlockHolmes examining the medium at the Albert Hall last Sunday, forthe methods that were employed were hardly reminiscent of BakerStreet. Indeed, far from satisfying Holmes, I doubt if the evidencewould even have been good enough for Watson."
After half an hour or so, the nonbelievers could no longer suppresstheir irritation. From various parts of the hall, some forty orfifty people rose from their seats and headed for the exits. From theplatform, Mrs. Roberts registered her distress: "I can't go on with allthese people walking out," she announced. A blast of organ musicrang out to cover the confusion, and for a few moments it appearedthe memorial might come to a premature end.
At that moment, however, just as the meeting threatened todisband in an atmosphere of disarray, Sir Arthur Conan Doylemade his appearance. "He is here!" Mrs. Roberts shouted. "He ishere!" The skeptics stopped in their tracks. All eyes locked on theempty chair.
Later, Mrs. Roberts would claim that Conan Doyle had been onthe platform all along: "I saw him first during the two minutes'silence," she would recall. "Then when I was giving my messages Isaw him again. He was wearing evening dress. He walked across theplatform and sat in the empty chair. He was behind me, encouragingme while I was doing my work. I recognized once more that fine,clear voice of his, which could not be mistaken."
Whatever one's opinion of her psychic abilities, Mrs. Roberts'stiming could not be faulted. Her announcement galvanized theaudience. From the farthest reaches of the house, people strainedfor a better view of the empty chair.
A serene smile spread across Lady Conan Doyle's features. Mrs.Roberts stepped over to her side. "I have a message for you, dear,from Arthur," she said. Lady Conan Doyle gave a nod.
"Sir Arthur told me that one of you went into the hut this morning,"Mrs. Roberts said, referring to a building on the family'sCrowborough estate. "Is that correct?"
"Why, yes," said Lady Conan Doyle. "I did."
Mrs. Roberts nodded, and leaned forward. "The message is this:Tell Mary"
Just then a second blast from the pipe organ drowned out themedium's voice, so that only those sitting nearby could hear. Mrs.Roberts spoke for some moments, while Conan Doyle's family listenedintently. Occasionally one of his sons would lean forward toadd a word of explanation or clarification. Lady Conan Doyle simplysat and listened.
For the rest of her life, Lady Conan Doyle would decline to discussthe contents of the message, saying only that she was perfectlyconvinced it had come from her husband. "I am as sure of that," shetold a reporter that night, "and of the fact that he has been here, as Iam that I am speaking to you."
Her sincerity was evident as she sat listening to the words ofthe medium. For several moments she sat perfectly still, her featuresradiant, her eyes fixed on a point at the far end of the hall. Sheheld her gaze for several moments, then brushed her cheek andlooked away.