31 Mar 2016
While Conan Doyle never used Sherlock to promote his Spiritualist beliefs, there were those who used the detective as a way of taking the movement down a peg. The events at a typical séance described below were exaggerated for comic purposes, but not by much. This Conan Doyle spiritualism parody was published in the March 29 issue of London Opinion, a magazine that targeted a male readership with its mix of serious and satirical articles. It ran for 50 years, and was most famous for creating the “Lord Kitchener Needs You” recruitment poster that appeared on its cover. It was quickly adopted by James Montgomery Flagg, who substituted Uncle Sam for the renowned general.
When the Spirits Rapped
A Nasty Incident in the Career of Sherlog Combes
Sherlog Combes sat in his study, wrapped in thought and a Jaeger dressing-gown.
He was conscious that he was growing old. “In my younger days,” he mused, “I should never have bought that purse from that race-course swindler for half-a-crown and expected to find the three half-crowns in it. But with regard to the three-card trick in the train coming back, I really had bad luck in losing my tenner. I thought the manipulator was doing the trick so clumsily that he was exposing which was the lady. But I was wrong.
“However,” he ran on in his reverie, “when Dr. Potson calls on me again—and I suppose he will, although he has left me severely alone of late—I shall have something startling to tell him of my discoveries about the spirit world.”
Here the ancient sleuth picked up his weekly copy of The Styx, a journal devoted to spirits (the medium brand, not the strong), and his eye caught the following announcement:
“SPIRITS! SPIRITS! SPIRITS!—PROFESSOR TRIXTER (the World’s Most Famous Medium) will hold a séance at 3.0 sharp. How would you like to talk to Julius Caesar? Admission. One shilling.”
Two hours later he was being carried rapidly in a luxurious sixty horse-power automobile (the property of the General Omnibus Company), and soon afterwards reached the flat in Bloomsbury where the séance was to take place.
The flat had the appearance of having been selected in a great hurry. It was unfurnished and dirty. A large room on an upper floor had been prepared for the ceremony by the simple expedient of darkening the window, and improvising seats out of soap boxes and planks.
Sherlog Combes was admitted by a hefty individual whose appearance alone would have quenched the ardour of a less enthusiastic investigator. He found a number of famous people already assembled, including two lady novelists, a Labour M.P., and Professor Foljambe, F.R.S., the eminent zoologist who had discovered the fallacy of the theory that it is impossible to say “Boo” to a goose.
The medium opened the proceedings by a brief lecture on the objects of the séance, spoken with a pronounced American accent. Then he seated himself in the only chair the room contained, and his hefty assistant proceeded to tie him up with much grunting and straining over every knot.
The visitors were requested to sit on the improvised forms, and to take each other’s hands. There was a slight diversion owing to Sherlog Combes sitting on a nail that had been left in one of the soap boxes. When all was ready the assistant switched out the lights.
For a few moments absolute silence ensued. Then a banjo thrummed once. As if this were a signal, a regular spiritual jazz band struck up. The room was filled with a medley of strange sounds. Instruments more or less musical seemed to be floating about in space, and twice Sherlog’s bald head was smitten by a tambourine. Then the noise died away as suddenly as it had begun, and the watchers became aware of a shadowy phosphorescent figure standing before them.
“Who are you?” asked a voice.
“I guess Julius Caesar’s my label, stranger,” replied the apparition; and then added, rather inconsequently, “Take away that bauble!”
The illustrious Roman appeared to be a talkative spirit. He remained chatting for about ten minutes, during which time he gave a racy description of his landing in England in the year 1066 at the head of the Invincible Armada, and his defeat of the Britishers under the Duke of Marlborough at the battle of Bannockburn. Then he began to grow more shadowy and less phosphorescent, and ended by vanishing altogether.
“Keep you seats, ladies and gentlemen!” urged the hefty assistant. “There are more marvels to come!”
Again the banjo twanged, and several sharp raps rang out from the region of the door. Then once again there was silence. For fully a quarter of an hour the assembly sat and waited, but nothing else happened.
“Oh, dear, I am so frightened!” cried one of the lady novelists.
“Why don’t they switch on the lights if it’s all over?” demanded Professor Foljambe.
It was the Labour M.P. who first took action. Freeing his hands from the grip of his neighbour’s, he plunged for the electric switch. The next instant the room was flooded with light.
In the centre stood the solitary chair, empty now, with the cords hanging limply upon it; but of the medium and his hefty assistant there was no trace.
“Strange!” murmured Sherlog.
He felt somewhat shaken, and longed for the soothing influence of a cigarette. His hand sought for the handsome gold presentation case he invariably carried, but to his surprise neither that nor anything else appeared to be in his pockets. He glanced at his companions, and noted the same bewildered expression on every face.
“What does it mean?” he asked, helplessly.
It was Professor Foljambe who took upon himself to answer. “It means,” he said in solemn accents, “that all our valuables have been spirited away!”
“Good gracious!” said Sherlog, “I hope Dr. Potson never gets to hear of this.”
[Back]Jaeger dressing-gown: Clothing consisting of animal fibers such as wool. Dr. Gustav Jaeger (1832-1917) theorized that humans would be healthier if they wore natural animal fibers next to the skin. This created a demand for wool-jersey long johns, which in England was fulfilled by “Dr. Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Co. Ltd.,” founded in 1884 by businessman Lewis Tomalin, who acquired the rights from the doctor. Jaeger is still in business and known for its classic “twinset and pearls” image and natural-fiber clothing.
[Back]Three half-crowns: A “short-con” popular at race courses along with the three-card Monte game described below. From the back of his wagon, a hustler would attract a crowd by offering to sell a small leather purse at an distinctly low price. He would then sweeten the deal by placing a coin in the purse and sell both. The hustler would palm the coin and replace it with a brass slug. Amazingly, these purses sold well.
[Back]Which was the lady: Combs was playing three-card Monte, a guessing game in which the dealer displays three cards, one of them a queen, turns them over, rearranges them and invites bettors to guess where the queen was. In this scam, the dealer arranges with a confederate to lose a couple of games and clumsily shuffles the cards, leading the mark to believe that he can win.
[Back]The Styx: Probably a play on Light, a Spiritualist magazine that published Conan Doyle’s articles. The Styx is a river in Greek mythology that marks the boundary between Earth and the Underworld.
[Back]F.R.S.: Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. What began in 1660 as a way for physicians and natural philosophers to meet and share knowledge grew to become a significant authority on scientific matters.
[Back]Boo to a goose: An idiom that implies that the person is shy. Given the geese’s reputation for viciousness, one wonders if this isn’t just good sense.