A Most Curious Burial

The complicated life and a most curious burial of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In 2013, May 22 became Sherlock Holmes day annually to celebrate the birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known as the creator of that famous but fictional private detective.  My blog report reviews some aspects of his life, including why he was buried twice. A most curious burial!

photo of Arthur Conan Doyle from Wikipedia.com

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland to Irish Catholic parents Charles, an artist, and Mary Doyle, described by Arthur as an excellent story teller. 

Charles was also an alcoholic, possibly in response to mental health issues.  His drinking prompted Mary to send the kids to live with friends and relatives around Edinburgh for several years when Arthur was 5.  At the age of 9, his uncles paid for him to attend a Jesuit boarding school in England.

By the time he graduated from the Jesuit school to attend college, Arthur was firmly opposed to the rigid discipline and structure of religion.  As he started college, he could indulge in his passion for reading, writing, and sports.  He became the editor of a school paper while playing on school sports teams.

Introduction to deductive reasoning

Doyle began medical school at the University of Edinburgh in 1876.  This is where he learned about deductive reasoning from one of his instructors, Dr. Joseph Bell.  As you know, Dr. Bell was the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes character.

During medical school, Arthur tried different part-time jobs as a medical assistant to help support his family.  He had limited success in selling his short stories but did become a published author.  A public lecture that Doyle attended at the school was on the topic of Spiritualism, also known as psychic religion.  It promotes communicating with the dead.  While he was not an instant convert, the lecture sparked his interest and had a major impact on his life later on.

By 1880, not yet a doctor, Doyle wanted a break from studies, and signed on as the ship’s doctor for a 6-month whale hunting expedition to the Arctic.  British law required these ships to have a doctor on board, and I’m guessing a qualified doctor was not available. He also continued to write stories during the expedition.

When Arthur returned from the whaling expedition, he completed his medical studies in Edinburgh and passed the graduation exams in 1881. The expedition bug bit again, this time as the ship’s doctor for a voyage from England to Africa on the steamship Mayumba. 

After the Africa trip, Doyle set up a private medical practice in Southern England.  He had very few patients and spent much of his time writing. Arthur met his first wife, Louise when he provided medical care to her brother. They had two children together.

The beginning of a career change

In 1886, he wrote the novella that started the Sherlock Holmes craze, A Study in Scarlet.

He decided to specialize in ophthalmology in 1890, studying in Austria before returning to England to open a private ophthalmology office in London.  Once again, he could not attract any customers, and made the career move from medicine to full-time writer.

Louise was diagnosed with Tuberculosis in 1893. Arthur took measures to ease her breathing.  These included living in Switzerland for a time, then building a house in the highlands of Surrey, south of London, where they lived with their children.

Arthur continued to write in Surrey, and also met his 2d wife Jean at a party while Louise was still alive.  Doyle remained faithful to Louise until she died.  After a mourning period for Louise, he married Jean.  He bought Windlesham, a large home in nearby Sussex, so they could be close to Jean’s parents.  At both Surrey and Sussex, Doyle enjoyed writing stories and non-fiction works.  In all, Sherlock Holmes is featured in 60 stories, long and short.

Knighthood for patriotism

King Edward VII was a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but Doyle was not knighted for his fiction writing. Arthur also had a strong sense of patriotism. He volunteered as a Doctor for the British Army to spend 3 months at a field hospital in South Africa in 1900 during the Boer War. When he returned to England, Arthur wrote several publications in an effort to justify England’s participation in that conflict, earning him a knighthood.

Sir Arthur continued his prolific writing at Windlesham, but wrote far less fiction, including the Sherlock Holmes stories. Instead, he wanted to get the word out about Spiritualism. He organized a number of lecture tours internationally to do so.

Photo shows Arthur with second wife Jean and their children in 1923.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with his first wife and children

The Cottingley Fairie hoax

Sir Conan Doyle was eager to show “proof” of fairies when he wrote and lectured about Spiritualism. Unfortunately, the evidence he was looking for turned out to be fake several times. One of the hoaxes was 5 photos created by two cousins in England. Below is one of those pictures. You can see “fairies” that appear to be dancing in front of the girl.

One of the Cottingley Fairie hoax photos

When the cousins learned that the famous author was using their photos, they were too shy to go public with the truth. The secret continued long after the famous author died.

Windlesham Manor

The photo shows an exterior view of the manor, where Arthur and Jean lived for 23 years. On July 7, 1930 he was found on the floor in Windlesham. Clutching his chest due to angina, he told his wife “you are wonderful” before he died of a heart attack.

Exterior view of Windlesham Manor

A most curious burial

A funeral was held in the rose garden at Windlesham, where he was buried with the coffin upright based on his Spiritualist belief. He enjoyed writing near the rose garden, as he could see fairies frolicking in the nearby trees. His wish to be buried upright may have been to allow him to watch the trees from his grave. When Jean died in 1940, her coffin was placed upright next to his.

In 1955, Windlesham Manor was sold, necessitating removal of the coffins. This time, Jean’s wish to be buried in the graveyard at All Saint’s Church in Minstead, a small village in Hampshire County was honored. However, a compromise had to be reached. Their coffins were buried horizontally on the outer limit of the graveyard. Fittingly, a large tree has grown near their graves, so Arthur can still watch for the fairies in the tree!

Conan Doyle’s oak headstone

The photo below shows the marker for his grave in the rose garden at Windlesham Manor. It includes the words “Blade straight, Steel true”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's oak grave marker at Windlesham Manor

The final resting place

The photo below shows Arthur and Jean’s grave at All Saints Church. Note the large tree branch in the upper right corner.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) – Find a Grave Memorial

Arthur Conan Doyle Characters …

Arthur Conan Doyle | Biography, Books, Sherlock Holmes, Death, Fairies, & Facts | Britannica

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