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Number 28 in this series. Link to all items here.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes & the Medium of Naples

 “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
    —Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire (1924)

I think that modern literary criticism uses the terms “intentional fallacy" or “genetic fallacy” to describe the error of attributing the personality of a fictional character to the creator of that character. (If you know a better term, preferably in Latin or Greek, please tell me!) For example, for years after Robert Heinlein wrote his 1961 cult-classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, he complained about hippies camping outside his house; they figured that he just had to be the same sort of free-loving guru as the hero of his novel, Valentine Michael Smith. Far from it; Heinlein was a rational former naval engineer; he put up a chain-link fence with a large “Keep Out” sign and got a shotgun.

Similarly, I imagine that in the late 1800s, many readers simply assumed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had created in the character, Sherlock Holmes, somewhat of an alter-ego, a rational mind addicted to the cool empiricism of Victorian England and a skeptic when it came to the paranormal. Again, far from it. In at least three books —The New Revelation (1918), The Coming of the Fairies (1921) and The History of Spiritualism (1926)— and in his private life, Conan Doyle showed himself to be a believer in psychic phenomena, including spirit materializations and telekinesis, even attributing supernatural powers to master magician and debunker of the supernatural, Harry Houdini. Conan Doyle was almost obsessed with seances and was apparently convinced that these purported contacts with “the other side” put religion on a scientific basis. He even put some rather Thomistic words in the mouth of Holmes, his empirical master sleuth (in The Adventure of the Naval Treaty, 1893): “There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion...It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner...”. That seems to be in contrast to the Holmes passage at the top of this page, so maybe we’ll never know how Sherlock really felt.

His creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, however, was a defender of the Neapolitan medium, Eusapia Palladino, perhaps the most successful and studied medium of the turn of that century; she either produced remarkable psychic phenomena or was the greatest trickster of all. She even convinced such persons as Nobel laureate Pierre Curie and professional magician and debunker Howard Thurston, who said:

I witnessed in person the table levitations of Madame Eusapia Palladino ... and am thoroughly convinced that the phenomena I saw were not due to fraud and were not performed by the aid of her feet, knees or hands....

In the History of Spiritualism, Conan Doyle said this of Palladino:

...Either bound to a seat or firmly held by the hands of the curious, she attracts to her the articles of furniture which surround her, lifts them up, holds them suspended in the air like Mahomet's coffin, and makes them come down again with undulatory movements, as if they were obeying her will...She raps or taps upon the walls, the ceiling, the floor, with fine rhythm and cadence. In response to the requests of the spectators, something like flashes of electricity shoot forth from her body, and envelop her or enwrap the spectators of these marvellous scenes...However the facts are to be explained, the possibility of the facts I am constrained to admit. There is no further room in my mind for doubt. Any person without invincible prejudice who had had the same experience would have come to the same broad conclusion, viz.: that things hitherto held impossible do actually occur...

Eusapia Palladino was born in 1854 in a village near Bari. She was orphaned, received almost no education and was taken in as a nursemaid by a family in Naples. It was a household in which seances were held, an environment in which she is said to have demonstrated paranormal abilities, even such as to convince local skeptics from the university. Beginning in 1890 and for a period of some 20 year, she “performed” in various places in Europe, including Milan, Paris and Cambridge; in 1908 and 1910 she went to America and convinced the American Society of Psychical research that she was genuine, but not William Marriot, a professional conjurer, who declared that she was a fake. Almost all of these appearances were for—or at least in the presence ofjaded skeptics wise to the world of medium trickery and bent on exposing fraud. And so she showed off the typical seance manifestations of levitating tables, disembodied hands, audible voices, apparitions and channeling, convincing a number of unbelievers, but not others. Even her defenders admitted that she resorted to trickery occasionally when her own powers failed her.

If she was a fake, she was a good one. The Washington Post ran a feature on her (Nov. 16, 1909) and said that "she is credited with converting the eminent criminologist Cesare Lombroso to spiritualism." And The New Times (Oct. 10, 1909) devoted an entire page to a feature called "Detecting the Tricks of the Mediums" by Hereward Carrington, a prominent British investigator of psychic phenomena. He said, "...I might go on telling you of many more experiences of the same character, all of which were to my mind distinctly fraudulent. In fact, I have never until I met Eusapia Palladino come across a medium whom I did not believe fraudulent. I do believe in her...I went to Naples a skeptic, I returned convinced." A few days earlier (Oct. 6, 1909), the same NYT had critically editorialized that both...

...Prof. William James and Mr. Hereward Carrington employ their influence in raising the stock of human credulity in favor of Eusaapia Palladino, the Neapolitan medium who is about to visit these shores, with her stock of trickery and supernatural pretensions... And Prof. James quotes Mr. Carrington in evidence. But Mr. Carrington lately has put out a book upholding the theory that the food assimilated by the body does not supply its energy. From this is but a step to Prof. James theory that the universe is full of a lot of "diffuse soul stuff" which may upon occasion supply the bodily members with their motive power... It might be well for each of these authorities on psychical phenomena not to rely too implicitly on the authority of the other in convincing and winning the public to his belief. The time has almost come when to be a psychical researcher is to confess unsoundness of judgment.

Palladino died in May of 1918 after some years during which her powers were said to have decreased considerably. Her obituary in the New York Times noted merely that although “a number of her tricks had been exposed as frauds,” many former skeptics still remained convinced of her paranormal abilities. The paper noted that a document opened upon her death predicted that the Great War would end in September of 1918. She turned out to be two months off, but I don't know what that means.

I wandered the length of the street Eusapia Palladino lived on in Naples: via Benedetto Cairoli, off of via S. Antonio Abate in the San Lorenzo section of town between the main train station and the Botanical Gardens. I thought there might be some sort of plaque or other marker to indicate the house in which Europe's best-known spiritualist medium of the day had lived. There was not. I don't know what that means, either, but I'll keep trying —maybe find out where she is buried. The game is afoot!

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