Spirits, Levitation and Sherlock Holmes.

You wouldn’t know it now but back in the heyday of the 1920’s Winnipeg, the Chicago of the North, was a hotbed of spiritual investigation.

Ectoplasam at a Hamilton seance – Note the image of Doyle suspended in the ectoplasm 2 years after his death. (Photo – June 27,1932)

Thanks in part to advances in photography and scientific method a number of dedicated and learned people began serious inquiry into the possibility of life after death.  One Winnipeg physician in particular stood out in this realm of inquiry. Dr Thomas Hamilton, a member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly and president of the Manitoba Medical Association, began investigating a strange phenomena after encountering his neighbour,  Mrs. Elizabeth Poole.

Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton

It seems that Mrs. Poole had the ability to move objects with her mind alone and commune with the spirits of the dead.  It intrigued him so much that he held meetings at his home calling them “A circle for psychical research”, where the believers in the supernatural would gather to witness the unexplained.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Among the believers in the power from beyond was none other than Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  It seems at first glance that the man who created the world’s most recognized detective would hardly be a person to believe in what most people today would consider completely false.  But we must recognize the age in which spiritualism arose, the world had just emerged from the greatest war humankind had ever known.  The world economy was roaring and people needed diversion.  Harry Houdini performed feats of magic and bravery before spellbound audiences in packed theatres across the United States and Canada.

Harry Houdini

Radio was in its infancy, and television had yet to be invented. Thanks to advances in travel the world was opening up in ways never imagined.  Why not explore the realm of the para-normal.  In 1923 Doyle came to Winnipeg and participated in a time of study into spiritual phenomena.  Upon joining Dr. Hamilton’s circle he had this to say about a séance in Winnipeg:

“The circle, which contained ten persons, including my wife and myself, placed their hands, or one hand each, upon a small table, part of which was illuminated by phosphorous so as to give some light. It was violently agitated, and this process was described as ‘charging it’. It was then pushed back into a small cabinet made of four hung curtains with an opening in front. Out of this the table came clattering again and again entirely on its own, with no sitter touching it…  like a restless dog in a kennel, springing, tossing, beating up against the supports, and finally bounding out with a velocity which caused me to get quickly out-of-the-way”

Elsewhere other Canadian minds were using scientific methodology in an attempt to explain the rash of seemingly unexplainable events going on in darkened parlours across the countryside.  Dr. Samuel A. Akroyd, great-grandfather to Ghostbuster Dan Akroyd, told tales of ghostly events as a psychic investigator along with the family medium Walter Ashurst.  The family tales told through the generations became the seed from which Ghostbusters would emerge.

Dan Akroyd in Ghostbusters

Even today there are places in Winnipeg one should not go to alone at night.  The Masonic Temple on Ellice Ave has been long rumoured to be home to a poltergeist of sorts.  Having personally been in the upper floors after dark, I can attest to the distinct sense of being watched or followed.   Workers who were renovating the upper floors told me of strange events and noises that seemed to confirm the decades old rumours.

Masonic Temple (Photo Bryan Scott – Winnipeg: love and hate)

The Fort Garry Hotel, Room 202 is also the site of repeated unexplained phenomena.  Reportedly a young woman committed suicide in the room and her spirit haunts guests as a spectre floating above the bed or walking the halls.

Fort Garry Hotel

Perhaps in our technological age we have lost touch with the simplicity of a levitating table or photos of ectoplasm.  But when the lights go out, the wind picks up and a gnarled tree branch scratches across our windows on a dark moonless night.  All it takes is the slightest movement out of the corner of our eye to conjure up our darkest fears driving the bravest of us under the covers praying for a safe return to dawn.

Maybe Hamilton and Doyle had it right after all, maybe there is something lurking just beyond the veil that separates the living and the dead. Something that craves a little taste of humanity, something that longs to feel warm and alive once more.

Happy Halloween.

Authors Note: For more on Harry Houdini and spiritualism check out my next post.  Harry Houdini: The Mythbuster of his age.

8 responses to “Spirits, Levitation and Sherlock Holmes.

  1. What an awesome post! As a huge Ghostbusters fan, I am saddened to say that I was not aware of that little tidbit of info regarding Dr. Aykroyd. Bad Ghostbusters fan…bad! I’m with you on the simpler things being creepier than the more advanced technologies…our imaginations can conjure up greater scares than anything a computer can produce.

    • Hi Suze, Glad you liked it, took forever to do the research on this one. It’s not very easy finding serious information regarding spiritualism in 1920’s Winnipeg.

      Actually now that you mention Ghostbusters. It was actually a radio interview that I heard with Dan and and his father Peter Akroyd in which which they discussed the family’s history, that my interest was piqued.

      I know that as soon as you move north the simple things will come to mean a great deal to you. Isolation and the stark beauty of the landscape tend to do that to people. The only difference being if you hear scratching on your windows it’s not a tree branch it’s probably a polar bear looking for a snack.

      Glad you enjoyed my Halloween offering! BOO

  2. Sir Arthur Conan came out to Australia in the 1920s lecturing about spiritualism too. Houdini tried very hard to persuade him the people who participated in seances and “produced” ectoplasm were charlatans but he really wanted to believe and could not be convinced otherwise.

    Great photo of the Masonic Temple.

    • Yes, actually I was originally planning on putting a little more on the Houdini/Doyle connection in my post but found that what I wrote started to take away from the whole point of what I was writing.

      You quite correctly state that Houdini believed the whole spiritualism/seance scene was nothing but simple parlour tricks that he could easily reproduce. I know that Houdini was actually in Winnipeg around the time of the Hamilton Circles but I can’t seem to find any proof that he engaged in any debunking here. Perhaps if I can find any more on this angle I will write an addendum in his honour. If you find anything please forward it to me via my e-mail.

      The photo of the Masonic Temple was taken by local photographer Bryan Scott and resides on his website.


      Thanks for stopping by Nurse Myra, Happy Halloween!!

  3. Hey Bob! I love the post, but what a great title!!! You’re really getting to be the master of excellent titles.

    • Well you know 90% of the hook is in the title. I figure if I have a great opening then most of what I write can be complete crap cause I have the person there already.

      You know you’re not too shabby in the title department either. Oh and in case you read this I have a whole bag of Hawkins Cheezies for halloween to give out. Want me to send you a bag or 3?? Let me know.

  4. Nice Halloween post! And I also had no idea about the history of “Ghostbusters”!

    Very very interesting! Thanks!