I’m outlining the next novel in my Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries series. Those who have read either Help for the Haunted or Guilt Is a Ghost know that Vera and her “Dr. Watson,” Lida Bergson, occasionally cross paths with real people, from Harry Houdini to Dr. William James. In this upcoming story, the ghost-hunting, mystery-solving duo take a train trip from Kansas to Colorado with none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Indeed, Conan Doyle made that trip in spring of 1923. He had long abandoned writing Holmes adventures and was on his second tour of the United States, lecturing in major cities and promoting Spiritualism. On his first tour, the previous year, he only made it as far west as Chicago, but this time, he crossed the Rockies, reached the West Coast, turned north, and returned east through Canada.
He chronicled the journey in Our Second American Adventure (1924), and I found a good deal on a used copy. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t provide spectific dates. It does say, though, that Conan Doyle’s family left Chicago to spend some time in Colorado Springs while the author stopped off for appearances in St. Louis and then Kansas City. After stating few general impressions of Kansas City, he mentions meeting with “a Mrs. Randall” to discuss her near-death/out-of-body/astral-projection experience.
Next, he discusses the train trip on which he met — or, I should say, will have met — Vera and Lida, who are in the region, working on a case that has strange parallels to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle writes: “It was a long journey now, a clear twenty-four hours, to Colorado Springs, and it marked the dividing line of my tour, for I was at last well over the border and in the real west of the States. Kansas is a beatiful dominion, and we rolled all day through a land of rich farms until the enclosures at last vanished and it was real prairie around us. . . .” This trip ends in Colorado Springs, where he rejoins his family, stays at the Antlers Hotel, gives a lecture that evening, and departs for Denver the next day (via motor-car).
Now, here’s the mystery: when did that train trip from Kansas City to Colorado Springs occur?
This is what I know: In Denver, Conan Doyle bumped into Harry Houdini. Apparently, it was an accidental meeting. There’s very little information about it in Our Second American Adventure other than Houdini had his wife with him and they were coming back from California. In an odd reversal, the famously sceptical magician “seemed to have been impressed by some photographs which he had himself taken in Los Angeles and which showed psychic effects,” Conan Doyle explains, adding, “I did not, however, find them very convincing.” The Conan Doyles went to Houdini’s show in the evening. That’s all we get.
Unless we turn to Houdini’s A Magician Among the Spirits (1924). Now, we have a date. While they were both in Denver, Conan Doyle wrote Houdini a note dated May 9, 1923, and the letterhead shows he had written it at the Brown Palace Hotel. Soon afterward, Houdini continued east as Conan Doyle continued west.
A ship called the Olympic had delivered the great author to New York on April 3, and the Adriatic would carry him back to Britain on August 4. But when did that long train ride from Kansas City to Colorado Springs occur? Late April? Early May? Is it possible to pinpoint the actual day?
I’ve done my best detective work with the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, finding several articles about Conan Doyle making some rather provokative pronouncements, presumably to draw attention to his Spiritualist cause. (Really, Sir Arthur? Radio contact with the dead within in four years?) But I haven’t found anything helpful in solving the railway mystery noted above.
Any help would be very much appreciated. The game’s afoot!