Friday, 8 October 2010

The Case of the Phantom Polaroid

This article appeared in Fortean Times No 261, a special issue dated April 2010, pp.64-65. The issue had a number of articles related to photography, and included my review of Melvyn Willin’s Ghosts Caught on Film 2.

After the publication of the article I obtained a copy of Robin Foy’s monumental Witnessing the Impossible, described as “the definitive story of the Scole Experimental Group”, which contains an account of every séance it held. The session which produced the Conan Doyle image about which I had written is described on p.111 (it is unfortunate that such a large book – xvi+560pp – does not have an index, though there is an appendix listing new phenomena, with dates). It took place on Friday 13 January 1995 with the entire Scole group present.

The entry surprisingly says that two images of Conan Doyle were obtained, “one of which was clear and upright, with the other being more blurred and sideways on.” Which one is reproduced in Grant and Jane Solomon’s The Scole Experiment is unclear (they refer to the Conan Doyle picture on p.60 but only do not say that there was another one). If Foy is referring to the positioning of the face, the one published would be the first, which is full face rather than in profile, and anyway it seems reasonable that they would have chosen the better of the two for publication, though it is an exaggeration to call it “clear”.

Foy reproduces exactly the same version as in the Solomons’ book as Plate 3, but does not specify which of the two it was either. Curiously the appendix merely says “Photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”, suggesting that there was only one image. As far as I am aware the other picture, if it still exists, has not been published.

The article below is as it appeared in FT, except that the published version included references within the text to previous FT articles on the Scole Experimental Group and Ted Serios, turned my own embedded references into footnotes (with TinyURL links), and put the reference to the SPR’s Scole Report as a separate “See also...”. The FT article included Gates’s painting and an enlargement of the picture in the Solomons’ book, cropping the latter slightly. The picture above is my own attempt to recreate the Scole image, manipulating the painting digitally.

The Case of the Phantom Polaroid

Tom Ruffles offers a possible identity for a supposedly unknown image of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle obtained during a Norfolk séance.

Roger Straughan’s recent book A Study in Survival: Conan Doyle Solves the Final Problem mentions a Polaroid photo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which was obtained during a séance held by the Scole Experimental Group in 1995 (Straughan, 2009, p.136). This was a circle that met for séances at Scole, Norfolk, led by Robin and Sandra Foy. Robin Foy had also formed an organisation called the Noah’s Ark Society for Physical Mediumship (NAS) in 1990.

The photograph of Conan Doyle was reproduced in The Scole Experiment by Grant and Jane Solomon (1999, opposite p53). Straughan was intrigued by it as he did not recognise the source. He asked the late Montague Keen, an investigator from the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and co-author of an extensive report on Scole published by the SPR, if the picture had been identified by the Group. Keen said that it hadn’t. Nor was a friend of Straughan’s, who was knowledgeable about Conan Doyle and to whom he showed it, able to match it to an existing photograph.

This was significant, because if the Scole Polaroid did not correspond to a photograph of Conan Doyle taken during his lifetime, the implication was that it was a post-mortem portrait impressed on the Polaroid, and therefore evidence of Conan Doyle’s survival of death. As Straughan says: “So if fakery of any kind had been involved (as sceptics will always maintain in such cases), where did the original come from which the fake picture would have had to use?”

While reviewing Straughan’s book (Ruffles 2010), I felt that I had managed to trace the source of the Scole image, not to an existing photograph but to a painting. I thought that the original was a portrait painted in 1927 by Henry L Gates and owned by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG4115). It was not a straight copy, however, but had been manipulated by being reversed and closely cropped, converted to black and white and degraded.

I put this theory to Straughan and we had a friendly discussion during which he said that he and his colleague had considered the painting but had dismissed it as not bearing enough similarity to the Scole picture. He naturally asked me how I felt the alterations had been achieved, and I offered a suggestion, while acknowledging that manipulation, if that is what had occurred, could have been done by other means. My way would require access to a darkroom to reverse the picture.

The method I suggested to Straughan would be to take a reproduction (perhaps a postcard from the Gallery); photograph it on ordinary colour film stock which could be processed commercially; put the negative in an enlarger, but reversed; print a copy on black and white paper, which gives a low-contrast look when using a colour negative and, as the original portrait has a very dark background, there would be no tell-tale extraneous features at the edges; take a Polaroid of the print, coming in close with just the head in the frame.

The result of re-photographing the original would be a loss of detail such as the image in the Solmons' book shows. With the facilities to make prints it would be easy to do, using trial and error with the exposure and filters on the enlarger to get a satisfactory result – clear enough to show who the subject was but blurry enough to disguise the starting point. I did consider the possibility of using an acetate sheet in a photocopier, which would be simpler, but discarded the idea as it seemed likely that, if anything, the contrast would be increased rather than reduced.

I think it is fair to say that Straughan was not convinced by my hypothesis, so we agreed to disagree. And it could be argued that a discarnate Conan Doyle had utilised an existing portrait to prove his survival, impressing it on the Polaroid by paranormal means, or that one of the Scole sitters had done so, distorting a memory of the painting in the process (as Ted Serios was said to impress pictures of real yet strangely altered places on Polaroids). But the argument – that if the Polaroid does not correspond to an image of him when alive, then the case for the continuation of his personality after death is bolstered – looks weaker if an original is identified

If non-paranormal means were employed, and if the painting was the starting point, it would not have been necessary to go far for a copy. The front cover of Psychic News for 7 November 1992 carried an exposé of medium ‘Lincoln’ (Colin Fry), with the headline “Medium Caught Holding Trumpet” which began: “Shocked sitters witnessed physical medium Lincoln ‘standing in the middle of the room holding a spirit trumpet in his hand’ when the lights suddenly came on during a Noah’s Ark Society (NAS) séance last month. The séance held before an invited audience, took place at NAS chairman Robin Foy’s home in Scole, Norfolk.” (The articles can be found on

Next to this article is another entitled “Conan Doyle letters are auctioned”, with a picture of the man himself. This is the NPG portrait, cropped, degraded and in black and white. Someone wanting to use it as a source would have had an available image that could be re-photographed, reversed, printed and turned into a Polaroid (the Psychic News version is cropped, but the Scole picture is tighter still). A further article in Psychic News the following April stated that the NAS had carried out an investigation of the trumpet incident and still supported Fry, so they must have seen the initial front-page report, and the picture of Conan Doyle, in November.

It might be argued that this is all a lot of bother for such a meagre result, but it would be straightforward for someone experienced in a darkroom. Reversal makes it slightly more complicated than straight re-photographing but disguises the origin of the result beautifully – certainly enough to deceive a number of people familiar with pictures, including Gates’ painting, of Conan Doyle. It would be useful if other researchers were to examine the two pictures, the NPG one altered in the way I suggest, and see if they find my argument convincing.


Keen, Montague, Ellison, Arthur and Fontana, David, The Scole Report: An Account of an Investigation into the Genuineness of a Range of Physical Phenomena associated with a Mediumistic Group in Norfolk, England. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1999.

Psychic News, 7 November 1992, 10 April 1993.

Ruffles, Tom. Review of A Study in Survival,, January 2010.

Solomon, Grant and Jane, The Scole Experiment: Scientific Evidence for Life After Death. London: Piatkus, 1999.

Straughan, Roger, A Study in Survival: Conan Doyle Solves the Final Problem. Ropley, Hampshire: O Books, 2009.

Youens, Tony. Articles on Noah’s Ark Society and Colin Fry in Psychic News,