Shoemaker, Spiritualist, Cavalryman, Madman: The Case of James Doody

by | Jan 13, 2020 | LCSC, Military, Strategic & Disarmament Series, War and Society | 0 comments

by Kyle Falcon

Serviceman James Doody was stationed at the Shorncliffe Army Camp in June of 1915 when he began reading the popular spiritualist journal, The Two Worlds. In those pages, he would have read about angelic intervention during the British retreat from Mons in 1914, as well as stories about a mysterious “comrade in white” who appeared in No Man’s Land to help the wounded and dying. James Doody was one of thousands of Britons and Canadians who believed that the human personality survived death and could communicate with the living through the séance. What makes Doody’s case interesting, however, is that, unlike those mothers, fathers, wives, and siblings who turned to spiritualism on the home front to come to terms with the death of a loved one, Doody was a serviceman with ties to the spiritualist movement well before the war.[i] What was the correlation, if any, between the events of the war and his attraction to spiritualism? Even more interesting, he was diagnosed as “insane” in 1917 and subsequently discharged from the CEF. Did his interest in “spooks” have any impact on his diagnosis?

A table rapping experiment conducted with the medium Eusapia Paladino by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion in 1898. In this image, the table appears to be levitating.

James Doody was born in Castlebar, Ireland on 8 March 1878. As a young man, he served as a cavalryman in India, and later, the Boer War. In 1910, his family immigrated to Canada where he worked as a shoemaker. He re-enlisted for service on 25 March 1915 in Ottawa at age 37.[ii] He embarked to England shortly thereafter.

Between James Doody’s birth and his enlistment in the Great War, spiritualism had changed considerably. It first spread throughout the USA and Britain in the 1850s in the form of “table tilting.” In this parlour game, participants placed their hands on a small table and asked the “spirits” a series of yes or no questions. When the table tilted twice, this indicated a “yes,” but when it moved only once, this indicated a “no.” The practice was commercialised in the 1880s with the invention of “talking boards” (Ouija boards).

Spiritualist séances evolved in their complexity by the beginning of the twentieth century. Mediums relayed messages from the other world while in trance, played musical instruments from a distance, and levitated objects. Spiritualism had also developed into an organised religious and scientific movement with its own churches and societies. Notable proponents included the chemist Sir William Crookes, and the co-discoverer of natural selection, Sir Alfred Russell Wallace.[iii] In 1916, the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, published the popular book Raymond: Or Life and Death, which documented evidence that Lodge had been in touch with the spirit of his youngest son, Raymond Lodge, who was killed near Ypres in 1915.

Nellie Hyde Hutchinson and Florence Corey using a Ouija board circa 1892. Source: Talking Board History Society.

Doody did not identify himself as a spiritualist on his attestation papers, but he was a member of the Attercliffe Spiritualist Church before he moved to Canada. Only one month after his arrival in England with the CEF, he wrote to The Two Worlds asking to be “put in touch with some active workers in this city, as I want to devote my spare hours to that good religion, Spiritualism.”[iv] It was common for soldiers to utilise spiritual resources in the face of potential death, even if they were not particularly pious in everyday life.[v] Perhaps Doody sought spiritual comfort as he contemplated the prospects of serving on the Great War’s battlefields. After all, Canada’s horrific baptism of fire at the Second Battle of Ypres was still fresh in many Canadians’ minds. Now back in England, Doody was seeking a community of individuals who shared his peculiar spiritual beliefs.

Doody never made it to the Western Front. In fact, for most of the war, he never left England. He arrived at Shorncliffe Army Camp in June 1915, where he was taken on strength with the Fort Garry Horse Reserve Regiment. By October 1916, he was serving with the 8th Canadian Mounted Rifles. While stationed at Shorncliffe he suffered intermittently from severe stomach pains and spent seventy-nine days under medical care. In April 1917 he started to become insubordinate. “He was frequently absent without leave,” it was reported, and when he was present, he neglected his duty. On one occasion, Doody left his post to shave, and when questioned why, he explained that “it was just as well to do that as anything else.”

After having spent nearly two years at an army camp, Doody’s behaviour might be dismissed as expressions of impatience and boredom. However, on 30 July 1917, he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with “General Parasis of Insane.” His physical condition was “poorly developed and nourished.” Despite his “careless and neglectful discipline,” he was not angry or disgruntled, and was described as having “a happy self-complacent attitude.” Something other than poor morale was causing his insubordinate behaviour. A Wasserman test came back positive, and doctors concluded that his “insanity” was caused by syphilis.[vi]

Issue of The Two Worlds, a popular British journal devoted to spiritualism.

It appears that Doody sought sexual, rather than spiritual comfort as his situation changed from a potential combatant of the Great War to a permanent resident at Shorncliffe Army Camp. But did the physicians administering his case see any correlation between his interest in spiritualism and his “madness”? Doody had “Exalted ideas bordering on grandiose,” stated one report, observing, “Rambling talk is to his own cleverness.” He rejected having syphilis and claimed to be “in best of health.” Doody was also described as having a “childish” mentality, but “in his own mind [he] is well educated and a very capable man.” It is possible that some of his “rambling” and “grandiose” ideas were spiritualistic in nature, but when details about his delusions were provided they had nothing at all to do with spiritualism. For instance, it was observed that, “He is quite sure that he would prosper…in the Green Grocery Business of which he understands nothing,” and he boasted that he knew “more about horses than the veterinaries in England.”

If Doody mentioned spiritualism or séances to his doctors, it was not deemed as important to his diagnosis as some of his other statements. Interest in spiritualism could lead to ridicule, but it was usually only in women that it was deemed to be pathological. For example, some women mediums were accused of hysteria and threatened with admission to the asylum.[vii] Since spiritualist mediums were passive and sensitive, it was considered to be a feminine occupation. Male interest in spiritualism could be justified as scientifically motivated. Respectable British men like Sir Oliver Lodge, for example, could attend séances as investigators only interested in the science of such phenomena.[viii] We cannot infer generalisations from an individual case, but the circumstances of James Doody’s service raises further questions worth exploring. Was spiritualism more acceptable in British and Canadian medical and military cultures during the war? We may also wonder if Doody and other soldiers gravitated towards, and subsequently turned away from familiar spiritual resources as the threat of death became more or less urgent. Perhaps the doctors never mentioned spiritualism because Doody had grown less interested as his prospects for combat service diminished.

The curious case of the shoemaker, spiritualist, cavalryman, and madman had a tragic ending. After he was diagnosed with insanity, Doody was transferred to the Ontario Military Hospital in Kingston and was discharged from service. He was still a patient when he died of pneumonia in 1925. Because his illness had occurred during service, he was initially eligible for a pension, but was ineligible after being formally discharged from the CEF in 1918. Sick and unable to work herself, his wife sought financial assistance in 1926 but she was denied the pension. It is not known whether she sought spiritual comfort in the form of séances after her husband’s death, but the nature of his illness denied her the financial support she desperately needed.


[i] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 54-77.

[ii] Details of James Doody’s war service can be found in his personnel file at Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

[iii] For a history of British spiritualism see Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) and for Canadian spiritualism see Stan McMullin Anatomy of a Séance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2004).

[iv] “Roll of Honour,” The Two Worlds 28, no. 1443 (July 9, 1915): 349

[v] See Jason Schweitzer, The Cross and the Trenches: Religious Faith and Doubt Among British and American Great War Soldiers (London: Praeger, 2003 and Michael Snape, God and the British Soldier: Religion and the British Army in the First and Second World Wars (New York: Routledge, 2005).

[vi] Information regarding Doody’s medical history are taken from his personnel file as well as his pension file (James Doody, 113012, Reels 798, 800, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), LCMSDS Archives).

[vii] Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990). 139-167.

[viii] See Jenny Hazelgrove, Spiritualism and British society between the wars (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000) and Beth Robertson, Science of the Séance: Transnational Networks and Gendered Bodies in the Study of Psychic Phenomena, 1918-40 (Vancouver: The University of British Columbia Press, 2016).