Suspicion fell on Edalji when the local police started to receive
disturbing letters taking credit for the animal mutilations.
In the letters Edalji was identified as one of the perpetrators:
“…It is not true that we always do it when the moon is young and
the one Edalji killed on April 11th was a full moon night…”
Edalji was investigated and became the prime suspect in July 1903
after the police received its most alarming letter to date.
For some reason the unknown writer changed person in this
installment from “we” to “they,” but the threat is clear.
“There will be merry times in Wyrley in November,” the letter
states, “when they start on little girls, for they will do twenty
wenches like the horses before next March.” Terrified that
their daughters would be slaughtered like the horses and sheep that
had already been attacked, the community felt it had to act, and
Edalji became the target of their fears as well as their long-held
Edalji’s father, the Rev. Shapuji Edalji, who had
originally been a Parsee, had emigrated from Bombay and married an
Englishwoman whose uncle, an Anglican clergyman, arranged for his
post in Wyrley. Many of the locals resented having a
“black” vicar with a white wife and half-caste children.
They felt that true Englishmen should be spreading religion to the
“blacks” of the world, not the other way around.
George Edalji, the Reverend’s son, was a solicitor with a solid
practice in Birmingham. His success further rankled the
bigoted locals who viewed this slight, frail man with oddly bulging
eyes as physically as well as socially inferior. After the
eighth incident of animal mutilation, the police went to the
Reverend’s house and searched for evidence of George Edalji’s
involvement. They found a pair of mud-encrusted boots, a pair
of similarly mud-stained trousers, an old housecoat that appeared to
have spots of blood and horse saliva, a coat and a waistcoat that
contained horse hairs that matched the latest victimized animal, and
a set of razors which were “…wet and one had a dark stain.”
The newspapers of the time dubbed George Edalji the “English
Dreyfus” because like the Jewish French soldier, Edalji was the
victim of prejudice and dubious written evidence. On
first meeting Edalji, Conan Doyle had serious doubts that he could
ever have committed these crimes. In an analysis worthy of
Sherlock Holmes and Bell, Dr. Conan Doyle could see that the man’s
eyesight was severely impaired. A specialist confirmed
that Edalji had “eight dioptres of myopia” and no prescription
lens could adequately improve his vision. Upon visiting the
crime scenes, some of which were difficult to enter through bushes
and briar patches, Conan Doyle became convinced that a physically
unfit person with Edalji’s impaired vision could not possibly have
negotiated these muddy fields in the dark.
Piece by piece, Conan Doyle evaluated the evidence that the
police had gathered and discredited their theories. The mud on
Edalji’s boots and trousers was black while the earth in the field
where the last horse was maimed was yellow clay. The dark spot
on the razor was found to be rust not blood, and the supposed traces
of blood and horse saliva on his clothing were in fact food stains.
The police surgeon nevertheless maintained that the hairs found on
Edalji’s clothing did come from the eighth maimed horse.
Though Conan Doyle largely discredited the case against Edalji,
the police refused to release him. It was at this point that
Conan Doyle himself then began to receive threatening letters.
In one of two that he received in May 1907, the writer says,
“…Desperate men have sworn their Bible oath to scoop out your
liver and kidneys… and there are those who say you have not long
to live. I know from a detective of Scotland Yard that if you
write to Gladstone [the Home Secretary] and say you find Edalji is
guilty after all, and you were mistaken and promise to do no more
for him, they will make you a lord next year. Is it not better
to be a lord than to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver?...”
The police insisted that these threats had come from Edalji
himself. Faced with such a ridiculous proposition, Conan Doyle
had no choice but to do what Sherlock Holmes would do—find the
In the course of his investigation, Conan Doyle learned that
similar vindictive anonymous letters had been sent to the police
eight years before the ones in 1903. These letters were
written in the same tone and style as the later ones – as well as
the ones Conan Doyle received. After carefully inspecting all
the letters, he theorized that they were written by two people—one
educated, the other hotheaded and semiliterate. He also took
note of the fact that letters from both periods contained invective
against the headmaster of the Walsall Grammar School. Conan
Doyle felt that at least one of the culprits had attended Walsall
and that he was away during the lull between 1895 and 1903.
As Conan Doyle wrote of his investigation, “My first step in
the enquiry lay at Walsall. I must enquire whether there had
been at the school, during the early nineties, any boy who (a) had a
particular grudge against the headmaster, (b) was innately vicious,
and (c) subsequently went to sea? I took this obvious step.
And I got on the track of my man at once.”
He visited the headmaster at Walsall and asked if there were any
former students who fit these three criteria. The headmaster
immediately pinpointed a young man named Royden Sharp who had been a
poor student and a disciplinary problem and who had set out to sea
as an apprentice in 1895. Conan Doyle delved further into
Sharp’s background and discovered that the young man had
apprenticed at a butcher’s shop immediately after his time at
Walsall and that he had worked on an Irish cattle boat. As
Peter Costello says in his book, The Real World of Sherlock
Holmes, Royden Sharp “knew how to approach and handle
animals: a vital talent… for a cattle slasher.” Conan Doyle also
found a witness who claimed that Sharp had shown her a large
horse-lancet, a blade specially designed for slaughtering cattle,
the same kind of blade that had been used to maim the eighth horse.
The evidence overwhelmingly pointed to Royden Sharp, but Conan
Doyle never accused him publicly. Instead, he published papers
proving Edalji’s innocence. But the authorities ignored the
findings, staunchly maintaining that Edalji was the culprit.
Edalji was released from prison after serving three of his seven
years. Eventually he was allowed to practice law again and
lived to 85. Conan Doyle was never able to uncover the
identity of Sharp’s accomplice in writing the letters, the
“educated one.” He had considered Sharp’s older brother
who had moved to California, but could not assemble adequate
evidence. Later students of the case presented the possibility that
George Edalji’s brother Horace could have been involved.
That contention was never proven conclusively.
|Douglas Wilmer as Holmes (CORBIS)
As Martin Booth points out in his biography of Conan Doyle, The
Doctor and the Detective, the author and his creation shared
many of the same characteristics. They were both tall and fit,
and they both boxed. They both enjoyed a “good joke.”
They were both pack rats who kept untidy quarters where documents
and books were piled high. Each had one brother. Both
Sherlock Holmes and his creator were agnostics. But these
kinds of similarities are to be expected between an author and his
hero. In every hero there is always a large part of the
author’s personality. What’s interesting about Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle is that he modeled himself on the character as much as
he modeled the character on himself, taking up cases and causes as
Holmes would. No doubt, the yearning to be a person like
Sherlock Holmes was always there within him, but it took the success
of his stories to bring it out.