Elementary, My Dear Watson

To a large extent all fictional heroes mirror their authors, and Sherlock Holmes is no exception.  His personality and penchant for astounding revelations were borrowed from Dr. Bell; his use of disguises, his devotion to the “chase,” and his experimentation into the science of detection came from Vidocq and his fictional progeny, Dupin and Lecoq. But Holmes’s righteous desire to uncover the truth no matter how difficult came from Conan Doyle himself.  

Arthur Conan Doyle near the end of his career
Arthur Conan Doyle near the end of his career
(AP/Wide World)

Throughout his life, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle investigated crimes as an amateur sleuth.  Motivated by a strong sense that justice had not been done by the authorities, he undertook these investigations with vigor and resolve, publishing his findings in the hope that the falsely accused would be vindicated.  One of Conan Doyle’s most well known crusades was the case of George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, who in 1903 was convicted of maiming livestock in the farm country surrounding the village of Great Wyrley.  Edalji was serving a seven-year sentence when Conan Doyle took up his cause.

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 prejudices.

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 real villain.

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
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. 

1. Sherlock Holmes

2. Dr. Bell

3. Poe & the French Connection

4. Elementary, My Dear Watson

5. Bibliography

6. The Author

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