Sherlock Holmes would never have stood for this: newly discovered documents show the Staffordshire police fabricated evidence to try to discredit Arthur Conan Doyle’s investigation into the curious case of George Edalji, a Birmingham solicitor accused of maiming horses and sending poison-pen letters at the turn of the 20th century.
In a printed report discovered in a collection of letters, chief constable of Staffordshire police, GA Anson, admits attempting to discredit Doyle by creating an elaborate ruse. This involved him fabricating a letter to the writer signed “A Nark, London” and setting up various informers to make Conan Doyle believe the letter had been sent by one Royden Sharp, the man the Sherlock Holmes creator had tapped for the so-called “Great Wyrley Outrages”.
“This letter is very well known to writers on the subject, and this document proves the letter was sent by Anson to Conan Doyle to try and discredit him,” said Sarah Lindberg of Bonhams, which put the report up for auction alongside 30 autographed letters from Doyle about the case, 24 of which are to Anson.
Julian Barnes, whose Booker-shortlisted novel Arthur and George retells the Edalji story, said he “knew Doyle had received a threatening letter in London, and he drew the obvious conclusion that it was one of the bad guys who was trying to warn him off.”.“The notion that it was actually the chief constable is quite discombobulating,” said Barnes, whose novel has been adapted by ITV into a series starring Martin Clunes as Conan Doyle and Arsher Ali as Edalji.
The twists and turns of Edalji’s case were complicated enough as it was. Son of an Indian father and English mother, the solicitor had been given seven years’ hard labor in 1903 for animal mutilation and anonymous letter writing. When he was released after three years of his sentence, he asked for help from Conan Doyle to prove his innocence. The novelist believed Edalji, and was convinced that “color was involved [in his conviction],” what we would now call ‘institutional racism.’ Conan Doyle bombarded Anson with almost daily letters between August and October 1907, providing new forensic evidence and offering alternative suspects, petitioning the Home Office, and speaking out publically about the conviction – no small thing, from the creator of the world’s most famous sleuth.
“You could see [Anson] would have been incredibly irritated by this case, which had been long solved,” said Barnes. “But to go as far as fabricating evidence … He was obviously a very self-confident man, which is partly why he and Doyle fell out so badly. Despite being two British gentlemen, they ended up locking horns like two mad, rutting stags.”
The letters, from a private collection that Bonhams put up for auction in March, reveal the breakdown in the relationship, and show Conan Doyle’s increasing frustration with the situation: He would later write of his regret that, “to the deep disgrace of the British Administration”, he was unable to secure compensation for Edalji, telling Anson: “Your letter is a series of inaccuracies mixed up with a good deal of rudeness.” Conan Doyle eventually demanded through his solicitors that Anson should not contact him again unless through legal channels. Anson’s growing anger is also revealed. In one note, he writes: “Is CD mad?” In another, he has it that “this matter is a personal one between Sir A Doyle and myself
The Sherlock Holmes creator remained convinced of Edalji’s innocence, as is Barnes today. In 1934, a laborer, Enoch Knowles, confessed to the letter writing, and was imprisoned, but the mutilator of horses remains unknown. Barnes, meanwhile, has no plans to revisit “Arthur and George” in the wake of the new evidence, but he may include the revelation in an afterword for the next edition. “I don’t think it changes the substantive outlines of the case, but it’s an interesting detail which tells us a lot about Anson.”
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