Case of George Edalji. Who Wrote the Letters? No. 2

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Case of George Edalji. Who Wrote the Letters? No. 2 is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Daily Telegraph on 24 may 1907.

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Case of George Edalji. Who Wrote the Letters? No. 2

The Daily Telegraph (24 may 1907, p. 7)

In my last article I laid before the reader copies of the actual writings of George Edalji, together with specimens of the anonymous letters of 1903, so that each might form his own opinion as to the degree of resemblance in the script. I also showed by the internal evidence of the letters themselves how grotesque is the theory that they were from the pen of the young lawyer, and how mean the refusal to compensate him for his unjust punishment by pretending that he had contributed to his own ruin. I will now lay some further documents before the public in order to illustrate the peculiar nature of the long persecution to which the Edalji family has been subjected, and to prove the fact that the anonymous letters now received by Edalji and by his friends come from the same hand which wrote some of the letters in the series of 1892-95. If anyone conceives the wild theory that Edalji has been persecuting himself during all these years, I will undertake to show that such a supposition cannot be fitted into the facts. I admit that no one can put a limit to the strange aberrations of human nature, and that it is possible to conceive of a man otherwise sane who had some kink in his brain which compelled him from time to time to write abusive and scurrilous documents to himself and to his people. In this case, however, it is not only possible to show that Edalji did not write the letters, but also to draw some fairly reliable inferences as to the people who did. This, I venture to do in the hope that some remark of mine may possibly prove suggestive to good citizens upon the spot, and help them to find some of the missing links in this long and tangled chain of events.

Those who have interested themselves in the case will remember that the main persecution of the Edalji family began in the year 1892, and lasted until the beginning of 1896. During that time hundreds of letters of an extraordinary nature were sent to them; hoaxes of the most ingenious description were played upon them; bogus advertisements of an offensive character were put in their names into the papers; objects were thrown into the vicarage grounds, and many other pranks played upon them. Any one of these might be described as trivial, but the continued, ingenious persecution, lasting over three years, became cruelty of a most diabolical kind, under which the minds of the victims might well have broken down. To the lasting disgrace of the Staffordshire police this man-baiting was allowed to continue for this long period without any serious effort upon their part to shield the unfortunate family from their brutal tormentors. Their complaints were unheeded, or else it was hinted to them, exactly as it is now said to the son, that their sufferings were in some way due to themselves. It is a story which any unofficial Englishman must read with shame and indignation.

I have carefully examined a considerable number of the letters and postcards written by the conspirators, and I have been able to come to some definite conclusions about them. In the first place, there appear to have been three of them, two adults and a boy. I must admit that the writings of the two adults are so fluid, and run so frequently into the same characteristics, that I am prepared to find that they both came from one individual. Such a supposition is possible, but I think that it is very improbable. I seem to trace three lines of thought and character, as well as three peculiarities of script. We will take it, then, that there is adult writing and that there is boy writing, the adult writing being separable into two. Of the boy, it may be definitely stated that he could not have been less than twelve or more than sixteen. I find no exact evidence as to the age of the others, save that the mischief which characterises the whole proceeding, and the fact that they could devote so very much time and attention to it — some of the letters are of great length — would seem to indicate that they were still youths, and that they had no settled occupation. It is fairly certain that they must have lived within a radius of a mile or two of the vicarage, since many of the missives were left by hand.

Let us now consider what relation these three plotters bore to each other. Had there been a cramming establishment, or any other centre where mischievous young men could congregate, I should say that very likely they were no relations, but mere partners in a cruel practical joke. I have been unable to find, however, that anything of the sort exists in that neighbourhood. Yet these three individuals, the two young adults and the boy, undoubtedly lived under the same roof. Their epistles are continually on the same paper, and in the same envelopes. In some cases the rude scrawl of the boy comes in upon the very page which is taken up by the educated writing of the adult. A shoot may exhibit on one side an elaborate forgery of the signatures of the Edaljis, the Brookes, or some other neighbouring family, while on the other is a rude drawing (rude in every sense), which could only have been done by a lad. The adults appeared to pride themselves upon forgery, and the results, so far as I have been able to test them, show that they had remarkable powers in that direction. "Do you think that we could not imitate your kid's writing?" they say exultantly in one of the 1892 letters. They most certainly could — and did.

What are we to say, then, of three youths, all living under one roof, and engaged over several years in long succession of heartless practical jokes. It is possible that they were three clerks in an office, or three assistants in a business, but in such a case, how are we to account for the presence among them of a boy? On the whole, the balance of probability is greatly in favour of there being three relatives, brothers for choice, who are working together in the matter. The fact that the rude writing of the youngest developed at a later date some of the peculiarities of his elders, would seem to indicate a family habit.

In this way we have built up, as a rough working hypothesis, the idea of two young men and an exceedingly foul-mouthed boy, who are brothers or close relations, and fellow-conspirators in this persecution. Let us see now if an inspection of the letters can give us any information of the habits of these young blackguards. The first thing which is perfectly evident is connection to the younger one with Walsall Grammar School. Walsall Grammar School is an excellent educational establishment, and a great been to all the country round, but, like every other school, it has an occasional black sheep, and it needs no far-fetched inference to make it certain that this youngster was among them. Let me explain here that it was not merely the Edalji family who were persecuted by scurrilous letters, but that several other families in the neighbourhood, notably the Brookes and the Wynnes, were troubled in the same fashion. Now, both the Brookes and the Wynnes had a son at that time at Walsall School, and the headmaster of Walsall was also a recipient of anonymous letters, written in the same rough boyish hand, so that the focus of trouble seems certainly to lie there. I may explain in passing that George Edalji was at Rugeley Grammar School, and had no connection whatever with Walsall.

My point is, then, that the youngest of these three brothers, the ill-conditioned boy, had some connection with Walsall School. To illustrate it I append an exhibit, which, for purposes of future reference, I will call No. 1. Here the writer, dragging in as usual the butt, Edalji, whose very name he cannot at that time spell, utters the most scurrilous threats against the headmaster.

This writing is, beyond all doubt, as will afterwards be demonstrated, the same as that of the younger conspirator.

Here now we are getting at something tangible. The writer of 1 was a boy who entertained a malignant hatred of the headmaster of Walsall School. Why? It does not seem to be stretching the argument to suppose that it is a boy who has often felt the headmaster's cane, or possibly has been expelled for his evil conduct. Without over-elaborating the point it can at least be stated as a probability, indeed almost a certainty, that the boy brother was a scholar at Walsall (and a very backward unruly one) in the year 1892. The argument up to this point must certainly approximate to the truth. It is possible, therefore, that an examination of the records of Walsall Grammar School at that date would give a starting point for an investigation.

Not only can we say with some certainty that this young rascal was at Walsall, but there is a strong probability that one of the others was at the same school, though his age, as indicated by his writing, would show that he had either left before the other joined, or that he was in the higher when his younger brother was in the lower classes. He joins his young brother in writing anonymously to the Brookes and the Wynnes, showing a certain community of interest where school matters are concerned. His scholastic record must have been a very different one, for both his script and the contents of his letters show a very alert and ingenious mind. In one of his letters there is a long quotation from Milton. I believe that I am correct in stating that this particular book of Milton had been the school exercise some little time before. I repeat, therefore, that the balance of evidence is in favour of one at least of the elder brothers having been a senior scholar at Walsall at or about the time when his brother was a junior.

This should narrow down the field of an inquiry.

In this connection we must consider the incident of the Walsall Grammar School key. This key was discovered by the village constable on Dec. 12, 1892, upon the window-sill of the vicarage, and George Edalji, upon the unvarying principle of laying everything mysterious to his charge, was at once accused of having put it there. How he could have got it from the six-mile-off school, or what end could be served by so foolish a prank, was never explained. Yet it was over this incident that the chief constable wrote: "If the persons concerned in the removal of the key refuse to make any explanation of the subject, I must necessarily treat the matter as a theft. I may say at once, that I shall not pretend to believe any protestations of ignorance which your son may make about this key. My information on the subject does not come from the police." When one takes this incident with the preceding evidence as to Walsall Grammar School being the focus of the mischief, is it not exceedingly probable that the key was brought over by the same mischievous scholars who wrote the letters, and that the chief constable's information was conveyed in one of their ingenious epistles? There is, at least, nothing unnatural or far-fetched in such a supposition, while the suggestion that George Edalji would travel twelve miles in order to lay on his own father's window-all a key which nobody wanted is grotesque in its improbability. I only recall the incident at present as a corroboration of the theory which I am demonstrating, that the storm-centre at that time lay in Walsall School.

I will now prevent specimens of the script of the two elders of the trio, with the proviso that it is within the bounds of possibility that the two may eventually prove to have been one. For the present, at least, I will differentiate them. One of them, who seems to me to be the elder, as his thought and expression are the more developed, is the creature who writes extraordinary religious rant over the signature of "God-Satan." There are remarkable qualities in these mad effusions, grim humour, wild imagination, and a maniacal turn of mind, which alternates between hysterical religion and outrageous blasphemy. It was no ordinary man who wrote the following characteristic effusion:

"I must live partly in Heaven and partly in hell, so if that ever-accursed monster Satan tries to detain me in hell I will fight with him and throw myself into the gulf which is fixed between hell and Heaven, and then I shall be able to climb out of the gulf into Heaven. And moreover, if God tries to push me back into hell I will defy God and struggle with Him, and if I cannot prevail I will hold on to God and fall with Him over the precipice of hell."

"If you wish to escape having your house blown up by dynamite you are to do this thus, namely, order the postman to take Mrs. M.'s body out of her grave and bring it to your house. You are then to break open her head, take out her brains, and boil them in a cauldron of port wine for three hours. Next you are to order Mr. —— to come to your house, make him open his mouth and drink the contents of the cauldron whilst boiling. If you do this to my satisfaction I will ask God not to give you such a hot place in hell."

There are countless pages of this strange, pernicious stuff, alternating with such lighter passages as this: "You vindictive wretch, I dare you to do to me whatever your vengeance prompts you, but spare, oh, spare, the honest police!" I append as a specimen of the script the page, which I shall number as 2, upon which the latter gem appears.

The writing in all these effusions is fluent and easy, with every mark of an educated hand. I can find no evidence that any particular care has been taken to disguise it, but it is naturally unformed, and does not set rigidly into definite characteristics.

From 1896 onwards this individual disappears entirely, and I was at some loss to form an opinion as to whether the mania was real or simulated. It bore every aspect of being real, but en other hand it was difficult to conceive that such a person could so conceal his mental eccentricity as to escape general comment. Some weeks ago, however, an incident occurred which convinced me that the man still lives, and that he is now a marked religious maniac. A newspaper containing some account of the Edalji affair had found its way to Long Beach, California, in the United States. A page of it was sent back to Mr. George Edalji, with religious and blasphemous comments scribbled in pencil all round the margins. The general diameter of this script, the knowledge shown of the case, and the singular mental conditions, have all convinced me that, whatever be his name, God-Satan is now to be found on the Pacific Coast, and that he is an undoubted madman.

So much for the elder of the three hypothetical individuals. He now drops out of the narrative, and we come to the second. This man writes a closer, smaller hand, with many of his senior's peculiarities. There is no fancy and no madness in his productions. On the contrary, they are particularly practical. They are usually postcards of an abusive character, sent to someone at a distance, and signed with a forged name. At his ingenious bidding deluded tradesmen have brought huge consignments of goods to the vicarage, brother clergymen have hastened to Wyrley upon all sorts of urgent summonses, and editors have inserted the most monstrous advertisements as to the extraordinary needs of the vicar. The exhibit No. 3 gives a specimen of the script. Of this man's future I know nothing, and it may well prove, when the veil comes to be lifted, that he is simply another manifestation of the ingenuity of "God-Satan."

I will pursue the subject in a concluding letter.

Undershaw, May 20.