Case of George Edalji (letter 18 july 1907)

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Case of George Edalji is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Daily Telegraph on 18 july 1907.

Case of George Edalji

The Daily Telegraph (18 july 1907, p. 5)

To the Editor of "The Daily Telegraph."

Sir — As it seems probable that this case will catch up on the debate on the Home Office Estimates to-day I would ask your permission to say a last word, imploring members not to degrade Parliament by making the matter a party question. Both parties are, in truth, equally to blame, and the apologies of Mr. Akers-Douglas to this ill-used man should be just as sincere as those of Mr. Herbert Gladstone. A great wrong has been done, and it concerns our national honour that it should be admitted and set right. It is a question of justice and of reason, not of politics. The cuttings which reach me from the American and European Press show clearly how deeply the good name of our administrative methods is concerned.

I will shortly recapitulate the facts, and bring the narrative up to date. In 1903, George Edalji a young solicitor, of Parsee extraction, was condemned at the Stafford Quarter Sessions to seven years' penal servitude for mutilating cattle. The youth was of irreproachable character. Beyond this one accusation there had never been anything in his life which could be urged against him. His schoolmaster testifies to his gentle and tractable disposition. The solicitor with whom he had served his term gives him the highest references. He has never in his life shown any traits of cruelty. He was so devoted to his work that he had won the highest honours in the legal classes at Birmingham, and he had already, at the age of twenty-seven, written a book upon Railway Law. Finally, he is a total abstainer, and so myopic that he is unable to recognise anyone at a distance of six yards. It is clear that the inherent improbability of such a man committing a succession of brutal and purposeless crimes is so great that it could only be overcome by the suggestion of insanity. There has never, however, been the slightest proof even of eccentricity in George Edalji's character, nor can anyone point to actions of his which would bear out such a theory. On the contrary, he has come with a steady and philosophical mind through a series of experiences which might well have unbalanced a weaker intellect.

The original theory of the prosecution was that George Edalji had committed the particular outrage for which he was tried some time in the evening. This line of attack broke down completely, as he was able to prove how he had employed his time. In the middle of the case, therefore, the prosecution shifted its ground and advanced the new theory that he must have done it early in the morning. George Edalji slept in the same room as his father, the vicar of the parish. The latter is a light sleeper, and had been accustomed all his life, as many people are, to turn the key of his door. He swore that George never left the room that night. This may not constitute a complete side in the eyes of the law, but it is difficult to imagine how such an alibi could be established at night unless a sentinel were placed outside the bed-room door. It is at least no near to a complete alibi that nothing but the most cogent considerations could shake it.

There were no such considerations. On the contrary, the circumstantial evidence, which came almost entirely from police sources, was, as I have shown in my original articles, open to criticism at every point. Above all, it was vitiated from the beginning, for it can be shown that the police were filled with prejudice against George Edalji. On the occasion of an outbreak of anonymous letters with which the Edalji family had been plagued from 1892 to 1895, the chief constable, Captain Anson, had formed the extravagant theory that George was writing the letters in order to annoy himself and his family. Captain Anson had written plainly, stating that the youth (he was then sixteen) was the culprit, that no protestation of innocence would be regarded, and hinting, that he would get a dose of penal servitude. As a matter of fact, the authorship of the persecution of 1892-95 is a perfectly open secret, and there can be no doubt at all as to who played the pranks and wrote the letters in question. Captain Anson was absolutely mistaken in thinking that was George Edalji, though no one, of course, would dispute that that was his honest opinion. But when such an autocrat as the Chief of Police in an English county forms a strong opinion, and expresses it, it does not take much knowledge of human nature to be certain that the whole force under him will take their tone from him. This seems to have been the genesis of the whole business, so that the police, to quote the opinion of Mr. Gladstone's Committee, were rather seeking to find proofs for a preconceived theory than conducting an independent investigation.

George Edalji was locked up, and then came the "Reductio ad absurdum" which should have shown the least reflective man that a huge mistake had been made. The outrages went on the same as before. It was argued that this was to affect the trial, but the trial passed, and again the outrages broke out. George Edalji could not have done those. Who did then? One man confessed to a single outrage, and was hurried out of the country unpunished after he had testified that George Edalji had nothing to do with the matter. From that time the action of the authorities reached a point of perverse stupidity, which nothing can excuse or even explain.

George Edalji served three years of his term and was then released. Sir George Lewis, the first criminal authority of the day, had uttered his protest against the proceedings, and there was an agitation which ended in the appointment of a committee of investigation. Upon the report of that committee a free pardon so far as the outrages were concerned was granted to the young lawyer, but it was granted in no ungracious and so halting a fashion that it has rather left a grievance than removed one.

It is clear that the man must either be innocent or guilty. If he is guilty, or if there is a reasonable chance that he is guilty, then no Minister of the Crown would be so weak as to give him a pardon. The offence is in itself an utterly unpardonable and atrocious one. The grant of a pardon can only be taken as meaning that George Edalji did not do it. It can have no other significance whatever. But if he did not do it then where is the apology for the atrocious ill-usage which he and his family have suffered, where is the compensation for his years of misery and for his ruined career — ruined by the callousness and stupidity of public officials? How about the six hundred pounds which his family have actually spent over the business? You can't signify that the man did not do it and yet continue to act exactly as if he did.

But an excuse was set up for such action. This excuse was that the committee found that certain anonymous letters which were written at the time of the outrages were indeed written by George Edalji, and that he had therefore brought his troubles upon his own head. Let us examine this contention.

The committee, in finding this decision, say that "they are not prepared to disagree from" what they appear to think was the verdict of the Staffordshire jury upon this point. As a matter of fact, the point has never been pronounced upon by any jury whatever. The point judged at Stafford was entirely whether George Edalji had or had not mutilated a pony. Therefore, this other charge, which is supposed to justify years of imprisonment, and which would debar George Edalji from the practice of his profession, is one on which he has never been tried at all. What possible argument can justify such a state of things as this? As the old father cried, "Could you imagine the son of an English squire or an English nobleman being treated in such a way?"

I suppose no one save the actual writer can know more about these letters than I. I have examined various samples of them with extreme care, and have compared them minutely with the anonymous letters of 1892-95, and with the recent anonymous letters of 1907. To take the letters written at the time of the outrages, and to compare them with Edalji's hand, tracing certain resemblances, is beside the point. How could an elaborate forgery be perpetrated which had not some resemblances? Taking the pulse beats at 70, the letters are written at the extremely slow rate of 13 words to the minute (I am myself writing this letter at 35 to the minute), showing the deliberate nature of the forgery. What is difficult to explain is, not the resemblances, but the obvious differences, since the forger would hardly make certain marked letters in an entirely different way to his victim. I have no doubt whatever that the forgery was actually done from a small sample of Edalji's script which did not contain several important letters. The capital I, for example, was certainly not among them.

My investigation thoroughly satisfied me that the same handwriting can be traced from 1892 (when it was a boy's of fourteen or so) to 1907 (when it is that of an uncultivated man), and that this is the writing also of the "outrage letters of 1903, very thinly disguised by its attempt to imitate Edalji. Having formed this opinion, I sent the documents, without comment, to Dr. Lindsay Johnson, an eminent expert, who was retained by M. Labori to give evidence at the Dreyfus trial at Rennes. Within two days I received an elaborate report from him, confirming at every point my own conclusions, and asserting that all the documents were in the same hand. I then went one step further. I had already convinced myself as to who was the ringleader in the perpetration of the outrages. I sent two signed letters in this man's script to Dr. Lindsay Johnson. His judgment was that it was the same script as all the other documents. This certificate, along with all evidence against the suspect, was lodged by me at the Home Office. I was even able to trace, what at one time puzzled me, how the forger obtained the sample of Edalji's writing from which he worked. I do not know that I can do more. It is not for me to institute police proceedings. My results are at the disposal of the authorities. Let the Government, and, above all, the local police, admit heartily that they have been utterly mistaken, and throw themselves with zeal into the easy task of unveiling the real criminal, and they will have done something to atone for the past. But meanwhile, let no party politics blur the issue. It would, in the end, be a poor victory for the Liberal party which was based on the defence of a most indefensible business. — Yours faithfully,

Leamington, July 15.

P.S. — I observed that in a recent debate Mr. Gladstone used the term "commissioner of a newspaper" in evident reference to myself. Might I be allowed to state that I have never been a paid agent at all in the matter. I only mention the fact as it may affect in some degree the value of my conclusions.