The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A Detective in Real Life

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A Detective in Real Life is an article written by F. Cunliffe-Owen published in The Sun (New York) on 31 may 1914.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A Detective in Real Life

The Sun (New York) (31 may 1914, section 5, p. 3). From left to right : Admiral Robert E. Peary, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Former Ambassador Joseph H. Choate, St. Clair McKelway, Commissioner R. A. C. Smith, Harry L. Horton and John D. Crimmins.

Famous Creator of Sherlock Holmes by His Genius for Detective Work Righted Two Grave Judicial Errors and Saved Property of Victims

After a Long Fight He Succeeded in Having a Court of Criminal Appeal Established in Great Britain — Abandoned Medicine to Take Up Writing

Former Ambassador Joseph H. Coate in proposing the health of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the luncheon given in his honor by the Pilgrims Society on Thursday last at the Whitehall Club described him as more widely known in the United States than any other Englishman. This is undoubtedly true. For there is hardly a man, woman or child in America who is not acquainted with his name, as that of the creator of that world-famed sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.

But Conan Doyle has many other claims to popular attention on this side of the Atlantic besides the conception of the great detective, so familiar to every American playgoer and reader of fiction, and it is upon these features of his useful career that I wish to touch in the following brief notes, which may be of interest to those who come in contact with Sir Arthur during the few weeks which he proposes to spend in this country.

It is to Conan Doyle, more than to any one else, that his compatriots are indebted for the creation of a Court of Criminal Appeal. It is difficult for Americans to realize the fact that until four or five years ago there was no means in Great Britain of quashing the sentence of any one convicted of crime through a judicial error. Judgment in civil suits could always he appealed. But the decisions of the criminal courts were final, and irrevocable.

No matter how erroneous the verdict of the jury and the sentence of the judge were subsequently shown to be, in the face of newly discovered evidence, or through the confession of the real culprit, there was no means of reversing the conviction of the prisoner, or of judicially declaring him to be an innocent man. The utmost that could be done for him was to set him at liberty by means of the grant by the Crown of it free pardon — that is to say, free pardon for a crime that he had never committed.

To-day there is, thanks to Conan Doyle, a Court of Criminal Appeal, where all wrongful convictions and judicial errors can be righted; a court created by Art of Parliament, in the face of a considerable amount of opposition. I may add that this new court has justified its existence in a magnificent manner, not only by the number of convictions that it has quashed and the unduly harsh sentences that it has reduced, but also by the expeditious manner in which it deals with all cases brought before it, which are heard and determined within a few weeks of the original conviction, instead of having to wait, as here in New York, not merely for months, but sometimes even for years.

If Conan Doyle was led to take a leading part in the public movement for the creation of a Court of Criminal Appeal, it was because his interest had been aroused by the fate of two victims of judicial error, namely, Adolph Beck, an English citizen of Swedish birth, and a lawyer — a solicitor — of the name of George Edalji, whose parentage was Eurasian, that is to say, his mother was an Englishwoman; while his father was the son of a Parsee merchant of Bombay. After receiving his education at an English university, the father had entered the orders of the Church of England and had obtained the rector-ship of a country parish in the Midlands.

It is unnecessary for me to state that Conan Doyle keeps himself thoroughly informed about all criminal cases. His Sherlock Holmes stories show that. Certain features in the evidence on the strength of which these two men were convicted, the one of cattle maiming and the other of a number of cruel frauds upon women, created doubts in his mind as to their guilt. The possibility that they might he innocent aroused his sympathy in their behalf, and accordingly he devoted those powers of deduction and of sleuthing which he ascribes in his books to Sherlock Holmes, to the unravelling of the tangle.

In the face of almost insuperable difficulties of an official character, partly due to red tape and partly to the determination of the Government lawyers, of the presiding Judge, of the members of the jury and of the police to uphold their contention that they could not possibly have been wrong in the case of Adolph Beck, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ended by proving that it was a case of mistaken identity and that there was no connection whatsoever, beyond that of resemblance, between the unfortunate Adolph Beck and the real culprit, a swindler of the name of Smith. Yet the women who had been defrauded, and two policemen, who in a previous case some years earlier had occasion to arrest the real Smith, testified in court that he and Adolph Beck were one and the same man. It was not until Beck had nerved two years of the term of ten years penal servitude passed upon him for the crimes of Smith that Conan Doyle was able to convince the Secretary of State for the Home Department that Beck was innocent and to obtain for him a free pardon from the Crown.

Conan Doyle, indeed, stirred up so much popular feeling about the matter, especially when he was able to show that the unfortunate Beck had had his entire business ruined through his arrest and conviction, that the Government was led to make him a special grant of $15,000. Beck did not live long to enjoy either his freedom or the money — a mere pittance compared to what he had lost. His health had been completely wrecked by the hardships which he had undergone as a penal servitude convict, and he died in 1909.

With regard to George Edalji he was convicted at the Staffordshire Quarter Sessions in October, 1903, of cattle maiming of a particularly atrocious character. Anonymous letters, in some of which the name of George Edalji appeared, while in others there were threats of murder against the local police force, played an important role in the trial. The evidence against Edalji was purely circumstantial in the sense that there was no direct testimony of any kind. But owing to the Intense animosity of the Staffordshire police against the Edalji family and of the popular prejudice in the entire district against the rector and his son George owing to their Indian, that is Parsee, origin the jury rendered a verdict against the accused lawyer and he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude.

The fact that the horrible horse and cattle maiming outrages in the Wyrley district of Staffordshire continued after the incarceration of George Edalji convinced Sir Arthur that the man was innocent and that the testimony of the police in the case had been totally unreliable. He set all his wits to work and procured the most incontrovertible proofs that Edalji could not possibly have committed the crimes. Not only that, but he secured eighteen months later the conviction of a man of the name of Farrington for the perpetration of the cattle maiming outrages committed after Edalji had commenced to serve his term of penal servitude, the presumption being of course that Farrington had also been guilty of the crimes ascribed to Edalji.

In this particular instance it was impossible to get the Secretary of State for the Home Department to take any action toward the obtaining of a free pardon for Edalji until Sir Arthur had stone to the extreme length of securing through the force of public sentiment the appointment of a parliamentary commission to inquire into the matter. To this commission Conan Doyle submitted all the evidence that he had gathered in behalf of Edalji Innocence, and after a number of scions extending over a period of several months the commission finally reported to Parliament to the effect that Edalji ought never to have been convicted and that he was guiltless of the crimes with which he had been charged.

Very reluctantly the Secretary of State for the Home Department there-upon issued In the name of the sovereign a free pardon to Edalji, thus remitting the remaining four years of his seven years of penal servitude, and at the same time sent a notification to the proper authorities demanding the restoration of his name to the roll of solicitors from which it had been struck by order of the High Court at the time of his conviction. But the Government absolutely declined to grant anything in the way of pecuniary compensation to Edalji for the cruel wrong which he had suffered nor for the ruin of his legal practice, and in this particular Conan Doyle was unable to accomplish anything. For the insular Briton does not look kindly upon halfbreeds, especially when the mixture of races is between the whites of the West and the dusky hued of the Orient, and Edalji had to be satisfied with recovering his liberty, which he owed entirely to the initiative and efforts of Conan Doyle.

No one but Sir Arthur himself can form any correct estimate of the amount of money and of time which he spent in the righting of these two particularly flagrant cases of judicial error. Realizing the difficulty of finding any one willing, like himself, to undertake the cost, the labor and the odium of such a task, and that the average citizen would he disposed to let an innocent man rot in jail rather than to assume the responsibility and labor of obtaining the liberation of the victim, he set to work to bring about the creation of a court of criminal appeal, using his able and ever fascinating pen to arouse public feeling in behalf of the project.

It took him some years to accomplish his aim. But ultimately his efforts were crowned with success; and now every convict who is either the victim of a judicial error or who has received an unduly harsh sentence can bless the name of Sir Conan Doyle when the wrong is righted by the Court of Criminal Appeal — Sir Arthur's offspring.

Conan Doyle is first and foremost a physician, deriving his artistic tastes and gifts from his father, that clever painter Charles Doyle. He received his early education at the great Roman Catholic College at Stoneyhurst [1] and afterward completed it first of all at several of the great German universities and afterward at Edinburgh, where he won his medical degree.

At Edinburgh he studied under that very remarkable anatomist Dr. Joseph Bell, became his favorite pupil and was Imbued with his instructor's extraordinary talents of deduction. Dr. Bell indeed was a born detective; he devoted all his leisure to the unravelling of detective mysteries and obscure crimes, and, as Conan Doyle himself admits, was the original of Sherlock Holmes. That is to say Doyle had Dr. Joseph Bell in mind when ho commenced to write his Sherlock Holmes series.

Dr. Bell was a famous character, a familiar figure to every one of the older generation of men who were graduated from the University of Edinburgh and a great favorite of the reigning family, owing to which he on several occasions had offers of a baronetcy pressed upon him, which he declined owing to the loss under particularly sad circumstances of his only son.

Doyle after graduation started out in medical practice at Southsea and there published his earliest work, "A Study in Scarlet," in which Sherlock Holmes makes his debut. "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" followed four years later, in 1891, and the book proved so much of a popular success that Doyle to a great extent abandoned his medical practice and devoted himself to writing novels and plays, thanks to which he is to-day a very rich man, his works and plays having been translated into a number of foreign languages.

When, however, the South African war broke out he responded to the call of patriotism, and dropping his pen for the nonce, took service in the ambulance department in the Transvaal and went through the entire campaign as one of the principal surgeons & the Langman field hospital. For his work in this connection he received the honor of knighthood on the restoration of peace, and then devoted himself to the writing of two of the most popular books that have been published concerning the conflict: books defending the British army from the charges of incompetence and inefficiency so unjustly brought against it by those who had remained at home to criticise. The one volume bears the title of "The Great Boer War" and the other that of "The War In South Africa, Its Causes and Its Conduct."

Sir Arthur has been twice married. His first wife died after twenty-two years of wedded happiness in 1906, and about two years later he led to the altar the present Lady Doyle, who was a Miss Jean Leckie. With her and with his two children by his first wife he makes his home at Windlesham, him charming country place in Sussex near Crowborough, while in town he divides his time between the Athenaum and the Reform Club.

He has always been an enthusiastic cricketer, is a veteran member of that premier cricket organization the Marylehone Cricket Club, is a Liberal Unionist In politics, which accounts for the defeat of his attempts to get into Parliament, has travelled extensively in the Arctic regions, in the west of Africa and in the Sudan, did a quantity of shooting in the Rocky Mountains twenty years ago, in the Selkirk Range north of Banff, which he intends to visit with Lady Doyle before returning home, and takes a leading part in all sorts of public movements, to which his personal popularity and the gift of his pen are invaluable.

Thus for the last three months he has been engaged in getting up an agitation among all the literary men in England, that is to say the writers, for the purpose of forcing the Government to provide for the participation of Great Britain in the Panama exhibition at San Francisco. In spite of all the pressure brought to hear upon the Administration, however, it has been found impossible to induce Premier Asquith to reconsider the decision of the Cabinet to decline the invitation of the United States to the world's fair at the Golden Gate.

Arthur is not only a writer of singularly wholesome and virile novels but is also something of a poet, a fact which is generally ignored. Of his gifts in this connection no better illustration can be given than his "Song of the Bow." It runs as follows:

What of the bow?
The bow was made in England;
Of true wood, of yew wood,
The wood of English bows;
So men who are free
Love the old yew tree
And the land where the yew tree grows.
What of the cord?
The cord was made in England;
A rough cord, a tough cord,
A cord that bowmen love;
So well drain our jacks
To the English flax
And the land where the hemp was wove.
What of the shaft?
The shaft was cut in England;
A long shaft, a strong shaft,
Barbed and trim and true;
So we'll drink all together
To the gray goose feather
And the land where the gray goose flew.
What of the men?
The men were bred in England;
The bowman — the yeoman—
The lads of the dale and fell
Here's to you — and to you!
To the hearts that are true
And the land where the true hearts dwell.

  1. Stonyhurst.