In honour of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday (he was born on 22 May 1859 – fans of The Smiths may be interested to learn that this was exactly 100 years to the day before Morrissey’s birth), we’re here with five of our favourite fascinating facts about the man who gave us Sherlock Holmes.
1. Conan Doyle took to a bit of sleuthing of his own in an attempt to solve the Jack the Ripper case. In 1894, six years after the notorious Whitechapel murders by the unidentified criminal identified as ‘Jack the Ripper’, Doyle was asked by an American journalist how Sherlock Holmes would have gone about tracking down the Ripper. Doyle replied that Holmes would have started by examining the letter the Ripper had supposedly sent to the police. Whilst acknowledging that the letter could have been a hoax, Doyle nevertheless worked on the basis that it was genuine. He went on to deduce by the handwriting of the letter that the writer had spent some time in America (the Americanisms ‘Dear Boss’ and ‘fix it up’ both appeared in the letter), and was used to working with a pen, suggesting a job which involved regular writing. Doyle ended his response by saying that Holmes would have published facsimiles of this letter in the leading newspapers in both the UK and US, to see if anyone could come forward and identify the handwriting. ‘Oddly enough, the police did not, as far as I know, think of that’, Doyle remarked. But did the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes come closer to identifying the culprit than Sherlock Holmes’s creator did? Dr Joseph Bell, the real-life inspiration for the detective, also attempted to track down the killer. He and a friend both independently conducted their own investigations, before putting their findings – and the name of the most likely suspect – into separate envelopes. When they exchanged the envelopes, they found that they had both come up with the same name. Their findings were then handed on to the police. Shortly after this, the murders mysteriously stopped…
2. Doyle’s legal campaigning led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal. Much like his creation, Sherlock Holmes, Doyle took up various legal causes. Julian Barnes’s 2005 novel Arthur & George is a fictionalised account of the most famous of these. The book details Doyle’s defence of the Anglo-Indian solicitor George Edalji, who was charged with injuring a pony and sentenced to three years’ hard labour. Edalji was, as Doyle showed, innocent, and Edalji was eventually released and pardoned. In 1907, the Court of Criminal Appeal was set up in the UK, inspired precisely by such cases as Edalji’s. Barnes’s novel was a bestseller, and in the UK later this year, it is going to be adapted for ITV with Martin Clunes portraying Doyle.
3. Before he created Sherlock Holmes, Doyle helped to create the modern mystery surrounding the Mary Celeste. Before he had conceived and written the first Sherlock Holmes novel, Doyle was already writing other mysteries – which drew on real life. In 1884, Doyle wrote a short story, ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’, published anonymously in the Cornhill magazine, about the Mary Celeste, the British-American merchant ship which was discovered abandoned in the Atlantic in 1872. Although Doyle built his story around solid fact, he embellished here and there – and many newspapers subsequently took this fictional ‘statement’ as fact. The misspelling of the boat’s name as ‘Marie Céleste’ is also down to Doyle: it was actually named Mary, not Marie.
4. He was a keen cricketer – and, as the following story demonstrates, probably quite a good one. Conan Doyle played in ten cricket matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). The highlight of the ‘career’ of Conan Doyle the cricketer must undoubtedly have been the match in which Doyle managed to take a first-class wicket – the batsman being none other than cricketing legend W. G. Grace. Conan Doyle was also a goalkeeper, and played (under the name A. C. Smith) in goal for Portsmouth AFC, the amateur team that would later become the modern-day Portsmouth FC.
5. He was a spiritualist. Doyle’s belief in spiritualism, seances, and fairies in the last few decades of his life is widely known. He even wrote a novel about the world of spiritualism, The Land of Mist (1926), which is nominally one of his Professor Challenger novels (though the Professor takes a backseat in this story). But Doyle’s interest in spiritualism is worth mentioning here because of his unlikely friendship with Harry Houdini. Because of Houdini’s remarkable talent for illusion – he could make an elephant disappear seemingly into thin air, and escape from locked boxes and rooms – Doyle became convinced that Houdini possessed the spiritual gift of ‘dematerialisation’. Although the two men were friends, Houdini privately dismissed Doyle’s beliefs as ‘applesauce’ and ‘hogwash’ and he set about exposing fraudulent mediums and spiritualists and others who claimed to possess divine gifts (but were actually using similar trickery to Houdini). The two men subsequently fell out, rather publicly, and that was the end of the friendship.
To finish, we thought we’d share this wonderful video footage of Conan Doyle, filmed near the end of his life, in 1927. In this film he discusses Sherlock Holmes and his interest in spiritualism, among other things. And we have more Sherlock Holmes facts here. To learn about another great author of detective fiction, check out our interesting facts about Agatha Christie.