Five Fascinating Facts about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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…

Conan Doyle2. 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.

Image: Arthur Conan Doyle (author: Frédéric), share-alike licence.


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  16. I have recently read a novel about Conan Doyle – The Reichenbach Problem by Martin Allison Booth. I must get round to reviewing it, before I completely forget the plot! (Not that I do spoilers.) Sue

  17. Thank you for this. Enjoyed reading this and watching the video!

  18. Reblogged this on purple orchid and commented:
    I absolutely love crime stories, mostly for the way a detective is able to solve a case through logical reasoning. I first fell in love with Sherlock’s character in the BBC series (let’s not even get into the Hollywood interpretation). With the end of the third season, I decided to go to the origin of this fascination fictional character and started reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works.
    Coincidentally, this post appeared in my feed and it even includes a link to an video recorded interview with Doyle. One of the things that intrigued me though is how a man who decided to write detective stories because he was tired of reading crime mysteries without reasoning is himself drawn to the unexplained, mysterious world of spiritualism.

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  20. A fascinating interview. Thank you!

  21. Great information. Thank you.

  22. Reblogged this on The Girl and Her Books and commented:
    Happy Birthday Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  23. Fun read, thanks! Kudos for mentioning Bell’s Ripper ties! One of my first thoughts when starting in on that paragraph was, “… will it mention Bell’s theories?”

    On a semi-related note, have you ever seen the BBC series “Murder Rooms”? Doyle’s spiritualist leanings are present in the series, and Bell takes on a Houdini-esque approach in debunking mediums.

  24. Reblogged this on Sleepy Book Dragon and commented:
    155 years ago today, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born! Celebrated by finding out more about the man!

  25. As usual, a great, informative post. I read Barnes’ “Arthur and George” a while ago, and it’s a true gem. Very compelling and gripping, especially since I didn’t know at first it dealt with Conan Doyle.

  26. Reblogged this on Ace British History News 2014 and commented:
    #ABHN2014 – Nice Research and Nice Post

  27. I loved Arthur and George; can’t wait to see what Martin Clunes does with the character.

  28. Super interesting, as ever! Thank you for once again being the most interesting thing I am likely to read all week :)

  29. Doyle studied for medicine (Edinburg Uni.) and his teacher Joseph Bell served as model. Doyle wrote to him, “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes … ”

    Robert Louis Stevenson was able, even in faraway Samoa, to recognise the strong similarity between Joseph Bell and Sherlock Holmes: “[M]y compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. … [C]an this be my old friend Joe Bell?”[26] Other authors sometimes suggest additional influences—for instance, the famous Edgar Allan Poe character C. Auguste Dupin.(wikipedia)

  30. Fantastic post… thanks for sharing !!

  31. Reblogged this on New Beginnings and commented:
    One of the greatest writers of all time

  32. I found the Barnes novel Arthur and George very interesting, especially as I knew nothing about the case before reading it. It provided a very solid picture of all the participants.

  33. #1 is fascinating. The deductions he made are very Sherlockian, but I suppose that’s to be expected, since he was Sherlock’s creator.

  34. Great post! Interesting and informative.

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  36. Love this! I always found it interesting that Doyle didn’t even really care much for his Sherlock stories, if it weren’t for his loyal readers he probably wouldn’t have written as many as he did!

  37. He also loved to ride a bicycle. One of my favorite quotes from him, “When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking. “

  38. Please! Do not leave fact 1 open-ended like that! Who was the suspect named by Dr Bell and his friend? Very nice post, thank you.

    • The police never shared that information with the public, unfortunately… so no one knows who Bell suspected.

  39. That video is fabulous! Thank you for sharing both it and the facts. I enjoyed them immensely!

  40. I also linked this on twitter, hope you don’t mind.

  41. Reblogged this on ronovanwrites and commented:
    I love Sherlock Holmes so anything about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle interests me. This was enjoyable and a change up from my how to blog and general fiction reading. Suggest all read!

  42. Thanks for posting this informative piece.