Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The
George Edalji Case
It was a moment straight out of a Sherlock Holmes
novel. In January of 1907 Conan Doyle walked into the lobby of a hotel.
He was to meet with a man who was trying
to clear his name. As Conan Doyle entered the lobby he spotted the man
he was looking for, George Edalji. In a flash Conan Doyle knew that
Edalji was innocent of the crime for which he'd served three years in
George Edalji grew up in Great Wyrley, northwest of
Birmingham. His father was a Parsee Indian who had converted to the
Church of England and become a vicar. Reverend Edalji married an English
woman and together they had three children, including George.
The Edalji family endured much racial intolerance. There was
name-calling and practical jokes. In 1888 there were also anonymous,
disturbing letters. A disgruntled servant of the Edalji family confessed
to sending the letters.
However in 1892 another series of letters began. This time
sixteen-year-old George was accused of being the culprit by local law
enforcement. At the time George was a student at the Walsall Grammar
School. He was considered an excellent student. No reason or evidence
was given for the accusations against him. The letters ceased soon after
George was accused of writing them and the matter was dropped.
In 1903 something much more troubling happened in the Great Wyrley
area. Sheep, cows and horses were being killed. The animals were
mutilated in the middle of the night. Long, shallow cuts to the stomach
caused the animals to bleed to death.
The anonymous letters began again. The letters taunted the police and
named the perpetrator of the crimes. George Edalji was named as the
person behind of the hideous crimes.
By this time Edalji was a successful solicitor. While it was true
that he didn't seem to have many friends that seemed to be the worst
that could be said of him.
Nevertheless evidence was gathered and a trial was held. George
Edalji, vicar's son and former solicitor, was found guilty and sentenced
to seven years' hard labor.
Not everyone who was aware of the case was convinced that justice had
been done. A petition was organized to protest Edalji's conviction and
to press for his release. Ten thousand people signed the petition.
Because of the publicity Edalji was released after three years. No
reason was given for his release, his name was not cleared and no
compensation was given for the three years of imprisonment.
While Edalji was happy for his freedom he couldn't practice as a
solicitor because of the conviction. He also thought he should receive
some sort of compensation for all the time he'd lost and everything he
had to endure. Since he hadn't had much luck with the legal system,
Edalji took his case to the press. He published an account of the entire
Conan Doyle read about the Edalji case and felt compelled to act. In
December of 1906 he began to investigate the matter and everything he
found confirmed his initial feelings that an innocent man had been
As he reviewed the facts it seemed to Conan Doyle that the evidence
was overwhelming. Edalji was innocent. The bloody razors found in the
Edalji home were later discovered to be merely rusty razors. The
handwriting expert who testified that Edalji's handwriting matched the
writing on the taunting letters was discovered to have made a serious
mistake on another case causing an innocent man to be convicted. The mud
on George's boots was of a different soil type than that of the field
where the last mutilation took place. The killings and letters continued
after Edalji was prosecuted.
And then there was the final piece of evidence that Conan Doyle
gathered. The evidence that he saw in an instant the first time he set
eyes on George Edalji. Conan Doyle stated, "He had come to my hotel by
appointment, but I had been delayed, and he was passing the time by
reading the paper. I recognized my man by his dark face, so I stood and
observed him. He held the paper close to his eyes and rather sideways,
proving not only a high degree of myopia, but marked astigmatism. The
idea of such a man scouring fields at night and assaulting cattle while
avoiding the watching police was ludicrous . . . There, in a single
physical defect, lay the moral certainty of his innocence . . . "
Conan Doyle wrote a series of articles for the Daily Telegraph
about the Edalji case. He outlined everything in great detail. These
articles caught the public's attention and that caught the attention of
the British government. At that time there was no procedure for a
retrial so a there was a private committee meeting to consider the
matter. In the spring of 1907 the committee decided that Edalji was
innocent of the mutilations, but still found him guilty of writing the
Conan Doyle found anything less than a finding of innocent on all
charges a miscarriage of justice, however the decision made a huge
difference for Edalji. The Law Society readmitted him. Edalji was once
again able to practice as a solicitor.
It is important to note that partially as a result of this case the
Court of Criminal Appeal was established in 1907. So not only did Conan
Doyle help George Edalji, his work helped to establish a way to correct
other miscarriages of justice.
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Outrage: The Edalji Five and the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes by
The April 23, 2011 newsletter of the Sherlock Holmes Society of
London says this book is, " . . . unlikely to be surpassed as a
comprehensive, intelligent, balanced and intensely readable