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  • Gavin Whitehead

Arthur Conan Doyle, Consulting Detective (S1BE4)

Arthur Conan Doyle rose to fame as the inventor of Sherlock Holmes. Not unlike his literary creation, Doyle had a knack for making inferences about others based on observation alone and even brought that talent to bear on real-life criminal cases. He also weighed in on the Ripper killings, drawing curve-ball conclusions about how the murderer committed his crimes. Show notes and full transcript below.

Above: 1926 caricature of Arthur Conan Doyle chained to Sherlock Holmes. Sketched by Bernard Partridge and held by the National Portrait Gallery in London.



Joseph Bell, professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He taught a young Arthur Conan Doyle and served as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, Bell had a talent for drawing conclusions about others based on observation alone.

1883 print showing Arthur Conan Doyle. Created by Herbert Rose Barraud and published by Eglington & Co.

Photograph of George Edalji, Anglo-Indian solicitor convicted of slashing a horse in the village of Wyrley and later pardoned, thanks in large part to the efforts of Arthur Conan Doyle.



---Barnes, Julian. Arthur and George. New York: Knopf, 2006.

---Begg, Paul, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner. The Jack the Ripper A-Z, Third Edition. London: Headline, 1996.

---Collins, John Churton. The Life and Memoirs of John Churton Collins. London: John Lane; New York: John Lane, 1912.

---Cullen, Tom. Autumn of Terror: Jack the Ripper, His Times and Crimes. London: Bodley Head, 1965.

---Doyle, Adrian Conan. The True Conan Doyle. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1946.

---Doyle, Arthur Conan. Memories and Adventures. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1924.

---Evans, Stewart P. and Keith Skinner. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.

---Fox, Margalit. Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer. New York: Random House, 2018.

---Stewart, William. Jack the Ripper: A New Theory. London: Quality Press, 1939.

---Weaver, Gordon. Conan Doyle and the Parson’s Son: The George Edalji Case. Cambridge: Vanguard Books, 2006.



Dr. Joseph Bell eyeballed his patient and read him like a copy of the Strand Magazine: “Well, my man, you’ve served in the army.” “Aye, sir.” “Not long discharged?” “No, sir.” “A Highland regiment?” “Aye, sir.” “A non-com. officer?” “Aye, sir.” “Stationed at Barbados?” “Aye, sir.” A slender, snowy-haired Scot with a piping voice, an overactive Adam’s apple, and a jittery gait, Dr. Bell turned to a group of medical students and talked them through his bull’s-eye deductions. “You see, gentleman,” he began, “The man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British.” Dr. Bell sounds like a Sherlock if ever there was one, and one of his students, Arthur Conan Doyle, numbered among several Watsons in the room, stunned as ever by their teacher’s powers of observation and inference.

Doyle went on to immortalize Bell as the basis for literature’s most exalted detective, Sherlock Holmes. In August 1892, a journalist revealed that Bell had inspired the brightest mind on Baker Street, prompting Doyle to write to his former professor. By now, the author had become a Sherlock in his own right. He was drowning in letters from “raving idiots” entreating him to crack real-life criminal cases, Doyle complained, warning Bell to brace himself for a flood of similar inquiries now that the public knew him as the model for Holmes. Doyle listed several of his correspondents’ concerns. A number were convinced that their neighbors were starving women to death in hermetically sealed attics, and then there was that persistent merchant from Liverpool. He was dying to know who Jack the Ripper was.

This season, we’ve met more than one detective novelist who’s had a go at the Ripper crimes. The first, Michael Harrison, named James Kenneth Stephen as the Whitechapel slasher back in the ’70s. More recently (and more famously), Patricia Cornwell has published two editions of a book implicating Walter Sickert in the homicides. She’s invited comparisons to her most famous creation, medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, and readers care what Cornwell has to say about the Whitechapel nightmare because they consider her just as clever as her heroine. If Cornwell can orchestrate elaborate crimes and have Scarpetta solve them in fiction, the thinking goes, then maybe she has the forensic prowess to unravel a mystery as knotted as the Ripper killings.

Today, we’ll hear about one of Harrison and Cornwell’s early predecessors, Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as his forays into amateur detection. He made more than one, it turns out, sometimes aided by Sherlockian observation. When it comes to the Ripper, Doyle took more than a casual interest in the case and even weighed in on how police might have captured the killer. Furthermore, while Doyle never named a suspect in print, he did have general ideas about the murderer’s identity, and today we’ll learn about how they’ve gotten entangled with the “Jill the Ripper” theory, which holds that a woman committed the crimes. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to bonus episode 4 of The Unusual Suspects . . .

Arthur Conan Doyle, Consulting Detective

Born May 22, 1859, to an Irish family living in Edinburgh, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle pursued a career as a doctor while also dabbling in detective fiction. Starting in 1876, he studied medicine at University of Edinburgh, where he made the acquaintance of Joseph Bell. Doyle embarked on his literary career while still a medical student, and from the beginning he showed an affinity for narratives of intrigue. Inspired by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, often hailed as the father of detective fiction, Doyle placed his first short story, “The Mystery of Sasasa Valley” in Chamber’s Journal in 1879. He completed his studies one year later, in 1880, after returning from an arctic expedition having served as a ship’s surgeon. For the next seven years or so, he divided his time between his medical practice and literary endeavors. After a brief stint on the Mayumba, which ferried back and forth between the port city of Liverpool and various parts of Africa, Doyle settled down in Portsmouth, England, where he walked down the aisle with his first wife, Louise, in 1885.

It wasn't until the late 1880s and early 1890s that Doyle achieved literary fame. In 1887, he published Holmes’ inaugural adventure, A Study in Scarlet, in Beaton’s Christmas Annual. They paid the young author twenty-five pounds for exclusive rights to the novel, and who knows how much Doyle would have made in royalties if his contract had entitled him to them. Still, the success of Study opened the door to other opportunities. By 1892, he had written another Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, and published a series of short stories about the great detective in the Strand Magazine, including “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “A Case of Identity,” and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” later collected and released under the title The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle the Detective

It was around the early 1890s that people started bombarding Doyle with pleas to investigate crimes in real life. Judging from his letter to Joseph Bell, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes resented the idea of playing detective on demand, as if he were expected to pull on a deerstalker and light up his pipe whenever a mystery needed solving. Still, Doyle bore undeniable similarities to the master of deduction he had written into existence. Like Holmes, he had a knack for drawing conclusions about perfect strangers based on observation, and he even brought this talent to bear on a cause-célèbre.

We find glimpses of Doyle’s deductive reasoning in the recollections of Adrian Malcolm Conan Doyle, the author’s youngest son. Later in life, Adrian remembered dining in well-known restaurants while he and his father were traveling Europe. The elder Doyle was an avid people-watcher, it seems, and he often made inferences about the quirks and professional lives of other patrons based on their behavior and physical appearance. When possible, the Doyles questioned the head waiter to see if he knew the diners Doyle Sr. had been watching and if so, whether he could confirm his conclusions. In such cases, Adrian declares, “the accuracy of my father’s deduction was positively startling.”

In 1907, Doyle put this skill to use in a case with higher stakes, that of George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor who lived with his Indian-born father, a vicar named Shapurji, and his English mother, Charlotte. The Edaljis made their home in the village of Wyrley, Staffordshire, and when they arrived there, they became the first family of Indian—specifically Parsi—descent to settle in the area.

Over the course of 1903, Wyreley witnessed a string of attacks on local farm animals. Under cover of darkness, a knifeman had maimed horses, cows, and sheep, sometimes inflicting injuries so dire the animal was put down. It wasn’t uncommon for locals to settle a score with each other by wounding a horse or some other livestock now and again, but as the months wore on and more animals were mutilated, the spree gave rise to public outcry and generated considerable media coverage. The crimes became known as “The Great Wyrley Outrages.”

Pseudonymous letters to the authorities, purportedly written by a member of a gang who had carried out the slashings, laid blame on Edalji, among other villagers. It’s unclear what circumstantial evidence led police to zero in on the lawyer, now twenty-seven and still living at the vicarage with his mother and father, but according to rumor, he had a reputation for roaming the area after nightfall, and footprints from the crime scenes appeared to lead toward the Edalji residence. By summer, they were keeping a watchful eye on George. Then, on August 18, a pony was found mutilated, the eighth attack that year, and police came knocking at the vicarage. They found articles of clothing belonging to Edalji and covered in mud—a couple of boots, a pair of serge trousers, along with a housecoat. They returned the next day and searched the residence further, turning up a box of four old razors in the suspect’s bedroom. Based on this and other dubious evidence, police arrested the vicar’s son for maiming the pony. After a controversial trial, the jury handed down a guilty verdict, and Edalji was sentenced to seven years’ hard labor.

In the wake of these proceedings, Doyle emerged as the convict’s most famous and efficient public advocate. In 1907, he took part in a campaign to have Edalji pardoned. In a series of articles, Doyle picked apart the Crown’s case, calling out one contradiction after another. As part of his efforts, he arranged a meeting with Edalji in a hotel. In a Sherlockian flourish, after arriving in the lobby, Doyle held off on introducing himself, instead watching Edalji from a distance as he read a newspaper. The author noticed that he held the periodical close to his face and at an angle. Based on Edalji’s obvious myopia, Doyle doubted whether someone so near-sighted could have navigated his way to and from the crime scenes in the dead of night, when the knifings took place. Doyle was not alone in raising this question. After a spirited campaign, he and his allies won out, securing a pardon in 1907. Largely because the process of overturning the verdict proved so challenging, Edalji’s case became one of several that led to the institution in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeals in England. Modern historians are divided on the question of Edalji’s guilt or innocence. However, most concur that racism played a part in the police investigation as well as the subsequent trial and conviction.

This wouldn’t be the last time Doyle took on a leading role in facilitating justice. He also involved himself in the case of Oscar Slater, one of mystery, murder, and ferocious controversy. If you want to know more, check out Margalit Fox’s 2018 book, Conan Doyle for the Defense. Or, if you’re more in the mood for a podcast, have a listen to the fantastic Dark Histories episode on Doyle and Slater.

Arthur and Jack

But what did Doyle have to say about Jack the Ripper? That merchant from Liverpool wasn’t about to find out. Yet Doyle was forthcoming on other occasions and showed a continued fascination with the case.

The July 4, 1894, edition of the Portsmouth Evening News features an interview touching on the topic of how Sherlock Holmes would have busted the Ripper. Doyle told the reporter that he asked himself that very question while taking a tour of Scotland Yard’s crime museum. During the visit, he had the opportunity to hold the “Dear Boss” letter in his own hands. Subjecting it to the science of deduction, he arrived at the following conclusions: “It was written in red ink in a clerkly hand. I tried to think how Holmes might have deduced the writer of that letter. The most obvious point was that the letter was written by someone who had been in America. It began ‘Dear Boss,’ and contained the phrase ‘fix it up’ and several others which are not used with the Britishers. Then we have the quality of the paper and the handwriting, which indicate that the letters were not written by a toiler. It was good paper, and round, easy, clerkly hand. He was therefore a man accustomed to the use of a pen.” As if his game were afoot, Doyle imagines how Holmes would track and nab the murderer. The great unraveller of enigmas would have had the letter reproduced in facsimile and printed throughout Britain and the United States, offering a reward to anyone who recognized the handwriting and could prove as much by producing a sample of the suspect’s script. “Oddly enough the police did not, as far as I know, think of that, and so they failed to accomplish anything.” He concludes, “Such a course would have enlisted millions of people as detectives in the case.”

To be fair, police did have both the “Dear Boss” letter and the “Saucy Jacky” postcard printed in facsimile. Doyle may not have known about this measure, however, because he was living in Portsmouth at the time of the killing spree and only visited London intermittently. It isn’t a bad idea by any means, but I’d also add that Holmes’s hypothetical strategy sounds out of character. I haven’t read all of Sherlock’s adventures, but I’ve never known the guy to crowdsource his solutions. Individual genius is his preferred means of arriving at the truth.

More than a decade later, Doyle indulged his interest in the Whitechapel murders once again. On April 19, 1905, he visited the crime scenes in addition to various other locations with fellow members of “Our Society,” also known as “The Crime Club.” Founded in 1903, the group consisted of lawyers, writers, and former police officers who came together six times a year to talk about true crime. In fact, several participants played a part in the hunt for the killer back in 1888, including newsman George R. Sims. As you might remember from our Willy Clarkson episode, Sims supposedly disguised himself as a ship’s engineer and prowled around Whitechapel keeping an eye out for suspicious activity. Sims did not accompany Doyle on the 1905 field trip, but others well-acquainted with the homicides did. Literary critic John Churton Collins detailed the excursion in his 1911 book, Life and Memoirs of John Churton Collins. The sightseers stopped at 13 Miller’s Court, the scene of Mary Jane Kelly’s slaying, which Collins describes as “a dismal hole in the dark, wet, gloomy afternoon” adding that it was “sombre and sinister, unwholesome and depressing.”

Collins records little of Doyle’s impressions other than to note that he “seemed very much interested, particularly in the Petticoat Lane part of the expedition, and laughed when I said, ‘Caliban [the monstrous island dweller in Shakespeare’s The Tempest] would have turned up his nose at this.’” Maybe Collins remains more or less silent on Doyle because the man of letters couldn’t lay claim to direct involvement in the Ripper investigation, as could their companions, Dr. Gordon Browne, who “was concerned in all of [the crimes], seeing most of the corpses just after they were murdered.” Like many observers, Browne considered the Whitechapel menace to have been a medical student with above-average knowledge of human anatomy. Less common, however, was Browne’s conviction that the fiend had also worked as a butcher, since what Collins calls “butchers’ cuts” caused certain wounds—the severing of Catherine Eddowes’ nose, for example. Doyle would have likely heard Browne’s conjectures, and he would echo some of them later in life.

The Jill the Ripper Myth

Arthur Conan Doyle holds a special place in received Ripper wisdom because he drew a curve-ball conclusion about the killer’s identity—or at least we’re told he did. It has sometimes been said that he suspected that a woman committed the murders. Jack was a Jill, in other words, and indeed “Jill the Ripper” is a catch-all term applied to theories implicating women in the homicides. As is often the case in Ripperology, it’s tricky to disentangle fact from fiction, and I’m not sure Doyle ever made this claim.

Before getting to that, it’s worth taking a gander at the history of this theory. According to Paul Begg, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner, authors of The Jack the Ripper A-Z, “Jill the Ripper” first reared her head in 1888. The Reverend Lord Sydney Godolphin Osborne wrote into The Times opining that the victims’ mutilations reminded him of threats that streetwalkers made to each other on a regular basis. He might mean oaths like “I’ll have your guts for garters,” the A-Z authors suggest, since Osborne never states what threats he has in mind. In any case, Osborne implies that the murderer was a prostitute preying on other women involved in the sex trade. Fifty years later, in his 1939 study of the Whitechapel murders, Jack the Ripper: A New Theory, William Stewart became perhaps the earliest (and far from the last) writer to explore the possibility of a female killer in depth. He intimates that police never caught the culprit because they were hunting for a man instead of a woman. He speculates that a midwife or abortionist may have carried out the crimes since women in those professions would possess the medical knowledge to remove internal organs. Furthermore, midwives or abortionists could walk the streets of London in bloodstained garments without arousing suspicion because getting covered in bodily fluids was just part of the job. Thus, Jill the Ripper could escape from the crime scenes, undetected.

Without citing their sources, the A-Z authors lead you to believe that Stewart got the midwife idea from Arthur Conan Doyle. If Doyle ever put this hunch in writing, I haven’t found it. If you happen to know where it is, do get in touch. That said, Doyle did have views on how the Ripper brought off his crimes, and while his conjectures never implicate a woman, they do involve a man masquerading as one. In 1962, Ripperologist Tom Cullen wrote to Adrian Conan Doyle, asking if his father had ever let him in on his personal Ripper theories. Cullen published the younger Doyle’s response in a 1965 book entitled Autumn of Terror. “More than thirty years having passed,” Adrian admits, “it is difficult to recall his views in detail on the Ripper case. However, I do remember that he considered it likely that the man had a rough knowledge of surgery and probably clothed himself as a woman to approach his victims without arousing suspicion on their part.” Not unlike the venerable Dr. Gordon Browne, Doyle suspected that the killer had at least some surgical know-how.

More provocatively, Doyle gives credence to the disguise hypothesis. Yet this iteration stands apart from others we’ve come across this season. In most cases, Ripper hunters maintain that the criminal costumed himself to elude the authorities. Not so for Doyle. In his view, the Whitechapel knifeman dresses up more to beguile his victims than to outsmart police. In this regard, Doyle invokes disguise as a way of answering a question that has stumped Ripper experts since 1888: how did the killer gain his victims’ confidence? After all, many commentators assume that the malefactor lured his victims to a secluded location—a backyard or an alley—so he could murder them without drawing unwanted attention. Yet throughout much of the Ripper’s reign of terror, Whitechapel women walked the streets on high alert, traveling in small groups to ensure their safety and keeping their distance from dodgy-looking men. Given this climate of hypervigilance, some have argued that the Ripper would have needed to earn his victims’ trust before he could coax them somewhere private. The women he killed were usually drunk or desperate for doss money, which may have clouded their judgment. For Doyle, however, the Ripper may have put them at ease and drawn them into his trap because he attired himself as a woman, and virtually everybody took for granted that a man was committing the murders.


That’s about it for Doyle and the Ripper. But there’s more to be said about his views toward Sherlock as his claim to fame as well as the perception that he himself was a Sherlock.

Doyle’s relationship with the fictional character was itself one of ambivalence. Even by the early 1890s, he resented the detective who had made him famous. If the author had it his way, he would have abandoned Holmes and branched out to other topics, but readers wouldn’t stand for it, and neither would his publishers. In November 1891, Doyle confessed to his mother in a letter, “I think of slaying Holmes . . . and winding him up for good and all.” His mother voiced the sentiments of the entire reading public in her response: “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!” That wouldn’t stop him trying, and much to Doyle’s chagrin, he would learn the hard way that even throwing Holmes off a cliff wouldn’t kill him for long.

Fittingly, perhaps, Doyle had mixed feeling about being perceived as a Sherlock himself. After all, as much as he grumbled about the letters enjoining him to solve this crime or that, he had to admit that he and his brainchild made use of common tactics. “I have several times solved a problem by Holmes’ methods after the police have been baffled,” Doyle once remarked. Careful not to overstretch the comparison, however, he continues, “Yet I must admit that in ordinary life I am by no means observant and that I have to throw myself into an artificial frame of mind before I can weigh evidence and anticipate the sequence of events.” Sometimes he felt a kinship to Holmes, and other times, he didn’t.

For his part, Dr. Joseph Bell considered the matter was more straightforward—you might say elementary—than the detective writer let on. Doyle’s professor, mentor, and lifelong friend broke it down for him in a letter: “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it!”


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