Month: June 2015

Arthur Conan Doyle: Social Justice Warrior

Doyle in Fetching Boater

Doyle in Fetching Boater

Arthur Conan Doyle was hardly a meek man, nor one prone to seeking diplomatic solutions when dramatic alternatives were available. When he attempted to enlist in the military forces he wrote that “I am fifty-five but I am very strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distances, which is useful at drill.” This audible voice proved to be very significant for two individuals in particular; George Edalji and Oscar Slater. My interest in these two men was sparked by our recent celebration of “Arthur Conan Doyle Week” at the end of May in honour of his birthday. Fortunately or otherwise, the Olympia bookfair has prevented me from typing up some of the more fascinating aspects of Doyle’s life that I discovered during that week.

Sherlock HolmesRecently novelised by Julian

Barnes as Arthur and George and then adapted as a television drama of the same name, the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s real-life detective work has fired innumerable imaginations, and further blurred the line between the author and the world’s most famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.Doyle is most famous for his privately-conducted PR campaign on two cases: the first, that of astigmatic and myopic solicitor George Edalji, accused of savaging a pit pony and conducting a poison pen letter campaign against his own family; and the second, that of Oscar Slater, in which a German Jewish immigrant was falsely accused of murdering an 83 year old spinster during a botched robbery before fleeing to the United States. In each case, there was significant evidence that a combination of police incompetence and police corruption had given rise to the charges, and Doyle was instrumental in uncovering and then proving that this was the case.


George Edalji

The case against Edalji ran as follows. When George was twelve, a series of threatening letters were sent to his father, the vicar Shapurji Edalji. These events, in which George was considered a possible suspect despite being a child, culminated in the firing and conviction of the Edalji’s maid-of-all-work. A second wave of poison pen letters arrived four years later, in which Shapurji was accused of, amongst other things, “gross immorality with persons using Vaseline in the same way as did Oscar Wilde”. This campaign also subsided, though public opinion in the village of Great Wyrley, where the Edaljis lived, had begun to favour either the Shapurji or George as the culprits. This view was also taken up by Police Constable Upton, who Shapurji had earlier praised for his investigation into the first poison pen letter case, and expressed by Chief Constable of the county, Captain Anson. It seems clear that Anson had decided this primarily on racist grounds, and his views may have put pressure on those beneath him to adopt similar views. In 1903 there were a series of animal maimings, and investigation of these rapidly turned to George, although there was slim evidence that he was involved. When Doyle became involved with the case, after Edalji had served three years in jail and then been paroled, the chief evidence that he thought established George’s innocence was his eyesight. The maimings had occurred at night, and required physical strength and manual dexterity – in turn dependent on visual acuity. George’s eyesight was so poor that he had to hold a newspaper inches from his face in order to see it clearly. On the basis of his medical training in ophthalmology, Doyle thought it impossible for George Edalji to have been responsible for the maimings. This evidence had been available to Edalji’s defense team, but they thought it obvious that the prosecution’s case was a farce that would be thrown out and made no mention of it during proceedings.

As a direct result of Doyle’s public campaign into the circumstances of Edalji’s arrest and trial, the Home Office conducted a parliamentary review. That review found that the evidence provided to establish Edalji’s guilt, compounded by the fact that the police sought only evidence to incriminate Edalji rather than evidence pertinent to the case, made the conviction unsafe, and recommended that the Home Secretary overturn his conviction, in spite of the recently passed guidelines concerning the issuing of pardons. However, the jury and the magistrates leading the enquiry both felt that Edalji was likely to have brought the trouble upon himself by conducting the poison pen letter campaign, which, from a modern perspective also looks to be a false accusation. As a direct result of this, while the Home Secretary restored Edalji’s professional standing and issued a royal pardon proclaiming his innocence, he refused to compensate him for his three years of imprisonment.

Oscar Slater, c.1908  Private Collection

Oscar Slater, c.1908 Private Collection

By contrast, Oscar Slater was a known pimp and a gangster, very much one of the usual suspects. During a ten minute window of opportunity when the maid of 83 year old Marion Gilchrist left her mistress on her own in the house, Gilchrist was beaten to death and one of her brooches was stolen. The evidence implicating Slater was slim, to say the least. A person had called at Gilchrist’s house several days before looking for “Anderson”, one of Slater’s previous aliases; someone reported seeing Slater trying to sell a pawn ticket; and Slater had left the country five days after the murder.

When informed that the Scottish police were seeking his extradition, Slater returned voluntarily from the US. During his trial, an alibi was provided for his whereabouts at the time of the murder, and further evidence was provided establishing his plans to travel to the United States had been made long before his alleged flight. Regardless, the jury voted to convict 9-5, and he was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment as a result of public outcry.

Persuaded by research conducted by William Roughead, Doyle wrote passionately in defense of Slater. Two years later, in 1914, a private enquiry was held, during which evidence provided by one of the original detectives on the case that showed Slater to be innocent was disregarded, and John Thompson Trench, the detective in question, was dismissed from the force. It would be another 14 years before Slater was pardoned in 1928.

Two hundred years on, Napoleon Bonaparte is still much more interesting than Arthur Wellesley


Equestrian statue of Napoleon in Rouen

Second Charlemagne, or Bogeyman? Super Man or Tyrant? Whether you’re a fan or a critic, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the 30 year career of Napoleon Bonaparte, who fought and lost his final battle at Waterloo 200 years ago today. Appointed Brigadier General at the age of 24 for his inspired use of artillery at the siege of Toulon in 1793, it soon became obvious that Napoleon was Republican France’s most gifted young commander. Over the following 20 years he helped expand the borders of France to include parts of Spain, the Netherlands and Italy, and subdued all the great powers of mainland Europe in a series of enormous battles the scale of which had not been seen since Antiquity. Over the whole period it has been estimated that up to 5,000,000 combatants were killed, having a greater relative impact on the population of France than the First World War.DSCN0471

Despite astonishing and terrifying the world with his lightning manoeuvres and remorseless expenditure of human lives, Napoleon and Republican France were ultimately crushed. Exhausted by constant total warfare rather than strategically defeated on the battlefield, Napoleon left France economically ravished and decisively toppled from its position as the most powerful European nation. Thus this final battle, Waterloo, is rightly regarded as one of the most pivotal moments in Modern British history, ushering in a century of rapid economic and colonial expansion, and global naval domination. It is perhaps no coincidence then that our recent post-colonial age has seen these wars and their principle players romanticised by novelists such as Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, C. S. Forester, and Douglas Reeman. These patriotic pseudo-historical accounts, often based on extensive research, present the British armed forces at their best – fighting as heroic under-dogs for the last time while saving the rest of Europe from French Republican autocracy. Cornwell’s creation, the Richard Sharpe series, is perhaps the most interesting of these, since the eponymous protagonist manages to be present not only at most of the important battles of the Peninsula War in Portugal and Spain, but also at the Siege of Copenhagen, the naval battle of Trafalgar, and of course the coup de grace, Waterloo.



And yet, for all this British smugness (one might even whisper “propaganda”) it is Napoleon, not Wellington, who remains the enduring, compelling, endlessly fascinating character. While Wellington appears in the Sharpe series as the straight man – the ‘M’ to Sharpe’s 007 – Napoleon is the unseen evil, or Blofeld, to complete the analogy. The secret to his success is of course the ambiguity of his character. It is impossible to make a definitive judgement. In the nineteenth century this simmering question gave rise to a whole sweep of challenging literature, including Alexandre Dumas’ ‘Count of Monte Cristo’, Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, and Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Dostoevsky’s contribution is particularly interesting because he pares the question right back to its bare essentials: what is ‘greatness’; at what cost is it achieved; and what good is it? The brilliant but poor Raskolnikov carefully plans the murder of an old and widely disliked old woman with a great deal of money he believes he could make better use of. But when the repellent act itself causes hesitation and confusion and he is forced to clumsily murder her sister, who becomes an unexpected witness, the central character spirals into a pit of self doubt and madness. Raskolnikov wished to emulate Napoleon by rising above the normal confines of morality – rising to become like a god, with the power and the right to commit murder, even of millions if necessary, for higher ideals. In the event he discovered such a thing was impossible; his natural good nature was fundamentally incompatible with such viciousness.

Those of us thankfully not burdened with such delusions of grandeur, however, would do well to think twice before writing Napoleon off as a Nietzschean super man, or Hitler-prequel. It was his devotion to Republican France, rather than a personal quest for power, which drove him to use what Thomas Carlyle later described as a ‘whiff of grapeshot’ against royalist forces during the battle of 13 Vendémiaire in 1795. We would do better by Napoleon in comparing him to Alexander the Great – a brilliant general who proved to the whole world that nothing is impossible. Although their two careers seem fundamentally different in the sense that Alexander never suffered a defeat, it is important to remember just how young he died. In the end, both these brilliant men learned the same lessons in the same ways. Astonishing success was followed by a sudden incomprehensible end to it all. The extract which follows is from the poem ‘Hercules Epitrapeszios Novi Vindicis’ by the Roman poet Statius. It is about a tiny but near-perfect statue of Hercules. I consider it a masterful unravelling and depiction of the immateriality of the things which drive some people, like Napoleon or Alexander, to be brilliant. This is precisely what Dumas’ ‘Count of Monte Cristo’ is all about as well, and they demonstrate that it is the moments after the unravelling of these mysteries which decide our moral qualities. The translation is my own.

‘…There is a worthy story to go with the sacred work. The Pellian king [Alexander]

Used to have this venerable deity on his happy tables,

Carrying him as a friend East and West,

And he would grasp him with the hand which a moment before had

Taken and bestowed crowns, and raised great cities to the ground.

He always used to seek courage for the next day’s battle from it;

Victorious, he would recount to it the successful actions;

Whether he had taken Indians away from Bromius in chains;

Or broken open closed Babylon with his great spear;

Or overwhelmed the lands of Pelops and Pelasgian freedom [Greece] with

War. And from that great rank of celebrated actions he

Was forced to make excuse for so great a triumph over the Thebans [Hercules’ home city].

Even when the Fates were cutting short his great deeds

As he was taking a draught from the fatal unmixed wine, grave under

The dark cloud of death, he was unsettled by the strange expression

Of his deity sitting on his last table, and the bronze which

Seemed as though it was about to sweat from real flesh.’ (lines 59 – 74).

James Murray, 18/06/15