The year was 1907, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was sitting at his desk when his secretary brought in a bulky package. Inside was a letter from a convicted criminal and a clutch of newspaper cuttings.
It wasn’t hard to guess what the man wanted. Ever since creating the master detective Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle had been bombarded with requests to solve crimes — from burglaries to murders — all of which he’d turned down.
This particular note was from a man called George Edalji — the so-called ‘Wyrley Ripper’ — who’d been jailed for seven years for mutilating horses and writing threatening letters.
The more he read, the more Conan Doyle’s interest was caught. He made a snap decision: despite having no training as a detective himself, he would try to clear George’s name.
The year was 1907, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (pictured) was sitting at his desk when his secretary brought in a bulky package
In the end, the Edalji case would be the only real-life investigation Conan Doyle ever became personally involved with — tracking down clues, interviewing potential witnesses, crossing swords with the police and haranguing the government.
For more than a year, he was like a man possessed. His passion to right what he considered a monstrous injustice, powered by racism, even blighted his honeymoon.
With remorseless logic and forensic attention to detail, Conan Doyle brought a Holmes-like focus to one of the greatest mysteries of the Edwardian era.
But would it be enough?
As a boy, George Edalji was shy and studious, with a dark skin that set him apart from his peers.
His father Shapurji, a Christian convert from India, had become the first ever South Asian vicar in England when he moved to Great Wyrley with his white English wife.
Victorian England was not kind to immigrants from the colonies, let alone a vicar who spoke with an Indian accent. Still, in the working-class area around the vicarage, studded with farms and coal mines, the mixed-race family was largely tolerated.
Inside was a letter from a convicted criminal and a clutch of newspaper cuttings. It wasn’t hard to guess what the man wanted. This particular note was from a man called George Edalji (pictured) — the so-called ‘Wyrley Ripper’ — who’d been jailed for seven years for mutilating horses and writing threatening letters
That changed in 1892, when someone started sending out forged notes to tradesmen, apparently signed by the vicar. Suddenly an endless cavalcade of horses and carts was trotting up the vicarage drive with wagonloads of goods, none of which had been ordered.
Advertisements offering sexual services were placed in newspapers, with the vicar given as the contact person. Meanwhile, dozens of anonymous letters arrived at the Old Vicarage, accusing Shapurji of incest and even threatening to kill George, then 16.
Police started keeping watch. One evening, a large key was found on the kitchen doorstep — just five minutes after a constable hiding in a hedge witnessed George arriving home from school.
The police were triumphant: clearly the boy had stolen the key, they told the Staffordshire chief constable, and placed it there himself. Even when the key turned out to belong to Walsall Grammar, a school six miles from George’s, they saw no reason to investigate further. The half-caste boy, they’d decided, had been writing all the letters himself.
In 1895, the letters suddenly stopped. For eight years, the talk in the pubs returned to harvests, mining disasters and other local issues. The family could finally breathe freely again.
George left school to study law, got top marks in his exams and started working as a solicitor in Birmingham — returning to the vicarage each evening. In February 1903, the police found a new distraction: a horse had been found dead in a field north of the vicarage. Its stomach had been slashed.
His father Shapurji, a Christian convert from India, had become the first ever South Asian vicar in England when he moved to Great Wyrley with his white English wife. Pictured: A map of Wyrley vicarage
Over the next four months, three more horses, three cows and a sheep were mutilated and left to die. Villagers started comparing the killer to Jack the Ripper. Who could be responsible for this abomination?
Each killing followed a pattern. In the dead of night, the Wyrley Ripper would attack the animal with a blade and leave it to die. But although 20 police officers were drafted in to do regular patrols, they failed to unearth a single clue.
As if on cue, the anonymous letters started up again. This time they were addressed to individual police officers — and they all pointed the finger at George, claiming he was part of a gang and describing in repellent detail how he mutilated animals.
George was now 27. Anyone less likely to be a gang member was hard to imagine: he was teetotal, introverted and had a problem with his eyesight.
Then came the worst letter of all. Addressed to a police sergeant, it claimed there would be ‘merry times at Wyrley’ when George and his gang ‘would start on little girls; they would do 20 wenches like the horses before next March’.
There was panic and hysteria in the village. Mothers locked up their daughters and forbade them to go out after dark. A constable was heard to say: ‘If we could set fire to the bloody vicarage, there’d be no more outrages.’ Fatally for George, everyone now recalled he’d previously been suspected of sending anonymous letters. Was he at it again?
He could feel the police waiting and watching, but tried to carry on as normal.
On the evening of August 17, George went out for a stroll at about 8pm. It was to be his last walk in Great Wyrley as a free man. That night, a horse was killed in Plant Pit Meadows, just half a mile from the vicarage.
Early next morning, the police searched the vicarage and pounced on a pair of muddy boots and an old house-coat.
When they claimed there were horse hairs on the coat, the vicar took it to the window for a closer look. He pointed out that what they thought was a horse hair was actually a thread.
George was arrested at his office, then thrown into a pitch-dark cell. But he refused bail when it was offered. Since he was perfectly innocent, he reasoned, it would clear his name if another outrage occurred while he was locked up.
Indeed, on September 22, the slasher struck again — once more killing a horse not far from the vicarage. Surely that would be enough to get George released? It wasn’t. At his trial in October, avidly followed by the Press, the prosecutor claimed that George had refused bail because he knew his gang would kill again in order to divert suspicion from himself.
As Conan Doyle remarked later: ‘Was there ever a more unfair utterance! It was: if no crimes occur, then it’s clear we have the villain under lock and key; if crimes do occur, then it is clear he’s deep in conspiracy with others.’
The police were certain they had the right culprit. They’d (supposedly) collected 29 horse hairs from his coat and found stains on it that might have been blood.
They’d discovered footprints that matched his in the field where the horse was killed. And a handwriting expert had declared that all the anonymous letters were in George’s hand.
At the Staffordshire Quarter Sessions George was found guilty of maliciously wounding a horse, and sending a threatening letter to Police Sergeant Robinson — an officer he’d never heard of. He was sentenced to seven years with penal servitude.
A few weeks later, his father started gathering signatures for a petition to the Home Office for George’s release. The evidence was purely circumstantial, said the vicar, and the horse killings were continuing. Two more horses had been found dead that November.
Soon, the campaign to free George was gathering pace, with even eminent lawyers declaring there’d been a miscarriage of justice.
As no appeal court existed at the time, a detailed appeal and various petitions were submitted to the Home Office, which passed them on to the Staffordshire chief constable, George Anson. He scornfully dismissed them.
But the case continued to excite interest — and quite suddenly, three years into his incarceration, George was released on licence.
He was still a convicted criminal, unable to practise law again. And he had to settle for a lonely existence in London, knowing that any further killings near Great Wyrley would be held to his account. If only Sherlock Holmes could help him!
While still in jail, George had read The Hound Of The Baskervilles and become an ardent fan. In desperation, he decided he had nothing to lose by appealing to the great detective’s creator.
Conan Doyle arranged to meet George in a London hotel. Arriving late, he had a moment to observe the former solicitor and instantly knew he couldn’t be the killer.
‘He held the paper close to his eyes and rather sideways, proving not only a high degree of myopia, but marked astigmatism,’ he’d say later. ‘The idea of such a man scouring fields at night and assaulting cattle while avoiding the police was ludicrous.’
Like his fictional detective, Conan Doyle had come to a lightning conclusion before so much as a word had been exchanged. Yet George’s eyesight had never been raised at his trial.
Conan Doyle’s kindly manner, and the frank and direct way in which he spoke, filled George with hope. He walked back to his lodgings with a new lightness in his step.
The author’s first step was to arrange an independent assessment of George’s eyesight, which confirmed that the former solicitor was almost blind.
Then, in January 1907, he visited Great Wyrley, joining the vicar and his family for breakfast.
He wrote afterwards: ‘What aroused my indignation and gave me the driving force to carry this thing through was the utter helplessness of this forlorn little group of people . . . baited by brutal boors and having the police, who should have been their natural protectors, adopting from the beginning a harsh tone towards them and accusing them, beyond all sense and reason, of being the cause of their own troubles.’
Conan Doyle was in full Sherlock Holmes mode. He now needed to see the scene of the crime.
Clambering through clumps of prickly gorse bushes, he walked on to Plant Pit Meadows. There was no way, he thought, that a man with defective eyesight could have managed that on a dark, rainy night.
Kneeling in the field, he noted the earth was reddish in colour — unlike the sandy soil found on George’s boots.
Conan Doyle then called on the chief constable, who was flattered to be visited by the famous writer but wasted no time in putting him right.
George, said Anson, had undoubtedly committed all the crimes. Dismissively, he told Conan Doyle that he didn’t know how a ‘Hindoo’ with a marked accent had come to be the vicar of Great Wyrley. He also implied that Shapurji had an incestuous relationship with his son.
However, Anson had underestimated the astuteness of his visitor. The meeting left Conan Doyle convinced that the chief constable was a racist who’d single-mindedly targeted George for years.
All the way back on the train, he thought about the elderly vicar and his wife, their half-blind son and the arrogant police chief. Then he started writing.
The Case Of Mr George Edalji was published in two parts in January 1907 and syndicated across the world — with Conan Doyle refusing to take any fees. The articles turned George into an instant international celebrity.
In true Holmes style, Conan Doyle had looked at every argument put forward by the prosecution and demolished it.
First, there was the matter of the hoaxes played on the vicar. Any reasonable man, said Conan Doyle, would be convinced that the ‘Edaljis were not persecuting themselves in this maddening fashion’.
He then homed in on the Walsall School key found outside the vicarage — which made the police immediately assume George had stolen it.
However, he wasn’t a pupil at Walsall School, and there wasn’t ‘the slightest reason’ to suppose he had procured a key from this ‘six-mile distant’ school and laid it on his own doorstep.
‘If the Staffordshire police took this attitude towards young Edalji in 1895,’ he said, ‘what chance of impartiality had he in 1903, when a culprit was wanted for an entirely new set of crimes? It is evident that their minds were steeped in prejudice against him.’
Next, Conan Doyle moved on to the 1903 anonymous letters and horse killings. It was absurd that ‘these letters incriminating himself in violent terms should be attributed to young Edalji’, he said.
True, the handwriting expert, Thomas Gurrin, had testified that George had written all the letters. But Conan Doyle had been doing some digging. Gurrin, he revealed, had recently been disciplined for false evidence that sent an innocent man to prison.
On the question of George’s eyesight, the author wrote scathingly: ‘He is as blind as a proverbial bat, but the bat has the advantage of finding its way in the dark, which would be very difficult for him.’
Like a skilled barrister, he tore into the police’s so-called evidence. Bloodstains on the coat? If they’d been fresh, the police officers’ fingers would have been stained red. Plus, only two small stains had been spotted — hardly what you’d expect after ripping open a horse in the dark.
What about those 29 horse hairs? The police, said Conan Doyle, should have immediately picked samples of the horse hair from the coat and sealed them in an envelope. ‘But they did nothing of the kind,’ he pointed out.
Instead, they’d simply carried off the coat, despite witnesses at the vicarage saying there were no horse hairs on it. Meanwhile, a section of the dead horse’s hide had been taken to the police station.
‘The mere carrying of the hide and coat together may have caused the transference of hairs,’ said the author, ‘or the officers may themselves have gathered hairs on their clothes while examining the pony, and so unconsciously transferred them to the coat.’
Then there was the issue of the wrong type of mud on the boots, and the footprints in the field — which could have been anyone’s, as hundreds of miners had flocked to see the dead horse. Moreover, no cast had been taken of George’s alleged footprint, and it hadn’t been photographed.
‘Every point in this case simply crumbles to pieces as you touch it,’ declared Conan Doyle.
And in his thundering conclusion, he claimed that racial prejudice in the police and judicial system had led to a blatant miscarriage of justice.
Readers responded by sending hundreds of letters to the Home Office. Under increasing pressure, the Home Secretary eventually announced a committee of inquiry.
After considering the facts, they duly reported that George was innocent of the attack on the horse and recommended a free pardon. But there was a sting in the tail.
The committee ruled that George was guilty of writing the letters, so he’d brought his troubles on himself. Therefore, he shouldn’t receive compensation for wrongful imprisonment. The Home Office report was received with fury by George’s supporters; even the House of Commons resounded with calls for compensation. But the Home Office closed ranks and nothing happened.
Utterly incensed, Conan Doyle continued working around the clock on the case — writing articles and letters to newspapers, giving interviews and collecting more information. He also asked a highly-respected handwriting expert to re-examine the Wyrley letters. Verdict: there was no way George could have written them.
Then Conan Doyle decided to track down the killer himself.
The evidence soon pointed to one man: Royden Sharp — possibly helped by his two older brothers.
Three years younger than George, Royden had been a pupil at Walsall Grammar — the key to which had been found on the vicarage doorstep. As schoolboys, he and George didn’t mix — though they shared the same train to school, getting off at different stops.
Royden couldn’t have been more different from George. He’d come bottom in every class and been caned 20 times in one term alone. He also had a criminal record for arson and slashing train seats.
Plus, he’d eventually been expelled from school for cheating, lying, swearing, falsifying grades — and forging letters.
After that, he’d become an apprentice butcher and gone to sea as a mate on a cattle ship. Crucially, he’d been away from Wyrley between 1895 and 1903, the exact gap between the first batch of letters and those that coincided with the killings.
Looking more closely at the later letters, Conan Doyle observed that some had been posted in Rotherham — while Royden had been staying there.
There was proof: the author himself traced a railway porter who’d carried Royden’s luggage and noticed it was addressed to Rotherham.
Going back to the letters, he said, it was clear that the writer must be connected to Walsall Grammar. For one thing, a threatening note, in the same handwriting, had been sent to its headmaster. For another, one of the letters to the vicarage contained a long quotation from Milton — whom the pupils had been studying at the time.
There was more. The wounds on the horses, he noted, had been caused by an instrument with a rounded cutting edge. And Royden, he discovered through talking to villagers, had once shown off a horse lancet, saying: ‘This is what they kill the cattle with.’
Conan Doyle now had no doubts whatsoever that he’d found the real culprit. So he sent his findings to Anson.
The chief constable, however, had no desire to be taught policing by a fiction writer. The more Conan Doyle badgered him — suggesting, for example, that he searched Royden’s home — the more Anson dug in his heels.
The author’s investigation, Anson said, was mere surmise, and he had ‘no reason whatever’ to believe Royden was guilty of any offence.
A furious exchange of letters was interrupted briefly when Conan Doyle married his second wife, Jean — with George a guest at their wedding. The newlyweds then left for a honeymoon trip round Europe.
But Conan Doyle had ordered his post to be forwarded on, and Anson’s combative letters caught up with him in city after city. While Jean was left to her own devices, her bridegroom composed long and increasingly irate replies.
At least there was some good news on their return to England: the Law Society had given George leave to practise again.
The years passed. Royden was never arrested for the letters or animal killings, and the Wyrley mystery remained unsolved. As for Anson, he was awarded a knighthood in 1937.
George never received a penny in compensation. He did, however, leave a legacy for the future.
It was his case that led to the setting up of the Criminal Appeal Court, thus ensuring that the falsely convicted finally had recourse to justice.
The Mystery Of The Parsee Lawyer, by Shrabani Basu, is published by Bloomsbury, £20. © Shrabani Basu 2021.
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