The case of the Parsi lawyer

Donning the hat of his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle solved the mystery of the Great Wyrley Outrages of 1903 and cleared the name of George Edalji, a young Parsi solicitor. The case is back in the spotlight with the screening of a three-part television drama, notes Shrabani Basu

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 8.03.15
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  • Crime time: A scene from Arthur & George; (below) one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s letters 

  • Courtesy: Bonhams

It was the first - and last - time that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would don the hat of his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. In what would become one of the most famous criminal cases in Edwardian England, Doyle solved the mystery of the Great Wyrley Outrages of 1903 and cleared the name of George Edalji, a young Parsi solicitor.

Set in the rural community of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire, the plot had every element of a great Holmes mystery. In 1903, the village was traumatised when horses, cows and sheep were mutilated in the dead of night and left to die. Anonymous notes were left threatening to kill young girls next. The notes, claiming to be from the "Wyrley Gang", named George Edalji, son of the vicar of Great Wyrley, Shapurji Edalji, as a perpetrator. The chief constable of Staffordshire, G.A. Anson, was convinced that Edalji was guilty and watched his house. After the eighth attack, Anson arrested him.

After a week-long trial at Stafford Crown court, Edalji was convicted of mutilations and writing anonymous letters and sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment. Three years later, he was suddenly released from Portland prison without being granted a pardon. Branded the "Wyrley Ripper" and unable to find work, the 27-year-old lawyer wrote to the creator of Sherlock Holmes for help in clearing his name.

Convinced that the charges made against Edalji were based on racism, Doyle set out to right the wrong. Saying that he wanted "to prove that Mr Edalji has the same claim to the protection of the law as any other British citizen", Doyle took up the investigation and eventually proved Edalji's innocence.

The Edalji case is back in the spotlight with the screening of a three-part television drama, Arthur & George, based on a novel by Julian Barnes. Almost perfectly timed with the ITV drama (starring Martin Clunes as Doyle and Arsher Ali as Edalji), a set of letters written by Doyle to Anson is to be auctioned in London by Bonhams on March 18 and expected to fetch upwards of £40,000.

The set includes 30 signed letters written by Doyle from The Grand Hotel, Trafalgar Square (London), Windlesham, his house in Surrey, Hotel Bellevue (Dresden), Hotel Royal Danieli (Venice), the Rome Grand-Hotel and the Grand Hotel du Vesuvein (Naples) from 1907 to 1911, along with police reports and material from the original 1903 investigation and witness statements. These have been brought to the auction room by the descendants of Anson.

Doyle met Edalji for the first time at the Charing Cross Hotel in London where he recognised him instantly as he was the only Indian in the foyer. Doyle also noted that he was severely myopic. Convinced of Edalji's innocence he began his detailed investigation, travelling north to the scene of the crime. Like his fictional hero, he contemplated a disguise, but eventually preferred to cover his face partially with his muffler and hide behind an open newspaper on the train. His secretary, Arthur Wood, playing the role of Watson, held the fort back home.

The creator of Holmes did his research on Parsis and the village of Great Wyrley even before he had reached the spot. He was fascinated by the thought of a Parsi-born Indian vicar in the middle of an English village. Born in Bombay, Shapurji Edalji had converted to Christianity as a teenager, and travelled to England to study and work. In 1876 he became the vicar of the parish church of Great Wyrley, and lived there with his English wife, Charlotte Stoneham, and their three children: George, Horace and daughter Maud.

Doyle learnt that from 1888, the family had received anonymous threatening letters. When the vicar had shown these to Anson, he had received little sympathy and no action was taken. The letters convinced Doyle that the family was facing racist abuse.

Soon the case became an obsession. Writing almost daily, sometimes twice a day, Doyle bombarded Anson with evidence gathered from experts in forensics and graphology: "If an animal were attacked with a knife the first stab would be deep, and would probably penetrate the gut, but the wound would become more superficial as it came forward," Doyle wrote to Anson. "A wound from the weapon I contemplate would be of the same depth from end to end. If it cut the gut at all, which it probably would not do, it would cut it with a clean cut always the same depth."

Doyle also listed possible suspects. As Anson refused to take on board Doyle's investigations, or indeed his principal suspect, a school dropout by the name of Royden Sharp, the letters got angrier. On January 11, 1911, Doyle wrote: "I do not as a rule answer your letters because they are so uncourteous in manner and so unreasonable in matter, that I do not think they deserve an answer. If I answer this one at some length, it is rather in the hope of bringing to an end a correspondence which is a waste of time and energy."

Anson, on his part, saw Doyle as blinkered, foolish and influenced too much by his own literary creation. In one note dated January 25, 1907, Anson posed the question: "Is C.D. mad?"

Doyle wrote a series of articles defending Edalji in The Daily Telegraph for which he received supporting letters from fans around the world. In 1907, the home secretary, Herbert Gladstone, responded to Doyle's pressure by setting up a committee of enquiry. The committee cleared Edalji of the crime of mutilation and awarded him a free pardon. It, however, did not clear him of writing the anonymous letters, which infuriated Doyle. Edalji was not given any compensation for being imprisoned wrongfully.

This provoked outrage in Parliament and elsewhere and led directly to the establishment of the Criminal Court of Appeal.

The campaign by Britain's most celebrated crime writer to support him made Edalji famous around the world. He moved to London and practised as a lawyer, dying quietly in 1953.