Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Case of George Edalji

by JoHarrington

Sometimes fact and fiction merge with spectacular results. When the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories investigated a true life crime case, the whole world took note.

Even without the intervention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there is much to be said about George Edalji and the Great Wyrley Outrages.

Not least the fact that it caused the creation of a Court of Appeals for the entire United Kingdom.

Modern day commentators peering beneath the surface find evidence of racism, homophobia and police corruption, plus the power of the poison pen and animal cruelty. Not to mention the flaws inherent in forensic science during its infancy.

There's plenty to discuss about an author becoming conflated with his most famous creation. Was it folly? Even if the result was a success? Or political opportunism exploiting a small town and the spotlight suddenly shone upon it by its patron's celebrity?

Some things might never be known, though 100 years on, Wyrley still whispers its secrets no longer watched by the world.

Timeline of the Great Wyrley Outrages

Please note that there were a great many more letters sent than are mentioned here. At least 310 are in the archives, but they are much of a horrible muchness.

February 2nd 1903:  Horse found with a shallow cut along the length of its belly. Not enough to pierce the gut, causing it to bleed to death. The first Wyrley horse maiming was believed to have occurred the night before on February 1st, but not discovered until the morning by its owner Joseph Holmes.

March 1903: First of the letters begin arriving (ultimately to various police stations and other premises) purportedly from the Wyrley Gang. It seemed to offer insight into the maiming from the point of view of someone there. In part it read, 'It is not true we always do it when moon young, and the one Edalji killed on 11th April was full moon night.'  Not only was this written before April 11th, but there was no maiming that night.

Note on the letters, as they are not all included here. They tended to describe maiming already taken place; threaten more, adding in death threats against many principles including police officers and George Edalji; gossiped about local residents in a way that suggested the authors (several different handwriting samples) were local themselves; and named increasingly bizarre people as members of The Wyrley Gang.

They'd often be signed by local names, frequently George Edalji or Walter Greatorex (a 15 year old Wyrley boy, who was able to produce alibis to prove his innocence), otherwise they'd be under the pseudonym Captain Darby.

Spring 1903: Police officers drafted in 'from all over the country' to keep watch in Wyrley at night. It became a feature of the Great Wyrley Outrages that everything occurred right under the noses of the authorities without anything being witnessed. They never even found the animals. Every instance had to be reported to them.

April 2nd 1903: Cob belonging to Mr Thomas slashed to death.

May 1903: Two cows belonging to Mrs Bungay slashed to death.

May 1903: (Fortnight after the above) Two sheep belonging to Thomas Green slashed to death; Mr Badger's horse also slashed to death on the same day.

June 6th 1903: Two cows slashed to death.

Late June 1903: (Three weeks after the above) Two horses belonging to Quinton Colliery slashed to death.

July 1903: Letter arrives addressed to Mr Rowley at Bridgtown Police Station stating that the horse maimer will be bringing a hook on a specific train from Walsall. Asks for a £100 reward to be published before any more details are forthcoming.

July 10th 1903: Letter arrives at Hednesford Police Station bearing a Walsall postmark. It named George Edalji as the person committing the Great Wyrley horse maiming, plus stated that 'they start on little girls, for they will do twenty wenches like the horse before next March'.

August 4th 1903: Postcard sent from Wolverhampton, purportedly from George Edalji and mirroring his handwriting, sent to George Edalji's office.  It graphically described his supposed sexual relations with a young lady and told him to get back to 'writing on walls' and 'maiming cows'. George and his sister were in Aberystwyth that day and therefore could not have posted it from Wolverhampton.

August 18th 1903: Pit pony belonging to Great Wyrley Colliery found by Henry Garrett (miner) dying in a pool of blood at 6.20am. At 8am, police arrested George Edalji for the Great Wyrley Outrages. They took from the Vicarage a collection of shaving razors and a housecoat. Upon the latter officers insisted there was a horse's hair, but Reverend Edalji maintained it was a loose thread. The coat was later put into a box of evidence along with the horse's hide. It had 26 hairs matching the horse on it by the time a coroner inspected it.

August 27th 1903: Another pony slashed to death, while Edalji was still in custody.

September 4th 1903: George Edalji formally charged with the Great Wyrley Outrages and committed to Staffordshire Quarter Sessions for a full trial. He was offered bail but refused it, because 'when the next horse is killed it will not be by me'.  This was later used against him, as it was said to imply he was part of a gang committing the mutilations. In the meantime, Edalji was taken to Stafford Gaol.

September 25th 1903: Chestnut horse - belonging to Harry Green (19 year old son of farmer Thomas Green - see May 1903), High House Farm, Great Wyrley - was slashed. It galloped 100 yards away before dying.  Harry later signed a confession stating that he'd killed his own horse (it had been injured in Yeomanry training, hence was put down albeit brutally). He was not prosecuted. A couple of weeks later, having procured a ticket to South Africa, Harry recanted his confession, saying that the police had bullied him into signing it.

October 20th 1903: George Edalji's trial begins at Stafford Quarter Sessions. Harry Green is present, as he had been subpoenaed to the trial by the prosecution - who never called him - which meant that the defense could not do likewise

October 24th 1903: George Edalji sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labor for the Great Wyrley Outrages. Harry Green leaves immediately for South Africa.

November 3rd 1903: Horse and mare in the same field killed. A newborn foal had been cut from the mare and was dumped a little further on. All belonged to Mr Stanley of Landywood Farm.

November 1903: George Edalji moved to Lewes Prison in Sussex to avoid contact with his 'associates'.  He would serve his sentence forthwith in Lewes, then Portland, both far from Wyrley and his family.

November 1903: A petition decrying Edalji's sentence is presented to the Home Office and Chief Constable Anson. It had been signed by 10,000 people from Wyrley and the vicinity. A private gentlemen named Mr Yelverton writes the covering letter explaining that none of the undersigned believe that justice has been done.

November 8th 1903: Chief Constable Anson writes to the Home Office stating that even Reverend Edalji doesn't believe that his son is innocent, and any further investigation would be 'a simple waste of time'. The Home Office believes him.

February 8th 1904: A horse mutilated but not killed.

March 24th 1904: Two sheep and a lamb had their throats cut. Naturally they died.

March 1904:  Miner named Farrington arrested for the sheep maiming and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

1905: A journalist for Truth publication visits Great Wyrley. A report then appears in print suggesting that racism had played a part in George Edalji's conviction. The editor of Truth contacts Henry Labouchère MP with all of that information.

1905: Henry Labouchère MP submits a statement to the Home Office about the unsound nature of George Edalji's conviction.

October 6th 1905: Home Secretary Aretas Akers-Douglas, 1st Viscount Chilston, considered the case and stated that he believed the investigation was faultless. (He didn't actually mention that Chief Constable George Anson, who headed said investigation, was his cousin.) However Akers-Douglas concurred that the sentence was too harsh, when Farrington only got three years. George Edalji was subsequently released.

1906: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Susan Moriarty spend eight months in Great Wyrley researching the Wyrley animal maiming, specifically the role played by George Edalji. They find the locals hostile to their investigation, so have to live outside the town. Police Officer Needham - who had been part of the original team deployed to this case and was uneasy about the Edalji conviction - put them up in his Rushall home.

January 1907:  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle publishes The Case of Mr George Edalji. It demonstrates why - in his opinion - George was innocent and highlights several flaws in the investigation of the whole Wyrley outrages.

The Case of George Edalji as Told by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

February 1907: Prime Minister Gladstone orders a committee to look into the George Edalji case.

May 1907: George Edalji pardoned for the horse maiming offense, but not for writing poison pen letters, hence he was never given compensation.

August 22nd 1907: Horse mutilated near Wyrley, but survived.

August 22nd 1907: Two horses slashed to death in Great Wyrley.

September 8th 1907: Horse slashed to death in Breenwood, Staffordshire. Butcher's boy named Morgan was accused but able to prove that he'd been at home at the time.

November 6th 1934: Enoch Albert Knowles of Park Street, Darlaston sentenced to three years' penal service for writing poison pen letters. He confessed to having been writing them for twenty-five years, including the Captain Darby, Wyrley Gang letters. Police testified that his handwriting matched those on the letters relating to the Great Wyrley horse maiming.

The George Edalji Story Told by Everybody Else

Reporting Bias in the George Edalji Case

No-one ever really tells about the Great Wyrley Outrages. That's just some long dead horses. They're here for George Edalji and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Image: Arthur Conan Doyle and George EdaljiIt's hard to find a starting point in the story of George Edalji. To come in anywhere is to state a position from the outset, tempering the tale thereon.

Arrive with Arthur Conan Doyle, as so many accounts do, is to declare that nothing here is important before the insertion of a star.

All the slaughter and the death threats, the bullying and the jibes, the seven years with hard labor, none of that really matters in the long run. It's the celebrity which makes it interesting.

Particularly if it's a renowned writer practically role-playing his most famous character.

Who cared really about George Edalji? Or that his exoneration left in tatters the reputation of all Wyrley folk? And who even bothered to ask, if George was innocent, then who actually did commit those crimes? The whole world was watching Sherlock Holmes made flesh and that was the story.

The fact that the campaign's wide popularity illuminated fracture lines throughout Britain's legal system, and set a precedent that resulted in that same Court of Criminal Appeal enjoyed as a right today, is almost incidental. A tail-piece to stick on the end as a tantalizing coda.

Start instead with George Edalji and our perspectives pick the spot. To begin with his parents is to set the tale up as one about racism. To come in at the sending of the letters is to lump them in with the maiming, just as happened at his trial; criticized in uproar then as now. Avoid it all, go back to his birth and call the letters merely points along the way, and we're now primed to recount it all through the prism of racism.

The people of Wyrley are condemned as one. Seen through the Edwardian sneering as brutish, malicious oafs, as uncivilized in the modern day as when Edward III committed into writing his world weary sigh, 'Who can tame those wild Wyrley folk?'  Faceless, mostly nameless, probably all something to do with the Wyrley Gang.

Rehabilitate them then! Produce hearsay as fact in the form of that rumored Gladstone memo, which reputedly had Edalji's lawyer suspecting his client's guilt, suppressing evidence produced by Edalji's brother so the court never did find out. Sprinkle in a generous portion of gossip, wherein the same lawyer later privately commented that George had done it.

Dismiss Conan Doyle as a silly man, who never could nor should be Sherlock, then remind everyone that he also believed in fairies.

But it's all so weak and flimsy. A barrage of personal insult and conclusions based upon the circumstantial rather than hard fact. Exactly the sort of thing leveled at the Great Wyrley people, whom we're trying to protect.

So get to the point, strip out all the rest and step into a dark August field in 1903, where a horse lies screaming with the slash along its underside, close to dying in the mud of the colliery. Look up to the person(s) wielding that bloody knife, and stop. The scene is too lost in shadows. This is supposed to be the crux of the matter, but nobody knows who did it.

George Edalji was innocent and that's all that really matters. The rest is just fluff and palaver. Focus upon the person who proved it, arrive with Arthur Conan Doyle.

Books about the Great Wyrley Outrages via Sherlock Holmes

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Updated: 11/12/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 10/17/2014

There is that. I'm also brought to mind the fact that people like Ian Brady began with animals, which was regrettable enough, then moved onto people. It's difficult to examine the mentality, when we're not 100% certain who it was.

frankbeswick on 10/17/2014

C.S. Lewis suggests that evil can be a means of boosting the ego at the expense of another, in this case innocent creatures. When the self-centred ego is harming a person or animal his ego is gratified, as he feels a sense of power. He is gratified by leading the police on a wild goose chase. This kind of evil differs from the evil done by the robber, who seeks a good goal in a wrong way. Animal maiming like this is evil for its own sake, the worst kind.

JoHarrington on 10/17/2014

There was a lot of talk at the time of it being some kind of foreign Black Magic ritual, because Rev Edalji was a Parsi, who converted to Christianity. But in reality you'd find nothing like this in India, particularly in regard to the cattle maiming. Yet the Midlands has a long history of it. I can't really comment more on that (is this a first?), as I've not properly looked into it. The Great Wyrley Outrages certainly weren't unique in that signature animal maiming.

I think we have a few things going on here - Enoch Knowles admitting later than he sent letters, over a course of 25 years, to anyone whose name in the newspaper caught his attention (trolling basically); the maiming, which could well have been a power thing; the police wanting to convict someone, anyone, because they were looking idiotic; and the bog standard bullying of George Edalji, in which racism certainly had a part. But personally I think it was more to do with the fact that he was a middle class kid, traveling every day to a posh school, then training to be a lawyer, in the midst of a rural mining village.

I'd love to know who did the maiming part too. Arthur Conan Doyle pointed the finger at the Sharp brothers, particularly Royden Sharp, who'd trained as a butcher. Conan Doyle was going to put that into print, but the Home Office warned him not to. Nevertheless, his description was easily recognizable in Wyrley, regardless of names omitted. Royden Sharp sent him a death threat, saying he was going to take out his liver and kidney.

Back in the distant past, I was talking to a great niece of Farrington. She said her family had been blighted by the association for decades (this was the 1980s). She claimed her great-uncle's innocence. Conan Doyle also pointed out that Farrington was convicted on equally circumstantial evidence, but he was only a miner, not the son of a landed gentry lady and her reverend husband, so Farrington didn't get a world famous writer taking up his case. It seems that the people of Wyrley suspected Farrington for quite some time.

Ember on 10/17/2014

Everything about this seems kind of... completely random. Killing animals, and then apparently writing letters trying to blame another person. ...But why? It'd be interesting to know who was actually guilty just to potentially have a bit of their motivation for this. I mean, serial type murders in general are kind of senseless, but the reasoning can usually be traced in their psychology, no matter how messed up. I'm guessing it was probably just for the thrill of it, but it is still really just an odd crime a town had to deal with.

JoHarrington on 10/16/2014

The crimes have always struck me as particularly cowardly too.

AngelaJohnson on 10/16/2014

There is no acceptable crime, but a thief or murderer usually has a reason for his crime. These crimes are senseless and agains poor animals - a form of terrorism.

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