LiteratEye #47: A Tale of Theft & Murder Behind “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Urban Legends

Here’s the forty-seventh installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #47: A Tale of Theft & Murder Behind “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
By W.J. Elvin III
January 15, 2010

Sherlock Holmes Movie Poster-200Some reviewers say Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must be rolling over in his grave in response to the new Sherlock Holmes film. Typical is the comment in The New York Times that Robert Downey, Jr.’s version of Sherlock “frequently bears little resemblance to the one Conan Doyle wrote about.”

Well, there are a great many Sherlock Holmes stories that Conan Doyle had nothing to do with other than to provide the basics, and who knows how many actors from the big screen to the small theater have portrayed our hero, each in their own way. So the current situation is nothing new, Sir Arthur has already been given plenty of reason to roll over.

More to the point, who can say how Doyle might have reacted? His famous detective novels give the impression he was as much a man of science as Sherlock, pragmatic, principled, scoffing at fantasy. Not entirely so. He was into fairies, séances and, it has been charged, murder.

Doyle continues to suffer ridicule for falling for fake photos of fairies. It’s said that in the 1920s he spent a million dollars in an effort to prove the existence of the tiny folk.

Probably the strangest story involving Doyle found him accused of plagiarism, conspiracy and murder.

Not long ago, amateur detectives applied to exhume the body of Doyle’s friend, newspaper editor Fletcher Robinson, who died at age 36. The investigators contended that Robinson died of a massive dose of laudanum. And they speculated that Doyle was involved.

Robinson was the acknowledged source of a tale about a huge black hound menacing the moors near his home on Dartmoor.

A local legend there told of the evil Sir Richard Cabell “who sold his soul to the Devil and was dragged to hell by a pack of gigantic hounds,” according to a BBC report.

Doyle and Robinson planned to write a Sherlock adventure together based on the legend. Doyle said Robinson dropped out of the venture after providing the initial idea.

Robinson’s coachman, Harry Baskerville, drove them on a tour of the moors to gather atmosphere. Doyle liked the fellow’s name and appropriated it for the story.

The coachman, by the way, told interviewers he was certain Robinson came up with the whole story that became “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and Doyle stole it.

No other evidence supports the charge.

According to the BBC and various print sources, those who wanted to exhume Robinson’s body were inspired by historian Rodger Garrick-Steele’s book, The House of the Baskervilles. The author claimed Doyle was having an affair with Robinson’s wife and coached her in the administration of laudanum.

Generally speaking, the book does not appear to be taken seriously by other historians.

A church court turned down the exhumation request on the grounds that research supporting such a move was “totally unreliable.”

So it seems we can’t pin a murder rap on Doyle, and the plagiarism charge seems unlikely.

In fact, Doyle was an activist in the cause of truth and justice, following in his fictional hero’s footsteps, doing real life detective work.

True Crime Files of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle compiled by Stephen Hines provides details of two cases in which the famous author played a significant role in obtaining the release of persons wrongly accused of crimes.

These weren’t simply situations where a celebrity author rallied his influential friends – in Doyle’s case, ranging from Winston Churchill to Oscar Wilde – to the cause.

Doyle seriously investigated the cases and found evidence of injustices.

George Edalji – a lawyer who also happened to be seen as “a weird-looking little foreigner of mixed parentage,” was sentenced to seven years hard labor for maiming farm animals. Conan Doyle’s investigative crusade was at length successful in obtaining a pardon for Edalji and led to establishment of the first British appeals court.

The case of Oscar Slater was not so simple because Slater was indeed a criminal, described even by his defender as “a worthless fellow” and “an unsatisfactory Bohemian.”

Doyle took up Slater’s case on principle, believing that in this case, at any rate, he had been railroaded on a murder charge. The crusade saw Slater’s conviction overturned after the accused had served 16 years in prison.

The suspicions raised about Doyle in the death of his friend Robinson are of recent vintage. Back when the event occurred, he was consulted regarding his theory about the death. He said he warned Robinson against doing a story on an Egyptian mummy in the British Museum because it was protected by a curse.

The official diagnosis was that Robinson died of typhoid. Doyle, a medical doctor before achieving fame as a writer, said that’s the way the “elementals” guarding the mummy would inflict their spell. Typhoid, yes, but brought on by the ancient Curse of the Pharaohs.

image: Sherlock Holmes Movie Poster

(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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