May 22, 2007

Arthur Conan Doyle's Birthday

May 22 is the birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, born in 1859. Of course, Doyle is best known for creating the most famous sleuth in the world, Sherlock Holmes. Here are a few things you may not know about him:

1. Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies. Or, at least he believed in the Cottingley fairy photographs, a famous hoax perpetrated in 1917. Doyle reproduced the photographs in his book, The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1921. The book also discussed the nature and existence of fairies and other spirits.

2. He was interested in a variety of other occult and spiritual subjects, and he believed that Harry Houdini possessed supernatural powers. Houdini, who spent a great deal of time and energy attempted to debunk Spiritualists, was disgusted when he could not convince Doyle that his feats were simply magic tricks. The men had been friends at one time, but the friendship did not withstand their pronounced differences of opinion on the subject.

3. The character of Sherlock Holmes was modeled after a real person, a former university professor of Doyle's named Joseph Bell. Bell's powers of observation were so well reproduced in Doyle's depiction of Holmes that Rudyard Kipling recognized him at once, asking Doyle, "Is this my old friend, Dr. Joe?"

4. Arthur Conan Doyle got pretty sick of Sherlock Holmes before he was done with him. He wrote to his mother in 1891, "I think of slaying Holmes... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things." His mother told him the public would never accept it. Mom was right -- when he "killed" Holmes in "The Final Problem", public outcry was so great that he was forced to bring him back with a convoluted explanation in "The Adventure of the Empty House." In all, Holmes appears in a total of 54 short stories, and 4 novels.

5. The "better things" he wanted to concentrate on were probably his other writings -- historical novels, science fiction, plays, poetry, and considerable non-fiction.

6. It was a good thing Doyle was successful with his writing; he was pretty much a failure as a medical doctor. Still, he didn't seem to particularly mind not having many patients -- it gave him more time to write.

7. Perhaps as a result of his unspectacular medical career, Arthur Conan Doyle also undertook specialized studies in the eye, and set up an ophthalmology practice in London. Not a single patient ever crossed his door.

8. He was knighted, not for his popular work in fiction, but for his work on propaganda regarding the Boer War. (Although it's likely that the popular esteem for his work didn't hurt, either.)

9. Doyle ran for Parliament, twice, and lost both times. He received a fairly respectable vote both times, however.

10. Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in two real-life mysteries, and his work resulted in the freeing of two men who had been wrongly convicted in unrelated cases, George Edalji and Oscar Slater. Edalji had been convicted of mutilating animals and sending threatening messages. Doyle proved that the killings and the messages had continued while Edalji had been in jail, that Edalji was physically incapable of committing the crimes, and that the evidence that had been used against him was faulty. Oscar Slater, on the other hand, had been convicted of bludgeoning a woman to death. Doyle quickly proved that the practically all the evidence used against him was faulty and that he had a valid alibi for the time of the murder. Unfortunately, there was no legal process for giving Slater a new trial, and the man served 18 and a half years in prison before he was finally released.

Illustration: Portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Sidney Paget, the illustrator of the original "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" in The Strand magazine. 1897. Public Domain

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