This week, the literary world celebrated the birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I, like most of you, knew him as the creator of literature’s ultimate detective, Sherlock Holmes. What I didn’t know about him until recently is that he was involved in the real-life legal battle leading to the creation in 1907 of the Criminal Court of Appeal in Great Britain.
The story begins with Geoge Edalji, the son of the parish vicar in Great Wyrley at the turn of the 20th century. Reverand Edalji was a Parsee convert to Christianity and, seen as an outsider and labeled a “Hindoo”, was the target of a campaign of harassment for more than 20 years. The situation came to a head in 1903 after a series of threatening letters were delivered to the reverend and a number of local farm animals were brutally maimed. In an act of pure racism, the local police immediately targeted the young lawyer George as the guilty party. In a sham of a trial, George was found guilty and sent to prison.
Upon his early release three years later, George found himself unable to practice law and, in an act of desperation, contacted Conan Doyle. The author had been following the case in the papers and became immediately convinced of George’s innocence. Thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes-like detective work, George Edalji was eventually pardoned, although never received any compensation for the time he spent in prison.
All of this I learned from a fascinating book (where else?) called Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. The book is historical fiction, but the details of the case seem quite close to the historical accounts I found with a little help from Google. I hope you pick it up, or take a moment to look up the case (try The Plebeian for a synopsis of the only detailed account of the case). Without Arthur & George, it’s possible that we might still be left with a direct appeal to our Head of State as our only recourse in the case of a false conviction.