When A Study in Scarlet introduced Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, to the world in 1887, it provoked no great stir as a story nor did it especially signal the immense popularity for which its author and his creation were destined. Published in London, it did, however, rankle Mormon missionaries to England, and sorely tested the tolerance of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America.
For at the height of anti-Mormonism on the continent, Arthur Conan Doyle, a struggling 26-year-old Portsmouth physician, had employed less-than-accurate research in using the Mormons in Utah as a backdrop for his short story. As far as British readers were concerned, Conan Doyle’s drama of unrequited love, murder and vengeance only bolstered what they long suspected?that Danites, the Avenging Angels of Mormondom, were steeped in the assassination of apostates, and that polygamy was white slavery.
From the LDS point of view, A Study in Scarlet was another in a long line of antagonistic Mormon-hating books that made for popular reading. Conan Doyle was not high on their list of favorite people. And he was aware he had provoked the animosity of Mormon faithful; but unlike other authors whose books were bought and burned by well-meaning Saints, Conan Doyle’s skyrocketing popularity made it impossible to smother A Study in Scarlet.
Sherlockians of five generations have revered Conan Doyle for bringing the master criminologist to life, though the author himself came to despise his creation for dominating his literary image. But it was not Holmes or his chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson, that ultimately calmed the roily waters existing between Conan Doyle and the Mormons. It was spiritualism.
In May 1923, Sir Arthur (he had by now been knighted for his literary achievements) was booked on a second American lecture tour (the first came the year before); this was to be his initial foray into the West?and Utah. Sir Arthur, described as an “eminent British psychic,” would lecture under the auspices of the Extension Division of the University of Utah on the subject of psychic phenomena and his longtime efforts to obtain tangible proof of communications with “those who have departed from this mortal sphere,” according to the Salt Lake Telegram of May 11.
Michael W. Homer, attorney-at-law in Salt Lake City, a published Sherlockian and member of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society, in conversation with Dame Jean Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur’s daughter, in London in 1991 discussed that American visit seventy years ago. “You know Father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons,” she said. “My brothers Denis, Adrian and I were all very apprehensive when we got near Utah. We thought we would be kidnapped or something.”
Sir Arthur was to speak in the Salt Lake LDS Tabernacle, and he would be introduced by Levi Edgar Young, University of Utah professor of Western history and Mormon general authority! It was also a full house. In later years, Professor Young, in casual conversation with a Salt Lake Tribune reporter, was asked how Conan Doyle could have been so well-received in Utah in light of A Study in Scarlet. “He apologized for that, you know,” Young replied. “He said he had been misled by writings of the time about the church.”
Sir Arthur’s appearance was challenged, even criticized, by individual church members, but not officially by the First Presidency. Charles W. Nibley, presiding bishop of the LDS Church, in a letter appearing in the June 5, 1923, San Francisco Chronicle, blistered the novelist for accepting a speaking fee: “Rather than be called narrow and intolerant, we permitted his lecture, and Sir Arthur left Salt Lake City several thousand dollars richer. I think he had a lot of gall to take Mormon money when he attacked us so bitterly in his book, A Study in Scarlet, which was published early in his life. To Sir Arthur and his ectoplasm, the product of dimly-lighted seances, I answer that the only light that he has discovered was born in darkness and is not light to me.”
In the same edition of the newspaper was the knight’s response: “I have great respect for the Mormons, who treated me very liberally in allowing me to use their hall, and, therefore, I am more sorry that one who is a bishop among them should utter such an uncharitable and false statement. He says that I left Salt Lake City several thousand dollars richer. I have never in my life taken one cent for any work which I have done on the platform for spiritualism [dividing my profits among spiritual organizations in Australia and England] I trust therefore, that Bishop Nibley will apologise for his utterances, which I look upon as a statement of one ill-informed and uncharitable man, and not as representing the friends whom I left behind me in Salt Lake City.” Michael Homer noted in the Spring 1991 issue of The Journal of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society that there is no record of an apology by Nibley.
Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle, the day after the lecture, were guests of honor at a luncheon in the Alta Club in Salt Lake City, attended by some forty representative men and women of the community. In the crowd could be found such luminaries as John A. Widtsoe, former president of the University of Utah, Rabbi Adolph Steiner of Congregation B’nai Israel, Dr. George M. Marshall, Dr. and Mrs. George Emory Fellows, Prof. and Mrs. B. Roland Lewis, Mr. and Mrs. A.N. McKay, Noble Warrum, Mr. and Mrs. H.E. Crockett, Mr. and Mrs. W.R. Wallace, Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Pearsall, Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Adamson, Mr. and Mrs. F.W. Reynolds, Mrs. W.W. Riter, Miss Lucy VanCott, Mayor C. Clarence Neslen, W.R. Wallace Jr., Lafayette Hanchett, Parley L. Williams, Wallace Erskine (secretary to Sir Arthur), Miss Helen Greenwood, Rose Catherine Reynolds, A.L. Fish, Henry W. Lawrence, and J.B. Miller.
At the luncheon, Sir Arthur expressed his appreciation for the way he and his family had been welcomed to the city. “We are profoundly grateful for the tolerance and cordiality with which we have been received. Frankly, I did not expect to be allowed to speak in the Mormon Tabernacle.” He also spoke of touring the church museum and examining its pioneer relics. “One thing that held me,” he said, “was the group photograph of many of the earliest pioneers. I knew then I had seen them before–at last it came back to me–it was at the time of the Boer War in South Africa. The same types, the rugged, hard-faced men, the brave and earnest women who look as if they had known much suffering and hardship–these are the types of pioneers in Utah and in South Africa, and I suppose everywhere that–go out and develop a state or an empire.”
During his brief stay at the Hotel Utah, Sir Arthur received a letter from a Dr. G. Hodgson Higgins, who, as a non-Mormon, explained that his first impressions of the church had been tainted because of A Study in Scarlet, which “gave the impression that murder was a common practice among them.” Higgins suggested the author “express his regret at having propagated falsehoods about the Mormon Church and people.”
Sir Arthur responded that in the future he would write of the Latter-day Saints as he found them on his visit. But, he insisted, “all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that tho it is likely that in a work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a work of history. It’s best to let the matter rest.”
In his 1991 visit with the novelist’s then-78-year-old daughter, Michael Homer was told by Dame Jean that her father “relied on anti-Mormon works by former Mormons because he believed these accounts to be factual.” Homer and others since have speculated Conan Doyle, a voracious reader, would have access to books by Fannie Stenhouse, William A. Hickman, William Jarman, John Hyde and Ann Eliza Young, among others.
While Sir Arthur was never one to dodge an issue, Homer was curious as to why the children were so frightened on visiting Utah. The answer was startling–and revealing. It was the governess, a Miss French. “On our way to Salt Lake City [by train], she told us the most horrible stories about the Mormons and that the city was not safe, and that we should not go out of the hotel or we would be kidnapped. When our parents found out, they were absolutely furious with the governess. Even if the stories were true, which they weren’t, it was not right to frighten children.” Sir Arthur fired the governess.
True to his word, in subsequent writings or remarks whenever the subject broached on Mormons or Mormonism, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle treated them with new-found respect. As for Sherlock Holmes and his inestimable colleague, John H. Watson, M.D., one can only wish there might be in the good doctor’s celebrated dispatch box an unpublished case book on The Curious Matter of the Ravenous Gull, or some such.