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“Stated More Luridly than in a Work of History”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 10, 2013

George Hodgson Higgins (1853-1927), an English-born convert to the Church and a Salt Lake physician, heard the news that Arthur Conan Doyle was coming to Salt Lake to speak. Doyle was scheduled to speak in the Tabernacle in May, 1923, on his belief in spiritualism, and later would meet with community leaders, including James E. Talmage and Levi Edgar Young.

His spiritualism was not what interested most of his listeners, of course. Most were more interested in Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes … whose first adventure, “A Study in Scarlet,” had been set partially in Utah and involved murderous Danites and a fleeing damsel and plenty of everything offensive to Mormons.

Dr. Higgins recalled reading “A Study in Scarlet” when it was published in 1887, and he wondered whether Doyle’s awareness of Mormonism had grown in the intervening years. Learning that Doyle was staying at the Hotel Utah, Dr. Higgins wrote and hand-delivered this letter to Doyle.

To Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir,

Nearly thirty years ago, I read a book entitled “A Study in Scarlet”; which if I remember rightly was given away as a Christmas Number with an English Magazine.1

I did not at that time know anything about Mormonism or the Mormon people; but the book gave one the impression that Murder was a common practice among them. The writer of that book was A. Conan Doyle, who is announced to give a lecture in the Mormon Tabernacle this evening.

Will you now justify a “Study in Scarlet”? Or, finding yourself misinformed at that time, will you express your regret at having propagated falsehoods about the Mormon Church and people?

By their fruits ye shall know them.”

I am tours faithfully

G. Hodgson Higgins
M.R.C.S. Eng, L.R.C.P. Edin.

838 Ramona Avenuye
Salt Lake City
10th May 1923

While courteous in tone, the letter was still a provocative challenge. Doyle was a busy man, and in the midst of a heavy travel and lecture tour he may have needed to rest. You have to give him credit for responding to Dr. Higgins’ note at all:

Dear Sir

I shall draw the Mormons as I find them when I write of my present experiences. All I said of 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 is best to let the matter rest, I think, and draw the Mormons as they now are

Yours sincerely

A Conan Doyle

May 10.

I don’t know about you, but it was a hoot and a half for me to see Doyle’s signature on a sheet of Hotel Utah stationery.

  1. His memory was good; “A Study in Scarlet” was published as Beeton’s Christmas Annual, a yearly magazine published by Samuel Orchart Beeton, whose other coups included the first British publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Dr. Higgins may have gotten his copy of that annual Christmas number because he subscribed to one of Beeton’s several monthly magazines. []


5 Comments »

  1. That is terrific! And a speech about spiritualism in the Tabernacle?? How broad-minded we were back then! Now the closest we get is an evangelical.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 10, 2013 @ 7:38 am

  2. The good doctor’s qualifications led me on an interesting meander through the system of qualification for English physicians and surgeons, and I’m hoping that his Utah patients were impressed. Of if not, at least Sir A. Conan Doyle.

    But he was a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, having studied those two disciplines at the Royal College of Surgeons of England and the University of Edinburgh, respectively.

    And, like most physicians of the day, he was likely unable to do much to help his sick patients.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 10, 2013 @ 7:49 am

  3. Ha! I was reading some of Doyle’s short stories yesterday. How fun to see this today!

    Comment by David Y. — May 10, 2013 @ 9:48 am

  4. I had heard rumors that Doyle had both disavowed his portrayal of Mormons and Danites in A Study in Scarlet, and reaffirmed it. The latter seems to be true in this case. Nice to see a primary source exists. Scarlet was always I thought one of the weakest of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, except perhaps for the deus ex machina of surviving the plunge into the waterfall with Moriarty, after Doyle had supposed to kill Holmes off as a literary character. In the current Sherlock Holmes series on BBC, their version of A Study in Pink employed a cab driver, and no connections to Mormons at all.

    Comment by kevinf — May 10, 2013 @ 11:55 am

  5. It’s all historical? As I’ve mentioned before on Keepa, that’s pretty much what the textbook publisher replied when my daughter’s high school teacher relayed a complaint that the American history textbook called the founder of the Mormon church “John Smith.”

    And Sherlock? Best Holmes/Watson combo ever.

    Comment by Amy T — May 10, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

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