About three years ago, shortly after I retired, I was cruising the internet. Wikipedia has become my drug of choice when I want my idle curiosity satisfied. One day I started reading about Conan Doyle. I have been a Sherlock Holmes fan since the summer I turned 13, when I spent 6 weeks reading every Holmes story Doyle had ever written, then cried when there were no more. I wanted to return to the moors and hear the Hound of the Baskervilles howl one more time. In any event, I discovered that the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, was written in 1886, but not published in late 1887, and that the next one wasn't published until 1890. Doyle had been so bitter over the small amount he was paid for the first one he vowed to never write another, and it was only when an American magazine publisher offered him a substantial fee did he resume. The Ripper murders occurred in the later part of 1888, right in the middle of his hiatus from Holmes. I reckoned I could craft a story of how he got involved in the Ripper investigation with his old Professor of Surgery, Joseph Bell, the model Doyle used to craft Holmes. Below is my Author's Note to explain to the reader how I came upon Doyle's "Lost" memoir. I hope it is enough to pique your interest, to want to know what happens next.
Murder by Gaslight
The Casebook of Arthur Conan Doyle, MD
Bradley Harper MD FCAP
March 8, 1886: Arthur Conan Doyle begins work on A Study in Scarlet, finishing the middle of April. Sherlock Holmes is born.
November 1887: Scarlet is published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual and is an instant hit, selling out within two weeks.
August 7, 1888: The prostitute Martha Tabram is found stabbed to death in a stairwell. There is still dispute as to whether she was a Ripper victim.
August 31, 1888: The body of Mary Ann Nichols, the first of five “Canonical” victims, discovered on Buck’s Row.
September 8, 1888: The corpse of “Dark” Annie Chapman found in the back yard of 29 Hanbury Street.
September 30, 1888: Night of the “Double Event.”
November 9, 1888: Final Ripper victim discovered.
August 1889: Doyle and Oscar Wilde meet with the American publisher Joseph Stoddart and over dinner both are offered a commission to write something for Stoddart’s new magazine, The Lippincott Monthly. Doyle writes The Sign of Four, quickly followed by A Scandal in Bohemia. Sherlock Holmes is revived.
I should dearly love that the world should be ever so little better for my presence. Even on this small stage we have our two sides, and something might be done by throwing all one’s weight on the scale of breadth, tolerance, charity, temperance, peace, and kindliness to man and beast. We can’t all strike very big blows, and even the little ones count for something.
Arthur Conan Doyle, Stark Munro Letters (1894)
I love old books; the smell of the leather bindings, the lush feel of the paper, the patina of something well-crafted and carefully tended. I imagine the people whose hands have held the volume I am examining and the history they lived through. So, whenever I am in London, I plunge headlong into the antiquarian bookstores that are sadly becoming ever harder to find.
On my last trip, I ran across an old cardboard box labeled “Harkness.” That name meant nothing to me at the time but, curious, I looked inside and found several old manila folders buried beneath ancient issues of various newspapers. The majority were filled with documents written in a flowing, feminine hand relating the travels and adventures of a Miss Margaret Harkness. To my surprise, they were addressed to Arthur Conan Doyle.
At the bottom of the box, I found one folder containing a manuscript that stood out, as it was typewritten with an old, much-creased map attached to it, and the name at the end was that of Sir Arthur himself.
Trying my best not to look excited, I asked the owner where he had acquired it. He replied that the box had been purchased along with a great many other books and papers at an estate sale and that he would only sell the folders together as he wished to dispose of the lot.
I readily agreed, and for the sum of twenty-five pounds bought the box and all its contents, then greedily sped to my room to examine my new purchase more closely.
As a former military pathologist, I have always envied Holmes’s ability to deduce past events from present circumstance. My occasional forensic cases required this same skill. Was the injury post-mortem? Had the body been moved after death? How long had the person been dead before discovery? Could the death be a homicide made to look like a suicide? Attention to small details was critical in such cases; Holmes, my role model, quietly counseling me not to be too hasty in making a judgment until I had all the facts.
I used those skills as best I could to assess the provenance of the document bearing Doyle’s name. It is typewritten with no handwriting save the initial “D” at the end, but that is not unusual. Sir Arthur was quick to adopt the typewriter; initially typing himself and, by 1924, the date of this document, using a full-time professional secretary.
Given the personal nature of the narrative, I believe that he would have prepared it himself. As far as physical evidence goes, I can merely state that the pages appear weathered, and the typeface is consistent with machines of his day.
The “voice” is unlike that of a Holmes story, but that is not surprising. In this narrative, he is relating personal recollections and not a fictional tale designed to create a particular mood.
The period of the Ripper murders in 1888 was an interesting one for Doyle, both as a writer and as a physician. He had a quietly successful practice as a General Practitioner in Portsmouth and had some small pieces of historical fiction accepted by minor publications, but nothing that had received undue acclaim. His first Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet” was completed in April of 1886 and was his largest and most ambitious work to date. He sent it to various publishers and was hurt by what he described as the “circular tour” of his manuscript.
Fortunately, Jeannie Bettany, wife of the editor in chief for Beeton’s Christmas Annual, plucked it from the slush pile in her husband’s office and convinced him to buy it. They offered Doyle 25 pounds, which he found insulting as they also demanded full copyright. Being tired of trying to sell his work and eager for the exposure, he ultimately agreed. For the remainder of his life, Doyle never ceased to mention that those 25 pounds were all he ever received for his introduction to the world of his most enduring character.
In July of 1887, he turned to writing an historical novel entitled Micah Clarke relating the adventures of a young man who joined the Puritan forces during the English Civil War. As this work neared completion, his story in the Christmas Annual was published and proved an instant success, selling out within two weeks after a positive review from The Times. Doyle, embittered by his meager pay for the story, labored on finalizing Clarke, which occupied his writing energy for the next year, and he followed it shortly afterward with another story of the same period. The second Holmes story, The Sign of Four, was not published until February 1890, roughly sixteen months after the Ripper had left the scene, and nearly four years since he penned Scarlet.
The Ripper murders, therefore, took place in the interim between Scarlet and Sign. All the murders occurred in 1888, but there is still debate as to which women slain that year could be attributed to him. There are five that all agree on, however, beginning with Mary Nichols on the 31st of August 1888 and the final “canonical” victim, Mary Kelly, in the early hours of the 9th of November. Five murders over scarcely seventy days were sufficient to make the shadowy image of Jack the Ripper into an immortal figure of savagery and fear.
The next question to resolve is how such a document, if genuine, should not have come to light sooner? I can only conjecture that this manuscript was filed with correspondence from Miss Harkness, as I found it, and then over time various newspapers of passing interest were placed over the folders, concealing them. Therefore, this memoir along with the accompanying correspondence could have been easily overlooked and kept in some attic until, with the passage of generations, it fell under the auctioneer’s gavel.
But I have said enough. In the end, you must make of it what you will.
Res Ipsa loquitor - The Thing Speaks for Itself