On 2 February 1903 in the Staffordshire village of Great Wyrley, a valuable horse belonging to Joseph Holmes was ripped open in the night. Two months later a cob belonging to Mr Thomas suffered a similar fate. A month later a cow of Mrs Bungay’s was killed. Within a fortnight a horse was mutilated and some sheep killed.
On June 6 two cows were killed, then three weeks later two horses were destroyed. Finally, on the night of 17 August 1903, a pony was killed at Great Wyrley colliery and the local vicar’s son, George Edalji, was arrested for the crimes. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to seven years hard labour.
The Great Wyrley Rippings were a macabre episode that would have been known to few outside the cattle markets of the West Midlands, but for one man: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The world’s most famous author, creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, was convinced there had been a monstrous miscarriage of justice and, following the death of his wife in 1906, threw himself into solving the case.
“The first sight which I ever had of Mr George Edalji was enough in itself to convince me both of the extreme improbability of his being guilty of the crime for which he was condemned, and to suggest some at least of the reasons which had led to his being suspected,” wrote Doyle in an epic piece published in 1907 in The Daily Telegraph, and later in The New York Times, that was so long and detailed it could have passed as a chapter from one of his books.
Edalji was the son of an Anglican clergyman whose Asian origins had long marked out the family for the attentions of local gossips and hate-mailers. Twenty-seven-year-old George still lived at home with his father, although he travelled to Birmingham every day, where he worked as a lawyer.
In Edalji’s arrest and conviction, Doyle saw parallels with the Dreyfus affair, a notorious miscarriage of justice that was rumbling on in France at the same time, and he spent several years trying to prove his point, in a style that will be familiar to anyone who has read his Sherlock Holmes novels.
“He had come to my hotel by appointment, but I had been delayed, and he was passing the time by reading the paper,” his article continued. “I recognised my man by his dark face, so I observed him. He held the paper close to his eyes and rather sideways, proving not only a high degree of myopia, but marked astigmatism.
“The idea of such a man scouring fields at night and assaulting cattle while avoiding the police was ludicrous to anyone who can imagine what the world looks like to eyes with myopia of eight dioptres – the exact value of Mr Edalji’s myopia. But such a condition, so hopelessly bad, gave the sufferer a vacant, bulge-eyed, staring appear- ance, which, when taken with his dark skin, must have made him seem a very queer man to the eyes of an English village, and therefore to be associated with any queer event. There, in a single physical defect, lay the moral certainty of his innocence, and the reason why he should become the scapegoat.”
“This is Doyle turning detective,” says Martin Clunes, who plays the author in Arthur & George, ITV’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’s novel about Arthur Conan Doyle’s obsession with the Wyrley Rippings. “There’s such a weird amount of confusion about who Sherlock Holmes was and who Doyle was – and we’ve sort of TV-ised it. I have to say I don’t think we’re going to help the confusion! In all seriousness, more than one person has asked me if Benedict Cumberbatch is going to be in it.”