Injustice produces indignation at those responsible for it. Shrabani Basu’s The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer is filled with indignation as it tells the story of the investigation, prosecution, conviction, and partial pardon of George Edalji, a British lawyer of Indian descent who served three years in prison for crimes (mutilating animals and sending threatening letters) he did not commit. It is a tale of racial prejudice, an inept judge, a biased chief of police, and an obstinate criminal justice bureaucracy. But it is also the tale of men who saw injustice and worked persistently to right a terrible wrong. Included among those men was the creator of the fictional master detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Basu, a journalist for the Times of London and the author of Victoria & Abdul and other works of history, writes a vivid factual narrative that is tinged with emotion. The crimes occurred in 1903 in the village of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire, populated mostly by working-class miners and farmers. George Edalji was the son of the Indian vicar of St Mark’s Church, Shapurji Edalji by name, and his British wife, Charlotte. Basu notes that when the Edaljis arrived in Great Wyrley, they found “they were not entirely welcome.” As Conan Doyle would later explain, “The appearance of a coloured clergyman with a half-caste son in a rude, unrefined parish was bound to cause some regrettable situation.”
The “regrettable situation” started in 1888, when the front of the Edaljis’ house was painted with “The Edaljis are wicked.” That incident was followed by a series of threatening letters that caused the Edaljis to contact the police. Others in the village received threatening letters that purported to be from Shapurji. On other occasions, someone left excrement inside an open window and on a door in the Edaljis’ house. The police at first only took what Basu characterizes as a “half-hearted interest” in the family’s troubles. Later, the police began to suspect that George Edalji wrote the letters and placed the excrement inside the house. Soon, Basu writes, the vicarage was under siege, with more threatening letters and a chief of police that seemed intent on proving that young George was the culprit.
Basu describes the police chief, George Anson, as “an imperialist to the core” who believed in the superiority of Western civilization and the British Empire. Anson, she writes, developed a “deep-seated dislike for the Edalji family, and particularly George.” George, meanwhile, had studied law and was working as a solicitor in Birmingham. He appeared to be on the path to success.
George Edalji’s fate took a turn for the worse in 1903 when Great Wyrley suffered a series of brutal animal slayings, including several horses. “Terror gripped the village,” Basu writes, “… as the killings continued in quick succession.
Villagers watched in horror as the bodies of the mutilated horses were put on carts and removed from the fields.
Letters accusing George Edalji of slaying the animals circulated in the village. George was subsequently arrested for killing one horse and sending threatening letters.
The evidence against George, Basu notes, was circumstantial at best; flimsy at worst. The police and prosecutors pointed to horse hairs on one of George’s coats, a footmark near the dead horse that appeared to match one of George’s boots, blood-stained razors found in George’s room, and a handwriting expert who testified that George wrote all of the threatening letters.
The trial was presided over by an inexperienced judge who, legal scholars later argued, allowed the jury to consider inadmissible evidence. The jury deliberated for 50 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced George to penal servitude for seven years. The killing of animals in the village continued after George was sent to prison, but the police believed that George was a member of a gang that was committing the crimes, so in their minds this did not exonerate him.
Some eminent legal scholars and former jurists took a different view, and the Edalji family enlisted them in a public campaign to free George. Meanwhile, in prison George spent time reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and he wrote the author to seek his assistance in righting the injustice of his conviction.
Conan Doyle readily agreed and spent much of 1907 investigating the case in the manner of his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. His detective work, Basu writes, “demolished” every argument and weakened every piece of evidence put forth by the prosecution, and he publicized his findings in British newspapers, which later appeared in American newspapers. Conan Doyle compared the Edalji case to France’s notorious Dreyfus case.
Conan Doyle’s logic and perseverance changed media and public opinion to George Edalji’s side. The Home Secretary appointed a committee of inquiry that recommended a “free pardon” for George, declaring that he was innocent of the horse slaying but guilty of writing the threatening letters. After serving three years of his prison sentence, George Edalji was a free man, but he would not be compensated for the injustice.
Conan Doyle now took it upon himself to discover who committed the animal slayings and who wrote the letters. He clashed repeatedly with police chief Anson, who had only disdain for the amateur detective. Conan Doyle provided the police with a few suspects, but nothing came of it. Unlike in his Sherlock Holmes novels, “The mystery of the Wyrley Ripper remained unsolved.”