The Real Affair of the Red-Headed League

Article published on December 25, 2016.

Having tracked down the original Moriarty, Erin Britton is on the trail yet again! (But beware a plot spoiler.)

In The Red-Headed League, Sherlock Holmes is approached for help by a flame-haired fellow named Jabez Wilson. While principally employed as a pawnbroker, Wilson had been supplementing his earnings by working for a league dedicated to the advancement of red-headed gentlemen. He had answered an advertisement in the newspaper and then been awarded the position on account of his hair being just the right shade of red. Wilson’s business was not doing well and so he was easily able to sacrifice working mornings in his shop in order to fulfil his obligations to the league. The money was exceptionally good and the work simply involved copying out the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was why Wilson was so upset when he arrived at the league’s office one day to find a note pinned to the door stating that it had been dissolved.

Although somewhat amused by Wilson’s problem, Holmes acknowledges that the affair of the Red-Headed League is one of the most intriguing cases he has come across and he agrees to investigate. In very little time, Holmes is able to deduce that the league was created solely for the purpose of keeping Wilson out of his shop for several hours a day. Wilson’s shop assistant is unmasked as John Clay, a notorious villain who had been tunnelling from the basement of the pawnbrokers into the vault of the adjacent bank. Holmes is able to apprehend Clay during the commission of the robbery and, while Jabez Wilson isn’t exactly satisfied with the outcome of the affair, the mystery of the Red-Headed League is solved.

Arthur Conan Doyle ranked The Red-Headed League as his second favourite Sherlock Holmes story and it certainly has an intriguing, convoluted plot worthy of the great consulting detective. What is surprising, however, is the fact that Doyle based the events of the story on a real-life bank robbery.

Between November 20 and November 22, 1869, Charley Bullard and Adam Worth (yep, the man said to have been the inspiration for Professor Moriarty) pulled off an audacious robbery of the Boylston National Bank in Boston, Massachusetts. Bullard and Worth had rented premises neighbouring the bank (contemporary accounts are unclear as to whether it was the building next door or the actual basement of the bank), a former barbershop that they had been operating as a “Gray’s Oriental Tonic” dealership for approximately six weeks.

While a member of their gang was always on duty in the shop in order to maintain a legitimate front, Bullard and Worth had spent their time tunnelling through a two-foot thick wall into the bank’s vault. They pulled off the actual heist on a weekend so that the theft would not be noticed until the bank opened for business again on the Monday morning, which was also the plan that John Clay had worked out in The Red-Headed League. Bullard and Worth managed to get away with over $450,000 worth of bonds, a staggering sum of money in 1869.

The loss to the bank was so large, and the publicity the case generated so significant, that the Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired to investigate. Pinkerton agents linked the crime to Bullard and Worth after tracing the shipment of trunks that the pair had used to transport the loot to New York. Fearing that the notoriety of the case would mean that the forces of law and order would never stop looking for them, Bullard and Worth decided to adopt fake identities and relocate to London (where they continued their criminal enterprises, although they were never apprehended for the Boylston Bank robbery).

Although the notoriety of the case might have inconvenienced Bullard and Worth, it was certainly a boon for crime fiction fans, since it provided the plot for one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest Sherlock Holmes stories.

Erin Britton
Nov 2016




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