The Amateur Detective

In 1903, a series of slashings of horses, cows and sheep, took place in the South Staffordshire village of Great Wyrley. In the October of that year, George Edalji (1876 – 1953) was arrested on suspicion of having carried out an eighth attack on a pit pony.

At his subsequent trial he was found guilty and was sentenced to seven years hard labour.

Following an outcry by several powerful supporters, he was released from prison  in 1906. However, he was not pardoned, and the police kept him under careful surveillance.

Numerous people began petitioning to have Edalji’s conviction quashed, and the police found themselves facing public hostility for what was widely perceived as harassment of an innocent  man, who had been wrongly convicted.


Many amateur and armchair detectives took up case, amongst them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930), the celebrated author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, who not only campaigned on Edalji’s behalf, but who also carried out his own investigation, visiting the crime scenes and interviewing witnesses.

Finally, in May 1907, Conan Doyle’s  dedication paid off and George Edalji received a pardon.

His case was a factor in the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal  that same year.

But it also led to a great number of letters to newspapers in which the writers criticised the police, many of them suggesting (as had happened in the Jack the Ripper murders of 188) that the police were inefficient bunglers, and that amateur detectives had proved themselves superior to the professionals.


On September 14th 1907, the editor of The Penny Illustrated Paper, came to the defence of the police in an article which highlighted the stark differences between the problems faced by the real-life detectives, and those faced by the fictional ones:-

“My dear Readers

I do trust that none of you are amateur detectives, also that you are not theorists possessed of wild ideas, whose one idea is to rush wildly into print, solving the most complex crime-mysteries by the aid of a little ink and a sprinkling of commas.

I really should be quite hurt if you were threatened by an attack of that kind of thing, for of late I have commenced to have an absolute contempt for people of that persuasion.

I admit that this may be mere jealousy, for I could not detect even an escape of gas – without risk.

A cartoon drawing of a man not detecting a gas leak.
From The Penny Illustrated Paper,14th September 1907. Copyright, The British Library Board.


It is not realty that there is any objection to people having ideas of their own, for I have known such things become very profitable – though not, as a rule, to the man who had the idea. The objection is that these theorists, these detectives on paper, are so sure that they are right that they are equally certain that everyone else is wrong.

Just once, now and again, this may be the case – just once.

Take, for instance, this terrible and brutal horse-maiming in Staffordshire, which is only a repetition of the horrors of three and four years ago.

The Press is full of letters from well meaning people, each of whom, if he or she is to he believed, knows exactly how the police may lay their hands on the perpetrators of the crime.

Some, it is true, are sufficiently modest to praise up other people’s virtues, and it is really remarkable the number who have insisted, at the cost of quite a number of penny stamps, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, should be asked to proceed to Great Wyrley and settle the whole horrible business out of hand.


Does it ever occur to you that such faith is really touching?

With all due respect to a very-clever man, I quite fail to see why Sir Arthur should succeed where the police have been at fault.

Bear in mind that there is nothing easier, to a man who makes his living that way, than to invent a crime and then find the perpetrator of it.

Do you know that I, your humble and obedient servant, have written some hundreds of detective stories in the course of an adventurous career:-  yet I would not undertake to detect George Washington telling the truth on the top of a Vanguard bus.

Other gifted authors, leaving Sir Arthur and myself out of the question, who have made a speciality of solving intricate problems on paper, are legion.

Why does not someone suggest that Edgar Allan Poe or Gaboriau would be able to solve these mysteries if they were still alive?

My dear readers, the average policeman – who will some day, by the aid of decent luck, develop into a detective – could do more detecting in five minutes than all these theorists could accomplish in a lifetime.

If you don’t believe me, just buy a large-sized magnifying-glass, a bloodhound, a secondhand revolver, and a slouch-hat. Armed with these aids to detection, go to Great Wyrley – I am not sure that I would not pay the fare – and see how much you can discover.


Think what you would have to do.  You would arrive there, full of the joy of  a slouch-hat, and the knowledge that the world would, in a few hours time, be ringing with your name.

Without difficulty you would find someone to lead you to the spot where the last horse was found dead – in fact, I  should not be surprised if a policeman would do that much for you. Curiously enough, they are not a bit afraid that amateurs will cut them out. Well, take it for granted that you reached the field and were shown by your guide the exact spot where the horse was found dead – what next?

I can bring a pathetic figure to my mind.

I can see the amateur detective,  his slouch-hat pushed on to the back of  his head, crawling about the ground on his hands and knees, his extra-powerful magnifying-glass in his hand.

Incidentally (this is strictly between ourselves) I can see the local policemen standing round and sniggering, and possibly betting a sovereign to a brace-button that the amateur detective won’t even find his lost self-respect by the time that he has finished his search.

Possibly our amateur detective would commence to wonder why fields are made so large, making it necessary to cover such a large surface; he might decide that when the crime was committed the ground was too hard to retain a clue; or even – but one thing is quite certain, and that is, that after a very short time he would purchase a ticket back to his native town, and, without thought of triumphal entries, or even of a modest reception by the mayor and corporation, he would be pleased to go quietly back to the mansion or cottage that he calls home, slip back unostentatiously into the life for which he is best fitted, and refrain from annoying the police.


The fact is, to put matters plainly, we all make mistakes at times.

The police admit this freely enough, but, unluckily, the correctors of the police do not.

That is easily explained.

If the police make a mistake there are a hundred papers ready to publish the fact, and to howl gleefully about it. Though why they should be joyous of the supposed failure of the men who look after the safety of their lives and their possessions is beyond me.

On the other hand. if a reader of a paper flaunts an idea, forcing it upon the other readers of the paper, he probably hides his identity under the nom de plume of “Constant Reader,” or “Indignant Britisher,” or even “A Father of Seven, and All Passed the Fifth Standard.”

Well, suppose he is proved to be wrong, he hides shamelessly behind his nom de plume, and laughs with his friends at the absurd things that these amateur detectives will write to the papers; from which it will be seen that even “A Father of Seven, etc.,” can be deceitful.


There is one more little matter that I should like to mention before stopping.

Has it ever occurred to you that the police and detective forces, despite all that depends upon them, are one of the worst-paid bodies of men in the world?

At no time is their life a particularly easy one, while sometimes, more frequently than the average comfortable citizen imagines, they are brought face to face with death.

Gentlemen, if you want to agitate, by all means do so, but let it be for more adequate pay for the men who enable you to sleep soundly in your beds, who see your little children safely across dangerous thoroughfares, and who, despite the shoutings in the Press, succeed far more often than they fail in the detection of crime.

The life of an ordinary policeman may seem to be very prosaic to you – until you -think,.

But just try walking up to a good-sized drunken navvy and telling him that you are going to arrest him – precisely!


Think of all these things that I have dared to point out to you, and then tell me honestly that you can still call the average detective a failure.

If you can, well, every bankrupt, every woman who loses sixpence down a drain, every boy who swaps a silver watch for a tin scarf-pin, all these are failures – because once in their lives they have not succeeded.

A word in your ear, my reader.

If that is the case, everyone of us is a failure – we are a country, aye, a nation of failures.

Therefore, what right has one failure to criticise the other? – for two negatives make a positive.

Gentlemen, I am not a detective, a policeman, or even an amateur detective, but I take off my hat to the men in blue who are working night and day to clear up the horrible mystery of the outrages in Staffordshire.

Your editor.”


You can read a full account of the George Edalji case here.