The world-famous author of Sherlock Holmes was quite the detective himself, evidenced by Christopher Sandford's biography The Man Who Would Be Sherlock.
Today we’re lucky enough to have groups like the Innocence Project, Advocates 4 the Wrongly Convicted, and A Just Cause, among others, whose mission is to fight the corner on behalf of the wrongfully imprisoned. A century or so ago, it was down to the ingenuity and tenacity of a few brave individuals like Arthur Conan Doyle to take up what was often a deeply unpopular cause.
In June 1889, the police in Great Wyrley, near Walsall in the English midlands, came to arrest 17-year-old Elizabeth Foster, who worked in domestic service for the local Anglican minister Revd. Sharpurji Edalji and his family. She was accused of sending her employers a series of threatening letters, eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, and was bound over to keep the peace. The story rated a single paragraph towards the back of the local newspaper.
Some years later, there was a second outbreak of anonymous letters to Revd. Edalji’s home. They came in a variety of handwriting styles and under a number of pseudonyms. If the correspondence could be said to have had a unifying theme, it was that Edalji and his family (highly unusual at that time and place in being a mixed Anglo-Asian household) were Satan-worshipping infidels of particularly bizarre personal habits who would roast eternally in hell.
“Do you think, you Pharisee, that because you are a parson God will absolve you from your iniquities?” inquired one note. Another characterized Edalji as a “confirmed lunatic”—surely a case of projection—and promised his three children and their mother Charlotte an afterlife distinguished by perpetual fire and brimstone. Much of the language employed was intemperate, quite often embellished by crude graffiti, and some of it was positively demented. The blameless Mrs. Edalji, for example, was “a kunt, liar, divil, confounded hypocrite, silly blasted bloody fool.”
Stung by what he perceived as the 'immortal injustice' of it all, Conan Doyle took up the proverbial deerstalker cap and pipe to investigate the case.
The local police eventually came to believe that these new letters were not the work of Elizabeth Foster, but of the teenaged George Edalji, the reverend’s oldest child, who for some unexplained reason was harassing his own family. George was a precociously clever boy who did well at school, but who was bullied because of his Indian background. He had few close friends, and no known girlfriends. His mother later observed that her son was “never one to travel in crowds.” The general theory among the police was that George was writing the letters because of some sort of psychological compulsion—that he was what we might now call a functioning sociopath, who developed a bitter and contemptuous attitude towards the world under the facade of a mother’s boy.