Before “Star Trek” fans and Harry Potter groupies, there were devotees of Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who created the pipe-smoking detective Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlockians celebrate Holmes’ birthday, fight to save buildings where Conan Doyle wrote and make pilgrimages to the London sites made famous in the Holmes stories.
It’s fair to say everything Conan Doyle did — even writing a letter to a friend in 1895 — has been studied by fans and scholars over the course of a century.
A set of 12 Conan Doyle letters sold at a Christie’s auction in 2004 for nearly $6,000. The recipient of several of these notes was unknown until an Iowa City genealogist and lifelong Conan Doyle fan applied himself to the mystery.
“It’s so exciting to me because it’s a mystery that’s been around for 116 years,” says Al Dawson, who wrote about his discovery in the summer issue of the Magic Door, a journal of the Friends of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto Public Library.
“Since 2004, people have known the letters existed and I’m the one who figured it out,” he says.
To understand the importance of Dawson’s find, you have to know a little bit about Sherlock Holmes fans.
“It’s one of the first organized fan communities,” says Nancy Reagin, a history professor at Pace University in New York who studies literary fan groups.
When Holmes first appeared in writing in 1887, literacy rates were on the rise and publishing costs had gone down from earlier in the century, Reagin says. Conan Doyle’s stories benefited from these developments, allowing a broad audience to meet his characters.
Holmes, a London-based detective famous for coldblooded logic and martial arts, was an emotionally stilted character who served as a prototype for others, such as Spock from “Star Trek” or the medical genius Gregory House featured on the television series “House, M.D.,” Reagin says.
Holmes is so beloved that when Conan Doyle killed him off in 1893, fans were outraged and badgered the author until he brought Holmes back to life.
Sherlockians are just as fervent today.
More than 100 people attended an October symposium at the Toronto library to probe the “oftentimes controversial life of Arthur Conan Doyle and the culture of Victorian scandal.” The four-day event included Sherlockian musical parodies, speakers and a seance to attempt to contact Conan Doyle beyond the grave.
“We are very keen on minutia,” says Peggy Perdue, curator of the library’s Conan Doyle collection. “Researchers are really trying to find all kinds of nuances.”
Dawson, 63, has been a Sherlock Holmes fan since he was a boy. His parents, who did not go to college, encouraged him to read and gave him books that included stories by Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Dawson went on to earn a master’s degree in Victorian history, which covers 1837 to 1901. He moved to Iowa City in 2001 when his wife, Deborah, became director of biostatistics for the University of Iowa College of Dentistry.
Dawson was attending the Toronto symposium when he saw an exhibit featuring an 1895 letter Conan Doyle wrote from Egypt to a friend named Ainslie. Christie’s and letter vendors didn’t know the recipient’s identity, Perdue says.
“In the readily accessible data we had, he was just a surname,” she says.
Dawson was intrigued. The Victorian literary community was small and Conan Doyle knew everyone. Unearthing Ainslie’s identity might reveal some interesting new connections.
Dawson believed genealogy could yield the answers.
“‘Ainslie’ was both a given name and surname in Victorian times,” Dawson wrote in the Magic Door article. “In the 1891 Census, the one closest to the 1895-96 letters, there were 828 people with the surname Ainslie in England, Scotland and Wales.”
Dawson decided Ainslie had to be a man because Conan Doyle wouldn’t have addressed a woman simply as ‘Ainslie’ in correspondence. The man was likely younger than Conan Doyle, Dawson thought.
Research led Dawson to Douglas Ainslie, whose father was the secretary for the British ambassador in Paris.
“I started to feel in my bones that he was the one,” Dawson wrote. “But as my graduate adviser at Chapel Hill, all those years ago, cautioned me: ‘Feeling it in your bones is the onset of arthritis. Look for evidence!’”
Douglas Ainslie was connected to well-known writers and artists including Oscar Wilde, Isadora Duncan, Henry James, Somerset Maugham and Sarah Bernhardt, Dawson discovered.
British biographer Neil McKenna believed Ainslie might have been Wilde’s lover based on an 1886 letter from Wilde to Ainslie, Dawson says. However, Dawson’s research shows Ainslie more likely had a crush on Wilde’s wife, Constance.
But Dawson couldn’t find a link between Ainslie and Conan Doyle.
He scrutinized Ainslie’s relatives until he hit on Sir. Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, Ainslie’s uncle and a political diarist.
Grant Duff’s “Notes from a Diary,” a copy of which is held by the UI library, had this entry from 1895:
“My nephew Douglas writes from the Mena House Hotel, close to the Pyramids; — ‘I have been riding lately with Conan Doyle, the novelist, and find him excellent company.’ ”
Dawson has turned his attention to some of the other Conan Doyle letters sold in the 2004 Christie’s auction and hopes to one day write a book about Ainslie.
Discoveries like these may only be of interest to die-hard Conan Doyle fans, but there are plenty of those.
The Baker Street Irregulars, the most famous Sherlock Holmes fan group, celebrates Holmes birthday each January in New York City. The group has hundreds of “scion societies” across the country, including the Younger Stamfords, an Iowa City-based fan group.
Other evidence of Sherlock Holmes’ enduring popularity is the BBC series “Sherlock,” which presents a contemporary Holmes solving crimes in London, and the 2009 film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.