FEW celebrities have had more urban myths attributed to them than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Scottish family doctor who created fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his legendary residence at 221B Baker Street in north London.
Because if you believe the rumours, Conan Doyle was notorious for being involved in any number of bizarre and extraordinary incidents that made British headlines in the early 20th century.
For starters it’s been claimed he was responsible for the infamous Piltdown Man hoax of 1912 – when alleged fossils of a previously-unknown primitive human were discovered in a quarry. The “fossils” were later exposed as a mixture of bone fragments from the jaw of an orang-utan and the skull of a modern human.
Detractors also claimed that Conan Doyle was a cocaine addict and had been complicit in the death of renowned escapologist, Harry Houdini.
And that he was having an affair with the wife of a colleague who was actually the “real” author of the Hound of the Baskervilles, the most-acclaimed Sherlock Holmes mystery, and that he murdered the husband.
Now yet another of those urban myths involving Conan Doyle has resurfaced, fittingly in the final weeks leading up to the London Olympics.
This one first did the rounds in 1948 during that year’s London Olympics, and concerns the disqualification of Italian runner Dorando Pietri, who was first across the line in the marathon in the earlier 1908 London Olympics.
Writing for the sporting pages of the Daily Mail newspaper on Saturday July 25, 1908, Conan Doyle reported: “Out of the dark archway (of the stadium entrance) there staggered a little man, with red running-drawers, a tiny boy-like creature. He reeled as he entered and faced the roar of the applause… There were wild gesticulations… Good heavens, he has fainted… I do not think in all of that great assembly any man would have wished victory to be torn at the last instant from this plucky little Italian. He has won it. He should have it.”
History records that British Olympic officials helped the Italian to his feet several times before he finally breasted the tape. But in doing so they ensured he would be disqualified – for receiving assistance.
Conan Doyle also wrote a front-page story urging an appeal be held for money for the hapless runner. It raised 350 pounds, enough for Pietri to buy a bakery in his home town, while Queen Alexandra, the wife of King Edward VII, awarded him a special silver cup.
But a photograph taken at the time shows Pietri being helped across the line by an official wearing a cloth cap. Many so-called experts have claimed the man in the cloth cap was in fact Conan Doyle, claims that were even repeated in the Media Kit for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
However the man in question has been positively identified as Dr Michael Bulger, Chief Medical Officer of the 1908 Games.
The Baker Street Dispatch, a newsletter for Sherlock Holmes buffs, even published a reader’s letter after the event asking if Dr Watson, the fictional detective’s equally fictional offsider, or Conan Doyle himself had ever been involved in the 1908 Olympics? And surprisingly the newsletter’s editor noted that “Dr Watson had bet heavily on Pietri, and although it was never proven, many people at the race believed that Sir Arthur (Conan Doyle) was at the scene helping the Italian runner.”
Whatever, it’s all grist for the rumour mills, and doubtless British tourist authorities will hope it will re-ignite interest in Conan Doyle, the characters he created, and such places as Baker Street where they can find an impressive statue of Sherlock Holmes.
Or maybe they’ll venture to the barren heaths of Dartmoor to ponder over the Hounds of the Baskervilles, view Conan Doyle’s gravestone at Minstead in New Forest, Hampshire, or gawk at “Undershaw” that was one of his last homes at Hindhead, 65km south of London.
For 80 years after his death “Undershaw” was a restaurant that cashed in on his fame, but it’s now the centre of a fight between developers – one faction wanting it to become upmarket apartments, another for it to be preserved as a Conan Doyle museum.
We believe only Sherlock Holmes himself could solve the problem… quite elementary, actually.
Written by David Ellis with Malcolm Andrews