Sherlock Holmes in Utah

We seem to be in the midst of a Sherlock Holmes revival, what with the BBC’s Sherlock series, CBS’s Elementary (both are set in the present) and the Warner Brothers movies staring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. This little side-light on good old Holmes has a Mormon connection.

In 1923, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, British author and advocate for the Spiritualism movement, visited Salt Lake City, Utah and delivered a lecture in the Mormon Tabernacle.[1] Doyle was and is most famous for his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle in his mature years.

Doyle in his mature years.

Holmes’s first adventure involved a crime that was linked to the Mormons of Utah, specifically, the Danite Vigilante Corps so popular in the nineteenth-century press. A Study in Scarlet was sold for 25 pounds sterling and appeared in December 1886.

Doyle’s story offended more than one British Mormon and one in particular challenged Holmes’s creator on the subject of Scarlet and whether Doyle would now apologize for his fictional account of the Mormons.[2] Doyle’s Mormon critic was George Hodgson Higgins, a convert born in Lancashire in 1853. Higgins was a Salt Lake City resident and MD and died of a kidney infection four years after his literary exchange with Doyle.
Holmes, as artist Sidney Paget conceived of him in the Strand Magazine. Movie star Basil Rathbone was nearly a dead ringer.

Holmes, as artist Sidney Paget conceived of him in the Strand Magazine. Movie star Basil Rathbone was nearly a dead ringer.

Here is Higgins’s letter, written to Doyle while the latter stayed in the Hotel Utah.


Nearly thirty years ago, I read a book
entitled “A Study in Scarlet”; which if I
remember rightly was given away as a Christmas
Number with an English Magazine.

I did not at that time know anything about
‘Mormonism or the Mormon people; but the book
gave one the impression that Murder was a common
practice among them. The writer of that
book was A Conan Doyle: who is announced
to give a lecture in the Mormon Tabernacle
this evening———

Will you now justify a ‘Study in
Scarlet’? Or, finding yourself misinformed
at that time, will you express your regret
at having propagated falsehoods about the
Mormon Church and people?

“By their fruits ye shall know them”
I am
Yours faithfully
G. Hodgson Higgins
M.R.O.S.Eng. S.R.C.P Edin.

Doyle replied to Higgins during his stay in Salt Lake thusly:

Hotel Utah stationary. Doyle trusted, apparently, his 1880s impressions of the Mormon pioneers.

Hotel Utah stationary. Doyle trusted, apparently, his 1880s impressions of the Mormon pioneers. Click for an enlargement. Image courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hotel Utah
“The Hotel Beaufiful”
Geo. O. Relf,
Salt Lake City

Dear Sir
I shall draw the Mormons as I
find them when I write of my present
experiences. All I said of the Danite
Band and the murders is historical so I
cannot withdraw that, tho’ it is likely that in a
work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a
work of history. It is best to let the matter rest, I
think, and draw the Mormons as they now are

Yours sincerely

A Conan Doyle May 10.

[1] Doyle’s speech was on his investigation of spirit phenomena. He stayed in Salt Lake for several days, bringing his then wife Jean Elizabeth, three children, and their governess, a woman named French. The Tabernacle was fitted with a large screen to allow Doyle to present images pertinent to his psychic photos, etc. City newspapers like the Trib and Telegram ran stories in the weeks prior to Doyle’s visit, raising interest in the subject, a naturally interesting one for the Mormons in particular, for obvious reasons.
[2] Doyle constructed the story in two parts, the mystery that presents itself to Holmes in part 1, and part 2, which paints a rather unflattering (and minimally factual) picture of Mormons in Utah.


  1. Heh heh heh. I read “Study in Scarlet” as a young girl, maybe when I was about 13 or 14, and remember being scandalized by the grim and sensationalized portrayal of the Danites (of whom I knew a little because my Dad was a Mormon history buff) and Brigham Young. I remember being quite offended that Doyle’s prejudice was so obvious – I thought that if he was so brilliant, he should know better than to trust anti-Mormon material. I’ve read a number of other Holmes books over the years and enjoyed to varying degrees the movie and television depictions of him, but I’ve never quite been able to read or watch without feeling a tiny bit uncomfortable. It amuses me that so many of my female LDS friends and acquaintances seem to be madly in love with the Cumberbatch version – the character is entertaining but so unpleasant (and the actor so unattractive, deleted “Star Trek” shower scene notwithstanding) that I just don’t understand the romantic appeal.

  2. I love the current BBC Sherlock! Can’t say Cumberbatch is a romantic hero for me, but he is terribly fun and quirky. I love how the characters are evolving just a bit–Watson bring able to see thru Sherlock and laugh at him a bit, and Sherlock becoming actually more likeable thru Watson. Watson humanizes Sherlock, and it seems as if even Sherlock is aware that it is needed. It has been fun for me to take those modernized episodes and match them up with their original stories.

  3. Oh man, Ardis, talk about scooped!

  4. Kerbearrn, I like the BBC version as well. Watson comes off much better than the comic foil of early films and often the original stories themselves.

  5. You gotta wake up really early in the a.m. to publish before Ardis. Now you know how Leibniz felt when he found out about Newton. If only Newton had followed Ardis’s lead and got to the publisher sooner.

  6. Actually, I’ve had this in the bag for about three years, just never got around to doing it. I even searched Keepa to see if Ardis had done something with it, but didn’t see it for whatever reason. Oh well, perhaps Doyle needed the publicity. (grin)

  7. Christopher says:
  8. Armand Mauss says:

    WVS and Ardis: You’ve both been seriously scooped (though maybe not specifically in the exchange of letters with Doyle). See Michael Homer’s article in the Winter 1990 issue of Dialogue. Confirms my suspicion that bloggers don’t spend enough time checking out what’s already been published on the topics which they post in the bloggernacle.

  9. Armand, the incident has actually appeared in print quite a number of times. I found the letters while doing research for a book about 5 years ago. They just happened to be on the same microfilm roll as the Samuel Richards diary. And I liked that Hotel Utah stationary.

  10. Armand Mauss says:

    Yeah, WVS, my comment was probably unnecessary. I was just looking for another opening to hype Dialogue and grouse about the tendency of so many bloggers to ignore the published work of an earlier generation. Don’t take it personally. I’m just grouchy tonight.

  11. Here’s a link to Homer’s article for the interested.

  12. No sweat, Armand. Thanks for dropping by.

  13. Armand, if it makes you feel better I’m sure the next generation is already lining up to do it to us.

  14. Don’t be so certain, Armand. I became aware of Mike’s article after finding the letter but before posting it; I did not mention it because that publication played no role in my own “discovery” or delight and I did not draw on it for any fact included in my post.

    1990 was nearly a quarter century ago — prehistoric times in relation to the internet. The ancients may already have written all that is worth knowing, but the past has to be brought to mind over and over again or it has little meaning. That’s pretty much the essence of historical writing, whether on paper or in pixels, where literally everything depends on earlier records. That is, even Mike Homer and Dialogue were not original, having published letters that were written, preserved, and known by people decades before 1990.

  15. Nothing new under the sun. I still found it interesting!

  16. I <3 grouchy Armand!

  17. Armand Mauss says:

    Impertinent as my comment might have been, it elicited the following e-mail message to me from Mike Homer this morning:

    Someone in the Baker Street Irregulars sent me the January 27 edition of By Common Consent in which I noticed you had written a few comments. Obviously, everyone in the Sherlockian world is pleased that Doyle’s stories are getting a lot more play recently. I am even more delighted that the origins of the Sherlock Holmes character and its connection with Doyle’s study of Mormonism is becoming known to a wider audience.
    The first time I mentioned the Doyle/Higgins exchange was in “‘Recent Psychic Evidence’: The Visit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Utah in 1923,” Utah Historical Quarterly 52 (Summer 1984), 264-74. The most recent was in “A Message of ‘Cheer and Uplift’: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Ramble in Salt Lake City” in Leslie S. Klinger, ed., A Tangled Skein: A Companion Volume to The Baker Street Irregulars’ Expedition to The Country of the Saints. (New York: The Baker Street Irregulars, 2008), 40-47. I am encouraged that others find the exchange interesting.
    In case you have not seen it I thought you might be interested in the attached commentary I recently wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune in which I mention the connection between the Baker Street Irregulars who were introduced in A Study in Scarlet and Jules Remy’s account of his encounter with young boys in the streets of Lehi. I find this connection even more dramatic since (as I have written elsewhere) Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story was as much a shilling shocker as it was detective mystery.
    See SLT article:

    Now you have “the rest of the story.”

    ~ A

  18. Thanks for this great follow up Armand.

  19. Doyle would have been pleased to know that five years after he spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle about spiritualism, Natacha Rambova (a.k.a. Winifred Kimball, ex-wife of Rudolph Valentino) was part of a private séance in the Tabernacle with famed spiritualist George Wehner. As Natacha’s cousin Edward P. Kimball played the Tabernacle organ, Wehner purportedly communed with the spirits of Joseph and Emma Smith, Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young, the Angel Moroni, and others.

  20. Ivan Wolfe says:
  21. Holmes is a rich topic. Thanks Marie and Ivan.