The fact that there’s a Sherlock Holmes anti-Mormon controversy came as a surprise. (It’s probably a surprise to you, too.) As far as I knew, all Sherlock Holmes stories took place in England … or at least Europe!
Then I learned that part of the plot in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet actually takes place in the Salt Lake Valley region of Utah (part of an area in the United States known as the “Old West” in the late nineteenth century). Let’s just say I was curious.
Sherlock Holmes’ First Appearance
Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s may already know that A Study in Scarlet (published in 1887) is the first of Doyle’s books to mention the eccentric sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. This is also the book where Holmes meets his future assistant, Dr. John Watson.
Dr. Watson had returned to London in 1881, following his service in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. While looking for a place to stay, Watson was told about Holmes – with a warning about Holmes’ eccentricities.
Soon after Watson agreed to move into Holmes’ flat, sharing the cost of rent, he became a believer in Holmes’ powers of observation as a “consulting detective,” and ended up becoming an associate of Sherlock Holmes, assisting with all of his future cases.
The Sherlock Holmes Anti-Mormon Controversy Begins
The murder mystery revealed in A Study in Scarlet began on Brixton Road in London. Written on a wall in red was the word “Rache” (German for “revenge”). Quick to figure out this was just a ploy, Holmes speculated that the REAL cause of murder was poison.
Clues that helped Holmes solve the mystery (which involved two murder victims) included a woman’s wedding ring, a box containing two pills, and a suspicious cabby. Soon after arresting the cabby (Jefferson Hope), Holmes announced that the cabby was, in fact, the murderer of both men.
The connection between the cabby and the murders actually began more than 30 years earlier, in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley. A small group of pioneers had been rescued by a large party of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormons), led by Mormon leader Brigham Young.
Years after her rescue as a young girl, Lucy Ferrier (by then a young woman) fell in love with a man named Jefferson Hope. However, forbidden to marry someone “outside the faith,” Lucy was told she needed to choose between two Mormon men (related to church leaders) instead.
After their escape attempt failed, Lucy’s father was killed and Lucy was forced to marry one of the Mormons. Later, after Lucy’s death (from a broken heart), Jefferson left to recover from an illness … but not before threatening the two men who had been Lucy’s suitors.
Decades later, Jefferson Hope – posing as a London cabby – finally got his revenge.
What Caused the Actual Sherlock Holmes Anti-Mormon Controversy?
The roots of the Sherlock Holmes anti-Mormon controversy lie in the beliefs held by many people during the latter half of the 19th century – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Those beliefs included stories and rumors that murders of “non-conformists” were not uncommon among early pioneers following the Mormon faith. Non-Mormons were especially hostile toward one practice that was common among several Mormons of the day: polygamy.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and Virginia’s Albermarle County School Board voted to ban A Study in Scarlet from its 6th-grade reading list in August 2011. They did so, they claimed, due to complaints from students and parents about the book being derogatory toward Mormons.
Newspapers and websites around the country picked up on the story. (It was reported that about 20 former middle-school students from the area later protested the book’s removal from the list.)
Join Us in Reading A Study in Scarlet
Join us here at Tea, Tonic & Toxin as we read and discuss A Study in Scarlet. It’s an important book in the Victorian detective story genre for more than one reason. It’s the first book that mentions Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr. Watson. It’s also the first work of fiction that portrayed the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.
Share your thoughts and questions about the book on our website. We may even share your comments on our podcast! (Check out the podcast schedule to see which books we’ve already discussed in previous podcast episodes and which ones are coming up.)