Sherlock Holmes, Circumstantial Evidence and Piltdown Man

lan Langham, University of Sydney, Australia

Physical Anthropology News Spring 1984

[1] Historical research should (barring the accidental destruction of primary archival material through warfare or other forms of misadventure) be cumulative. However, despite the considerable amount of energy which has been extended over the past three decades on matters Piltdownian, standards of scholarship on the culpability issue have been declining steadily ever since the publication of J.S. Weiner's book, The Piltdown Forgery. In this trailblazing work, published only one year after the unmasking of fraudulence, Weiner put up a well-nigh impregnable case for regarding Charles Dawson, the Sussex solicitor and antiquarian, as in some way involved in the skullduggery. The question which remained after Weiner's work was simply whether, as Weiner argued, it is plausible that Dawson, alone and unaided, would have been able to carry out the meticulous planning and expert manipulation required for the execution of this prolonged and exceedingly clever imposture.

John Hathaway, Winslow and Alfred Meyer's attribution of the forgery to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle merely represents the latest (and flimsiest) of a number of recent attempts to implicate a famous or eminent person through the assembling of purely circumstantial evidence. In their article, published in the September issue of Science 83 , Winslow and Meyer admit that their case against Doyle is "circumstantial, intricate, even convoluted." However, they present this as a testament to the writer's skill in covering his tracks. Another conclusion is of course possible–that the evidence they adduce is too weak and inferential to carry conviction.

Having examined the extensive Piltdown-related archives which exist in Britain and the United States, I can confidently assert that the solution to the Piltdown puzzle is to be found therein, and that this solution does not involve Doyle. Instead of scrutinizing the passenger lists of ships to Tunisia, and combing The Lost World for allusions to the Sussex Weald, Winslow and Meyer would have been advised to pay more careful attention to the multitudinous letters and other manuscript material which were written by the Piltdown principals during the period in which the forgery was still in progress. Winslow and Meyer quote passages about Doyle from two of Dawson's letters. However, on my count, Dawson's correspondence with Arthur Smith Woodward, now held in the Department of Paleontology in the British Museum (Natural History), contains no less than six letters which mention Doyle, and the inferences that can be drawn therefrom are rather different to those espoused by Winslow and Meyer. None of the letters, for example, prove beyond doubt that Doyle visited the gravel pit. The letter in which Dawson writes that Doyle "seems excited about the skull" indicates only that Dawson. who had been given the first cranial fragment by a workman at least as far back as 1908, had shown it to [2] Doyle before the official unveiling of Piltdown Man on December 18, 1912. (This in itself was far from unprecedented. Surviving records indicate that, during much of 1911 and 1912, Dawson was in the habit of carrying around at least one of the fragments, and gave similar previews to a number of interested parties, including W.J. Lewis Abbott, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, H. J. Sargent, E. V. Clark, Sam Woodhead, W. Ruskin Butterfield, Sir Ray Lankester, E. Willett, and of course, Smith Woodward, who was to participate with Dawson in the unveiling.)

Winslow and Meyer mention Doyle's discovery of "fossilized dinosaur footprints and bones" near his house in Crowsborough. However, the letters of Dawson which relate to this episode, far from demonstrating Doyle's informed interest in paleontology, actually reveal his extreme gullibility. Following his discovery of iguanodon footprints, which occasioned a visit from Smith Woodward, Doyle indulged (according to Dawson) in "heroics" which gave rise to wild rumours about the finding of a whole iguanodon. This provoked Ruskin Butterfield, the curator of the Hastings Museum, to pedal some thirty miles to Crowborough on his bicycle. Upon arrival, however, Butterfield found only "a rock supposed to have a resemblance to a curled-up Kangaroo, understood to be of the type Iguanodon!"

Over six months after this incident, Dawson, who had himself been responsible for many valuable (and genuine) discoveries of fossil dinosaurs in the Weald, paid a social visit to the Doyles, in the course of which he examined what he sarcastically described to Smith Woodward as "the great fossil!" His verdict was that it represented "a mere concretion of oxide of iron and sand." Undaunted, Doyle and the ladies present claimed that the rock bore "striking resemblances" to the "carcases" of various animals. But, as Dawson wryly remarks, these supposed resemblances were "all mutually destructive!"

Ever the opportunist, Dawson then converted his visit from a paleontological disappointment into an archeological triumph. With well-nigh incredible percipience, he drew Doyle's attention away from the sandstone concretion to the drift deposits above. There Dawson spied a finely-chipped neolithic flint arrowhead, which, with apparent generosity, he presented to Doyle. The two men then lighted upon flint implements, and thus, as Dawson remarks, "I started him off on a new and I hope more fruitful enterprise." These passages, written in late 1911 when the Piltdown forgery must have been already underway, provide us with our best insight into the Dawson-Doyle relationship. And in a 1912 letter, Dawson, after informing Smith Woodward that Doyle is working on The Lost World, remarks: "I hope someone has sorted out his fossils for him!" Although Winslow and Meyer have quoted this passage, they seem to have missed the import of that final riposte. Doyle, in comparison with the experienced and knowledgeable Dawson, was a paleontological ingenue. And yet Winslow and Meyer would have us believe that Doyle was the Piltdown forger, and Dawson the dupe!

As another example of Doyle's gullibility, we may cite his belief that photographs taken by two young girls in 1917 demonstrated the existence of fairies. (Anyone wishing to see a sample of this "evidence," and gauge for themselves the depth of Doyle's naivety, will find one of the photographs reproduced in Ronald Pearsall's 1977 biography of Doyle). Only last year the two females concerned owned up to the fact that their photographs had been forgeries.

Winslow and Meyer assert that the Piltdown finds (and the animal fossils especially) constituted "an extraordinarily mixed bag." In fact, as Pleistocene mammal expert Martin Hinton pointed out in a paper published in the Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society in 1926, the Piltdown faunal [3] remains tally very well with an assemblage of bones which had been discovered in Ingress Vale, Kent in 1900, and with various deposits from the Cromer Forest Bed. While certain of the Piltdown discoveries could suggest that the forger had his tongue in his cheek, the animal assemblage should not be numbered among them. It represented e serious attempt to create a plausible composite deposit of late Pliocene and early Pleistocene remains.

A further criticism involves the correction of a straightforward mistake on a matter of fact. Winslow and Meyer notwithstanding, the monument to Dawson at the site of the Piltdown gravel was not removed after the unmasking of fraudulence. When I last visited the site in 1980, the stone memorial was still there, with its inscription intact.

Moving now to the admittedly more debatable area of interpretation, a number of points need to be made. It can hardly escape notice, for example, that Winslow and Meyer have provided no satisfactory explanation as to why Conan Doyle never successfully sprang the trap he had allegedly gone to so much trouble to set. That is, if the aim was firstly to get Ray Lankester to swallow the Piltdown. bait, and then to humiliate him by revealing Piltdown Man to be a hoax, why was it that Doyle never completed this latter phase of his alleged master-plan? Why did he let Lankester accumulate kudos by publishing numerous pieces on Piltdown, in the popular press and elsewhere? Certainly Winslow and Meyer's answer – that Doyle attempted to spring the trap by planting a bone implement and a second Piltdown Man – is profoundly unconvincing. Granting for the sake of argument that both these plants can be interpreted as failed attempts to burst the Piltdown bubble, why didn't Doyle, a professional writer and a brilliant communicator, then achieve his aim by far more direct verbal means? Doyle himself would have had little to lose and much to gain from the brouhaha attendant upon such a revelation. Specifically, it would have afforded spectacular publicity for The Lost World , and a caustic send-up of the Scientific Establishment, which on Winslow and Meyer's account, Doyle condemned for its opposition to spiritualism.

Indeed, the Winslow-Meyer account of the Doyle-Lankester relationship, so central to their thesis, is seriously deficient. Certainly they convince one that, prior to 1912, Doyle was committed to spiritualism and was aware of the fact that Lankester had been instrumental in unmasking the spiritualistic charlatan Slade. However, the scientific opponents of spiritualism were both numerous and outspoken, and the Winslow-Meyer account fails to establish that, because of the Slade affair, or for any other reason, there was particular animosity between Doyle and Lankester. On the contrary, surviving records would seem to indicate that, during the Piltdown period, the two men had quite a congenial relationship. Near the beginning of The Lost World Doyle makes Professor Challenger, the main protagonist of the story, refer to "my gifted friend, Ray Lankester," and to Lankester's "excellent monograph" on extinct animals. Acknowledging this complimentary reference in a private letter to Doyle of August 1912 (I have not seen the original, but it is partly quoted in Pierre Nordon's biography of Doyle), Lankester went on to make what were evidently intended to be helpful suggestions about exotic fauna which could be included in future instalments. Moreover, in another extract from what appears to be the same letter (quoted in the 1959 Doyle Centenary volume) Lankester described Doyle's presentation of "the lost mountain top world" as "perfectly splendid." It would seem then that, circa 1912, Doyle and Lankester constituted a regular little mutual admiration society. This being so, the Winslow-Meyer account of the relationship which allegedly motivated the forgery must be fundamentally in error.

Furthermore, one must protest at the weight which these authors place [4] on their diagnoses of the "real" identities of the various fictional characters who appear in The Lost World. According to them, Professor Summerlees "bears a close resemblance" to Smith Woodward, and other characters are "equally traceable." However, it does not appear that this particular identification is universally agreed upon. Higham, for example, in his 1976 life of Doyle, finds Summerlees to be "reminiscent of Dr. Joseph Bell," the Scottish medico on whom Doyle had also modeled Sherlock Holmes.

Similarly, Winslow and Meyer want their readers to believe that "for reality" one must seek the identity of Professor Challenger in Lankester. However, in tacit recognition of the fact that the correspondence between fiction and real life is less than perfect, they allow that Challenger's character was a "composite," since "one of Doyle's medical school professors" contributed certain of Challenger's traits. While such ambiguities are of course widespread in the interpretation of literature, and may well be plausible in this particular case, they can hardly expect one to regard them as enhancing the cogency of their argument. And it should be noted that Nordon, in discussing Challenger's identity, comes up with a somewhat different composite. Like Winslow and Meyer, he believes that Challenger was partially modeled on one of Doyle's medical mentors at Edinburgh. However, he also avers that Challenger was a "manifestation" of Doyle's own "intellectual side", and informs us that, on one occasion, Doyle dressed up as Challenger, and had himself photographed "for a practical joke." The diagnoses of Winslow-Meyer and Nordon may both be correct, since it is possible that Doyle's concept of Challenger included all three personae (or even more). However, that is not really the point. The identification of Challenger with Lankester can count as evidence for Doyle's aliened antipathy to Lankester only inasmuch as that identification can be unambiguously made. But that is precisely what the nature of the so-called "evidence" has prevented Winslow and Meyer from doing.

It is my contention that the Winslow-Meyer case against Conan Doyle is not only ill-supported, but that it is also obfuscatory of science itself. Far from bearing a grudge against the Scientific Establishment and wishing to humiliate it, Doyle was himself an advocate of an exceedingly establishment position on the nature of science. Imbued no doubt with a naive faith in the reality and efficacy of a deductive "scientific method", Winslow and Meyer uncritically reproduce the popular notion that Sherlock Holmes was a "master of deduction." But any student of elementary philosophy could have told them that the inferences which Holmes typically draws actually utilize the very different process of induction. Unable to distinguish between real merchandise and window-dressing, Winslow and Meyer believe that Holmes was "a forensic genius," whose exploits were to become "required reading for the police forces of several nations." And finally (and most absurdly), they ask us to believe that Doyle's "abiding interest in human jaws" was sufficient to enable him to file the crenelated molars of an orangutan so skillfully that the most talented comparative anatomists in England accepted without question that the teeth and their wear-pattern were non-simian.

If it were true, the Winslow-Meyer hypothesis would constitute an historical nicety of the first magnitude. But, however proficient Doyle may have been at concocting prima facie plausible chains of Holmesian "reasoning" for the benefit of a gullible public, he could hardly have mustered the profound scientific expertise necessary for the creation of Piltdown Man.

As my own researches have shown, Conan Doyle was involved in a dispute about spiritualism with the real mastermind of the Piltdown forgery. But that is only part of a long and surprising story, and I would prefer to reserve it for a later occasion.

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