One of the great things about owning an iPad (or other e-reader) is that you can read literally thousands of older books for free. I have been reading dozens of older works that I never got to for one reason or another. And I have been on a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle jag, mostly because his books are accessible, fun and easy to read (unlike some of the other things you read from the 19th century).
Sir Arthur’s first book about Sherlock Holmes is called “A Study in Scarlet.” It is a murder mystery in which we are introduced for the first time to Dr. Watson and the famous Holmes. Two people are killed in London, and Holmes sets about solving the mystery. Much to my surprise, it turns out the primary villain in the story is Brigham Young, whose portrayal is so far from the historical Young that it is kind of campy fun.
SPOILER ALERT: I will be solving the mystery for you in this post, so if you haven’t read “A Study in Scarlet” and would like to, and want to be surprised, then don’t keep on reading.
Our story starts with two murders that Holmes gets involved in solving in London. Two American men are murdered, and the police can’t discover the culprit. After many amazing feats, Holmes determines that the murderer is a horse-drawn carriage cab driver, who is lured to Holmes’ apartment on Baker Street and is caught by the police, whom Holmes had invited to his flat without telling them why (one of the best scenes ever in the Sherlock Holmes canon). After being delivered up to the police, and being handcuffed, the cab driver tells his story.
It turns out that the two murdered men are both former Mormon apostles (members of “the Holy Four,” whatever that is). The killer, Jefferson Hope, had been in love with a non-Mormon girl in Utah. The evil Brigham Young forced the girl to choose between one of the two Apostles, each of whom had a number of wives already.
Hope tries to help the girl escape from her Mormon prison, and they dramatically flee together across the desert, but they are caught by the evil Mormons. The girl is taken back to Salt Lake City, and is forced to marry one of the apostles. She dies a month later of a broken heart. Meanwhile, Jefferson Hope (great name!) swears revenge. The two apostles eventually quarrel with Brigham Young and flee Utah. Hope follows them for years until finally finding them in London, where he tracks them down and murders them. This is where Holmes gets involved.
The real villain of the story is not the killer, who is portrayed as manic but justified. It is Brigham Young, who has turned Utah into an armed camp, with bands of men who scour the countryside for young women to marry. They literally spend weeks stalking Lucy, Jefferson Hope’s one true love. There is even a footnote in the story in which Sir Arthur claims that Heber Kimball calls women “heifers” — only cattle to be bred. Young is portrayed as a tyrannical but charismatic dictator who uses armed scouts to protect Utah and keep the heifers confined so they can’t escape.
The number of mistakes made by Sir Arthur makes the story rather comical if you know anything about Mormon history. He wrote the novel in three weeks, obviously relying on a few biased histories of the Mormons he had dug up in a London library. It is important to note that the late 19th century when Sir Arthur wrote the story was a time of great agitation against the Church. Anti-Mormons flocked to the region to write about polygamy, and the portrayal of Young in “A Study of Scarlet” is pretty much in line with the popular view at the time.
According to a 1994 Salt Lake City newspaper article, when Conan Doyle was asked about his depiction of the Latter-day Saints’ organization as being steeped in kidnapping, murder and enslavement, he said: “all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that, though it is likely that in a work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a work of history. It’s best to let the matter rest”. However, Conan Doyle’s daughter has stated: “You know, father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons”. Years after Conan Doyle’s death, Levi Edgar Young, a descendant of Brigham Young and a Mormon general authority, claimed that Conan Doyle had privately apologized, saying that “He [Conan Doyle] said he had been misled by writings of the time about the Church”.
In any case, if you have not read any of Sir Arthur’s books, I highly recommend them. The best Holmes book is the most famous, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” If you saw the recent movie “Sherlock Holmes” with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, please keep in mind that the Downey character has very little to do with the Conan Doyle creation, although I personally enjoyed the movie. At least Brigham Young is not the villain in the film versions.