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The Creator of Sherlock Holmes Was, Like Many Victorians, Fascinated by Mormons

The first story featuring iconic detective Sherlock Holmes, ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ was published on this day in 1887—and set in Mormon Utah

Holmes and Watson have had years of adventures together, but the first time they ever appeared in print was in a story Arthur Conan Doyle set in Utah. (Strand magazine 1892, now in public domain)
smithsonian.com

In November 1887, a young writer named Arthur Conan Doyle published his first story about a soon-to-be-famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. The dark tale, which appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, was titled A Study in Scarlet. Some of its most dramatic parts are set in the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, in 1847, and follow a non-Mormon’s interactions with the Mormon followers of Brigham Young.

The novel paints a bleak portrait of Mormonism. The story includes forced marriage and violence, two things that were part of the British view of Mormons at the time.

When it came out, Hal Schindler wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune in 1994, “it provoked no great stir as a story nor did it especially signal the immense popularity for which its author and his creation were destined... it did, however, rankle Mormon missionaries to England, and sorely tested the tolerance of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America.” At the time he wrote the story, Conan Doyle had never even been to America. His choice of Mormons, portrayed as rapacious murderers in his work, reflected English beliefs about the primarily American faith.

Though the story didn’t make a huge splash at the time, over the years, it helped shape how British people perceived Mormons, writes Schindler. But it was part of a larger trend. “Doyle’s sensationalistic portrait of the Mormons had drawn upon what was already an extensive body of commentary in the British press,” writes scholar Sebastian Lecourt. “Since the late 1830s, when the Mormons had begun to attract English converts, a growing number of journalists, travel writers and novelists had been stoking the English public’s curiosity about this strange American sect, with its message of a new revelation and a restored biblical theocracy.”

These British writers were at best ambivalent about Mormons, Lecourt writes. On the one hand, polygamy was a bad fit with Victorian values; but on the other, he writes, some English commentators “started to identify with the Mormons, celebrating their establishment of a thriving colony on the Utah plateau as a great vanguard movement of Anglo-Saxon settler colonialism.”

For Conan Doyle, Mormons were at once sort of English–Christian, white, and descended from English people or from England themselves–and profoundly exotic. His choice to put Mormonism at the center of his story would have attracted the attention of the reading public, Schindler wrote. It certainly helped Doyle–and Sherlock–rise to fame.

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