The Red-Headed League

"The Red-Headed League" is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It first appeared in The Strand Magazine in August 1891, with illustrations by Sidney Paget. Conan Doyle ranked "The Red-Headed League" second in his list of his twelve favourite Holmes stories.[1] It is also the second of the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was published in 1892.

"The Red-Headed League"
Duncan Ross, Vincent Spaulding, and Jabez Wilson, 1891 illustration by Sidney Paget
AuthorArthur Conan Doyle
SeriesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Publication date1891
Followed by"A Case of Identity"

Plot summary

Jabez Wilson, a London pawnbroker, comes to consult Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. While studying this perspective client, both Holmes and Watson notice his red hair, which has a distinct flame-like hue. Wilson tells them that some weeks before, his young assistant, Vincent Spaulding, urged him to respond to a newspaper want-ad offering highly-paid work to only red-headed male applicants. The next morning, Wilson had waited in a long line of fellow red-headed men, was interviewed and was the only applicant hired, because none of the other applicants qualified; their red hair was either too dark or too bright, and did not match Wilson's unique flame colour.

Wilson tells Holmes that his business has been struggling. Since his pawn shop did most of its business in the evenings, he was able to vacate his shop for short periods in the afternoon, receiving £4 a week for several weeks (equal to £430/week today);[2] the work was obviously useless clerical work in a bare office, only performed for nominal compliance with a will, whereupon he was made to copy the Encyclopædia Britannica. Wilson learned much about the subjects starting with the "A" section and looked forward to getting into the "B" section. One morning, a sign on the locked office door inexplicably announced that "THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE IS DISSOLVED"Oct. 9, 1890."

Wilson went to the landlord, who said that he had never heard of Duncan Ross, the person who managed the league office. The landlord did remember the tenant with scarlet hair and gives him a card which directs Wilson to an artificial knee company. Wilson concludes by expressing his frustration at losing the £4 a week.

Watson and Holmes laugh at Wilson because of the ridiculous situation, but Holmes assures him that by Monday they will solve the case. Wilson leaves after having given the detective a description of Spaulding; Holmes decides to go and see Spaulding, whom Holmes notices has dirty trouser knees. Holmes then taps on the pavement in front of Wilson's shop. With the case solved, he calls Police Inspector Jones and Mr. Merryweather, a director of the bank located next door.

The four hide themselves in the bank vault, waiting in the dark for over an hour until two men emerge from a tunnel cut into the vault's floor and are captured. They are John Clay, who has a long history of criminal activity already, and his helper Archie. Under the aliases of Spaulding and Ross, they had contrived the 'Red-Headed League' rigmarole to keep Wilson out of his shop while they dug a tunnel in the basement to reach the vault. Although paying Wilson £4 a week was expensive, it was a pittance compared to the shipment of gold coins they were planning to steal.

Back at Baker Street, Holmes explains to Watson how he solved the case, applauding Clay's creativity and regretting that such a mind has been wasted on crime.


The dates given in the story do not match the characters' descriptions of time passing. The date that Wilson sees the advertisement is 27 April 1890 and he has been at work for 8 weeks and says "Just two months ago."[3] Thus that happened by the end of June. However, the story begins by describing the Holmes's meeting with Wilson as being on "one day in the autumn of last year" and the date on the door telling of the League being dissolved is that of 9 October 1890, six months after the ad was placed.

Dorothy L. Sayers analyzed this discrepancy and claims that the dates must have been 4 August and 4 October respectively.[4]


The story, along with "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax", "The Adventure of the Empty House", and "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", provided the source material for the play The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

The story was adapted for a TV episode of Sherlock Holmes starring Alan Wheatley as Holmes.[5]

The first American adaptation of the story was in the 1954 TV series starring Ronald Howard.

An adaptation of "The Red-Headed League" was used for an episode of the 1965 television series Sherlock Holmes starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson, with Toke Townley as Jabez Wilson.[6]

The tenth episode of a 1954-55 BBC radio series starring John Gielgud as Holmes and Ralph Richardson as Watson was adapted from "The Red-Headed League."[7] A radio adaptation aired on 26 April 1977, on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Kevin McCarthy was the voice of Holmes.

The story was recorded in 1966 by Caedmon Records featuring the voice of the famed Sherlock Holmes actor Basil Rathbone.

In the 1985 television adaptation starring Jeremy Brett, the scheme was masterminded by Professor Moriarty and Clay is Moriarty's star pupil of crime.

"The Red-Headed League" was dramatised for BBC Radio 4 in 1990 as part of Bert Coules' complete radio adaptation of the canon, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson. It also featured James Wilby as Vincent Spaulding.[8]

In the NHK puppetry Sherlock Holmes, Jabez Wilson is a pupil of Beeton School as well as Holmes and Watson and is invited to the Red-Headed Club by his senior Duncan Ross. But strangely enough, what he does in the club is painting balls, stones and bottles red. Holmes suspects that it is a means of Ross who wants to make Wilson stay away from a certain place.[9]

See also


  1. Temple, Emily (22 May 2018). "The 12 Best Sherlock Holmes Stories, According to Arthur Conan Doyle". Literary Hub. Retrieved 6 January 2019.
  2. UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
  3. Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes" (Penguin 1987) pp.178
  4. Dorothy L. Sayers, "The Dates in The Red-Headed League", reprinted in 17 Steps to 221B Baker Street (George Allen and Unwin, 1967) pp.57-67. Sayers' analysis is somewhat tongue-in-cheek In the Foreword to Unpopular Opinions, in which this essay also appeared, Sayers says that the "game of applying the methods of the Higher Criticism to the Sherlock Holmes canon... has become a hobby among a select set of jesters here and in America."
  5. IMDb - "Sherlock Holmes" The Red-Headed League (TV episode 1951)
  6. The Red-Headed League (1965) - IMDb
  8. Bert Coules. "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes". The BBC complete audio Sherlock Holmes. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
  9. Shinjiro Okazaki and Kenichi Fujita (ed.), "シャーロックホームズ冒険ファンブック Shārokku Hōmuzu Boken Fan Bukku", Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2014, pp. 43-45. (Guidebook to the show)
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