Solving a century-old Arthur Conan Doyle mystery

When Iowa City’s Al Dawson attended a conference about Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Study in Scandal” in Toronto last October, he was able to peruse some letters from the “Sherlock Holmes” author, including two to someone named “Ainslie.” The letter’s recipient was unknown save for that name, and that sparked Doyle fan and genealogy expert Dawson to take up the case.

The two letters he saw were part of a batch of a dozen auctioned at Christie’s in 2004, all to the mysterious “Ainslie.” Dawson did research, both in Toronto at the Toronto Public Library’s Arthur Conan Doyle collection and in Iowa City at the Iowa City Public Library and the University of Iowa Main Library. That research done here in the City of Literature proved vital, gleaning clues that he says helped to prove his solution to the age-old mystery.

Dawson came up with a theory about the identity of “Ainslie,” and supported it with his research. He identifies “Ainslie” as Douglas Ainslie, a Scottish poet, translator, critic and diplomat. He wrote a piece about his search and eventual discovery for The Magic Door, the newsletter of the Friends of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, the organization that held the original symposium that first sparked his interest.

“In 1908, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a short story entitled ‘A Pot of Caviare’ set during the Boxer Rebellion in China,” Dawson wrote in his piece. “One of the people trapped in the siege was ‘young Ainslie, of the diplomatic service.’ Another Ainslie has been trapped inside twelve letters for 116 years. The process of his liberation has begun!”

Click here to download a PDF of Dawson’s article for The Magic Door. (Note: images of Doyle’s letters included in the piece are drawn from the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto Public Library).

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