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The Red-Headed League

"The Red-Headed League"
Holmes, Watson and Jabez Wilson, 1891 illustration by Sidney Paget
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Publication date 1891

"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. It is also the second of the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was published in 1892.


  • Plot summary 1
    • Analysis 1.1
  • Adaptations 2
  • In other media 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Plot summary

Watson reading the newspaper to Holmes and Wilson.

Jabez Wilson, a London pawnbroker, comes to consult Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. While studying his 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 color.

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 £390/week today);[1] 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" version 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 ends the story with how frustrated he is losing the £4 a week.

Holmes and Watson 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, who Holmes notices has dirty trouser knees. Holmes then taps on the pavement in front of the pawnbroker'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 and confront the thieves when they show up. 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 in the basement, in order to break into the bank vault next door. Although paying Jabez Wilson four pounds a week was expensive, it was a pittance compared to the ill-gotten thousands they were looking to steal from the bank.

Back at Baker Street, Holmes explains to Watson how he solved the case.


The dates given in the story do not match the characters' descriptions of time passing. The date that Wilson sees the advertisement is April 27, 1890 and he has been at work for 8 weeks and says "Just two months ago."[2] 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 October 9, 1890, six months after the ad was placed.

Dorothy L. Sayers analyzed this discrepancy and claims that the dates must have been August 4 and October 4 respectively.[3]


The story was adapted for a TV episode of Sherlock Holmes starring Alan Wheatley as Holmes.[4]

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.[5]

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

A radio adaptation aired on April 26, 1977, on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Kevin McCarthy was the voice of Holmes.

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.[6]

In other media

In the Sherlock Holmes parody Without a Clue, starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley, Clay and Archie are shown breaking into the Royal Gallery.

The plot of the story was used by The Deaf Man as a means to confuse the detectives of the 87th Precinct in the Ed McBain novel The Heckler.

In Tom and Jerry Meet Sherlock Holmes, produced by Warner Bros. in 2010, Sherlock Holmes (voiced by Michael York) deduces the intent of jewel thieves and Professor Moriarty's role in it by referring to The Red Headed League case.

A reference is made to "The Red-Headed League" in Batman and Robin #19 by villain Una Nemo. Batman comments it is "A story where the whole point is--" and Nemo finishes "Not what it seems to be."

A reference to "The Red-Headed League" in Detective Conan episodes 225 and 464.

A reference to "The League of Red-Headed Gentleman" in American Dad! "Escape From Pearl Balley" 2008.


  1. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2015), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  2. ^ Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes" (penguin 1987) pp.178
  3. ^ 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."
  4. ^ IMDb - "Sherlock Holmes" The Red-Headed League (TV episode 1951)
  5. ^ The Red-Headed League (1965) - IMDb
  6. ^ 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)

External links

  • The full text of The Red-headed League at Wikisource
  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
  • The Red Headed League public domain audiobook at LibriVox
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