The Red-Headed League Was…

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 2nd Best Holmes Story!

It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.

The Red-Headed League has a special connection with the number ‘2.’

As I’ve just mentioned, it was Conan Doyle’s 2nd best story.

But that’s not all.

In 3 different polls conducted by The Baker Street Journal in 1954, 1959 and 1999, The Red-Headed League was rated…2nd again out of all Sherlock Holmes stories.

Then, in 1989, The Sherlock Holmes Journal conducted a poll asking famous scholars and fans to vote for their best Holmes stories. You know what our story’s rank was, right? Yup, it was 2nd yet again!

And finally, here’s yet another connection with the number ‘2’…

Guess which story is the 2nd Sherlock Holmes short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

Indeed, it’s The Red-Headed League – first published in the Strand Magazine in August, 1892. 🙂

Some facts about The Red-Headed League

Here go my ratings for the story:

Average Rating: 8.75/10

As you can see, I love the ‘mystery’ element in The Red-Headed League the most.

When I first read the problem mentioned in the story, I was like: “What…what exactly is happening? I can’t make head or tail of this mystery!”

What’s the Mystery/Problem Here?

Mr. Jabez Wilson is a ‘not so well-to-do’ pawnbroker – he keeps people’s articles and lends them money. He’s an ordinary guy with bright red hair.

It is this hair that leads Mr. Wilson right into an eye-popping problem…

Mr. Jabez Wilson: Sherlock Holmes' client in The Red-Headed League

Sidney Paget drew this picture is 1892. I’ve added my ‘colouring’ touch. 

He had recently read an advertisement in the newspaper by ‘The Red-Headed League’ which said that there was a cool job only for red-headed men. The guy with the best red hair would get the job. Apparently, a rich man had left a will saying so.

Now our red-headed Mr. Wilson had gone for this weird job-interview and passed it with flying colours.

The problem is  – that now, after 8 weeks of work, the job’s suddenly not there. And no one around the place knows Jabez Wilson’s boss. And no one has heard of The Red-Headed League!

So what exactly happened? Here are some puzzling questions:

* Why did some guy want to give only red-headed guys a job in his will?

* Why was Jabez Wilson paid a large sum of money to simply copy text from an encyclopedia (that was the job)?

* Why on earth did his boss and the workplace suddenly vanish into thin air?

* Why hasn’t anyone suddenly not heard of The Red-Headed League?

Is this a prank being played on Mr. Wilson or is it something more sinister…?

The story is about how Sherlock Holmes uses incredibly minute hints in Jabez Wilson’s narrative to figure out the truth

Magical Moments From The Red-Headed League

1 The Moment When Sherlock Holmes Makes His Trademark Eye-popping Deductions!

I love these moments in any Holmes story when Sherlock Holmes deduces loads of interesting things by just observing the client.

In this one, here’s what he says about Mr. Jabez Wilson to Watson:

“Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”

If that’s not eye-popping, what is?

If I had gone to visit a stranger and that stranger made such deductions about me, my eyes would definitely pop out. Of course, I love this moment in the story.

And then Sherlock Holmes matter-of-factly goes on to explain every single deduction with clear logic. I love that too.

2 The Moment When Holmes Says, ‘It is Quite a Three-Pipe Problem

There are times when Sherlock Holmes comes up with some really interesting phrases.

After Mr. Jabez Wilson has left, Holmes thinks, thinks and thinks some more about the problem.

He says to Watson:

“It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”

I find the use of the phrase ‘three pipe problem‘ to be quite funny. He means that it’s such a confounding problem, that he will finish smoking three pipes by the time he figures anything out.

These funny ‘Holmes only‘ phrases are nice little magical moments for me in the stories.

3 The Moment When Sherlock Holmes Suddenly Wants to Attend a Concert!

Imaging that your friend has told you, “Don’t disturb me. I’m thinking about this case.”

After some time, your friend suddenly springs up from his chair. What might you expect him to say?

Well, here’s what Sherlock Holmes says:

Sarasate plays at the St. James’s Hall this afternoon. What do you think, Watson? Could your patients spare you for a few hours?” (Saraste was a violonist and a composer.)

Sherlock Holmes at Saraste's Concert

That’s Holmes for you.

He’s knee deep in the mystery one moment. Then, he takes a sudden ‘concert’ break and forgets all about the case the next moment.

I find Sherlock Holmes’ ability to detach from a case and immerse himself in the present moment – wonderful. I’d love to develop that ability myself.

By the way, I’ve found that almost always – when Holmes wants to take these sudden breaks – he’s actually on track and has figured out a good deal of the solution to his case.

Spoiler Alert: Skip the next point and move on to the Trivia Section if you haven’t read the story yet!

4 The Moment When Sherlock Holmes Looks For Knee Marks

Sherlock Holmes’ deductions are always a treat to read about – and the one about the knee marks is great too.

Take a look at Sherlock Holmes’ chain of thoughts in The Red-Headed League.

Observations by Sherlock Holmes in The Red-Headed League

When Holmes visits Mr. Jabez Wilson’s assistant Vincent Spaulding, he doesn’t even look at his face: he looks straight at his knees.

If Holmes’ hypothesis is correct, this guy’s trousers must be wrinkled and worn out at the knees.

After all this Spaulding guy must be digging his tunnel everyday, right?

Holmes is right. Spaulding’s trousers are indeed exceptionally worn out at the knees. The clear-cut thoughts that lead to this deduction – make this a magical moment for me.

The Red-Headed League: Cool Trivia!

1 Exactly What Was ‘4 Pounds’ a Week Worth in The Red-Headed League?

In The Red-Headed League, Mr. Jabez Wilson, the client is offered 4 pounds a week in his crazy, new job.

Out popped a thought in my head: how much money is that?

According to Measuring Worth:

4 Pounds a week is around 384 pounds a week today. That’s around 1500 pounds a month.

Hmm. Not bad for working for 3 hours a day simply copying from an encyclopedia. No wonder Jabez Wilson was tempted!

2 Are All the Places Mentioned in the Red-Headed League Real?

The Red-Headed League mentions quite some places.

There’s Pope’s Court, where our guy Jabez Wilson lands up a job. There’s Sax-Coberg Square, where Jabez Wilson’s home/office is. Then there’s St. James’ Hall where Sherlock Holmes chills out and attends a concert.

So which places are real and which were conjured up by Doyle? This picture has the answer to that question:

Places mentioned in The Red-Headed League

3 What Did London’s ‘Gas-Lit’ Streets Look Like At That Time?

Here’s a charming line from The Red-Headed League:

 “We rattled through an endless labyrinth of gas-lit streets until we emerged into Farrington Street.”

As I read this line, I thought, “What must gas-lights have looked like in those days? Till which decade did London have gas-lights on the streets?”

What I found out was that gas-lights were these street lamps lit by ‘coal-gas’ and ‘oil-gas’. They were used from around 1807 (the first one) to around the beginning of the 20th century in London. After that, of course, they were replaced with electric lights.

Here’s a picture of a gas-lamp:

A gas lamp in London - it's still there!

A fascinating fact I stumbled upon was that gas-lamps still exist in many parts of London. These are just some of the areas in London which still have gas-lamps:

* Near Buckingham Palace

* Near Savoy Theatre

* Chancery Lane

* New Square Lincoln’s Inn

* Near Covent Garden Tube Station

* James Street, near Covent Garden

* Green Park

* Mayfair

So if you’re in London for any reason, you can take a peek at how Holmes’ London looked like at night. 🙂

4  Who Exactly Is a Freemason?

Sherlock Holmes deduces quite correctly, that his client Mr. Jabez Wilson is a Freemason.

Who is a Freemason?

A Freemason is a member of a fraternity – a brotherhood – called Freemasonry – all over the world. In around the 18th century, stonemasons – people who work with stone – came together to form this organization.

Initially, they all said ‘Hello!’, they helped each other become better at their craft, they were awarded degrees and organized social events.

Later on, however, people who were not stonemasons also joined the organization. The organization still gave out degrees to people, but it became more of a social club where all the cool people in the region met.

There have always been a lot of rules all members must follow, and quite a few secret ceremonies and rituals are also there.

Freemasons operated (and still operate) in groups called ‘Lodges.’ So you can imagine each region/big city having it’s own Lodge.

And yes, this is the standard symbol of Freemasonry.

The symbol for Freemasonry

Our dude – Jabez Wilson wears a symbol similar to this in the story. That’s how Holmes figures out that he’s a Freemason. Mind you: Freemasons were advised to keep their membership secret.

Jabez Wilson wasn’t exactly a very abiding member as you can see: he wore his membership symbol on his shirt!

By the way, here’s another interesting titbit that might surprise you: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain – were all Freemasons! Ahem!

5 Here’s A List of 10 Famous People With Red Hair!’

I live in India where red-haired people are well…not there. Even when I visited the USA and stayed for 2.5 months, I didn’t spot even one redhead (red haired person).

So, it is quite obvious that red-headed people are quite rare. According to, just around 1-2% of the world population is red-headed.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of famous redheads.

Take a peek at this list that has 10 very popular redheads.

A list of 10 famous redheads

If you’re wondering if that info about Benedict Cumberbatch is wrong – nope – it isn’t! He does have natural red hair.

He dyes his hair for the BBC Sherlock episodes. 🙂

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read the story yet, skip the next point and read it!

6 Who Are the Three Smart Men Before the ‘Fourth Smartest Man in London?

Sherlock Holmes says something intriguing about the culprit in The Red-Headed League. He says:

“He is, in my judgment, the fourth smartest man in London, and for daring I am not sure that he has not a claim to be third.”

When I read that, obviously the question that popped up was: If John Clay (the culprit) is #4, who are the first three smartest men?

Now no one really knows. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hasn’t told us that. But I can guess. My guess is that the three smartest men are:

Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty. 

Mycroft is Holmes’ brother – in case you’re not aware – and Moriarty is the man Holmes calls The Napolean of Crime in the story – The Final Problem.

I think Mycroft is not amongst the top 3 daring men in London however – which is why Holmes says John Clay is the 3rd most daring man in London.

Mycroft isn’t a very agile man. He’s a bit lazy and likes keeping to his routine.

So, he might just be beaten by John Clay when it comes to being daring.

But when it comes to smartness, as Holmes says in another story (The Greek Interpreter): “Mycroft has better powers of observation than I.”

Do you have other ideas about who these three men might be? Tell me those ideas in the comments below! I’ll be delighted to hear them.

Well, that’s about it. You’re saying you haven’t read The Red-Headed League yet? You must read it! Here it is:

Download the ePUB version of The Red-Headed League

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