Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Piltdown Man Hoax and Mystery

The Doyle Connection

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not only the creator of the most revered of fictional detectives, Sherlock Homes, he was also a doctor, amateur geologist, archeologist and fossil collector. Moreover, Doyle was a friend of Charles Dawson and he became involved in some of the later Piltdown excavations. Because of his vast knowledge of archeology and fossils, his relationship with Dawson, his presence at the Piltdown sites and his reputation as a jokester, Doyle was suspected as a possible accomplice.

According to an article by John Hathaway Winslow and Alfred Meyer entitled, The Perpetrator at Piltdown,áthere were many plausible links and motives that connected Doyle to the fraud. They stated that Doyle lived in close proximity to the site and he was known to frequent the area near the Piltdown excavations. Therefore he could have planted the artifacts at the site because he had ample opportunity to do so.

Winslow and Meyer also stated that Doyle held a fascination for jaws and skulls. In fact, he knew an American phrenologist who had an extensive collection of skulls and it was suggested that this person could have possibly provided Doyle with the cranial fragments, which were used in the hoax.

Lost World
Lost World

However, probably one of the most interesting links proposed by Winslow and Meyer between Doyle and the Piltdown hoax was allegedly to be discovered in one of his famous books, The Lost World.áThey pointed out that the book could have provided some invaluable clues that could have connected Doyle with the fraud. Some of the clues included references to the missing link, as well as a map of the fictional lost world, which bore a striking resemblance to the area surrounding Piltdown. Furthermore, they suggested that some of the creatures in the story matched the description of orangutans from Borneo and Sumatra, the same area where the Piltdown orangutan jaw was believed to have originated.

If Doyle were the mastermind of the Piltdown hoax, what was his motivation? Winslow and Meyer suggested that Doyle held a grudge against the scientific community, especially against the director of the BritisháMuseum, Edwin Ray Lankester. The two men allegedly had a disagreement over the issue of spiritualism, a subject that Doyle firmly believed in and Lankester did not. In fact, Lankester was known to have exposed a good friend of Doyles, Henry Slade, who headed the spiritualist movement and was believed to have been able to conjure up the spirits of the dead. Winslow and Meyer suggested that out of anger, Doyle masterminded the Piltdown hoax in an attempt to make Lankester look bad and discredit the scientific community.

Although Winslow and Meyer made some intriguing statements concerning Doyles alleged involvement in the Piltdown hoax, their theory has been widely refuted by many who believe that it is implausible and based primarily on speculative assumptions. Spencer suggested that there is simply too little evidence to support the theory and that the case against Doyle was weak. He further suggested that Doyle likely had little time to actually plan and carry out such an elaborate charade. Especially since he had only learned of Piltdowns existence in 1912, at about the same time the discoveries reached the press.

Ian Langham made an especially strong case against Winslow and Meyers theory in 1984 in an article titled Sherlock Holmes, Circumstantial Evidence and Piltdown Man.áIn the article, Langham proposed that Doyle was too na´ve about archeology and paleontology to have been able to successfully pull off such a sophisticated scam. Moreover, he suggested that Winslow and Meyers version of the relationship between Doyle and Lankester, must have been fundamentally in error because much of the evidence based on letters supports the contention that the two men greatly admired one another and held little if any animosity towards each other. Furthermore, according to Langham, there was no evidence that Doyle ever held a grudge against the scientific community and if anything, he was an advocate of scientific methodology and techniques.

Therefore, evidence supporting the theory that Doyle may have been involved in the Piltdown forgery has proven to be unconvincing, circumstantial and unsubstantiated. Thus, Doyle has been mostly overlooked as a potential collaborator in the hoax. Yet, there are others who have not been.

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