What is the goal of the League in "The Red-Headed League"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The fictional Red-Headed League, as Mr Wilson tells Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, was founded by a man called Ezekiah Hopkins. He himself was red-headed, and as a result of the prejudice and discrimination that he faced during his lifetime, ordered that his considerable wealth should be used to support men of a similar nature to himself in order to make their lives somewhat easier than Ezekiah Hopkins himself had experienced. Note what Mr Wilson tells Holmes and Watson about Ezekiah Hopkins:

He was himself red-headed, and he had a great sympathy for all red-headed men; so when he died it was found that he had left his enormous fortune in the hands of trustees, with instructions to apply the interest to the providing of easy berths to men whose hair is of that color.

The goal of the Red-Headed League was therefore to use the wealth left in trust by Mr Hopkins in order to help those gentleman who had red hair like its founder, providing them with jobs involving minimal work and effort and recompensing them with a very generous salary. Of course, as the story goes on to show, the Red-Headed League is a complete fiction created in order to get Mr Wilson away from his shop to enable theft and criminal activity to occur.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Red-Headed League," what are supposedly some of the goals of the League?

The purpose or mission or goal of the "Red-Headed League," or "The League of the Red-headed Men," is not explained directly by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, nor is it explained directly by John Clay posing as Vincent Spaulding, nor by Sherlock Holmes, nor by Dr. Watson. It is explained by Jabez Wilson to Sherlock Holmes as Wilson got it from Vincent Spaulding; and what Wilson told Holmes he heard from Spaulding is being written in the story by Watson. So much may have been lost in transmission. According to what Watson and Holmes understand from what Wilson tells them was explained by Spaulding:

"As far as I can make out, the League was founded by an American millionaire, Ezekiah Hopkins, who was very peculiar in his ways. He was himself red-headed, and he had a great sympathy for all red-headed men; so when he died it was found that he had left his enormous fortune in the hands of trustees, with instructions to apply the interest to providing for easy berths to men whose hair is of that colour. From all I hear it is splendid pay and very little to do."

If an American millionaire leaves a fortune to found any kind of trust in London it should be fairly big news. But Doyle explains why Wilson might not have heard anything about it. He has Wilson say:

"You see, Mr. Holmes, I am a very stay-at-home man, and as my business came to me instead of my having to go to it, I was often weeks on end without putting my foot over the door-mat. In that way I didn't know much of what was going on outside, and I was always glad of a bit of news."

Doyle has taken considerable pains to make Jabez Wilson into the type of character who could be fooled by such a preposterous scheme as the Red-Headed League. He is naive, "not over bright," a "stay-at-home," but a man who loves money and who is so thrifty that he welcomed the opportunity to employ Vincent Spaulding at half-wages. What especially appealed to Spaulding and his henchmen (who we learn in a later story included the nefarious Dr. Moriarty) was that Wilson's shop was in the perfect location for tunneling into the nearby bank.

It might be suggested that Wilson's blazing red hair always made him self-conscious, and this led to his becoming shy and reclusive. Another interesting thing in the story is that when Holmes first meets Wilson at Baker Street he says:

"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."

Holmes explains that he knew Wilson had spent time in China because of a Chinese tattoo on his wrist and a Chinese coin on his watch chain. Doyle often uses these examples of Holmes' deductive prowess to show off the great detective's intellect. But the fact that Wilson had evidently been living in China would provide another reason why he might not have heard anything about the formation of a League of Red-headed Men in England.

Wilson is completely taken in by the story of this Red-Headed League because he is shy, reclusive, unintelligent, enchanted by the opportunity to earn four pounds a week for doing very little (a typical clerk earned one pound a week in Victorian times), and because he may have been living in China when the death of the American millionaire and formation of the League had supposedly made the English newspapers.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some of the goals of the Red-Headed League?

The goals of the Red-Headed League seem vague. This, of course, is because such an organization does not really exist. It was invented by Jabez Wilson's assistant, who calls himself Vincent Spaulding but is really a criminal named John Clay. When Clay pretends to discover the advertisement of an opening of the Red-Headed League in the morning newspaper, he gives his red-headed employer a fallacious account of the founding of this institution at a time in the past when Wilson was apparently out of the country and could not have heard about it.

"As far as I can make out, the League was founded by an American millionaire, Ezekiah Hopkins, who was very peculiar in his ways. He was himself red-headed, and he had a great sympathy for all redheaded men; so, when he died, it was found that he had left his enormous fortune in the hands of trustees, with instructions to apply the interest to the providing of easy berths to men whose hair is of that colour."

John Clay does not say why Ezekiah Hopkins thought red-headed men needed "easy berths" more than men with any other color of hair or why Hopkins should have had "great sympathy for all redheaded men." The reader is left to assume that this American millionaire was more than a little eccentric—but at least his money was good.

Later, when Jabez Wilson meets Clay's accomplice, who calls himself Duncan Ross, it appears that one of the League's goals is supposed to be to increase the number of redheaded men in England. Duncan Ross makes Wilson believe he has been accepted to fill the vacancy but then seems to have doubts. He asks if Wilson has a family and is told that Wilson is unmarried and has no relatives.

“‘Dear me!’ he said gravely, ‘that is very serious indeed! I am sorry to hear you say that. The fund was, of course, for the propagation and spread of the red-heads as well as for their maintenance. It is exceedingly unfortunate that you should be a bachelor.'"

So, according to the man who is posing as the manager of the London branch of the totally fictitious Red-Headed League, the "goals" of the League are to encourage the propagation and spread of red-heads and also to provide for their maintenance. In other words, a red-headed man might have more children if he could afford to support them. The League will support him generously for life, so he ought to have a number of children, and hopefully most of them would have red hair.

Duncan Ross really wants to find out if Wilson has any family. He wants to feel sure that no relatives will be dropping by Wilson's shop while he and Clay are digging their tunnel. Wilson himself is too old and portly to be climbing up and down the cellar steps, but younger relatives might want to do so out of curiosity. This is the author's way of forestalling any questions in the reader's mind about the possibility of unexpected intruders discovering the tunneling.

The pawnbroker is all alone in the world. He is not very bright, as Holmes observes to Watson; so he is unlikely to see that the whole idea of "propagating and maintaining" red-heads is preposterous. His shop is ideally situated for tunneling into the nearby bank. He has plenty of free time and can easily report to the League's office every workday, including Saturday, for four hours, plus the time it takes him to get to his office and back to his shop. He is old and fat, which would preclude his ever wanted to venture down his dark cellar steps to see what his assistant is doing down there. Wilson is the ideal person for the two crooks' elaborate and audacious tunneling project. The author has created Wilson as such. He is a good example of how a fiction writer will create a character to suit the needs of the plot.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on