The Red-Headed League Summary

The Red-Headed League” is an 1891 short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring detective Sherlock Holmes.

  • A pawnbroker named Jabez Wilson approaches Holmes with an unusual case. 
  • Wilson, who has fiery red hair, was briefly hired by an organization known as the Red-Headed League, having learned about it from his assistant, Vincent Spaulding.
  • Holmes investigates the case and unravels a serious criminal plot underlying it.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Dr. Watson calls on his friend, Sherlock Holmes, and finds him talking to a stout elderly gentleman with fiery red hair. This is Mr. Jabez Wilson, who has come to Holmes with a case which, even in his extensive experience, is unique. Holmes asks Wilson to begin his narrative again for Watson’s benefit, and because it is so strange that Holmes himself wants to be sure of every detail. Wilson produces an old newspaper, in which there is an advertisement announcing a vacancy in The Red-Headed League, an organization established by the bequest of a wealthy American named Ezekiah Hopkins. The advertisement promises “a salary of £4 a week for purely nominal services” to the successful applicant, and gives the address of the League’s central London offices, in Pope's Court, Fleet Street.

Mr. Wilson is a pawnbroker, who has a small business in Saxe-Coburg Square, near the City. He employs one assistant, a man named Vincent Spaulding, who has agreed to work for half wages while he is learning the trade, a financial sacrifice which Holmes finds remarkable. It was Spaulding who showed the newspaper advertisement to Wilson, with the remark that he wished he had red hair. Spaulding seemed to know all about the Red-Headed League and the bequest of the eccentric red-haired millionaire, Ezekiah Hopkins, so Wilson accompanied him to Fleet Street to apply for the vacancy.

Outside the office in Fleet Street was a large crowd of men with every shade of red hair. However, very few had the “real vivid flame-coloured tint” of Wilson’s hair, except the man who was sitting in the small, sparsely furnished office, screening the applicants. He introduced himself as Duncan Ross, and promptly accepted Wilson to fill the vacancy. The position involved coming to the office from 10:00am to 2:00pm every day and copying out the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The only stipulation is that Wilson must not leave the building for any reason, or he forfeits his post.

The next day, Wilson returned to the office of the Red-Headed League and found Duncan Ross waiting for him, somewhat to his surprise, since he had convinced himself that the whole affair must be a hoax. He copied out the first pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, beginning with the letter A, and left promptly at 2:00pm. This routine continued week after week, with payment being made every Saturday in the form of four gold sovereigns. Then, after eight weeks, when Wilson had copied almost all the articles under the letter A, he arrived at the office to find that the door was locked and a piece of cardboard was affixed to it, announcing that “The Red-Headed League is Dissolved.” He then came to consult Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes is amused and intrigued by the case, and is particularly interested in Wilson’s assistant, Vincent Spaulding. He asks if Spaulding’s ears are pierced for earrings, and Wilson confirms that they are. Holmes promises to look into the matter, and give his opinion in a day or two. After Wilson has left, he declares that the mystery is “quite a three-pipe problem” and settles down to smoke in silence and concentrate his mind. Eventually, he springs out of his chair and, accompanied by Watson, takes the Underground railway to Aldersgate, and walks from there to Wilson’s pawn shop in Saxe-Coburg Square. He raps the pavement in front of the shop with his cane, knocks on the door, and, when the assistant answers, enquires the way to the Strand. Having done this, Holmes cryptically declares to Watson that this assistant, Spaulding, is the fourth smartest man in London, and says that he knocked on the door in order to inspect the knees of his trousers.

Homes explores the road behind Saxe-Coburg Square, which is one of the main routes into the financial district of London. He and Watson then spend the afternoon at a violin concert, after which Holmes reveals that he believes a serious crime is about to be committed, and they may be in time to stop it. He asks Watson to meet him at 10:00pm that night, and to bring his army revolver.

At 10:00pm that evening, Holmes and Watson travel to the City, accompanied by Peter Jones, a police detective from Scotland Yard, and Mr. Merryweather, a director of the City and Suburban Bank. Merryweather guides them along a passage and into a cellar below the bank, where thirty thousand napoleons in French gold have recently been stored. They wait for over an hour in complete darkness, until they see the glint of a light between the stone slabs that cover the cellar floor. A hand from below thrusts the slab aside, and two young men come up through the hole. One is Wilson’s assistant, Vincent Spaulding; the other, the man Wilson knew as Duncan Ross of the Red-Headed League.

Vincent Spaulding is really John Clay, an aristocratic master criminal who based the idea of the Red-Headed League on the coincidence of his accomplice and the pawnbroker whose business premises backed onto the bank having the same shade of fiery red hair. The League was a convenient fiction to ensure that Wilson was away from the shop while Clay and Ross dug a tunnel between the basement of his building and the cellar of the bank on the street behind it. This is why Holmes wanted to inspect the knees of Clay’s trousers: for evidence of tunnelling. The police arrest the two criminals, and both Merryweather and Watson express their admiration for Holmes’s reasoning process, but Holmes tells Watson that such little problems as this merely save him temporarily from the tedium of life, which he feels closing in on him again now that the adventure is over.

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