Banned Books Awareness: Sherlock Holmes


\"\"On Thursday, August 11, 2011, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once again made headlines, but it wasn’t for literary accomplishment or news of a long-lost Sherlock Holmes crime buster. He, instead, found himself on newswires around the world for having one of his books banned.

That night a school board in Albemarle County, Virginia, removed the book from its sixth grade reading list over unsubstantiated fears that the author was anti-Mormon.

There are many books in the crime series, but this incident specifically involves A Study in Scarlet, written by Doyle in 1886, which was censored after the mother of one Henley Middle School student, herself a Mormon, complained about a specific passage in the novel. While the school board couldn’t cite any particularly offensive passage, USA Today provided the following excerpt from Chapter Three of the first ever Sherlock Holmes case file that might be what she was offended by; please note that at this point in the story the plot involves a flashback scene to mid-19th century Utah and the forced marriage of a woman to a Mormon:

“(John Ferrier) had always determined, deep down in his resolute heart, that nothing would ever induce him to allow his daughter to wed a Mormon. Such marriage he regarded as no marriage at all, but as a shame and a disgrace. Whatever he might think of the Mormon doctrines, upon that one point he was inflexible. He had to seal his mouth on the subject, however, for to express an unorthodox opinion was a dangerous matter in those days in the Land of the Saints.”

More than 20 students attended the board meeting to show their support for the book and oppose the ban, which has caused a lot of negative publicity for the school board. A spokesman for the district said that “\’banned’ is not the correct word for what happened,” yet what other way is there to describe a policy which removes a work of literature from classrooms for being potentially offensive and forces every child to cater to the sensibilities of a single parent.

Not that I\’m advocating any type of religious intolerance, but taking a single passage out of context and calling it hate speech is not only illogical, but extremely uneducated. If she takes offense to the book based on that single passage and doesn\’t want her daughter to read it, that\’s fine; but why should everyone else have to do the same without a choice? The very reason given by her for its removal is the very same reason everyone else has for keeping it.

It’s worth noting that the ban affects middle and elementary students only; older students may still read the book. It’s also particularly ironic that Albermarle County happens to be where Thomas Jefferson\’s Monticello is located; I think he’s spinning in his grave over this insult to the written word. He did love books, after all.

This isn’t the first time Doyle has faced the fire for religious concerns, incidentally.

A Salt Lake City newspaper in 1994 claimed that the author was quoted as saying the Mormon religion was “steeped in kidnapping, murder, and enslavement,” they based their presumption on the following quote from Doyle: “all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that, though it is likely that in a work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a work of history.”

The historical fact he referred to is that Brigham Young and other Mormons were implicated in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre- a series of raids against the Baker-Fancher wagon train in Utah. Dressed as Indians, a group of Mormons ultimately killed some 120 emigrants, only sparing seventeen children who were under the age of seven.

Many years after Doyle’s death, a president of the Mormon Church claimed that the author had privately apologized to the church, stating that he [Doyle] had been “misled by the writings of the time about the Mormon faith.”

Doyle\’s trouble with censorship doesn\’t end there, either. Not only was Doyle accused of being anti-Mormon but, according to legislators in the Soviet Union, he was an Occultist, too. In 1929 his books were banned by the former government. Today, they’ve turned a new page and his books are celebrated. A statue dedicated in 2007 of a pensive Holmes and Dr. Watson decorates the British embassy in Moscow and a 1986 TV series based on the character became one of the most popular broadcasts in Russian television history.

When taken within the full historical context of 19th century society’s understanding of the newly-formed faith, and when including the Mountain Meadows Massacre, it’s logical to include that passage within the storyline. It adds to the subtext, and to the development and history of the characters, making them more real and reflective of their time in world history.

Children are in school to learn the critical and analytical thinking skills that will carry them through a successful life and career; but how can they effectively do that without studying the mistakes of the past and discovering how those who have come before them dealt with life’s many issues?

There’s a wonderful African proverb that goes something like “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.” All the revising in the world can not erase what happened in the past. What makes us responsible and mature adults is to learn from those mistakes, and to grow as individuals and as a society to make a better future.

A very disturbing pattern is beginning to emerge among these recent book challenges. One bent on revising history and sweeping the dark stains of humanity under the rug of the world’s collective consciousness. For every book they try in earnest to sweep under the rug, someone will be there to lift a corner and let the air of freedom in.


Sources:, LA Times, USA Today, Wikipedia

© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions