"The Red-Headed League" (also known as "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League") is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in the August 1891 edition of the magazine The Strand. It would be republished in October 1892 as the second story in the anthology The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
The plot is set in motion when a red-haired pawnbroker named Jabez Wilson asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate the sudden disappearance of a society called the Red-Headed League. For two months, the Red-Haired League paid Wilson well for doing very little work. Jabez Wilson is primarily concerned with the loss of a lucrative second income but also suspects that a prank of some kind may have been played upon him. Holmes, however, believes that the prank may be part of a plan for a much more serious crime.
Television adaptations of "The Red-Headed League" were produced in the United Kingdom in 1951, 1965 and 1985 and in the United States in 1954. The story was also adapted as an episode of the American radio series The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which was first broadcast on April 26, 1977.
In a list of the twelve best Sherlock Holmes stories which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle compiled for The Strand magazine in 1927, the author named "The Red-Headed League" as his second favorite, following "The Adventure of the Speckled Band". "The Red-Headed League" was also ranked as the second best of Conan Doyle's fifty-six Sherlock Holmes short stories in a 1959 list which was voted for by the readers of The Baker Street Journal, again following "The Adventure of the Speckled Band".
On a Saturday morning in 1890, Dr. John Watson goes to visit his friend the detective Sherlock Holmes. He finds that Holmes is speaking to a client, a man with fiery red hair. Watson is prepared to leave but Holmes insists that he stays and listens to the man's strange story.
The red-haired man is called Jabez Wilson. He is a pawnbroker who keeps a shop in a quiet part of London called Saxe-Coburg Square. For some time, Wilson's business has not been doing very well. He used to have two assistants but now has only one, a man named Vincent Saunders who, in spite of not being very young, is willing to work for half the normal salary. Wilson tells Holmes and Watson that two months earlier, Vincent Saunders showed him a newspaper advertisement. The advertisement stated that, following the death of one of its members, there was an opening in the Red-Headed League. Wilson had never heard of the Red-Headed League. Saunders explained that it was founded by a red-haired millionaire who was born in London but made his fortune in America. The chief aim of the society was to provide financial comfort for men with red hair while requiring them to do some light work in return. All red-headed adult men in London were eligible to apply for the open position but someone with very fiery red hair was most likely to get it.
Saunders and Wilson went to the building where the Red-Headed League had its offices. Wilson was briefly interviewed by another man with fiery red hair who gave his name as Duncan Ross. Wilson was told that the position was his and that he would be handsomely paid in return for very little work. He would be required to be in the building every day from ten o'clock in the morning until two o'clock in the afternoon and to copy out pages from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in exchange for which he would be paid four pounds a week. Saunders assured Wilson that he could look after the pawnbroker's shop in his absence. For eight weeks, Wilson went to the offices of the Red-Headed League each morning and was paid four pounds each Friday. After that time, Wilson was surprised to find the offices closed and a small card saying, "The Red-Headed League is dissolved" on the door. He asked the building's landlord what had happened but the man had never heard of the Red-Headed League and was under the impression that Duncan Ross was called William Morris. He gave Wilson an address for William Morris which turned out to be false.
Wilson is unhappy at the sudden loss of his second income. He is also confused and thinks that somebody may have been playing a joke on him. He asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. Holmes cannot help but be amused by Wilson's story but suspects that there might be a more serious crime behind it. He asks Wilson for a physical description of his assistant Vincent Saunders. He is told that Saunders is aged about thirty, is short, clean shaven, has a small white acid scar on his forehead and pierced ears. Wilson also tells Holmes that Saunders is interested in photography and keeps going down to the shop's basement to develop his photographs.
That afternoon, Holmes and Watson go to Saxe-Coburg Square. Holmes taps the pavement in front of Jabez Wilson's shop with a walking stick and rings the shop's doorbell. When Saunders answers the door, Holmes asks for directions and leaves. Holmes tells Watson that he did not really want to see Saunders but the knees of his trousers. Holmes and Watson go to the street behind Saxe-Coburg Square. Holmes makes a mental note of the businesses which have premises there. Later that afternoon, Holmes tells Watson to meet up with him again at ten o'clock that night and to bring his revolver.
When Watson arrives at Baker Street that evening, he finds Holmes with the police officer Peter Jones and a banker named Mr. Merryweather. The four men go to the vault in a bank in the street behind Saxe-Coburg Square. They wait in complete darkness for an hour. After that time, Saunders, who is really the master criminal John Clay, and his red-haired accomplice emerge from the floor. John Clay has to admit that he has been outwitted and is arrested.
Holmes explains to Watson that John Clay took up the position in Wilson's pawnbroker's shop in order to rob the nearby bank. Wilson's reference to his assistant often going to the basement made Holmes suspect that he was digging a tunnel. A quick examination of the crumpled and dirty knees on Clay's trousers confirmed this. The reason why Holmes tapped the pavement with his walking stick was to see if the basement extended in front of the shop. He discovered that it did not. Therefore, the tunnel was leading to a business in the street behind the shop, where Holmes noticed that there was a bank. The Red-Haired League was set up merely to get Wilson out of the shop for a few hours each day to continue work on the tunnel. The fact that Clay no longer needed to keep Wilson out of the shop, indicated by the dissolution of the Red-Headed League, meant that the robbery was likely to take place that same evening.
- Sound file of public domain audiobook of "The Red-Headed League" from LibriVox
- "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs", another Sherlock Holmes story in which a criminal lures a man away from his home with the promise of easy money