Plot Summary of the Red Headed League

Updated on March 24, 2018
Colin Quartermain profile image

Colin has been reading as long as he can remember, and the works of Conan Doyle were some of the early works that kept him reading.

Sherlock Holmes and the Red Headed League

The adventure of The Red Headed League has traditionally been one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories. On the face of it, it seems a ludicrous case for the world’s only consulting detective to investigate, after all, the client has only lost a part-time job, but of course the case is much more serious than that.

Publication of the Red Headed League

The Red Headed League is the second short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to feature Sherlock Holmes, after Scandal in Bohemia; making it the fourth story of the official canon of published work.

The Red Headed League was first published in August 1891 in the Strand Magazine, and would, the following year, be reprinted in the compilation work, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

A Short Review of the Red Headed League

The writing of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes was bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle more and more popular success, and people would soon be eagerly awaiting the monthly publication of the Strand Magazine.

The short stories seemed to hit the right note with the public, and because of its length, The Red Headed League is fast paced; whilst the story is short, it is detailed enough for the reader to follow the whole case.

Having dealt with poisoning, conspiracy and blackmail in the previous stories, initially a case of red headed gentleman losing his well paid part-time job, might not appear worthy for the attention of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes though sees the possibility of something far more important from the provided facts, and creates a working hypothesis. Holmes then uses his energy to provide the additional facts that confirm that hypothesis.

The absurdity of the case makes The Red Headed League one of the most memorable written stories; the fact that the 1985 Jeremy Brett adaptation as part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a relatively faithful adaptation, has helped with the memorability of the story.

Red Headed League Trailer

A Newspaper Advertisement

Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70 | Source

Spoiler Alert - Plot Summary of the Red Headed League

The case of The Red Headed League sees Dr Watson visiting 221B Baker Street to see his old friend Sherlock Holmes. There he finds the detective in consultation with a new client, Jebez Wilson, a London pawnbroker, and Watson is asked to sit in as the pawnbroker tells his tale.

Two months previous Jabez Wilson had been shown a newspaper advert by Vincent Spaulding, Wilson’s shop assistant. The advert offered the opportunity for well paid work, as long as they met the criteria; the criteria being that they must be over 21 and have red hair. Wilson has a superb head of red hair.

Money was tight at the pawnbrokers, and so Wilson was easily convinced to apply for the job.

On his arrival at the interview for the job, it seemed that every red-headed main in London had descended on the offices where the interviews were being held. Wilson though was the only one who was successful, and Duncan Ross, the interviewing manager, described him as the perfect candidate.

It seemed that an eccentric American had left a will that had formed the League of Red Headed Men, and the League was now employing people for the princely sum of four pounds a week. All that Wilson would be required to do for the money was to copy out sections of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

By accepting the job, Wilson was committing himself to being absent from his own business for four hours each afternoon; but as Wilson explained, the afternoons were quieter than the evenings for his business, and Spaulding would be able to cope.

Wilson had enjoyed the new work, and for two months he had turned up for employment at the offices of the League of Red Headed Men. One day Wilson turned up for work to find that a notice was posted on the office door, stating, “The Red Headed League is dissolved”. Finding no trace of Duncan Ross, or of the League, Wilson was now asking Holmes to look into it.

Holmes is taken with the absurdity of the case, and so accepts Wilson as a client. Holmes has only a few questions for Wilson, most of which revolve around his assistant, Vincent Spaulding. Spaulding has only been working for Wilson for three months, and has been working for half the normal wages, another interesting fact about Spaulding is that in his spare time, he is to be found in the pawnbroker’s basement, messing around with his photographic equipment.

Once Wilson departs Baker Street, Holmes sits and ponders the problem, before inviting Watson to accompany him to the concert. On the way to the concert, Holmes and Watson pass by Wilson’s pawnbroker’s shop, and Holmes pops in, ostensibly to ask for directions, but in reality so that he can get a look at Spaulding. Outside of the shop, Holmes takes time to tap away at the ground.

Holmes has now gathered all of the threads he needs to solve the case. A few hours later, Holmes and Watson find themselves sitting in the dark in a bank vault; alongside them are Inspector Jones, and Mr Merryweather, a director of the City and Suburban Bank. The vault itself is full of French gold.

Only a short period of time elapses before the sound of tunnelling reaches the ears of the men hidden in the bank vault. Then suddenly a hole appears in the wall of the vault; through the hole comes Vincent Spaulding, Wilson’s assistant, but who is in reality a notorious criminal by the name of John Clay. Clay is arrested, as his accomplice, the man known as Duncan Ross, but is actually another criminal called Archie.

Holmes than explains the case in full to Watson; Watson being at a loss, despite having all of the same evidence as Holmes.

The Red Headed League, to Holmes, was an obvious ruse, meant to ensure Wilson’s absence from his business. The signs of dirt on the knees of Spaulding were also obviously signs that tunnelling had occurred; and the fact that the shop was opposite a bank indicated that a robbery was intended. Lastly the fact that the Red Headed League had been wound up, also meant that the robbery was imminent.

Holmes Visits the Pawnbrokers

Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70 | Source

The Red Headed League

  • Date of Events - 1890
  • Client - Jebez Wilson
  • Locations - London
  • Villain - John Clay

Questions & Answers

  • Who is Wilson in "The Red-Headed League?

    Jebez Wilson is the owner of a pawnbroker's; he also sports a head of bright red hair. Thus, it was Wilson who was enticed to gain additional employment with the Red-Headed League.

  • What is the Red-Headed League?

    The Red-Headed League was purportedly an organisation set up by Ezekiah Hopkins of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, to provide financial assistance to red-headed individuals for small amounts of work.

    Of course, the Red-Headed League was actually a ruse to get Jabez Wilson out of his pawnbroking business.

  • Is there any red herring in the story "Red-Headed League"?

    Strictly speaking there is no red herring in the tale of the Red Headed League, as there is nothing that leads the reader to a false conclusion. The actual Red Headed League was immediately seen to be a diversion by Holmes, and as such so the reader also knows that, and so there must be something going on elsewhere.


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