Red heads, blue eyes: The literary connections of Lebanon’s new public house

3 min read573 views and 135 shares Posted October 7, 2019

For those familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the name of the new restaurant set to move into the upstairs space of the Lebanon Farmers Market should be familiar.

Read More: Red-Headed League Public House to join Downtown Lebanon restaurant scene

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The Red-Headed League Public House, as the establishment will be called, is an explicit reference to a case cracked by Doyle’s famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. In The Red-Headed League, one of the most popular of Doyle’s 56 stories featuring the detective, Holmes gets wrapped up in an odd case involving an organization of men who carry out simple tasks for money, all of whom sport the titular red hair. In classic Holmes fashion, not all is as it seems.

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Readers working their way through the Sherlock Holmes canon may want to avoid the following plot summary (SPOILER ALERT)… red-headed pawnbroker Jabez Wilson hears about an opening in the League, which pays well and consists of simple work. He gets the position and works at it for some time to supplement his income, but shortly afterwards, the League shuts down, and Wilson complains of this turn of events to Holmes. By the end, it is discovered that the entirety of the League was a diversion created to get Wilson out of his shop for hours at a time. While this happened, his young assistant and an accomplice worked on tunneling into an adjacent bank vault in order to make off with French gold.

A public house is the old-fashioned English term for what would later be shortened to ‘pub’—an establishment that serves alcohol on the premises.

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Doyle kept up on world events, and heard about the Blue-Eyed Six murder and trial. (NYAM Center for History)

Doyle, though a British writer through-and-through, nonetheless took a great interest in world news and current events. In fact, Doyle’s knighthood (and honorific ‘Sir’) was granted in recognition of his now little-known treatise on the Boer War in South Africa. But there was one story from years earlier that inspired Doyle’s work on League: the case of the Blue-Eyed Six.

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The Lebanon murder case sent shockwaves around the country when it happened in 1878. Six men had plotted to take out an insurance policy on a poor man named Joseph Raber who lived in the hills of northern Lebanon, and quickly killed him to claim it. The moniker that the unsavory group was referred to, the “Blue-Eyed Six,” became synonymous with the story.

Read More: The true crime story that made Lebanon famous around the world: The Blue-Eyed Six, plotters of a murder 140 years ago

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It was a classic tale of insurance fraud, secret meetings, and cold-blooded murder, and attention came from far and wide when the men were tried in April of 1879. Even more unusual was the fact that all six men were tried for the murder at the same time, a first in American and English law.

Of the six, five were hanged in a gallows built in the yard of the former county prison–incidentally, the very same site that the Lebanon Farmers Market stands on today. The sixth, George Zechman, was granted a retrial and found not guilty.

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The six proto-mugshots of the men who plotted and murdered Joseph Raber, which have become instantly recognizable for fans of old-fashioned murder cases.

When Doyle heard about the case, the author was so fascinated by the shared features of the men that he gave a similar commonality to the shadowy League in his new story, one of Holmes’ earliest, and one of Doyle’s personal favorites.

According to a 2009 Daily News article by Chris Sholly, Doyle may have heard about the case from Horace and Debra Brock, relatives of the Colemans who may have met Doyle in late 1890 or early 1891. Sholly’s source is a 1899 talk presented to the Lebanon County Historical Society by the Rev. P.C. Croll, a founder of the historical society.

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Doyle gave a nod to Lebanon in one more way, and perhaps the Coleman relatives themselves inspired the depiction of Ezekiah Hopkins, a fictional millionaire who called Lebanon home and (in the story) the man who began the League in the first place. However, Sholly doesn’t think this is the case, as Hopkins is said to have been born in London, whereas Brock was born in Pennsylvania.

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In any event, just like the League itself, there’s more to the name of this new establishment than it seems.

The full text of ‘The Red-Headed League’ along with other Holmes stories can be read at the Gutenberg Project.

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