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Monday, January 11, 2016

Arthur Conan Doyle: Punishment in Dartmoor

In his investigations, Sherlock Holmes sometimes allows a prisoner to escape capture. He regards it as his duty to solve the case, not catch the criminal. In Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, it is Dr. John Watson who allows a prisoner to go free. While staying at Baskerville Hall, Dr. Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville learn that the brother of a servant is hiding out on the moor. When they try to apprehend the fellow, the butler and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Barrymore, intercede on the criminal's behalf. They beg the gentlemen to leave him alone for a few days, as they have secretly secured his passage aboard a ship traveling to South America.

While exploring the glories and dangers of Dartmoor, Arthur Conan Doyle stayed in the Duchy Hotel in Princetown, which now serves as the visitor center for Dartmoor National Park. 

There, Doyle doubtless heard shocking tales of the inhuman crimes for which inmates of the famous prison located on the outskirts of the town had been sentenced. Yet we mainly see Seldon, a dangerous escaped convict, through his sister's eyes. 

"Yes sir, my name was Selden, and he is my younger brother. We humored him too much when he was a lad, and gave him his way in everything until he came to think that the world was made for his pleasure, and that he could do what he liked in it. Then, as he grew older, he met wicked companions, and the devil entered into him until he broke his mother's heart and dragged our name in the dirt. From crime to crime he sank lower and lower, until it is only the mercy of God which has snatched him from the scaffold; but to me, sir, he was always the little curly-headed boy that I had nursed and played with, as an elder sister would."

The next day, rain covers the land, and Watson cannot help thinking of the convict out upon the bleak, cold, shelterless moor.

While visiting Dartmoor this summer, wearing long pants and a rain jacket proved mandatory. Winds howled across the barren landscape, and rainclouds sped across the land. The sheep and cattle grazing on the rocky ground seemed inured to their surroundings. But despite its rugged beauty, I couldn't imagine living in Dartmoor.

And that was during the summer, not during the hard autumn rains, or the bitter winter snowstorms.

Whatever Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes, or Arthur Conan Doyle thought of England's prison system in the early twentieth century, I can sympathize with Watson's thoughts on anyone forced to live rough on the moor.

Poor fellow! Whatever his crimes, he has suffered something to atone for them.

Dragon Dave

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