Conan Doyle and Elephants

by Phil Bergem

In 1878 Conan Doyle was working as a student assistant with a doctor in Sheffield. They had a parting of the ways and the 19-year-old Arthur moved to London to stay with his aunts and uncles while he searched for a different doctor to work with. During the month he was in London, he did write to his sisters that he had “been to the ‘Zoo’” (A Life in Letters, p. 107). The significance of this statement is that one of the most famous elephants in history was at the London Zoological Gardens at the time.

Jumbo was brought to the London Zoological Gardens in 1865 where he became a very popular attraction. The elephant remained in London until 1882 when he was sold to the American circus master, P. T. Barnum, much to the dismay of the British public. With Barnum’s grandiose promotion, Jumbo’s name became well known throughout North America and Europe. Conan Doyle visited the zoo while Jumbo was there and while he did not mention it directly, it is highly likely that he saw Jumbo in his enclosure, and read about him in the newspapers later when the elephant was sold.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “The Terror of Blue John Gap” when he was about 51 years old. As the London Zoo had other elephants after Jumbo left in 1882, it is possible that he saw some while visiting as an adult, or he may have seen some in other zoos. However, he does not mention any such visit in his autobiography, Memories and Adventures.

Later in life, after writing “The Terror of Blue John Gap,” he did have several opportunities to see elephants. In The Wanderings of a Spiritualist he wrote about visiting Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on the return voyage from Australia in 1921 and he saw at least one elephant up close. In Our Second American Adventure he briefly mentions the “Bronx Gardens” which was the Bronx Zoological Gardens with their Elephant House. That trip took place in 1923.

While it is not certain that Conan Doyle saw a live elephant before writing “Blue John Gap,” circumstantial evidence suggests that he may have done so.


Phillip Bergem is the editor for Explorations, the newsletter of the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota, and Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collections Newsletter for the collection at the University of Minnesota. He lived in England during his high school years but did not develop an interest in Sherlock Holmes and the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle until the Jeremy Brett series a decade later.

Phil has devoted an inordinate amount of time studying the life and writings of Arthur Conan Doyle. He also enjoys annotating Conan Doyle’s stories, having done so for “The Horror of the Heights” and, so far, fourteen of the Sherlock Holmes stories for the Baker Street Irregulars Manuscript Series.