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Dickens at 200: 1812–2012

An exhibition in Special Collections

curated by
Jaime Margalotti

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

When Charles Dickens died in 1870 he had only completed the first six of twelve planned installments for his latest novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  For the last 142 years, both amateur and professional sleuths have attempted to solve this literary mystery.

Most of the novel’s attention is focused on the character of John Jasper, a choirmaster in the fictional town of Cloisterham (based on the real town of Rochester) and an opium addict.  Jasper is secretly in love with Rosa Bud, the fiancée of his nephew, Edwin Drood.  Neville Landless, who arrives from Ceylon with his sister Helena, also develops an interest in Rosa and quarrels with Edwin over her.  Unbeknownst to the other characters, Edwin and Rosa have decided to end their engagement.  Soon after this revelation Edwin disappears, the ring he had been carrying found lying in a pile of caustic lye in the crypts of the cathedral.  Edwin is declared dead with Neville suspected, but never charged, in his murder.  Months later a mysterious man named Dick Datchery arrives in town.  At this point the novel stops.

The central questions of the novel are:

  1. Edwin’s fate:  Is Edwin actually dead? If Edwin is dead, who killed him and why? If Edwin isn’t dead, where is he?
  2. Datchery: Who is the mysterious Datchery and what is his purpose?

According to Dickens’s friend and biographer, John Forster, Dickens had expressed to him an interest in writing a book where an uncle would murder his nephew, employing a “curious new idea” for the story.  The book’s illustrator, Luke Fildes concurred, explaining that Dickens insisted he include Jasper’s double necktie in the cover illustration since it would be the murder weapon.  Dickens’s son Charles Jr. also affirmed that his father said Jasper was the murderer.  Despite this evidence, a wide variety of different conclusions have been drawn.

All of the manuscript materials and most of the books in this section were part of the library of William A. Oliver, Jr. (1926-2005).  An American scientist and an avid collector and bibliographer of Victorian authors, Oliver worked for many years at the United States Geological Survey and the Paleobiology Department at the Smithsonian Institute.  Oliver was also an active bibliophile and bibliographer, acquiring an extensive collection of rare books and critical material related to the authors he collected, such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Love Peacock.  Oliver had a particular interest in Dickens’s last and unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).  Oliver was a member of both the London and Philadelphia chapters of the Dickens Fellowship.  As a known expert in Droodiana, he was a resource to scholars in their research, including Richard F. Stewart, author of End Game: A Survey of Selected Writings about the Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens.

Evidence and Analysis

John Cuming Walters.

Clues to Dickens’s "Mystery of Edwin Drood". London: Chapman and Hall, 1905. With advertisement for book.

J. Cuming Walters (1864–1933) was a journalist, editor, and author of works on English writers, including Dickens, Tennyson, and Shakespeare. His 1905 book was one of the earliest and most examined works on Drood. Walters declares Drood dead and asserts that Dickens “new idea” is the use of Helena Landless in disguise as Datchery.

Charles Dickens.

The Complete Mystery of Edwin Drood; the history, continuations, and solutions (1870–1912) by J. Cuming Walters; with a portrait, illustrations by Sir Luke Fildes, F.G. Kitton, facsimiles and a bibliography. London: Chapman & Hall, 1912.

Sir William Robertson Nicholl

“Was Edwin Drood Murdered?” January 6, 1914 in Album of Droodiana, [1908–1915]. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Nicholl produced the extensive textual analysis and summary of existing theories About Edwin Drood in 1912. Overall, Nicholl agreed with Walters and provided additional evidence to support his theory. On the eve of the mock trial of John Jasper held in 1914, Nicholl submitted this summary to a newspaper.

Felix Aylmer.

The Drood Case. London: Rupert Hart–Davis, 1964.

Although interest in the Drood mystery waned in the latter half of the 20th century, there has been no final conclusion. Felix Aylmer produced a unique theory (far too complicated to summarize here) in which John Jasper is not only innocent, but Edwin’s half–brother via an affair Edwin’s father had while in Egypt.

Edwin Harris.

“Annotated Map of Dickensian Rochester”, [1904], pasted into bound mimeograph of Katherine Kelly’s “The Return of Edwin Drood,” [1913–1932]. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

“Charles Dickens.” Harper’s Weekly (No. 704, Vol. XIV), June 25, 1870, p. 408.

Charles Dickens.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”  The Dickens Supplement to Harper’s Weekly: (No. 704, Vol. XIV), June 25, 1870, p. S1.

How does one sell an unfinished novel? Publishers came up with a variety of ways to market this half–told story: including Drood with other Dickens novels or stories, reproducing Dickens’s will, providing accounts of Dickens death and funeral, and appending a solution to the end.

Charles Dickens.

Old Curiosity Shop: and, Edwin Drood. New York: Hurst & Co., [1889].

Charles Dickens.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: and Some Uncollected Pieces. Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1870.

Charles Dickens.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1870.

Charles Dickens.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood. London: Chapman & Dodd, [1922].

This Chapman & Dodd imprint adds Mary Kavanagh’s 1919 solution. She concludes that John Jasper is actually an imposter who murdered the real Jasper. Edwin escaped to sea and returned in disguise, falling in love with Rosa and setting up a plot to capture his attempted murderer. Although not well–regarded by the other Drood enthusiasts, inclusion with several editions of the book has kept her theory from total obscurity.

Charles Dickens.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With twelve illustrations by S.L. Fildes, and a portrait. London: Chapman and Hall, 1870. April 1870 and September 1870 installments.

Charles Dickens.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With twelve illustrations by S.L. Fildes, and a portrait. London: Chapman and Hall, 1870.

Extra illustrated copy, with: 23 additional leaves of illustrated plates, some hand colored.

Munsey’s Magazine. New York: Frank A. Munsey & Co., December  1924. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Sherlock Holmes on the Case

It is to be expected that literature’s most famous detective would be called in to solve the Drood mystery. In Smith and Lauritzen’s works Holmes approaches the case as an intellectual exercise, drawing conclusions from the clues in Dickens’s book. However in the Rowland work, Holmes is himself a character in the Drood story, hired by John Jasper to investigate his nephew’s disappearance. When the Dickens Fellowship held their mock trial of John Jasper in 1914, they invited Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, to serve on the jury; he declined.

Harry Bache Smith.

How Sherlock Holmes Solved the Mystery of Edwin Drood. Glen Rock, Pa.: W. Klinefelter, 1934 (Portland, Maine: Southworth–Anthoensen Press).

Henry Lauritzen.

Sherlock Holmes løser Edwin Drood Gaaden. Aalborg [Denmark]: Lauritzens Boghandel, 1964 (Silkeborg : Silkeborg Bogtrykkeri).

Peter Rowland.

The Disappearance of Edwin Drood. London: Constable, 1991.

Advertisement  and program for “The Trial of John Jasper for the Murder of Edwin Drood.” Sponsored by the Dickens Fellowship,  January  7,  1914, at King’s Hall, Covent Garden. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The Tale Continued

In addition to analytical accounts of the text and external evidence surrounding the unknown ending of the Mystery of Edwin Drood, authors have also attempted to render their ideas in prose.

Mr. Brown.

The Goings on of Mrs. Brown by Mr. Brown and the Mystery of Mr. E. Drood by Orpheus C. Kerr. London: Ward, Lock, [187–?].

Orpheus C. Kerr (the pseudonym of American journalist and humorist Robert Henry Newell) accidentally became the first author to continue Drood. Kerr had been writing a parody of the novel as each new part appeared. When the story ended unfinished, he had to invent a conclusion to lampoon.

Henry Morford.

John Jasper’s Secret: Being a Narative of Certain Events Following and Explaining "The Mystery of Edwin Drood". London: Pub. Offices, 1871–1872.

Initially published anonymously, this early continuation was erroneously attributed to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, Jr.

Harold R. Leaver.

The Mystery of John Jasper. [Edmonton, Alta]: The Author, [1925].

The characters express their thoughts in verse.

Charles Dickens.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Complete. Brattleboro, Vt.: T.P. James, 1874.

William Henry Harrison, Spiritualist.

"Rifts in the Veil": a Collection of Inspirational Poems and Essays Given Through Various Forms of Mediumship: Also of Poems and Essays by Spiritualists. London: W.H. Harrison, 1878.

The American medium, T.P. James claimed to have channeled the spirit of Charles Dickens, enabling the author to complete the novel himself! In his book, Rifts in the Veil, William Henry Harrison provides an argument in support of James’ work, in addition to other samples of writing conveyed by famous deceased authors.

The Trial of John Jasper

The London branch of the Dickens Fellowship sponsored a Mystery of Edwin Drood–inspired mock trial in which John Jasper was prosecuted for the murder of his nephew, Edwin Drood. A number of notable literary figures took part, with G.K. Chesterton serving as the Judge and George Bernard Shaw as the Foreman of the Jury. J. Cuming Walters, author of Clues to Dickens’s “Mystery of Edwin Drood” and The Complete Edwin Drood, acted as one of the prosecutors, but was ultimately displeased with the outcome of the trial. He felt like it had not been taken sufficiently seriously, with characters making unfounded statements on the stand, Jasper convicted of manslaughter, and Chesterton declaring all of the participants in contempt of court.

“Verdict in the Edwin Drood Case.” The Daily Graphic, Jan 8, 1914, pp. 9–11. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Selection from J. Cuming Walters’ handwritten notes for his closing arguments given as Counsel for the Prosecution in the “Trial of John Jasper for the Murder of Edwin Drood,” January 7, 1914. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Scrapbook kept by F.S. Johnson, Secretary to the Dickens Fellowship, 1913–1914.  William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

On view: Photographs from trial and J. Cuming Walters’ post–trial statement of frustration with the proceedings; George Bernard Shaw’s signed “Summons to Jury;” and a letter from Shaw dated in which he comments on changes he would suggest if another Dickens group decided to host a Drood–related trial.

Dickens Fellowship (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Trial of John Jasper for the Murder of Edwin Drood: in Aid of Samaritan, Children’s Homeopathic, St. Agnes and Mt. Sinai Hospitals: April 29, 1914, Academy of Music, Philadelphia, U.S.A. [Philadelphia] : Philadelphia Branch, Dickens Fellowship, [1916?].

The Philadelphia branch of the Dickens Fellowship held its own trial later that year. This time Jasper was acquitted by a vote of 11–1.

Charles Dickens.

Edwin Drood. London: Mellifont Press, [19–].

Program for “Trial of John Jasper for the Murder of Edwin Drood,” held January 7, 1914, in King’s Hall, Covent Garden. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.




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