Two pages, front and back of "Undershaw, Hindhead, Surrey" mourning stationery. No date, but July 1906.
The text of this letter (headed by "Private & Confidential") reads:
You may have heard of my great sorrow. My wife passed away this week.
Her illness and death have naturally turned my thoughts from business, but there is one matter so pressing that I must lose no further time in speaking to you of it.
It was a great shock to me to learn with absolute certainty that Addison Bright has not dealt straight with some of his Clients. I must not mention names but the fact is beyond all doubt. The defalcations were systematic in their nature & considerable in amount.
Since he has treated others so I cannot doubt that I am also a victim, since I have trusted him most absolutely and seen no vouchers of any sort.
It seemed to me that we might make a test case of a single account. If it is wrong all are probably wrong. If it is right, I shall none the less want to make some examination. But we might begin with one small one. I append it, if you could have it verified from New York. It is a most painful business.
Yours very truly
Arthur Conan Doyle
The recipient of this letter was Charles Frohman, American theatrical producer, co-founder of the Theatrical Syndicate, which essentially monopolized theatrical production in the United States.
The first two sentences are startling in their brevity, the second being "My wife passed away this week." ACD and Louise Hawkins had married in 1885, and they had two children, Mary and Kingsley. In 1893 she was diagnosed with consumption, and spent the next thirteen years slowly succumbing to it (he had "Undershaw" built in Hindhead, the highest village in Surrey, because of its reputation for cleansing air). At about the time they were moving in (1897), Doyle fell in love with Jean Leckie; the two of them pledged to have a platonic relationship so that Louise would not be hurt. Louise finally died on 4 July 1906 -- which effectively dates this letter; one can see that ACD must have had many conflicting emotions at the time he wrote this, chief among them a sense of guilt. ACD and Jean Leckie would marry in September 1907.
As for the "matter so pressing" that occupies the rest of this letter... In the late 1890s Doyle had tried his hand at turning several of his Sherlock Holmes adventures into a play; failing at that, he turned to Charles Frohman in America, who put him in touch with the actor/director William Gillette who, with Doyle's acquiescence, re-wrote the play "Sherlock Holmes" and then went on to star in it. The play opened in late 1899, and was a huge hit; some of the Holmes we know today comes not from Doyle's original tales nor from Sidney Paget's illustrations, but from how Gillette played him -- for example, Holmes's pipe became a bent one because the straight one obscured too much of Gillette's face on stage.
The plays in America were produced by Frohman; royalties were sent from Frohman to Doyle's theatrical agent in London, Addison Bright (of the Madbury & Bright Agency). Bright was also the agent for Doyle's brother-in-law E.W. Hornung, who during the late 1890s had written numerous adventures of the gentleman thief Raffles, and had converted that character into a play "Raffles." And most importantly, Bright was the agent for (and friend of) J.M. Barrie, having been instrumental in helping Barrie turn his tale "Peter Pan" into a play (although this play was not published in book form until 1928, it premiered on the stage in December 1904). Hornung and Barrie were the other Bright clients of whom, in this letter, Doyle "must not mention names."
Just prior to this letter, Hornung read a report that "Raffles" had appeared more than a thousand times in America -- and informed his brother-in-law that he hadn't received anything close to that in royalties. Here Doyle is asking Frohman, who had forwarded such royalties to Bright, to examine a sample account to confirm that "defalcations" are taking place. The result of this letter was that an investigation was indeed commenced -- which discovered that Bright had misappropriated £28,000 (equivalent today to about £3,200,000!) -- £16,000 due to Barrie, £8,000 due to Doyle, and £4,000 due to Hornung. Doyle and Hornung would begin legal proceedings; Barrie continued to support Bright, refusing to believe that any such "mistake" was intentional (Bright did, in fact suffer from depression, and was possibly incapable of handling financial matters at the time).
Upon Barrie's recommendation, Bright went to Switzerland for his health; once there (still in 1906), he shot himself. The authors' claims continued, and ultimately (1910?) they received their money from Bright's estate.
An interesting side-note: one month before Doyle wrote this letter, 240 miles to the northwest the Lusitania was launched in Liverpool; nine years later, in May 1915, Charles Frohman (partially disabled and unable to jump into a lifeboat) would go down with it.
The letter is in near-fine condition (very slight edge-wear, mainly along the left side where Doyle would have disconnected this leaf from the back leaf); it is noteworthy that Doyle had black-bordered mourning stationery on hand just a few days after his wife's death. Item #13906