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Literature / Doctor Syn ("The Scarecrow")

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Doctor Syn — or, to use his full title, the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, DD note  — is the protagonist of a series of historical novels by British writer and actor Russell Thorndike, published between 1915 and 1944 but set in the 18th century (from 1754 to c. 1794). Some of the stories have been adapted to other media.

For most of the series, Doctor Syn is the mild-mannered and seemingly respectable vicar of Dymchurch, a coastal village on Romney Marsh in the county of Kent, England. However, he is actually a swashbuckling figure with a wide range of skills who leads a triple life as "The Scarecrow", the leader of a local gang of smugglers, and as "Captain Clegg", a once-notorious pirate.

Originally a distinguished theological scholar at Oxford University, he left the academic life when his wife Imogene eloped with another man. Syn chased them to the Americas, where through a series of incidents, he twice ended up in charge of pirate ships, adopting the "Captain Clegg" identity on the second occasion. He proves to be a peerless swordsman and navigator, with the charisma, ruthlessness and leadership skills to control a cut-throat pirate crew. His sidekick, the loyal carpenter Mipps, is even more ruthless, twice blowing up ships full of pirates to stop them from pursuing Syn and himself when they seek to quit piracy.

Once the pirate life gets too risky even for "Clegg", Syn returns to England and visits an old friend, Sir Anthony Cobtree, the squire of Dymchurch. Fortuitously, the local vicar has just died. Taking over the job, Syn tries to settle down — but on discovering that his parishioners need rescuing from trouble with the law caused by their smuggling activities, he creates the "Scarecrow" identity, takes over the smuggler gang and rides out to various nocturnal adventures. This continues through several novels, during which he outwits various officers who are sent to Romney Marsh to stop him. Eventually, though, his past catches up with him once too often, and Syn is killed by an old enemy at the end of his last adventure.

A little confusingly, the first book to be published actually comes last in the story's chronological sequence, as it brings Syn's story to a climax with his death. The other books are therefore all prequels to that. In order of publication, the novels are:

  • Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh (1915). Set in either 1794 or 1802. The novel is chronologically the last in the series, is the only one in which the title character's secret identity is kept from the reader, and ends with Doctor Syn's death. The finale supposedly features the start of The Napoleonic Wars, but based on the description given, the tale is more likely set at the point Great Britain joined the First Coalition, c.1794.
  • Doctor Syn Returns (1935). Doctor Syn returns to England, becomes the vicar of Dymchurch and establishes himself as the Scarecrow, leader of the local smuggler gang, while also dealing with the affections of the squire's daughter Charlotte. Set in 1775-76.
  • The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn (1936). Now thoroughly committed to his dual life as a kindly vicar and a smuggler leader, Doctor Syn deals with an informant by striking terror into the hearts of underlings and enemies alike. Set in 1776-77.
  • Doctor Syn on the High Seas (1936). The first if the books are listed in chronological order. Documents the early adventures of Doctor Syn as his pirate alter ego Captain Clegg, 1754-75.
  • The Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn (1938). The Scarecrow's career reaches a swashbuckling high as he has to contend with the ruthless Captain Blain of the Royal Navy, and meets the Prince of Wales. Set in 1781.
  • The Amazing Quest of Doctor Syn (1939). Doctor Syn goes to Wales, where he confronts a rival smuggler. Supposedly set in 1780, though internal details point to c.1790 instead. Dedicated to George Arliss, who had played Doctor Syn in the 1937 movie.
  • The Shadow of Doctor Syn (1944). The French side of the smuggling operation is explored as the Scarecrow and Sir Anthony's daughter Cicely plan to rescue her sister Maria (who married a French aristocrat) from the guillotine. Set in 1793.

A postscript of sorts is provided by Thorndike's 1927 novel The Slype, which is set in the (then) present day and evidently takes place in the same universe, as one of the sub-plots is driven by the discovery of a journal written by Mipps.

In addition, an expanded version of Doctor Syn Returns was published in the US market as The Scarecrow Rides. In 1960, American author William Buchanan published Christopher Syn, essentially a reworking of The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn with some changes. That in turn became the basis for the 1963 Disney movie (see below) — which was itself followed by a novelization, Doctor Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, written by Vic Crume.

There have been three movies:

  • Doctor Syn (1937), starring George Arliss (in his final film role), alongside Margaret Lockwood and John Loder.
  • Captain Clegg (1962), a Hammer production known as Night Creatures in the USA and starring Peter Cushing. In this, the character was renamed "Parson Blyss" to avoid problems with the then-upcoming Disney version (below).
  • The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963), starring Patrick McGoohan. This was made by Disney, and was originally a three-part television series (a miniseries before the term existed) under the Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color umbrella, but was subsequently edited to movie length for various theatrical and (later) video/DVD releases under the title Doctor Syn, Alias the Scarecrow. This particular version of Doctor Syn would later appear in the Disney Adventures comics.

Thorndike also wrote a Doctor Syn stage play, in which he himself played the title role when it was first performed in 1922. Audio adaptations of the books, read by Rufus Sewell, were broadcast on BBC radio between 2006 and 2010.

The stories have no connection to the Buster Keaton movie or any Marvel or DC villains called "The Scarecrow", and is definitely not to be confused with a character from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s just a cool image.

This series provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Mrs Waggetts, landlady of the Ship Inn, seems to be attracted to Mipps, but he sees her as one of these and is not interested. In Doctor Syn Returns, Merry is this to Meg Clouder, the widowed landlady of the City of London pub.
  • The Ace: Doctor Syn. Whether it's horsemanship, sword-fighting, fist-fighting, knife-throwing, scholarship, piracy, smuggling and even harpooning whales, he's the best there is.
  • Action Girl: Charlotte Cobtree, to the extent that she dresses as the Scarecrow in order to take part in the smuggling at night. It doesn't end well for her. An older-than-usual example is Old Katie, a small-time independent smuggler who, upon being apprehended by Captain Blain, manages to knock one of his sailors out with a single punch (yes, a physically fit adult male gets laid out cold by a 70-year-old woman) before confessing that she's the Scarecrow! She only manages to avoid the gallows on account of the Prince of Wales owing Doctor Syn a favour.
  • Anachronism Stew: The Amazing Quest of Doctor Syn, set in the 1780s, has scenes set in North Wales, around the settlements of Portmadoc, Tremadoc and Portmeirion. None of these existed at the time.
  • Anachronic Order: The books were not published in chronological order; most notably, the first novel (published in 1915) ends with the death of Doctor Syn, meaning that the six other novels (the first of which was published twenty years later) all take place before that. The first one in chronological order, Doctor Syn on the High Seas, was in fact the fourth to be published. When Arrow published the lot in paperback in the 1960s and 1970s, they listed them in chronological order, which is as follows (with the year of publication in brackets):
    • Doctor Syn on the High Seas (1936)
    • Doctor Syn Returns (1935)
    • The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn (1936)
    • The Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn (1938)
    • The Amazing Quest of Doctor Syn (1939)
    • The Shadow of Doctor Syn (1944)
    • Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh (1915)
  • Anti-Hero: Doctor Syn may live by a code of honour, and spends much of his time helping his parishioners (which is given as the reason for him taking over the smuggling operation in the first place). However, as Captain Clegg and (later) the Scarecrow he's also vengeful to a sadistic degree, sometimes ruthless (especially when acting as a pirate captain in charge of a gang of unreliable cut-throats), and much given to using fear as a weapon.
  • Artistic Licence – Religion: A minor one — the Church of England has never had a position called "Dean of the Peculiars". It's an honorific title of Thorndike's invention which allows Doctor Syn, who has the title bestowed upon him in addition to being the Vicar of Dymchurch, to visit places outside his parish, including those located in a different diocese like Rye note , for official reasons.
  • Backstory: Doctor Syn on the High Seas tells of how the brilliant scholar Christopher Syn became the notorious pirate Captain Clegg, while Doctor Syn Returns establishes how he came back to Romney Marsh and established his Scarecrow persona.
  • Badass Bookworm: Syn was a very much a bookish scholar at Oxford (although he did fight a duel despite being in holy orders). Then he went off and became a notorious pirate.
  • Badass Preacher: Being a smuggler leader and former pirate, the Reverend Doctor Syn is very badass, although most people who meet him don't realise this as he's secretly a badass.
  • Becoming the Mask: After agreeing to confess to having been the notorious pirate Captain Clegg, Black Nick — who is due to be hanged for murder anyway — seems to take a perverse delight in telling anyone who will listen of 'his' crimes, much to Mipps's disgust.
  • The Bet: Quite a few wagers are made, usually over someone claiming that they can capture the Scarecrow. They always fail, of course.
  • Betty and Veronica: Gender-flipped in Doctor Syn on the High Seas; Doctor Syn himself is the Betty and Nicholas "Black Nick" Tappitt the Veronica to Imogene's Archie. She marries the former, only to elope with the latter.
  • Butt-Monkey: Quite a few of the dragoons become this.
  • Code Name: The smugglers use these. Mipps, for example, is "Hellspite".
  • Contrived Coincidence: In Doctor Syn Returns, Syn returns to England and is shipwrecked off the village where his old friend is squire. The local vicar drowns trying to save people from the wreck, allowing Syn — an ordained Church of England priest — to take on the job. Later, a lot of people from his past seem to just wander through Dymchurch, while inconvenient characters who work out Syn's Secret Identity are frequently doomed to die within a few pages.
  • Cool Horse: Syn rides a great black stallion named "Gehenna". This almost seems like trying too hard to qualify for the trope.
  • Cool Old Lady: Agatha Gordon, Sir Anthony's aunt-by-marriage who appears in The Shadow of Doctor Syn, is definitely one of these. For her eightieth birthday party, she invites both Doctor Syn and the Scarecrow, causing Jimmie Bone to once again don the Scarecrow costume.
  • Creepy Child: 12-year old Jerry Jerk, from the first book, is nicknamed "Hangman" Jerk for his future career aspirations. He also buys and erects his own, completely functional gallows during the course of the book. And strings up a fake corpse to freak people out.
  • Creepy-Crawly Torture: The first stage of the gruesome death that Syn visits on Captain Vicosa involves cockroaches.
  • Deathbed Confession: In Doctor Syn Returns, Syn finds Imogene on her deathbed and forgives her; she tells him that he is the father of her son, who is lost somewhere in the Americas.
  • Defiant to the End: Black Nick Tappitt, who goes to the gallows unrepentant and cursing.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The mulatto is the only survivor of Syn's first pirate crew in Doctor Syn on the High Seas — the ship having been blown up by Mipps (and the rest of the crew killed) to prevent Syn's alibi being discovered. Rescued by the Royal Navy, he features in the first (chronologically the last) novel and plays a key role in smoking out the Scarecrow, eventually killing Syn himself.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first book published is the last book in internal chronological order. In various respects, it doesn't quite match the rest of the series; Syn is considerably more brutal and less mentally stable, some characters' ages don't match the ones given in later books, and it's the only book in which Syn's hidden identity is concealed from the reader. Understandable in a way, as Thorndike wrote Doctor Syn as a standalone novel, and it would be twenty years before the second one in the series appeared.
  • Everyone Has Standards: While Jimmie Bone will gladly relieve most travellers of their valuables, he never robs from the clergy — and doesn't make an exception even when he holds up a rich clergyman like the Archbishop of Canterbury. He also refuses to take small items that may be of sentimental value, and gives one-tenth of his ill-gotten gains to the church's Poor Fund.
    • For all of his many faults, Black Nick Tappitt genuinely loves his baby daughter. After his arrest, Doctor Syn is able to use this to his advantage, persuading Nick to confess to having been Captain Clegg in return for a promise to have the girl properly looked after. Nick, who is going to be hanged for murder anyway, agrees.
  • Exact Words: Having adopted the Scarecrow persona in order to draw the dragoons away from his parishioners who have just been caught smuggling, thus enabling them to escape, Doctor Syn promises Captain Faunce that he will see to it that they will not get caught smuggling again.
  • Gentleman Adventurer: Played straight, which dates the series a little. Syn is an Oxford scholar who somehow turns out to be amazingly skilled at a lot of adventuring stuff.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Somewhat unsurprisingly given when they were written, this crops up from time to time in the novels. In particular, there are quite a few "queer" goings-on, and several instances where characters "ejaculate".
  • The Highwayman: Syn is friendly with local highwayman Jimmie Bone — who is actually as good a horseman as he is. Sometimes, Bone — who is in on the secret of the Scarecrow's identity — impersonates the Scarecrow for the purposes of trickery and helping keep Syn's secret. A notable occurrence of this is in The Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn when the Scarecrow (or rather, Bone dressed as the Scarecrow) turns up at a party that Sir Anthony is hosting for the Prince of Wales, and makes a point of addressing Doctor Syn (who is also in attendance at the party).
  • Historical Domain Character: A few crop up, most notably the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) in The Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn and Robespierre in The Shadow of Doctor Syn. The Archbishop of Canterbury makes an appearance in The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn; going by the time setting, that would be Frederick Cornwallis, although he's only referred to by his position and not his name.
  • Hot for Preacher: Not one but two of Sir Anthony Cobtree's daughters — Charlotte and Cicely — fall in love with Doctor Syn (in Doctor Syn Returns and The Shadow of Doctor Syn respectively). As he's only a couple of years younger than their father (and Charlotte's godfather to boot), the Age-Gap Romance trope is definitely at play, but neither young lady seems particularly fussed by this. Sadly, it doesn't end well for either of them as they both die trying to save Doctor Syn, which contributes to his ongoing Sanity Slippage.
  • How We Got Here: In one of the more epic examples of this trope, Thorndike spends six books telling us how Doctor Syn got to be the man he was in the first book.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Morgan while impersonating Dr. Syn, and Dr. Syn himself at the end of the first/last book.
  • Impossible Task: In The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn, Sir Henry Pembury does not approve of a young officer, Cornet Brackenbury, who is courting his daughter Kate. He declares that he will only give his permission for the couple to wed if Brackenbury can capture the Scarecrow and bring him to Lympne Castle (Sir Henry's home) within a month. Doctor Syn, who witnesses this, perceives that the couple are very much in love and helps them in the only way he can ... by manipulating events to ensure that Brackenbury does capture the Scarecrow, who is indeed taken to Lympne Castle. Naturally, he escapes after Brackenbury's handed him over. Sir Henry is of course furious, but as Doctor Syn points out, Brackenbury did manage to fulfil his side of the bargain; being a man of honour, Sir Henry has no choice but to give the young couple his blessing.
  • Inspector Javert: Captains Collyer and Blain of the Royal Navy are noticeably more ruthless in their pursuit of the Scarecrow than the various dragoon officers, whom they seem to hold in contempt (to the point where Blain, after being informed that he's to be transferred elsewhere, subverts this somewhat by not even bothering to tell Major Faunce that he's worked out that Doctor Syn and the Scarecrow are the same person).
  • Intercontinuity Crossover: The Disney version crossed paths with Captain Jack Sparrow in a Disney Adventures comic story.
  • Ironic Name: The title character — whose surname is "Syn" — is a Church of England priest with a criminal Secret Identity.
  • Jack the Ripoff: Thorndike reused the death-by-cockroach scene from Doctor Syn Returns for his detective story "The Strange Death of Major Scallion" — in which Syn is a historical figure on whose crime the first-person narrator models his own.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: All the books apart from the first (chronologically, the last) one make Syn's triple identity quite clear; so, unless you read in publication order, The Reveal in the first/last book doesn't come as much of a surprise.
  • The Lestrade: Captain/Major Faunce. Both of them note .
  • Loveable Rogue: Most of the smugglers are just fairly likeable rustics aiming to make decent livings for their families, in the face of unreasonably tough law enforcement. Syn himself has charm, but is a bit too dark a figure to really fit the trope, except perhaps in the eyes of one or two other characters. Even Black Nick Tappitt comes across as this in the early part of Doctor Syn on the High Seas before slipping into the antagonist role.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Doctor Syn muddies the waters concerning the parentage or of Imogene and Black Nick's daughter, who is also called Imogene; she grows up believing herself to be the daughter of Captain Clegg and an Incan princess.
  • My Local: Mipps spends much of his time at the Ship Inn, which is used to hide a lot of the contraband brought ashore by the smugglers. The Ship Inn is a real pub in Dymchurch that most likely was frequented by smugglers in the eighteenth century and exists to this day; same goes for the City of London which also gets a few mentions in the books note . Naturally, both modern-day establishments proudly boast of their links with Doctor Syn! Several other pubs are mentioned as well; with the exception of the Staunch Brotherhood in Santiago, they're all real.
  • No Name Given: The Mulatto is only ever referred to as such.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Part of Doctor Syn's kindly parson persona is this; he uses glasses and a clerical wig to make himself look older than he is, and rides a somewhat placid donkey so as not to draw attention to his horsemanship. The extent to which he does this, though, varies from novel to novel, and it doesn't stop some people from (eventually) putting two and two together and linking him with the Scarecrow.
  • Pirate: The series is balanced between the two major views of the trope, in that Syn (as Captain Clegg) and Mipps are anti-heroes at worst, but a lot of the others, including their crews, are a pretty vicious mob.
  • Profane Last Words: We're not told exactly what words Black Nick Tappitt used on the scaffold, but they were certainly profane.
  • Proto-Superhero: Not heroic by The Cape's standard, but an inspiration for some of the spookier supers to come.
  • Psycho Sidekick: He may not go too far too often, but Mipps twice blows up whole ships full of people who know too much about himself and Syn. Later, he becomes involved in smuggling despite his clear promise to Syn, which in turn draws Syn back into a life of crime.
  • Released to Elsewhere: Imogene's son with Doctor Syn (also called Christopher) disappeared mysteriously. The only person who knows what happened is Black Nick Tappitt, who had every reason to hate the boy. His claim is that the boy "ran off with some friendly Indians", but Imogene's suspicion is that this trope is in play.
  • Renaissance Man: Syn just seems to be the best at everything he does, from theology to fencing, horsemanship and criminal gang leadership.
  • Sailor's Ponytail: Even after Mipps has retired from the sea, he still wears his hair in a tarred ponytail.
  • Sanity Slippage: Syn himself suffers from this, as he has to deal with his wife leaving him for a man he thought was his friend in Doctor Syn on the High Seas; his pursuit of them leads to a life of piracy. Subsequently, in both Doctor Syn Returns and The Shadow of Doctor Syn, he witnesses the violent deaths of women who love him.
  • Scarecrow Solution: Syn's scarecrow disguise not only preserves his Secret Identity, it's clearly also a bit scary.
  • Scary Scarecrows: Syn's Secret Identity is also usefully intimidating.
  • Secret Identity: These stories didn't create the trope (the first Scarlet Pimpernel novel preceded the first Doctor Syn novel by ten years), but the main character is a classic example from the days when it was first becoming established in popular fiction.
  • Secret-Keeper: Mipps and Jimmie Bone both know that Doctor Syn and the Scarecrow are the same person; no-one else involved in the smuggling operation does. Various other characters get to know Syn's secret, although most of them fortuitously die soon afterwards. Quite a few of the smugglers have never even met the Scarecrow. In The Further Adventures of Doctor Syn, Slippery Sam has to explain to some of his fellow-smugglers why so few people are aware of who the Scarecrow really is.
    Why, several of the lads down yonder on the Marshes have told me that not even the head gang, the Dymchurch Night-riders, know who or what he is, and so long as no-one don't know — why, no-one can't go turning to King's Evidence against him, see?
  • Sidekick: Syn acquires various sidekicks, but Mipps is the primary, devoted example.
  • Stern Chase: For most of Doctor Syn on the High Seas, Syn is pursuing his wife and the man who ran off with her. He only catches up with them at the end of Doctor Syn Returns.
  • Stripping the Scarecrow: This is how Syn came by his disguise/secret identity. A wanted murderer was on the run, and was suspected of stealing clothes from a nearby scarecrow to change his appearance. Syn, wanting to cause a distraction so he could rescue a group of smugglers who had been ambushed by dragoons, assembled a scarecrow costume of his own and lured the dragoons into chasing after him. Although the original murderer was quickly caught and killed, the Scarecrow had already become a hero to the smugglers.
  • Swashbuckler: The stories have an historical setting and a hero who gets into a lot of sword fights (and always wins). The morality is a little more grey than in some swashbuckling stories, but mostly that's just because of how Syn operates (admittedly shading towards Anti-Hero status by modern standards).
  • Tattooed Crook: Black Nick Tappitt gets a lot of tattoos. On hearing of this, Doctor Syn — at the time operating as a pirate under his Captain Clegg persona — expresses his disapproval of pirates getting tattoos, as such distinguishing features would make the pirate in question more easily identifiable to the authorities. Not long afterwards, he is aghast when he wakes up one morning to find that he now has one, which he insisted on getting while drunk the night before. It's on his forearm and depicts a shark underneath a man walking the plank.
  • Tontine: A key element in The Amazing Quest of Doctor Syn.
  • Truth in Television: Romney Marsh was notorious for smuggling at the time the books are set, and for some decades afterwards — and real-life clergymen were known to be involved with smuggling gangs.
  • Unbuilt Trope: One of the earliest examples of the Scary Scarecrows trope — but unlike many later examples, the scarecrow is a good guy (albeit a ruthless and vengeful one).
  • Venturous Smuggler: Syn, Mipps and their gang of smugglers are well thought of by the locals for the wealth they bring to the Marsh.
  • The Vicar: Subverted. While he is undoubtedly a man of the cloth who is said to be the only priest who can make the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) laugh, Doctor Syn is (secretly) a ruthless criminal.
  • Walk the Plank: At play almost as soon as the first pirate ship, the Sulphur Pit, makes an appearance in Doctor Syn on the High Seas. It's not long before Syn and the pirate captain, Black Satan, have a sword-fight on the plank. Syn's Pirate Song references this trope.
    Oh, here's to the feet that have walked the plank,
    Yo-ho for the dead man's throttle!
    And here's to the corpses afloat in the tank,
    And the dead man's teeth in the bottle!
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Happens a few times when newly-introduced characters are quickly killed off. Abel Clouder (who dies trying to save people from the wreck of the City of London) and Mervin Ransom (the captain of said vessel, who survives the shipwreck and gets washed up on the beach, only to be murdered by a looter) are two examples.
  • Witch Classic: Mother Handaway, an old lady who lives in an isolated cottage on Romney Marsh, fits this trope in appearance at least. This causes most people to avoid her, which works to the advantage of the Scarecrow and Jimmie Bone as they keep their horses at the cunningly-disguised stable on her property — although even she doesn't know of the Scarecrow's true identity; when he first had dealings with her, he told her he was the devil, and she has since had no reason to doubt this.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Towards the end of Doctor Syn Returns (the third book in the series and the second chronologically), a dying Imogene confesses to Doctor Syn that she bore him a son, who she named Christopher, and that he was abandoned in the Americas by Black Nick Tappitt. Syn sends Shuhshuhgah back to the Americas to try and locate the boy, but neither is heard of again.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Although the first (chronologically the last) novel ends with Doctor Syn's death, there are in fact two chapters after that which reveal what happened to the surviving characters. Captain Collyer subsequently died in action fighting against the French, which saved the lives of many of the smugglers as much of what he had found out died with him. Sir Anthony found Doctor Syn's ill-gotten gains from his Captain Clegg days, and kept quiet about it. Denis Cobtree married Imogene. Jerry Jerk did indeed grow up to be a hangman. Mipps, meanwhile, somehow ended up in a Chinese monastery on an island off the Malay peninsula, where he entertained/scared the monks with stories about the many goings-on on Romney Marsh.
    What's he doing there, how did he get there, and how long will he stop there? Who knows!
    Perhaps the ancient fellow has still unfulfilled ambitions and dangerous, profitable enterprises tucked away under that Chinese sleeve. But it is pretty certain that Dymchurch-under-the-Wall will see him no more.
  • Worthy Opponent: Captain/Major Faunce seems to regard the Scarecrow as this.

Alternative Title(s): Doctor Syn, Dr Syn The Scarecrow