Sherlock Holmes’ Drug Use

The Sherlock Holmes stories are replete with references to drug use by the famous literary detective.  An important fact to note is that cocaine, morphine, and opium were legal in Victorian England, and it is possible Conan Doyle was using the character of Sherlock Holmes to protest against the use of these drugs.

Near the beginning of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (circa 1881) before Watson and Holmes really knew each other Watson writes the following:

___“Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.  On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.”

‘The Sign of Four’ begins this way:

___Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.  With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff.  For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks.  Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

___Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it.  On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.  Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject; but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty.  His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.

___Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with my lunch, or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation of his manner, I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.

___‘Which is it today,’ I asked, ‘morphine or cocaine?’

___He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.

___‘It is cocaine,’ he said, ‘a seven-per-cent. solution.  Would you care to try it?’

___‘No, indeed,’ I answered, brusquely.  ‘My constitution has not got over the Afghan campaign yet.  I cannot afford to throw any extra strain upon it.’

___He smiled at my vehemence.  ‘Perhaps you are right, Watson,’ he said.  ‘I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one.  I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.’

___‘But consider!’ I said, earnestly.  ‘Count the cost!  Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process, which involves increased tissue-change, and may at last leave a permanent weakness.  You know, too, what a black reaction comes upon you.  Surely the game is hardly worth the candle.  Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed?  Remember that I speak not only as one comrade to another, but as a medical man to one for whose constitution he is to some extent answerable.’

___He did not seem offended.  On the contrary, he put his finger-tips together, and leaned his elbows on the arms of his chair, like one who has a relish for conversation.

___‘My mind,’ he said, ‘rebels at stagnation.  Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere.  I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.  But I abhor the dull routine of existence.  I crave for mental exaltation.  That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.’

Towards the end of Chapter 1, we find this passage:

___‘In this case it certainly is so,’ I replied, after a little thought.  ‘The thing, however, is, as you say, of the simplest.  Would you think me impertinent if I were to put your theories to a more severe test?’

___‘On the contrary,’ he answered; ‘it would prevent me from taking a second dose of cocaine.  I should be delighted to look into any problem which you might submit to me.’

___‘It is as clear as daylight,’ I answered.  ‘I regret the injustice which I did you.  I should have had more faith in your marvellous faculty.  May I ask whether you have any professional inquiry on foot at present?’

___‘None.  Hence the cocaine.  I cannot live without brain-work.  What else is there to live for?’

The last paragraph of the story is: “ ‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle.’  And he stretched his long, white hand up for it.”

In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ we find: “. . . alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.” and “He had risen out of his drug-created dreams, and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.”

And again: “To me, who knew his every mood and habit, his attitude and manner told their own story.  He was at work again.  He had risen out of his drug-created dreams, and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.”

In ‘The Five Orange Pips’ Watson, erroneously, states he had included cocaine use in his written analysis of Holmes in ‘A Study in Scarlet.’

In ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ Holmes says: “I suppose, Watson,” said he, “that you imagine that I have added opium-smoking to cocaine injections and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views.”  It is fairly clear that Holmes is not using any stimulant at this time; however, his language indicates his use continued.

In ‘The Yellow Face’ Watson writes: “Save for the occasional use of cocaine he had no vices, and he only turned to the drug as a protest against the monotony of existence when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting.”

By the time of ‘The Missing Three-Quarter’, which most scholars agree took place in 1897, Watson writes the following: “Things had indeed been very slow with us, and I had learned to dread such periods of inaction, for I knew by experience that my companion’s brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work.  For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career.  Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus; but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping; and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness I have seen the drawn look upon Holmes’ ascetic face, and the brooding of his deep-set and inscrutable eyes.  Therefore I blessed this Mr. Overton, whoever he might be, since he had come with his enigmatic message to break that dangerous calm which brought more peril to my friend than all the storms of his tempestuous life.”

A telling of the drug use of Sherlock Holmes would not be complete without reference to an incident in ‘The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.’  Sir Leslie Oakshott, the famous surgeon, told Watson “Morphine has been injected [into Holmes] and quiet is essential, but an interview of a few minutes would not be absolutely forbidden.”  This was after Holmes was injured while fighting.

The reader is left to conclude from all of this that addiction was a very real possibility though, again, cocaine, morphine, and opium were legal drugs at that time.

NEXT WEEK: The text over the fire.

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