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.

Woolly Wordings 2

LANTERN
Before the common use of ‘portable’ electricity or batteries, the law enforcement community used a somewhat compact device known as a dark lantern to illumine a path in the nocturnal hours, and Sherlock Holmes used this clever device on many occasions. Watson mentions it by name in six stories: ‘The Red-Headed League,’ ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band,’ ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,’ ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,’ ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,’ and ‘The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.’ In ‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,’ Watson mentions a pocket lantern. In ‘The Valley of Fear,’ Inspector MacDonald mentions that professor Moriarty used a reflector lantern to help explain an eclipse. The police use a lantern in four other tales, but we can only speculate on the type of lantern employed on those occasions. Also, in six further occurrences, private citizens carried a lantern, but the reader must conjecture on whether these were the bulky kind though sometimes the descriptions lead one to believe they are the larger variety. All of these lamps used some form of liquid fuel directed into a lit wick to operate.

DARK LANTERN
Dark Lantern image from US Handcuffs

POCKET LANTERN
Pocket lantern image from Prices4Antiques

REFLECTOR LANTERN
By Athanasius Kircher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Optic Projection fig 404

BELL-ROPE or BELL-PULL
The bell-rope or bell-pull featured prominently in ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band,’ but you may not know its normal use. The bell-rope was typically a decorative rope attached to a mechanical rope network ending with bells located in the servants’ quarters, which called them to a specific room based upon which bell was ringing. In ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, Sherlock Holmes says, “and to the rope – for so we may call it, since it was clearly never meant for a bell-pull” for it ended at the ceiling! This summoning tool is also mentioned in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ ‘The Naval Treaty,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.’

BELL-PULL
James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Company-Shocked-Gillray

I hope you enjoyed this little adventure into the world of Sherlock Holmes.

NEXT WEEK: Sherlock Holmes’ Drug Use

The Napoleon of Crime

Sherlock Holmes called Professor James Moriarty “the Napoleon of crime” in ‘The Final Problem’ and a “Napoleon-gone-wrong” in ‘The Valley of Fear.’  Here are some interesting facts:

  • Professor Moriarty wrote a treatise on the Binomial Theorem and the book ‘The Dynamics of an Asteroid,’ and he won accolades for both.
  • Professor Moriarty has a brother Colonel Moriarty (also named James) and a younger brother who is a station-master in the West of England.  Exactly how many brothers are there?
  • His chief of the staff is one Colonel Sebastian Moran who Holmes caught upon returning to London in 1894 after his great hiatus.
  • He was created to become the foe who would eventually destroy Holmes and allow Conan Doyle to spend more time on other pursuits, but the reading public would have none of that.
  • The very real Adam Worth was called “the Napoleon of the criminal world” by the very real Scotland Yard detective Robert Anderson (later Sir Robert Anderson), and Worth may have been the model for Moriarty.

NEXT WEEK: More Woolly Wording

Can Sherlock Holmes Read Minds?

Right now, you may be thinking of the episode at the beginning of ‘The Cardboard Box’ (and duplicated in the American versions of ‘The Resident Patient’) where Holmes deduces Watson’s thoughts from the latter’s brown study. Please forgive the pun but I have a case in mind rather than a box. In ‘A Case of Identity’ the greatest mystery comes not from the plot, but how does Holmes know the day of the wedding? Does it strike you as odd that Sherlock Holmes is the first to mention that the wedding is set for Friday? The only prior clue as to the day of the week lies in the fact that a letter was returned on the day of the wedding, so Sunday could be ruled out. Here is the relevant part of the passage from the story:

“Well, and what happened when Mr. Windibank, your stepfather, returned to France?”

“Mr. Hosmer Angel came to the house again, and proposed that we should marry before father came back. He was in dreadful earnest, and made me swear, with my hands on the Testament, that whatever happened I would always be true to him. Mother said he was quite right to make me swear, and that it was a sign of his passion. Mother was all in his favour from the first, and was even fonder of him than I was. Then, when they talked of marrying within the week, I began to ask about father; but they both said never to mind about father, but just to tell him afterwards, and mother said she would make it all right with him. I didn’t quite like that, Mr. Holmes. It seemed funny that I should ask his leave, as he was only a few years older than me; but I didn’t want to do anything on the sly, so I wrote to father at Bordeaux, where the Company has its French offices, but the letter came back to me on the very morning of the wedding.”

“It missed him then?”

“Yes, sir, for he had started to England just before it arrived.”

“Ha! that was unfortunate. Your wedding was arranged, then, for the Friday. Was it to be in church?”

“Yes, sir, but very quietly. It was to be at St. Saviour’s, near King’s Cross, and we were to have breakfast afterwards at the St. Pancras Hotel. Hosmer came for us in a hansom, but as there were two of us, he put us both into it, and stepped himself into a four-wheeler which happened to be the only other cab in the street. We got to the church first, and when the four-wheeler drove up we waited for him to step out, but he never did, and when the cabman got down from the box and looked, there was no one there! The cabman said he could not imagine what had become of him, for he had seen him get in with his own eyes. That was last Friday, Mr. Holmes, and I have never seen or heard anything since then to throw any light upon what became of him.”

“It seems to me that you have been very shamefully treated,” said Holmes.

Perhaps Watson was right when he said to Holmes in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ “You would certainly have been burned had you lived a few centuries ago.” What do you make of it?

NEXT WEEK: The Napoleon of crime.

The Naming of John H. Watson, M.D.

Is it possible to discover Watson’s full name? Ormond Sacker is crossed out and replaced with John H. Watson, M.D. in the original notes for what eventually became part of the title of chapter one of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle{1}, and the only other time the latter name appears in the stories is early in ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge.’ Perhaps, as Dorothy L. Sayers first speculated, the H stands for Hamish – Scottish for James – which would explain why Watson’s wife called him James in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip.’ Could it be a coincidence that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew a man named Dr. James Watson{2}? These three occurrences are the only times the character is called something other than just Watson. No wonder no one seems to know his full name.

The reader finds out early in ‘The Sign of Four’ something about Watson’s family. Both his deceased older brother’s first initial and his deceased father’s first initial are H. Perhaps the following list of names, which appear in the stories, could provide some insight into the three Watson’s name(s) beginning with H:

Francis Hay Moulton in ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’
Henry Ward Beecher in ‘The Cardboard Box’ (whom Watson admired enough to have his portrait on the wall)
John Hector McFarlane ‘The Adventure of the Norwood Builder’
John Hopley Neligan in ‘The Adventure of Black Peter’
Arthur H. Staunton ‘The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter’
James H. Scott in ‘The Valley of Fear’

We may never know Watson’s full name, but it may be just as well because the speculation can continue unhindered. What is your opinion on the matter?

1. Conan Doyle Manuscripts: A Study in Scarlet, compiled by Randall Stock

2. Elementary, my dear brother: The case of the Masonic career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is investigated by Yasha Beresiner

NEXT WEEK: Can Sherlock Holmes read minds?

Obscure Definitions

On several occasions the Sherlock Holmes stories contain words and phrases that may not be familiar to many modern readers, so this is a first attempt to help in identifying some of these. But what shall I call it?

ambiguous argot
blurred banter
confusing chitchat
distant dialect
enigmatic expression
fuzzy turn of phrase
intangible idiom
little known lingo
obscure oration
puzzling parley
rambling rant
shrouded saying
tuned-out terminology
unclear utterance
veiled vernacular
woolly wording

Ulsterovercoat jan1903

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The ulster is mentioned in ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ ‘The Sign of Four,’ ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’ is the closest thing in the stories to the Inverness cape that Sherlock Holmes is so often portrayed as wearing, and he actually donned one when pursuing “Mrs. Sawyer” during the first story in the list, and Holmes and Watson wore ulsters in their evening excursion during the fourth story in the list. The ulster is a long–usually below the knee–overcoat with a cape and sleeves though the cape went out of fashion at some point.

The landau is mentioned in both ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘Silver Blaze.’ In Holmes’ day, it was one type of horse-drawn, four-wheeled, convertible carriage with a full or half side-door and a dropped foot well for ease of entry and exit. The two-part collapsible top rested at front and back then attached in the centre when fully opened.

NEXT WEEK: The naming of John H. Watson, M.D.

Watson’s careless servant girl?

Sherlock Holmes was fond of making brilliant deductions, and his powers seemed almost magical until explained. In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ how did Sherlock Holmes know Watson had a careless servant girl? He explained the careless part, but how did he know she was a she?

Here is the passage in question.

His manner was not effusive. It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me. With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an arm-chair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner. Then he stood before the fire, and looked me over in his singular introspective fashion.

“Wedlock suits you,” he remarked. “I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.”

“Seven,” I answered.

“Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson. And in practice again, I observe. You did not tell me that you intended to go into harness.”

“Then, how do you know?”

“I see it, I deduce it. How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?”

“My dear Holmes,” said I, “this is too much. You would certainly have been burned had you lived a few centuries ago. It is true that I had a country walk on Thursday and came home in a dreadful mess; but, as I have changed my clothes, I can’t imagine how you deduce it. As to Mary Jane, she is incorrigible, and my wife has given her notice; but there again I fail to see how you work it out.”

He chuckled to himself and rubbed his long nervous hands together.

“It is simplicity itself,” said he; “my eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by some one who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavey. As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the side of his top hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull indeed if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession.”

NEXT WEEK: Irené Adler, villain or victim?

Elementary, does it speak for itself?

Today — the 158th birthday of Sherlock Holmes (fictional character for those who were wondering) — seemed the perfect day to launch my blog.

The word ‘elementary’ appears in the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exactly eight times while ‘my dear Watson’ occurs more than a hundred times, but they never appear together.  People tend to look for the pithy when trying to communicate the complex, and the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” suits that goal perfectly. It captures Holmes’ attitude rather than his actual words; a further point, Holmes is lost without his Boswell, or Watson, so the word ‘elementary’ alone does not embody the character.  I managed to locate a smattering of the phrase in various publications long before the 1929 film ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’ starring Clive Brook that is often purported to introduce the phrase to the public, so I hope to shed much light on the question: Where did the phrase originate from?

The first occurrence of the word in the Sherlock Holmes stories comes in the very first, ‘A Study in Scarlet’ — initially published in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual — recorded by Watson from a magazine article titled, rather presumptuously, ‘The Book of Life’ that, we find out later, was written by Sherlock Holmes.  “Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.”  In the September 1891 Strand Magazine, the word occurs for a second time in the fifth story ‘A Case of Identity.’  After recapping his minor deductions from the appearance of Miss Mary Sutherland, Holmes states dismissively, “All this is amusing, though rather elementary, but I must go back to business, Watson.”  The word next emerges in the twenty-second story titled ‘The Crooked Man’ first published in the July 1893 Strand Magazine.  In perhaps the occurrence most closely capturing the attitude of the phrase, Holmes deduces Watson’s busy schedule by observing the state of his boots.  ‘”Excellent!” I cried.  “Elementary,” said he.’  A mere five months later Watson announces that no more stories of his friend’s adventures will be forthcoming.

My speculation (for I never guess) is that the phrase arose as one of those topics that boiled over while a long-suffering public languished for the return of Sherlock Holmes.  That return may never have taken place had Conan Doyle not reconsidered in 1901 while visiting Dartmoor with his friend Fletcher Bertram Robinson who shared with him the local legends of a hell-hound.  The phrase may have come of the fascination that the public must have harboured for the mysterious character of Sherlock Holmes and his penchant for the grotesque and complex little problems that came his way.  The actor William Gillette — co-author of the play Sherlock Holmes — is often credited with giving the phrase its birth in the very late 1800’s.  Though there are no surviving scripts containing the phrase, he certainly may be one of those who started the ball rolling.  The earliest occasion of the phrase found in my research comes twice in the London Municipal year book and public services directory for 1898 on pages xcii (92) and 352.

The word elementary does not materialise again in the Conan Doyle stories until it appears twice in the twenty-seventh Holmes story the serialised novel ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ with the parts first published in The Strand Magazine for August and September 1901.  In referring to Watson’s deductions and his own examination of the absent-minded Dr. Mortimer’s walking stick, Holmes states in chapter 1, “‘Interesting, though elementary,’ said he, as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee.”  And again in chapter 4 whilst explaining his special hobby of identifying newspaper print, “The detection of types is one of the most elementary branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime, though I confess that once when I was very young I confused the Leeds Mercury with the Western Morning News.”  Not until the forty-first Holmes story ‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’ first published in August of 1908 did the word reappear. Even so, Holmes only uses it to describe the book on botany he allegedly is using to pass the time in the Surrey countryside.  The phrase occurs once again in chapter 19 of the P. G. Wodehouse novel called Psmith, Journalist, which was first serialised in ‘The Captain’ magazine from October 1909 thru February 1910, and subsequently published in 1915 as a book.

In the forty-sixth Holmes story, ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’ published in the last month of 1911, Holmes again used the word when he deduces Watson’s actions from observing his boots. More specifically he speaks of the elementary classes of deduction when describing their newness and peculiar double bowed tying.

We next find a minor flurry of publications using the phrase starting in 1913.

1913 Everybody’s Magazine, volume 28, page 577.

1913 University of Wisconsin’s Proceedings of the First National Newspaper Conference, Volume 1, page 146.

1916 Modern Hospital, volume 7, page 74.

1919 The Weekly review, volume 1, page 92.

1922 ‘The Secret Adversary’ by Agatha Christie, chapter 17.

The eighth and final time Holmes uses the word elementary comes in the fifty-sixth Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’ penned by Holmes himself and not published until October 1926.  Holmes writes the word to describe the case presented by his client, Mr. James M. Dodd.

I am certain more occurrences of the phrase might surface with a proper search of the Internet and other sources, but, for now, these are all the clay we have. Holmes does say “Exactly, my dear Watson,” in three different tales though the first of those does not appear in The Strand Magazine until August 1904. Perhaps Conan Doyle was trying to divert attention from the phrase. If that is the case, the plan apparently failed. So the next time someone tries to advance the fallacy of the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson,” you can now present them the facts just like Sherlock Holmes.

Happy birthday, Sherlock Holmes!

NEXT WEEK: Watson’s servant girl? in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia.’