Sherlock Holmes and Tobacco, Or Sherlock Holmes’ Drug Use, Part 2

Much has been shown and written in the last hundred years and more to cloud the facts about what the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tell of Sherlock Holmes, and one of the most miscarried topics is that of his various uses of tobacco and most particularly his pipe(s). The Sherlock Holmes of the stories had a pipe-rack to hold all his pipes in ‘A Case of Identity’ and ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ while in ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’ he had a litter of pipes on the mantelpiece. In ‘The Red-Headed League’, ‘A Case of Identity’, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, not by name though most likely ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,’ ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’, ‘The Valley of Fear,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man’ Holmes smoked an old, unsavoury, and oily black clay pipe, which was “to him as a counsellor” and “companion of his deepest meditations.” In ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’ it was a “long cherrywood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood.” In ‘The Sign of Four’, ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’ Holmes smoked an amber-stemmed, briar-root pipe. The curve-stemmed pipe made famous by William Gillette (on stage) and Frederic Dorr Steele (in Collier’s Magazine) among others known as the Calabash or Meerschaum pipe is never mentioned in the stories nor is it drawn by Sidney Paget or any other in the Strand Magazine.

Calabash pipe by Frotz at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Sherlock Holmes with straight-stemmed pipe by Sidney Paget (1860-1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Other forms of tobacco use are herein summarised. As it is told by Watson, Holmes rarely smoked cigars, but he was in the regular habit of offering them to others. On only three occasions (in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House,’ ‘The Adventure of the Gold Pince-Nez,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’) is it recorded that Holmes actually enjoyed a cigar, but we may presume that Holmes often joined in when he did offer cigars to others. Those times when cigars are smoked is generally during a relaxed conversation either in the course of or at the conclusion of an investigation. In nine stories, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ ‘A Case of Identity,’ ‘The Final Problem,’ ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles,’ ‘The Adventure of the Empty House,’ ‘The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,’ ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,’ ‘The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective,’ usually in the middle of an investigation, the reader is told that Holmes smoked a cigarette. Several other occasions find Holmes smoking though the medium holding the tobacco is not described.

Of course, these various forms of tobacco must have been kept close at hand to be retrieved when needed. In ‘A Case of Identity’ Holmes offers Watson snuff from a fancy box given by the King of Bohemia though a pinch is never mentioned passing either of their lips. From ‘The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb,’ Holmes often smoked a “before-breakfast pipe, which was composed of all the plugs and dottles left from his smokes of the day before, all carefully dried and collected on the corner of the mantelpiece.” The mantelpiece was also where he kept his tobacco in the toe-end of a Persian slipper next the jack-knife transfixing his unanswered correspondence. His cigars were kept in the coal-scuttle, which is something like a pail typically for holding coal for a coal-fired stove. In ‘The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone’ these facts become a bit jumbled. For travelling purposes, Holmes carried a case of either cigars or cigarettes in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery,’ ‘Silver Blaze,’ ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,’ ‘The Final Problem’ (though in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ he described it as a box), and ‘The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.’

Coal-scuttle by Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the clues that helped Holmes involved tobacco. In ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes deduced Watson had found his hiding place because he saw Watson’s Oxford Street brand of cigarette stub where he had thrown it outside before entering the hut. In ‘The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,’ he found it necessary to use the cigarettes of his client because he was smoking ‘with extraordinary rapidity’ for reasons set forth in the plot. It is also important to keep in mind the filter placed in the mouth end of the cigarette in use today was not commonplace in those days, and in ‘The Red Circle’ Holmes deduces an important clue from the shortness of a cigarette butt. Holmes often finds clues from remnants left behind: the type of ash, whether the cigar end was cut or bitten off, and the sharpness of the knife used, whether or not a holder was employed. Lest we forget, in ‘The Sign of Four’ and again in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery,’ Holmes mentions that he penned a monograph titled “Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos.” In which he enumerates a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash.

These instances, when detailed, seem more often occurred than is depicted in today’s politically correct world. Many others, including Watson, enjoyed tobacco throughout the stories, but these are the bare essentials involving Sherlock Holmes.

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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.