A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Did Sherlock Holmes really exist?

April 8, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

An eccentric friend of mine claims to have read a book called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution about a meeting of two monumental figures in their respective fields: Sigmund Freud the famous psychologist, and Sherlock Holmes the British detective. The title referred to Holmes' alleged cocaine addiction, which he asked Freud to help him conquer. I was highly skeptical. Why would someone write a book mixing two outstanding and contrasting personalities for the sole reason of having them discuss cocaine?

My friend also claims that this encounter is based on a true story, which I doubted as well. I was previously led to believe that Sherlock Holmes was a fictitious character, possibly based on another real-life detective, but not an actual person. Internet research turned up numerous articles from both sides of the real/fictional argument, as well as several articles about clues to Holmes' coke addiction. But if I can't count on the Straight Dope to sift through the various arguments and emerge with the truth (or at least a plausible facsimile), on whom can I count?

So, the Web seems to turn up evidence on both sides of the real/fiction argument, eh? A fine lesson in being careful about accepting information because it's "on the Internet." But this isn't the usual case of mistaking the ravings of online lunatics for fact. You've been taken in by a great game.

I'm going to break your question in two parts: (1) Who was Sherlock Holmes? and (2) What's with his cocaine addiction? Note: For any readers who are devoted Sherlockians, and who know that Sherlock was real, please skip ahead to Part 2. I wouldn't want you to be upset by any heresy that I might utter in Part 1.

Part 1. Was Sherlock real or fictional? Why are the websites confusing on this issue?

Sherlock Holmes is fictional. Let's get that straight once and for all. The book you mention, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer (1974), is also fictional.

If you've not read Sherlock Holmes in a long time, or have never had the pleasure, I heartily recommend him. I draw your attention to The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould (1967), which contains all the stories with ample footnotes (to explain terms no longer commonly known to us, among other things). I have used that work extensively in writing this Staff Report.

Sherlock Holmes was the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). Doyle was an M.D., and not unsuccessful, but he preferred writing, and eventually abandoned his medical career. He had sold a few short stories when, in 1886, he decided to write a detective story.

Detective stories were in their infancy. Edgar Allen Poe had created what was arguably the first fictional detective, Auguste Dupin, more than 40 years earlier. Robert Louis Stevenson and others had used detective characters and the mystery story format. Most are now forgotten. It was the immense popularity of Doyle's Holmes that unleashed the flood of mystery and detection stories that has persisted to this day.

Late in 1887, the brilliant but eccentric detective Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in a 200-page novel called A Study in Scarlet. Doyle was paid £25 (about $125 at the then-current exchange rate). The second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, appeared in February 1890.

Then quickly followed a brand new (in England) idea: a series of short stories based on one central character. The first of the series of twelve Holmes stories was "A Scandal in Bohemia," published in the July 1891 issue of The Strand magazine.

Holmes was immensely popular from the first. The public demanded more stories. By 1892, Doyle received £1,000 ($5,000) for a series of dozen Sherlock Holmes short stories in "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes."

The financial success and popularity were pleasant, but Doyle began to feel that all his energies were devoted to writing Holmes stories, diverting him from writing serious fiction. At the conclusion of another series of twelve stories, Doyle decided to kill Sherlock Holmes. In "The Final Problem," published in December 1893 but set in 1891, Holmes encountered Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime, in a mutually fatal showdown at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.

There was a huge public outcry--Doyle received letters from readers who wept and from men who went to work wearing black mourning bands; one letter began, "You brute!"

For the next eight years, Doyle devoted himself to his serious writings. But in 1901 he had an idea for a novel that needed a detective. Rather than invent a new character, he decided to use Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, set before Holmes perished in Switzerland. It was a tremendous success and remains among the most popular of the Holmes stories today, with a new film or TV version every few years.

In 1903, Doyle surrendered to the public demand for more Holmes stories. He resurrected Holmes in "The Empty House," set in 1894, with an explanation of how Holmes hadn't really plunged off the waterfall after all.

Doyle continued to write Holmes stories through 1927. He died three years later. All in all, Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories (the latter collected into five volumes) about his fictional detective.

Doyle's other writings include The Lost World, about an expedition that discovers a hidden dinosaur enclave, which has been made into many motion pictures beginning with a silent special-effects extravaganza in 1921 and a new television production earlier this year. But his serious writings, such as The White Company, are largely forgotten. His works and name live on because of Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes was extremely popular not just in England and the U.S. but throughout Europe and Latin America. My wife's grandmother told me that, as a teenager in Poland before WWI, she eagerly awaited the appearance of each Sherlock Holmes story. A century later Holmes remains as popular as ever.

Even in the early days, Doyle received letters from readers who believed Sherlock Holmes was real and wanted to hire him. It is a tribute to Doyle's writing that he could create such a believable hero.

The original books are still best sellers and have been translated into more than fifty languages. Every year brings new Sherlock Holmes movies, TV shows, or board games. He appears in parodies and pastiches, in television ads, and in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The current (2003) Jackie Chan movie Shanghai Knights includes an homage to Holmes. The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats (1993) declares Sherlock Holmes the fictional character with the most film appearances, with over 200 as of 1993.

Parodies of Holmes have been written by people such as James M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan--this one was particularly admired by Doyle himself. Burlesques have been written by the likes of Mark Twain (not a very good one, alas), Bret Harte, and O. Henry. Doyle himself wrote two parodies. There is even a Martian counterpart to Holmes, written by the science fiction giant, Poul Anderson.

In London, the rooms that Holmes and Watson shared together at 221B Baker Street are now a museum. The rooms are pure fiction, of course. Although there is a Baker Street in London, there was no 221B; it was an address Doyle made up. But tourists had been searching Baker Street for so many years, trying to find the "actual house," that the street numbers were changed so that the museum could be established. The museum reproduces the rooms shared by Watson and Holmes as described in Doyle's stories. Every item of furniture or bric-a-brac mentioned in the stories can be found in the museum rooms, from the dark-lanterns to the Turkish slipper on the mantel filled with shag tobacco. For more information, see www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk/home.htm

Was Holmes based on another real-life detective, you ask? The answer is emphatically not. Doyle himself said that his inspiration was a former teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, but Bell said that Holmes was a creation of Doyle's own gifts and training. Holmes scholars unanimously agree that the only resemblance between Bell and Holmes was Bell's remarkable power of deductive reasoning. In other respects Holmes is a completely original creation.

OK, so Doyle wrote these wonderful and immensely popular stories about a (fictional) detective. Most of the tales are narrated in the first person by Holmes's equally fictitious friend and companion, Dr. John H. Watson. While today's writers strive for consistency in their series characters, Doyle was always willing to ignore consistency or even facts for the sake of a good story. He wrote: "It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and I have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter if I hold my readers?"

From those inaccuracies and inconsistencies, amazingly enough, a whole new literary discipline sprouted. As early as January, 1902, an "open letter" to Dr Watson [!!] was published in the Cambridge Review, criticizing the dates mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles. That same year, Arthur Maurice wrote an editorial comment, "Some Inconsistencies of Sherlock Holmes." The ball really got rolling in 1911, when Father (later Monsignor) Ronald Knox read a paper at Trinity College, Oxford, and created a highly specialized and possibly unique form of literary criticism. 

Let's call it the Game. The point is to pretend that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real, that Watson wrote the stories reporting actual events, and that Conan Doyle was merely Watson's literary agent. Essentially, one applies Holmes's own methods to analyzing the stories, trying to explain the inconsistencies, fill the gaps, and identify the other characters and events.

To aficionados, the original stories are "the Canon" and "the Sacred Writings." There are volumes of writings about the Writings.

Dorothy L. Sayers, herself known for writing the Peter Wimsey mysteries, set forth the rules of the Game. "It must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord's; the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere."

There are journals that publish research and speculations and articles, all under the assumption that Holmes and Watson really existed. Societies of Sherlockiana have sprung up, the most famous being the Baker Street Irregulars (named after the gang of street urchins that Holmes employed for reconnaissance). There are biographies of Holmes. Authors have written "newly discovered" adventures of Holmes and Watson, including Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution--perhaps the most famous of all Holmesian pastiches, of which more later.

One of the more wonderful ideas is found in a science fiction story by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire entitled "The Return," about an isolated community which had maintained a thriving society for two centuries after an atomic war. The heart of the community was the Sacred Books, which told of the eternal conflict between Holmes and Moriarty and tutored them in the use of deductive reasoning.

Many authors bring Holmes into contact with real-life contemporary people, such as Sigmund Freud or Oscar Wilde or Jack the Ripper or Harry Flashman, or even with fictional characters such as Tarzan, the Loch Ness monster, or Dracula.

That's why, when you do a Web search, you find many, many sites that are dedicated to the Game--to the assumption that these fictional characters were real. I suppose it can be confusing if you don't know what's afoot.

OK, having answered your first question, for the rest of this Staff Report we're going to enter into that world and pretend that Holmes and Watson were real, and that Watson wrote the stories based on their actual exploits.

Part 2. The Game's afoot: What's with Holmes and his cocaine addiction?

The heart of Sherlockiana arises from the inconsistencies in the stories themselves. Perhaps Watson was sometimes just a sloppy author, but sometimes he deliberately tried to conceal identities. From these inconsistencies and evasions has sprung a great body of literature: research, speculation, and whimsy. Christopher Morley wrote, "What other body of modern literature is esteemed as much for its errors as its felicities?"

What kinds of errors or inconsistencies are we talking about? For example, Watson said that "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge" occurred in 1892--but in 1892 Holmes was believed to be dead at the bottom of Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.

How could such an inconsistency or error arise?

  • Perhaps Watson's bad handwriting caused editing errors (this is an excuse Cecil Himself uses from time to time), and the printer got the date wrong.
  • Watson's memory was often faulty. In "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," Watson professes to have no recollection of an adventure that he shared with Holmes. So we have internal evidence that Watson may have misremembered the date.
  • Watson seems to have had a complete disregard for the calendar. This happens time and again in the Writings. As another example, in "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist," Watson writes, "On referring to my notebook for the year 1895, I find that it was upon Saturday, April 23, that we first heard of Miss Violet Smith." The plot hinges upon the correctness of that recollection, because Miss Smith came into town every Saturday. But April 23, 1895 was a Tuesday.
  • Then there's Watson's "Victorian discretion and delicacy." Watson would deliberately conceal a name, a place, a date, or the exact nature of an event, to protect the innocent or to avert scandal. So perhaps he misdated "Wisteria Lodge" to hide the true events and spare the family embarrassment.

One further fact: Watson leaves us tantalizing references to cases that he never published, such as the Giant Rat of Sumatra or Wilson, the notorious canary trainer. The ground here is ripe for speculation, from the mundane to the outrageous.

Baring-Gould comments, "Half the fun in reading and rereading the Saga is that of catching [Watson] out as generations of his admirers have been discovering" for a century.

I said this lead to research, deduction, speculation and whimsy; let me provide an example of each.

RESEARCH

In "A Case of Identity," Holmes mentions he is doing some chemical experiments with "bisulphate of baryta." A sulphate (or sulfate) is a salt or ester of sulfuric acid, and "baryta" or barite is barium sulfate occurring as a mineral, but what is barium bisulfate? There is controversy, with some authorities saying here is no such thing and that Watson has misremembered. Other authorities conclude that barium hydrogen sulfate or hexasulphide of barium might have been called "bisulphate of baryta." Professional chemists who are also Sherlockians have leapt into debate.

Or, again from "A Case of Identity," Holmes remarks that "a single lady can get on very nicely upon an [annual] income of about sixty pounds." This has led to considerable investigation into the cost of living in London. Similarly there has been enormous research into the train schedules and the streets of London, trying to find locales mentioned in the Canon.

DEDUCTION

Sherlockians often apply Holmes's own reasoning and deductive techniques when trying to date an adventure.

Sticking with "A Case of Identity," we learn that Mr. Hosmer Angel disappeared "last Friday," "the 14th." So we look for a month, between March 1881 (when Holmes and Watson met) and September 1891 (when the case was published), when Friday was the 14th. The possibilities are October 1881, September 1883, October 1887, and September 1888. Baring-Gould eliminates 1881, 1883, and 1888 because Holmes was engaged on another case on the relevant days, and concludes that the disappearance was Friday, October 14, 1887. Next, Watson mentions that he opened the morning paper, so the date was not a Sunday; thus the case must have begun the next Monday through Thursday. The description of clothing implies mild weather, so he looks for two sequential warm clear days between Monday, October 17 and Thursday, October 20, 1887. Baring-Gould thus concludes that the case occurred Tuesday and Wednesday, October 18 and 19, 1887.

Other chronologies derive other dates for the story. We cite the reasoning as an example of the type of deduction, supported by research, employed in Holmesian analysis.

Your reaction might be: These people need a life. But you'd be missing the point. If that's your attitude, stop reading and go back to baseball statistics or Civil War trivia or whatever.

SPECULATION AND WHIMSY

Watson's inconsistencies have invited conjectures ranging from the logical and reasonable to the completely wacky.  For example, his name is clearly John H. Watson except once when his wife called him "James." Dorothy Sayers speculated that the middle initial "H" must stand for "Hamish," the Scottish form of James--a neat resolution of the inconsistency. Others, of course, make other suggestions, ranging from two Watson brothers (John and James) to a prior love affair on Mrs. Watson's part and an unfortunate lapse. (Baring-Gould notes that "Conan Doyle named Watson for his friend James Watson, [so] the slip of the pen is understandable.")

Other subjects of continuing speculation include: Who were the Baskervilles and where is their hall? Did Holmes attend Oxford or Cambridge? What did Holmes do during the three years that Watson thought him dead?

Finally we reach your question: How was Holmes cured of his cocaine addiction?

In the late 1800s, there was neither popular prejudice nor laws against drugs as there are today. Laudanum and cocaine, among others, were readily available. Watson suspects but dismisses the idea of cocaine use by Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, his first published work. By The Sign of Four, Watson reports that when Holmes was bored and his mind not challenged, he took cocaine in a "seven-per-cent solution." This was not a heavy dose, but it was clearly enough to be habit-forming. Again in "The Yellow Face," Watson says that Holmes had no vices, "save for the occasional use of cocaine."

Michael Harrison notes, "that Holmes had a serious addiction, all Watson's descriptions of Holmes nervous activity makes clear: the restlessness, the ability to work for days without adequate sleep, and even without rest at all; the abrupt changes of mood; and the equally abrupt collapse into a somnolence not far (if at all) removed from a torpor bordering on coma: these are the unmistakable evidence of heavy and prolonged indulgence in some powerful narcotic.""

And yet, after Holmes's encounter with Moriarty and supposed death at Reichenbach Falls, he never again uses cocaine. Or at least Watson doesn't mention it.

And so the question: how did he break the habit?

In 1974, Nicholas Meyer published The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The forward describes how he found an unpublished, unedited manuscript of John H. Watson. The book jacket, in fact, says "Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. as edited by Nicholas Meyer."

I shan't give away too much of the plot. Watson tricks Holmes into visiting Sigmund Freud and submitting himself to treatment. Freud cures him of the cocaine habit, and of a few paranoid cocaine-induced delusions along the way. This all happened (according to Meyer, according to Watson) during the period when Holmes was believed dead, 1891-1893. Watson simply invented the stories of Holmes' death and return to cover the fact that Holmes was in seclusion for medical treatment.

Holmes reciprocates, helping Dr. Freud solve a mystery regarding one of his patients. So Meyer's book is more than two great personalities getting together to "talk about cocaine"--it's a mystery story.

Many authorities, of course, doubt the authenticity of Meyer's manuscript, and proclaim it pure fiction.

Does that answer your question?

I'd like to conclude with another question: why does Sherlock Holmes endure?

Obviously, part of the answer is that Doyle--or Watson if you prefer--was a marvelous story-teller. The tales today have lost none of their charm or intrigue.

But there's more to it than that. From the introduction to the first volume (1998) of The Sherlock Holmes Reference Library: "The Sherlock Holmes stories fascinate. They transport readers of all ages, nationalities, and cultures into a world of their own. They challenge our imaginations."

In the 1940s Edgar W. Smith wrote, "We love the times in which he lived, of course, the half-remembered, half-forgotten times of snug Victorian illusion, of gaslit comfort and contentment, of perfect dignity and grace. And we love the place: the England of those times, fat with the fruits of her achievements, but strong and daring still with the spirit of imperial adventure. But there is more than time and space and the yearning of things gone by to account for what we feel toward Sherlock Holmes. Not only there and then, but here and now, he stands as a symbol, if you please, of all that we are not, but ever would be. We see him as the fine expression of our urge to trample evil and to set aright the wrongs with which the world is plagued. He is Galahad and Socrates, bringing high adventure to our dull existences and calm, judicial logic to our biased minds."

Vincent Starrett wrote of Holmes and Watson:

they still live for all that love them well:
in a romantic chamber of the heart:
in a nostalgic country of the mind:
where it is always 1895.

RESOURCES:

Baring-Gould, William S.; The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc, New York, 1967.

Harrison, Michael, In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, Cassel & Co. Ltd, London, 1958

Klinger, Leslie S. (editor), The Sherlock Holmes Reference Library, Gasogene Books, Indianapolis, currently being published in separate volumes, beginning in 1998

Starrett, Vincent, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (revised), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1960

and, of course, the Canon:

A Study in Scarlet
The Sign of Four
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
The Hound of the Baskervilles
The Return of Sherlock Holmes
His Last Bow
The Valley of Fear
The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes

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