Ten More Facts about Sherlock Holmes

What connects Sherlock Holmes, W. G. Grace, Peter Pan, and the Mary Celeste? Our previous collection of Sherlock Holmes facts proved so popular when we posted it back in May that we decided to write a sequel. This seems especially timely since the hit BBC TV series Sherlock will be returning for a third series in a few weeks. So here we are: ten more facts about Sherlock Holmes and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

1. The original name of Dr Watson was Ormond Sacker. In the early drafts for plot outlines, Doyle has Holmes’s friend and sidekick named ‘Ormond Sacker’ rather than the altogether more common and humdrum John Watson. Doyle must have realised that Watson’s everyman status was better served by a more down-to-earth and usual name, and altered it. Which brings us to our second fact …

2. Dr Watson’s first name was John – except for one story. In ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, one of the early adventures, Watson’s wife Mary refers to her husband as ‘James’. Dorothy L. Sayers, another distinguished crime writer, speculated that this was in reference to ‘Hamish’, which may be what the ‘H.’ of ‘John H. Watson’ is for (Doyle never reveals what the name in fact stands for, and indeed Watson’s first name is only mentioned three times in the 60 novels and stories).

3. Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, once bowled out cricketing legend W. G. Grace. Conan Doyle played ten matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club or MCC, and although it wasn’t exactly a distinguished cricketing career, its highlight was undoubtedly the match in which Doyle managed to take a first-class wicket – the batsman being none other than W. G. Grace.

Holmes14. The first parody of Sherlock Holmes was written by the creator of Peter Pan. J. M. Barrie – whom we’ve discussed in an earlier blog post – wrote a pastiche of Holmes in 1893, some ten years before he created the boy who would not grow up. What’s odd about Barrie’s parody, titled ‘The Late Sherlock Holmes’, is that it shows the police investigating the death of Holmes (they believe that Watson has killed him for money). Barrie’s story was published in the St James Gazette in December 1893, the same month as Doyle’s ‘The Final Problem’ – in which Holmes is seemingly killed at the Reichenbach Falls – appeared in The Strand. Since Barrie and Doyle were close friends, critics have speculated that Barrie had told Doyle of his plans to kill off Holmes, and this accounts for the coincidence.

5. Dr Watson narrated all of the Sherlock Holmes stories? Not exactly. He narrates nearly all of them, but not quite all – four of the stories are not narrated by Watson. Of these four, two are told in the third person, and two, ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’ and ‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’, are actually told by Holmes himself.

6. Conan Doyle wrote other stories featuring Sherlock Holmes which aren’t part of the ‘canon’. These include ‘The Field Bazaar’ (1896) and ‘How Watson Learned the Trick’ (1924). ‘The Field Bazaar’ was written after Doyle had ‘killed off’ Holmes but before he brought the detective back in ‘The Empty House’; Doyle received a letter from his alma mater, Edinburgh University, requesting a short story for a fundraising event, and Doyle duly obliged by writing this brief pastiche. ‘How Watson Learned the Trick’ was written for Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, which saw numerous authors writing very short stories inside a miniature book (other writers who contributed included J. M. Barrie and Rudyard Kipling).

7. The Mark Haddon bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, took its title from a Sherlock Holmes story. The phrase appears in ‘Silver Blaze’, one of the most popular Holmes stories. Inspector Gregory asks Holmes, ‘Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’ Holmes replies: ‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’ Gregory: ‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’ Holmes: ‘That was the curious incident.’ Although Doyle’s story is about a missing racehorse, Haddon’s is – as the title suggests – about a missing dog.

8. Much of the popular image of Holmes was the result of William Gillette. Gillette, an American actor, portrayed Holmes in over 1,300 stage performances and in a 1916 film (now sadly lost). He wore the deerstalker cap on stage – thus helping further to cement the notion, begun largely with the illustrations, that Holmes frequently wore the hat – and was responsible for popularising the image of Holmes smoking the curved briar pipe. As a result, people tend to picture Holmes smoking a curved pipe instead of the straight ones he smoked in the stories and illustrations. Gillette reportedly opted for a curved pipe as it allowed him to recite his lines more easily, although it is more likely that he used a curved pipe because it was easier for the audience to see his face.

9. Before he created Sherlock Holmes, Doyle helped to create the modern mystery surrounding the Mary Celeste. Before he had conceived and written the first Sherlock Holmes novel, Doyle was already writing other mysteries – which drew on real life. In 1884, Doyle wrote a short story, ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’, which was published anonymously in the Cornhill magazine, about the Mary Celeste, the British-American merchant ship which was discovered abandoned in the Atlantic in 1872. Although Doyle built his story around solid fact, he embellished here and there – and many newspapers subsequently took this fictional ‘statement’ as fact. The misspelling of the boat’s name as ‘Marie Céleste’ is also down to Doyle.

10. The very first film adaptation to feature Holmes, Sherlock Holmes Baffled, was made in 1900. This short film is just 30 seconds in duration and can be seen here:

The skit is a send-up of Holmes, since the film uses then pioneering special effects to show the criminal eluding Holmes’s detection. Nobody knows the identity of the actor who played Holmes.

Image: Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget, public domain (Wikimedia Commons).

76 thoughts on “Ten More Facts about Sherlock Holmes”

  1. While the similarity in appearance between Holmes and William of Baskerville, the hero of Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ is well known – Eco copies almost word for word Doyle’s description of Holmes: ‘His eyes were sharp and piercing, … and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination’ – something I noticed only recently is that the same description would serve very well for Dante Alighieri, the celebrated Florentine poet (a point I discuss here: http://wp.me/p1Sq73-k9) Could Doyle have had Dante in mind, I wonder?

  2. Fascinating post. I was a real Holmes addict as a child, read everything I could about him! One fact (that is quite well known) is that Sidney Paget who, it could be argued, set the tone for the look of Holmes with the illustrations in The Strand Magazine, was not the intended artist. it was meant for his brother Walter but a mix up with the names meant the job was offered to Sidney. I believe Conan Doyle would have rather acheived literary acknowledgement for his historical novels and was somewhat disappointed that The Detective was his most poplar work. The thing that fascinates me with him is his later interest in spiritualism that meant he had contact with the likes of Houdini and the R101 airship disaster with such people has Harry Price and Eileen Garrett.

      • In reference to fact four: there were a few other parodies of a slightly later date, notably “The Stolen Cigar Case” by Francis Brett Harte, published in the December 1900 issue of Pearson’s. Harte’s detective was Hemlock Jones. Ellery Queen described it in “Queen’s Quorum” as “probably the best parody of Shelock Holmes ever written”. Having read it, I would say it is amusing without being that amazing. Queen also edited an anthology of parodies entitled “The misadventures of Shelock Holmes” (1944). Other names used by authors include Shamrock Jones, Thinlock Bones, Sherlock Combs and Picklock Holmes. (source; The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, vol II, Castle Books 1979).

    • You certainly should give them a go in 2014 – especially the short stories! They can be read easily in one sitting, are very readable, and are addictive once you get started. And if you’re a fan of the BBC Sherlock you’ll have fun spotting all of the modern-original crossovers!

  3. It wasn’t an actor in the film. It was a janitor from the film studio who was chosen because he resembled Conan Doyle’s description of the great detective. Check out David Stuart Davies book “Starring Sherlock Holmes”. I’m pretty sure it has the gentleman’s name.

  4. Loved all these facts, some of them I knew, some I did not.
    I want to thank you for letting me know that you liked my most recent post, “River Congo-Excerpt 24” on writingiam.wordpress.com.
    I shall be following you to learn more interesting facts. – Thanks again and Aloha – pjs.

  5. That was great! I just love Sherlock Holmes. LOL, I had a fun time comparing the old film clip to the fantastic BBC One Sherlock (of which I’m a HUGE fan, BTW).

    Thank you for that! Do more Sherlock Holmes articles, please. :)


  6. I didn’t know about the parody! Thank you, also, there are Sherlock non-canon stories written by Conan Doyle’s son. I also remember reading a little book with mystery tales, where one of them featured Sherlock without mentioning his name directly.

  7. Wow! That was quite a run to get to the bottom of the comments. Very active commentators. My husband is an avid disciple of Sherlock Holmes, in all of his manifestations, including owning every Sherlock Holmes DVD series available. He especially likes Jeremy Brett’s series. With this post you filled some knowledge voids that he did not know he had. Very interesting and informative. Thank you for your interest in Sherlock Holmes and your generosity with the remainder of his fans. Also, thank you very much for following my blog. Although it addresses a completely different subject, I approach it with the same intensity you seem to display for your subjects as well.

  8. I love reading Sherlock Holmes’ stories and try to solve them along with him. This weekend was the first time I saw parts of the television show. I was disappointed in the depiction with Dr. Watson being replaced by a woman sidekick. I wanted to see it as the stories were portrayed. You have an interesting blog and thanks for the follow.

  9. I’m hooked. Love Sherlock Holmes and I can see there’s a lot more on your blog I want to read. Hope to become more involved in the future, perhaps with a guest post. Thank you for following Zen Crunch. I am now following you.

  10. In the original version of Peter Pan, Peter Pan was actually a murderer, who killed children and took them to “Neverland,” where they could never grow up because they were dead.
    Great article and great facts!


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