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.
4. 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).