05 May 2015
One of the unexpected pleasures of researching the Sherlockian pastiches for the 223B Casebook is learning more about the authors. Not just by becoming more familiar with authors who were popular in their time — that’s a post for another day — but the amateur authors whose lives were no less important to the culture as a whole, but who left a mark nonetheless.
In some cases, the pleasure is akin to voyeurism. A combination of the Internet and access to databases have allowed nosy researchers to dig up, recover, unearth, resurrect lives that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Yesterday, for example, a story from a New England boarding school opened a window into a family’s history. Not just history; this is social history, a look into a world of moderate wealth (certainly compared to today), high aspirations, a community of boys who grew up and into the lives that carried a whiff of destiny with them.
“Sherlock Holmes at Groton” was published in 1903 in the school’s monthly newspaper “The Grotonian” (which was printed like a small magazine). It’s surprisingly grim for its time and place: a student is found dead, presumed a suicide, and Holmes investigates.
But what was more interesting was identifying the author, known only as “H.M.W.” Fortunately, The Grotonian published the student roster at the beginning of each year. It’s a small school. Only 26 boys in the senior class. With six grades, that’s less than 200 students in all. For many, this was their tribe.Month by month, the magazine charted the changes in the school year with the regularity of the seasons: accounts of football games in the first half of the school year balanced by baseball games in the second; a kind review of the school play, the visits from alumni and brief accounts of where they went and what they’re doing (lots of mentions of Harvard and Yale here, as well as engagement and marriage announcements). The school news briefs announced the members of the Missionary Society, the arrival of new masters, who has left the school and who is studying abroad.
As for “H.M.W.,” the author of “Sherlock Holmes at Groton,” the only candidate on the student list that fit the initials was a chap named Woolsey. The initials stand for “Heathcote Muirson,” which explains why he went with “H.W.” the rest of his life. The Grotonian issues on Google Books made it possible to see the course of his career. Senior prefect. Captain of the football team. He acted in the School Play, a British farce from 1859 called “Our Domestics,” promoted to amateur dramatics as “An irresistibly facetious exposition of high life below stairs, and of the way in which servants treat employers during their absence.” Our H.M. Woolsey acquitted himself in his servant role “with a great deal of dry wit and carried off the part with considerable ability and intelligence.”
Woolsey also makes an amusing appearance in someone’s Christmas poem, published in “Groton School Verses”:
“Oh, have you heard the style of thing
That wily Woolsey wears?
How his binomial biceps are
Encased from winter airs?
I know that Linzee Woolsey is
A kind of fuzzy stuff,
But for the cruel winter term
‘T is surely not enough.
Oh, yes, his shapely person,
From collar down to toes,
From heels to head, is swathed in red
In fact, he makes several appearances.
Members of the class of 1907 of Yale are out for a new college record. When they receive their diplomas next Wednesday they intend to have more men engaged to be married than any class has ever before boasted. They have also voted to offer an expensive cup to the member who first reports the birth of a son. Returns of engagements are coming in fast. H. M. Woolsey, the class secretary, footed up the totals to-night, and said that seventeen had been received. This is within two of the record held by the class of ’76. Samuel F.B. Morse, the football captain last fall, will probably be the first bridegroom. He will be married Saturday, in Staatsburg, N. J., to Miss Anne Thompson, of Virginia, Edgar Munson, of the law school, to-day gave his bachelor dinner.
This tells you something about the times and Washington Post’s readership.
After Yale, the Grotonian reported, Woolsey went on a trip around the world with a friend, which in 1907 must have been quite an adventure. Then it’s on to Columbia, where he studied architecture, then more studies at the Beaux-Arts school in Paris. Oh, he didn’t help Yale set the engagement record, but he did marry Dorothy Bacon in 1909.
Once Google Books hits the copyright wall at 1923, the trail stops except for one hiccup. H.M. kept his initials professionally, so his self-designed home in Rye, N.Y., appears in an ad for Creo-Dipt Stained Shingles.
Further searches brought up hints of Woolsey’s career that others thought worthy of recording. The Kent, Conn., public library building, which stands today. His house in Rye seems to have been sold to someone named Yale Stevens, and was profiled in American Architecture magazine. There’s news about his wife (who wrote for Harper’s and The New Republic), children and grandchildren. Accomplishments and tragedies. By this time, it crossed the line into voyeurism; I had more than enough to write the introduction, so I stopped.
There’s one more item I wanted to mention. In 1942, Woolsey registered with the Selective Service. It was called the “Old Man’s Draft,” because it was required for men 45 to 64, to see if their work skills could be called on for the war effort. He was 58.
He lived for three score and three years, dying in 1957. His headstone is beautiful.
The only thing I would have liked to have found was a photo of him to use in the book. But he left behind a name, his descendants, and buildings that have stood for nearly a century and will probably hang around for another, and now he’ll be connected in an unexpected and small way to Sherlock Holmes. That’s a pretty good legacy.