Sherlock Holmes and Certain Critics

conan doyle spiritualism

Click on the cover to learn more about the book!

Conan Doyle’s Spiritualism left him open to attacks by skeptics, humorists, and church officials. Light magazine, which published his articles on the subject, also supported him with this parody that appeared in the Nov. 2, 1918, issue.

Its author, Ellis G. Roberts (1859-1947), was an unusual defender. The Oxford-educated Welsh clergyman had served in several parishes, including a stint as a missionary in India, before retiring to Devon, where in the 1930s, he became an outspoken supporter of British fascist Oswald Mosley (1896-1980).

Finally, this story was found in My Evening with Sherlock Holmes, a collection published by a small press in 1981 by noted Sherlockians John Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green. Gibson and Green were the first to bring to light a number of Sherlockian parodies and pastiches, and I’m thrilled to follow in their oversized footsteps. Many of the references in this story to mediums were coded, and it took some doing just to dredge these up. I hope someone else can come along and fill in the rest.

Sherlock Holmes and Certain Critics

Ellis G. Roberts

Part 1 – The Happy Family

Sherlock Holmes looked up in abstracted fashion as I entered the room. Two slight gestures directed me in succession to his cigar-box, and to an armchair by the fire. I sat down and watched him curiously. His desk was crowded with slips of paper, and he was glancing from one to another with an air of profound attention. Before him lay an open volume to which he referred from time to time. I recognised it at a glance. It was my own magnum opus, my “Disclosures in re Desmond.”

He closed the book at length, and took the armchair on the opposite side of the hearth.

“Come up for judgment, I fancy, Watson,” he remarked. “Why this long absence? I have seen nothing of you since your debut as an authority on the occult.”

“I have been extremely busy. My correspondence alone has been overwhelming.”

“It is the penalty of greatness. You have been winning golden opinions from all kinds of people. The lion and the lamb, if I may say so, have blended their voices in singing anthems to your praise. I observe among these cuttings an enthusiastic encomium from the Archbishop of Wroxeter, and a glowing eulogy from Mr. Frederick Turfey, the champion of Rationalism. Sir Roland has certainly succeeded in dividing his friends and uniting his foes. His Grace is a prelate of the mediaeval school, Mr. Turfey is one of the noisiest opponents of Christianity, and you yourself were, I fancy, Churchwarden to the famous Protestant, Canon Arbuster.”

“Vicar’s Warden for fourteen years,” I replied with dignity.

“This new-made alliance, I perceive, is of the most cordial nature. Mr. Turfey, for instance, calls Sir Roland to account for lowering the ‘lofty conceptions of a future state’ which have been the solace of humanity. Now as conceptions of a future state form no part of Mr. Turfey’s own philosophy, he is evidently pleading for those of the Archbishop and others against whom he has been warring for fifty years. This is indeed a token of grace. And in return the Archbishop extols the ‘robust common-sense of the veteran thinker’ whom hitherto he has regarded as a rank blasphemer. By the way, Watson, what makes His Grace suspect Mr. Turfey of being a thinker?”

“Surely, Holmes, you must be aware of his literary reputation?”

“I have derived much harmless merriment of late, my dear doctor, from applying a little logical analysis to the productions of the gentlemen who, on the strength of a literary reputation, have kindly volunteered their services to the world as Dictators of Public Opinion. It is a slight variation of the role in which I have so often benefited by your assistance. Shall we imagine ourselves back in Baker-street with some simple problem before us?”

“By all means,” I replied.

“Then, what do you make of the sentence I have underlined?”

“It is certainly a rather flamboyant piece of rhetoric.”

“Excellent, Watson, that is the very first point to observe. It is rhetoric, not logic, though the author elsewhere assures us that the verdict must be given to those who apply the principles of Scientific Research. It is as much out of place in a serious argument as a comic song would be if interpolated into the Pons Asinorum. Now what do you deduce as to the writer?”

I had recently been glancing through my records of Holmes’ achievements, and fell in the humour for an experiment. “On the face of it,” I ventured to suggest, “the author appears to be an Irishman.”

“Not bad,” he replied. “You are impressed by the seeming bull which forms the climax. But dullness may often produce the same effect as flightiness of imagination. The author may equally well be a Teuton. Anything more?”

“He is plebeian in tastes and sympathies. ‘His manners have not that repose’…”

“You are coruscating, Watson, positively coruscating. I shall have to look to my laurels. And the next characteristic?”

But I was not inclined to mar the effect I had already produced. “I shall leave you to continue, Holmes,” I replied.

“You have left me but little to supply. Additional points are the intolerance, the amusing air of moral superiority and lofty indignation, the offence against humour, and a certain oratorical roll in the arrangement of the sentence. Dullness, pomposity, and a certain facility in turning out sonorous and empty phrases. These are our data. The problem is to classify the author—to find him a place in some category of intellectual, or non-intellectual beings. I will find you a twin-specimen at once. Come, doctor, I shall try an interesting psychological experiment. Sit back in your chair, look as wise as you can, and think of nothing at all.”

I assumed a comfortable attitude, and allowed my thoughts to drift. It was a drowsy evening, and I seemed gently wafted away to the somnolent atmosphere of St Simeon-the-less. I was back in the old Parish Hall—I was taking the chair on the familiar platform, and a well-known voice rolled on my ear:—

“All, all is nauseating, frivolous, mischievous, spurious drivel.” And a thump on the table made me spring almost out of my seat.

“Great heavens!” I exclaimed, “that is old Arbuster rolling up a Rationalist.”

My friend’s great powers as actor and mimic had never been more admirably displayed. It was Arbuster to the life.

Holmes chuckled and rubbed his hands. “Right, Mr. Church-warden,” he replied. “We have secured our twin-specimens, and we shall place the two in their proper category. Arbuster and Turfey are brothers in intellect, however far they may be sundered in belief. Neither of the two are thinkers at all. They are, on the contrary, past masters of frothy eloquence and cheap rhetoric, and such powers as they display cannot possibly be combined with the well-balanced mind of the thinker. Turfey and Arbuster are neither more nor less than glorified tub-thumpers.

“Canon Arbuster,” I replied, recovering myself, “may not be a genius, but he is actuated by a sense of duty. He is deeply impressed with the moral evils he detects in Spiritualism.”

“He had better look first to his own house, Watson,” replied my friend. “There are others. You remember the matter which we investigated for the Dean and Chapter of Southminster?”

I nodded gravely. The case is one on which neither of us cares to dwell.

“Now shall we examine your own contribution to the controversy?”

“I shall be delighted to consider any points you may bring forward.”

“This is a two-pipe problem,” he remarked, as he glanced over his notes, and he burrowed in the toe of the Persian slipper.

“Good gracious, Holmes, whatever are you smoking?” I gasped as the first whiff of the mephitic vapour assailed my nostrils.

“Plutonic mixture,” he responded complacently, “a basis of shag flavoured with an essence of my own compounding. Would you care to try it?”

“No, indeed,” I answered brusquely, “my constitution has not got over the gas I swallowed on the Somme.”

He smiled at my vehemence. “I may have slightly overdone the percentage of cacodyl,” he observed. “I prepared this packet when examining Dr. Le Mesurier’s ‘Anti-blast to Desmond’. I declare to you, Watson, that the insolence of these camp-followers of Science towards one of its greatest captains, together with the fusty odour of the rag-and-bone merchandise they foist on their customers, produces in me a moral and intellectual nausea. I find the Plutonic mixture an excellent counter-agent. The tantalus is beside you, Watson.”

He had been arranging some notes as he spoke, and now laid them down on the book-rest at his side.

“There is just one point,” he remarked, “on which I wish to concentrate my mind before pronouncing judgment. Meanwhile you may find food for thought in another direction. If you will turn to the fifth page of this admirable little publication you will find there my matured Opinion on a problem which has gravely exercised the most powerful intellects of an invaluable section of the community. There is no department of our national life in which the refinement of applied ethics are better appreciated than they are by the devotees of the Prize Ring. I beg that you will now remain silent for exactly seventeen minutes and a quarter.”

He threw me the current number of “Boxing,” coiled his long legs into his chair, and gazed steadily into space, while I, somewhat unsuccessfully, endeavoured to fix my attention on “The Moral Aspects of the Kidney Punch.”

Part 2 – “Disclosures in re Desmond”

Punctually to the moment Sherlock Holmes laid down his pipe, and his voice broke through the canopy of smoke.

“You have your merits, doctor,” he said, “most decidedly you have your merits. You are refreshingly free from rancour, and you submit an alternative hypothesis for criticism. You do not assume that telepathy is the master-key to all mysteries, and you do not babble of the unconscious mind as is the wont of many who show no sign that they possess a conscious one. For once admit the existence of telepathy and unconscious mind, and the noisiest of the opponents of Spiritualism will soon be out of the fray. He may still come up to the scratch for a round or two, but the other man has the fight in hand.

“Now for your own hypothesis, which certainly merits due consideration with regard to a considerable part of the field of enquiry. You suggest the existence of a Secret Society or Guild for the promotion of Spiritualism. By means of a widespread system of espionage it has amassed an enormous store of information which is at the disposal of its agents. This they employ, as occasion arises, with remarkable tactfulness and skill. At the head of such a Society there must obviously be some leader of pre-eminent ability. For the sake of distinctiveness we shall give him the name of our old acquaintance, Professor Moriarty. Am I right so far?”

“That is a very fair outline of my idea.”

“It is,” said Holmes, pensively, “the counterpart of another and a very popular interpretation of the facts much favoured by His Grace of Wroxeter. Do you follow me?”

“No,” I replied, “I imagined that my theory was quite original.”

“For Moriarty substitute Satan, and for human agents substitute diabolical ones, and the two hypotheses are identical. And as such they have a fault, and a very grave fault, in common. Cannot you see it?”

I had to confess my inability.

“The total absence of any adequate motive. What has Satan to gain by subverting Materialism? Or, to come to commonplace matters, what do you suppose to be the object of Professor Moriarty?”

“To make money, I presume.”

Holmes smiled indulgently. “Have you ever tried to calculate the working expenses of such a league? An eminent authority on finance has reckoned them at about £200 a day. Your guild would be operating for an indefinite period at a dead loss. It must already have expended several millions of capital, and the profits are nil. You must find some other motive for the existence of this extraordinary guild. Motive, Watson, motive is one of the first things to look for in an investigation. Human beings do not moil and toil without a motive. This is a commonplace even with Gregson and Lestrade.”

My countenance must have exhibited some of the disappointment I felt, for I had reckoned on his approbation, and the warm sunshine of approval in which I had basked for many weeks had ill fitted me to endure such a cold douche of criticism. With his wonted quickness Holmes sensed the feelings which I did not express. “But I bore you, doctor,” he remarked suavely, “let us discontinue the discussion. Let me play you—” and he spoke rather eagerly “—just a little trifle of my own composition. The motif came to me when I was sitting out the last air-raid. It is, I fear, caviar to the general, but I have found you an appreciative listener. Shall we abandon logic for the violin?”

But Holmes’ improvisations are sometimes as formidable as his tobacco. “My greatest pleasure has always been the study of your analytical methods,” I replied diplomatically.

“Oh, by all means, if you really prefer the criticism,” said Holmes, rather grimly. “Then how came you to imagine such monstrosities as your mediums? It is all very well for His Grace and Mr. Turfey, who are out of all touch with humanity, to wage war against creatures of their own imagination, but our common adventures should have taught you something of human nature. Where is the flesh and blood beneath the buckram of your adversaries, Watson?”

“Sorry, Holmes, but I am quite unable to comprehend your indictment.”

“Apparently you fail to see the glaring contradictions involved in your account of the delinquents. As individuals—to quote your description—they are ‘neurotic, hysterical, of a low type of intellect, and the victims of inordinate personal vanity.’ Yet in combination they make up an exceedingly formidable Society which has kept its very existence a secret for more than fifty years, and is extending its influence every day. A league composed of such persons as you describe would not hold together for six months.

“And not only so,” he went on, “but you combine the most contradictory qualities in the same individual. Far from being of a low type of intellect they must, according to your hypothesis, possess mental and moral capacity quite above the average. Their memories for trifling details must be encyclopedic, and they must be able to apply their ill-gotten knowledge at a moment’s notice in exactly the right quarter. Their loyalty to the Common cause must be of the highest order. Why has this league never been betrayed by one of the victims of inordinate personal vanity? Clearly, Watson, its members must be individuals of quite exceptional character as well as superlative ability.”

“But Holmes,” I broke in, “just think of the nonsense they chatter. Think of that whisky and soda incident, the silly names of what they call their ‘Controls’, and the broken English they talk.”

Holmes smiled his masterly smile. “The same old Watson,” he remarked indulgently. “You have been at considerable pains to select precisely the items which are most irreconcilable with the theory you advocate. Still, you have hit on some significant facts though as yet you have not perceived their import. Concentrate on the bizarre and outré if you wish to get at the solution of a problem. The details you mention are proof almost positive that the persons who supply them are not, at any rate, conscious and deliberate imposters.”

“Really, Holmes,” I replied in my most dignified tones, “you impose an excessive strain on my credulity.”

“The voice,” he replied, “is the voice of Watson, but the language is the language of Turfey. We’ll stick to English if you don’t mind, doctor. Can you imagine any conceivable reason why clever imposters should chatter of whiskies and sodas in heavenly places, or declare themselves inspired by Greyfeather or Red Jacket? Come now, doctor, what was the effect of this kind of chatter upon yourself?”

“I was absolutely disgusted.”

“Exactly so, and the fact that you would be disgusted could have been foreseen by the veriest dullard in creation. Such details were totally irreconcilable with your cherished conceptions of a future state. Now, conceptions of a future state, as Mr. Turfey touchingly pleads, should be respected by everyone except Mr. Turfey himself. Yet these clever imposters, who are anxious to conciliate you, and have taken your mental and moral measurements to a hair, deliberately wound your most sacred feelings, and drive you in disgust from their doors. Now, Watson, honestly, can you find any motive for such conduct?”

“No,” I replied, after a considerable pause, “I cannot imagine why Spiritualists should invent anything so repugnant to the feelings of decent people.”

“It is certainly not the way to conciliate public opinion and work up a paying practice. Now let us think what Moriarty would actually do if he were dictating to his agents the revelations they were to retail to their customers.”

“I presume,” I responded thoughtfully, “that he would provide the customers with something to suit their tastes.”

“Bravo, Watson,” cried Holmes encouragingly, “of course he would. Now you are applying your sturdy commonsense to the study of a commonsense problem and we shall soon gain a step in advance. It is perfectly easy to imagine what Moriarty would do. A few hours pleasantly spent over Hymns Ancient and Modern and the compilation of Messrs. Moody and Sankey would furnish him with his theological basis, to which would be added some mystical and scientific jargon which he could readily supply. With this material he would prime his emissaries, who would of course vary their communications slightly to suit individual tastes. But there would be a general uniformity, and most decidedly anything calculated to give offence would be carefully avoided. Do you follow me?”

“Yes,” I replied, “that certainly seems a commonsense way of getting to business.”

“Precisely so,” he answered, “and if we apply our own commonsense we shall find our difficulties vanish one by one. We must be true to commonsense and human nature. Orthodox and free-thinker have combined to confuse a perfectly simple issue by appeals to sentiment and prejudice, and the use of pseudoscientific and sonorous jargon. They have involved the whole subject in an artificial fog in which human nature vanishes altogether. Have you noticed the attitude of the critics towards the experiments now being conducted by a prominent member of an Irish university?”

“No,” I replied, “that is a matter outside the province I had selected.”

“I have often told you, Watson, that you are the beau-ideal of the British jury-man. Light up another cigar, and I will lay before you the strange case of Miss Golightly.”

Part 3 – The Strange Case of Miss Golightly

Holmes went to his bureau, and returned with a small volume, a photograph, and a little bundle of cuttings.

“This little volume,” he began, “is the work of Professor Cranford, D.Sc. As Mr. Turfey’s polemical zeal has led him to cast suspicion on the bona fides of what he calls the diploma of this gentleman I have taken the trouble to verify it. He is a graduate of one British university and a member of the teaching staff of another. The volume contains some 240 pages, and is the record of eighty-three experiments conducted during a period of about two years by its author. The results obtained are entirely of a non-sensational order, consisting chiefly of the ‘levitation’ of an ordinary table. At the same time it is perfectly obvious that either some hitherto unrecognised force is being manifested in the operations, or that some person concerned is guilty of gross and deliberate fraud. There is no room whatever for amiable compromises. The only alternatives are Reality or Fraud. The persons who might be suspected of fraud are the Professor himself, Miss Golightly, and some one or more of the remaining six individuals who form the circle. As it is admitted that the most important factor in the production of the phenomena is Miss Golightly, obviously it is at her in the first instance that any suspicion of fraud should be directed.”

“Has any definite accusation of the kind been brought forward?” I enquired.

“No,” replied Holmes, “the critics as a rule fight shy of the case. Their tactics are prudent, for they are ill equipped for combat with a cool-headed scientist like Professor Cranford. Mr. Turfey, however, has ventured on a characteristic reference to the matter. He considers that the fact of the experiments being preceded by devotional exercises renders the experimenters fit objects for suspicion.”

“In other words,” I remarked, “he alleges as answer to a scientific treatise of 240 pages the fact that a young lady says her prayers.”

“Smart, Watson, very smart. Your innate chivalry is a wonderful stimulus to your intellect. But you are always an admirer of the sex, and an excellent judge of their character. What do you make of this photograph of Miss Golightly?”

I took up the photo, and studied it attentively. “It is a prepossessing face,” I replied; “the features are good, and there is much intellect and spirituality.”

“Are the intellect and spirituality unduly developed?” he asked.

“No,” said I, “I think not; not unduly so. I should imagine her to be quite a natural, healthy-minded girl.”

“Very good, then let us examine the hypothesis of fraud in the light of our knowledge of human nature. Accepting Mr. Turfey’s theory we are compelled to suppose that this healthy-minded girl, who is barely twenty years of age, has for more than two years devoted her leisure to a stupid routine of monotonous deception. Hour after hour, week after week she has sat in a dull, dark attic deliberately fooling a staid professor of mathematics. She is so skilful a conjuror that her tricks cannot be detected by expert engineers, yet she confines herself to so stupid a repertoire that it is a wonder the whole circle does not go to sleep. What on earth is her motive, Watson? Why doesn’t she go on the stage and turn her ability to profit? She gets no remuneration for her services, and from the money point of view is simply wasting valuable accomplishments. Is there any purpose behind this foolery, doctor? Or would Mr. Turfey have us believe that it is merely Irish humour manifesting itself in a somewhat ponderous form?”

“Hardly that, I fancy, Holmes. The joke is decidedly elaborate, and the humour must be rather stale by this time. Still, if I must suggest something—people have done very strange things merely to gratify their self-importance. She may desire the reputation of a wonder-worker even if it brings her no material gain.”

“You think, then, that she may consider the position of a psychical prima donna without salary worth the very tedious drudgery it involves, to say nothing of the moral repulsiveness of systematic deceit?”

“I do not think so, but it is a suggestion that might be made.”

“Well, it is certainly a possibility to be considered. But we have to take into account not only the prima donna but the chorus. Six other persons are concerned in these experiments, and their presence is necessary to ensure success. If she is a fraud, then it is inconceivable that she had no accomplice in the circle. How does she persuade the others to aid her in performing miracles for which they gain no credit? The position of a prima donna may be enviable, but there is no great distinction in being member of a chorus.”

“I give it up: the suggestion is none of mine.”

“Then, I presume you find for the defendant?”

“Certainly; the prosecution is frivolous and vexatious, and I should like to give heavy damages against the prosecutor. If Mr. Turfey has any evidence against Miss Golightly, he should produce it, and stand to his guns like a man, instead of proceeding by innuendo.”

“Ah, you are asking too much, my dear Watson. Mr. Turfey’s manoevres are certainly not manly; they are on the contrary what the ladies call cattish; but what would you have? So enlightened a moralist is not to be bound by the scruples of the barbarian or the bruiser. Literary combatants do not fight under Queensbury rules.”

“What are you chuckling at, Holmes?” I enquired curiously, for he had picked up another cutting from the pile, and was perusing it with audible enjoyment.

“I have just come across the passage in which our excellent Rationalist bewails the supposed degradation by Sir Roland of ‘Man’s lofty conceptions of a future state’. There is something infinitely amusing about appeals ad misericordiam coming from such a quarter. The now-converted iconoclast has been, all his life, acting with infinite gusto as Lord High Executioner to the cherished beliefs of others, but now that his own turn has come to be ‘worked off,’ he squeals in the most undignified manner. I am reminded of the euthanasia of Mr. Dennis as depicted in the closing chapters of Barnaby Rudge. You recall the incident?”

“See the hangman when it comes home to himself?’” I quoted. “But I had no idea, Holmes, that you were so staunch a champion of spiritualism.”

“I am not a champion of Spiritualism,” he quietly answered.

“So why are you so hot against its critics?”

“Not quite right yet, Watson. I have nothing but welcome for such criticism as your own. It serves to define issues, and to bring out the truth. Such opposition as that of Le Mesurier and Turfey is a different thing altogether.”

A flush of unwonted emotion came over his face; he arose and took a few steps up and down the room. Then looking steadily at me he went on in quiet deliberate tones.

“When you and I were young men, Watson, we devoted much time and energy to hunting down offenders against the law of our country. We received no material reward for our trouble. But we were warring for the good of society. The world is a little cleaner and better to-day because of our efforts. We are, I believe, well satisfied? We might have been wealthier men had we worked together for some selfish object. But we have no regrets on that score, I fancy?”

I looked across the room into the stern, strong face of my veteran comrade. One other face alone is so deeply engraved on my mind. Then, “Count me in once more, old man,” I replied. There was a pause. Then he resumed—

“If I had another lifetime before me in this world I should devote it to warfare against transgressors of the laws of thought. There are offences of incalculable moment which no existing statutes can touch. Had I my way, doctor, I should punish with far greater severity the man who, through ignorance or carelessness, disseminates false opinion among his fellows than his brother-criminal who contents himself with uttering base half-crowns. The currency of thought is a far more sacred thing than the currency of commerce.”

“Rather an Utopian idea, surely, Holmes,” I remarked.

“Possibly so, but it has commended itself to some of the keenest thinkers that the world has ever seen. I owe the germ of the thought to W.K. Clifford. And it may not be as Utopian as you imagine. The world has had a very severe lesson. It has seen the slow gains of the ages all but swept away through the knavery and folly of the mandarins who have constituted themselves controllers of public opinion. It may learn not to suffer knaves and fools so gladly as it has done hitherto. It may yet teach editors and orators that there is such a thing as responsibility.”

“Perhaps so,” I said, “but I do not quite see how this bears on the subject of our discussion. I admit the soundness of the principle in social and political affairs, but surely we are now dealing with the abstract and emotional rather than the practical.”

“My dear man,” he replied impatiently, “this is the most practical matter that the world has ever had to consider. Nearly all the troubles of our generation arise from the fact that mankind is still in doubt on the most serious problem that has ever come before it.”

“And what is that?” I asked.

“Whether what is called the supernatural is to be taken into serious account in the conduct of life. If there is no future state, or even if the evidence for it is negligible, then the supernatural had better be ignored altogether. Man must accept the situation, and constitute himself a law to himself as best he may. ‘Invisible kings’ who have no other kingdom than the sphere of our present existence are outside the question altogether. But mankind has been for some time halting between two opinions, and it cannot afford to do so much longer. It is in a state of unstable equilibrium, and soon it must move in one direction or the other. The one thing essential is to find out the truth. It is intolerable that knaves and fools should, purely for their own selfish ends, confuse the issue on which so much depends.”

He picked up from the table a copy of the Sunday Chimes, and sat down wearily in his arm-chair. “Ah, well,” he groaned, “in the meanwhile the knaves and fools aforesaid are having the time of their lives. Never was there such a market for rags and bones.” Spreading out the sheet before him he growled a series of comments on the correspondence column. “A sarcastic denunciation of Sir Roland House and his brother-simpletons by Miss May Tinkler. She is author of ‘Afternoon Tea’ and of certain lucubrations on Fantasticism. The latter are funny without being vulgar. A. Common Kipper, Esquire, writes from the Asinorium Club that all this so-called Research is blasphemous, and in addition is entirely unnecessary. The whole arcana of the Universe were explained to his complete satisfaction in a little book which he perused in his childhood. The volume is unfortunately out of print. Dr Le Mesurier announces that he devoted the whole of last Thursday to an exhaustive study of Occultism. He brought to the subject an entirely fresh and unbiassed mind of exceptional caliber, and is now prepared to practise as a consulting Mahatma. Ah, here is Turfey again, what is it now? He has dragged to light a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the eldest of the appropriately names Foxes at the early age of thirteen months. The Foxes are as dead as Queen Anne, but the very graves are not safe from a Turfey in search of a subject. Really that fellow is the Jerry Cruncher of journalism. You may talk of his literary reputation, doctor, as much as you like and I shall not contradict you. But mentally and morally he is just a successful dealer in old clo’, with a branch business as resurrection-man. Faugh, Watson, faugh! Help yourself to some more whisky. I must have a little restorative before I tackle my supper.”

And he re-filled his pipe with the Platonic mixture.


[Return] Pons Asinorum: Latin for “bridge of donkeys,” applied to the theorem in geometry that the angles opposite the equal sides of an isosceles triangle (that is, a triangle in which two of the three sides are of equal length) are themselves equal. It’s called this because the diagram that proves the statement looks vaguely like a bridge, and that those who can’t understand the theorem have the proportional intelligence of a donkey. The phrase is also applied to any problem that tests the intelligence of the solver.

[Return] Teuton: Germany, a nationality with a reputation for humorlessness.

[Return] Have no that repose: From “Lady Clara Vere de Vere” by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), in which the unnamed narrator tells the flirtatious noblewoman that he refuses to love her. He recalls a previous lover of hers, now dead, and how his mother tried to warn him off:

She spake some certain truths of you.
Indeed I heard one bitter word
That scarce is fit for you to hear;
Her manners had not that repose
Which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere.

[Return] Coruscating: Brilliant or stylishly showy. Sparkling.

[Return] Spurious drivel: The quote is from a 1917 article, “The Undiscovered Country,” in The Strand by Edward Clodd that was written in response to Conan Doyle’s “The New Revelation.” Clodd (1840-1930) was an agnostic banker, writer, and anthropologist who objected to an incident in Conan Doyle’s article about his friend, the eminent scientist Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940). In the days after his son, Raymond, died in the trenches, Lodge and his wife received messages from him through a medium, Mrs. Osborne Leonard. Clodd writes:

“From the enormous mass of communications purporting to come from discamate spirits, not an ennobling nor high-toned message can be extracted; all, all is nauseating, frivolous, mischievous, spurious drivel. Through his control, (the spirit of) a little Indian girl Feda, (the spirit of) Raymond Lodge tells his father that the houses in the Beyond are made ‘from sort of emanations from the earth’; that his white robe is ‘made from decayed worsted on your side’; that he has his ‘little doggie’ with him; that cigars made ‘out of essences and ethers and gases’ are provided for smokers, and ‘whisky-sodas’ for drinkers! Faugh!”

[Return] Tub-thumpers: A street corner person or a ranting, ignorant preacher, especially when applied to a dissenting minister (that is, not a member of the Church of England). Assumed to originate from the way they would thump their lectern to emphasize their points.

[Return] Mephitic vapour: Foul-smelling, noxious.

[Return] Cacodyl: A poisonous liquid derived from arsenic that smells of garlic. Inhaling it caused tingling in the extremities, giddiness, and insensibility. It was considered for use as a poison gas during WWI but never used.

[Return] Dr. Le Mesurier’s: Probably a reference to Col. Lemesurier Taylor, who with Miss A. Goodrich-Freer, investigated in 1897 reported hauntings at Ballechin House in Perthshire, Scotland. A variety of guests were invited to stay there for three months, and some reported phantasms and mysterious sounds and voices. However, Frederic Myers of the Society for Psychical Research visited the home, listened to the testimony, and concluded there was no evidence of supernatural occurrences.

[Return] Desmond: Mrs. Desmond Humphreys (1860-1938) was a popular novelist, a devotee of occultist and medium Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) and sympathetic to Spiritualism. In 1919, she published The Truth of Spiritualism.

[Return] Tantalus: A carrying case for bottles, designed so that the handle locked down the tops of the bottles, making them secure for transporting and also impervious to tampering by servants tempted to drink a tot and fill it back up with water.

[Return] Boxing: A magazine founded in 1909 that is still published today.

[Return] Caviare: Another spelling of caviar, the roe of sturgeon or other fish served as a delicacy. Holmes is implying that his composition is too sophisticated for the common herd.

[Return] Language of Turfey: Holmes is paraphrasing Genesis 27:22, in which Jacob steals the birthright of Esau from their father, Isaac. Old, blind and wanting to pass leadership of his family to Esau, Isaac sends him out to hunt for meat with which he would use to bless Esau. While Esau was gone, his mother, Rebekah, who knew of Isaac’s intentions, dressed Jacob in his brother’s clothes, laid goatskins on his arms to simulate Esau’s hairiness, and sent him in with the meat. Isaac, feeling the goatskins, says, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.’”

[Return] Greyfeather or Red Jacket: Two Indian spirit guides used by mediums at the time. Indians were popular channels because of the belief that aboriginal tribes retained a connection to the departed.

[Return] Moody and Sankey: Ira Sankey (1840-1908) and Dwight Moody (1837-1899) were traveling American evangelists who preached throughout the U.S. and Britain. They published several compilations of Christian hymns, including Sacred Songs and Solos (1877). Hymns Ancient and Modern was the hymnal used by the Church of England. It has gone through several revised editions since it was introduced in 1861.

[Return] Professor Cranford: In The Reality of Psychic Phenomena (1918), Dr. William Crawford (1881-1920), an engineering professor at Queens University, described his experiences investigating mediums, including Kathleen Goligher (b. 1898), who he was convinced was authentic. After his suicide in 1920, other investigators found evidence that Goligher was a fraud. One saw her “levitating” the table with her foot during one séance, and traced the presence of “spiritual ectoplasm” to white muslin.

[Return] Six individuals: The seven members Crawford describes in his book were Goligher and her father, brother, three sisters, and brother-in-law, all of whom were mediums.

[Return] Says her prayers: Crawford wrote that “The séance is opened with the singing of a hymn and a prayer. In a few minutes light raps are usually heard near the medium, which quickly increase in intensity. Within a quarter of an hour most of the phenomena are often in full swing. A hymn is sung occasionally during the course of the séance. The sitting is closed by prayer.”

[Return] Proceeding by innuendo: Ellis’ animosity was traced to Clodd’s sole reference to Goligher in a footnote in The Question: If a man die, shall he live again? published the previous year. Responding to Crawford’s article in Light about experiments that “confirmed” that the medium could create ectoplasm, Clodd wrote:

“The lady through whom these wonders are manifest is a Miss Kathleen Goligher, the eldest daughter of a family whose members are Spiritualists. ‘They make,’ Sir W.F. Barrett tells us, in his On the Threshold of the Unseen, ‘a sort of religious ceremony of their sittings, always opening with prayers and hymns.’ Although these pietistic preliminaries have naught to do with the genuineness or spuriousness of phenomena at ‘spirit circles,’ they have often been coverings of fraud, and they lend an air of suspicion to the séances of the Goligher household. It would be well if Sir W.F. Barrett would arrange to bring the young lady and the apparatus to London for submission to a series of scientific tests at the hands of biologists and other experts, among whom [magician] Mr. Devant might be included with advantage on the principle of setting a conjurer to catch a conjurer. Science knows no finality, but it must have conclusive evidence before it accepts the existence of ‘a form of matter hitherto unknown’ among the properties of the human body.”

After Crawford’s death, Edmund d’Albe investigated the medium and found evidence of fraud, as described in The Goligher Circle (1922). After its publication, Kathleen Goligher retired and faded from history.

[Return] Queensbury rules: A code of conduct in boxing, written by sportsman John Graham Chambers (1843-1883) and published as “the Queensberry rules for the sport of boxing” by the Amateur Athletic Club, after one of its founders, John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900). The rules, emphasizing fair play and gentlemanly behavior, included setting up the size of the ring, the length of rounds, prohibitions on wrestling or hugging, and requiring the use of gloves. (Queensberry was also the father of Alfred Douglas, and responsible for the downfall of his son’s lover, Oscar Wilde).

[Return] Ad misericordiam: A logical fallacy in which the speaker appeals to the audience’s pity for the subject to win support.

[Return] Barnaby Rudge: A novel by Charles Dickens set during the Gordon Riots of 1780 when mobs rampaged through London in protest against an act intended to reduce discrimination against Catholics. Newgate hangman Ned Dennis participated in the riots, but changed sides near the end, only to be caught. The night before his execution, Dennis is a cringing wretch praying for a last-minute pardon. When an inmate taunts him with “See the hangman when it comes home to him,” Dennis replies:

“You don’t know what it is,” cried Dennis, actually writhing as he spoke: “I do. That I should come to be worked off! I! I! That I should come!”

“And why not?” said Hugh, as he thrust back his matted hair to get a better view of his late associate. “How often, before I knew your trade, did I hear you talking of this as if it was a treat?”

“I an’t unconsistent,” screamed the miserable creature; “I’d talk so again, if I was hangman. Some other man has got my old opinions at this minute. That makes it worse. Somebody’s longing to work me off. I know by myself that somebody must be!”

“He’ll soon have his longing,” said Hugh, resuming his walk. “Think of that, and be quiet.”

[Return] No material reward: Holmes seems to have forgotten the numerous times he received payment for his services. According to the canon, he received £1,000 each for recovering the Beryl Coronet, the Blue Carbuncle, and the King of Bohemia’s photo, £6,000 in the Priory School case, and £500 from a German spy in “His Last Bow.”

[Return] Base half-crowns: Uttering is the crime of passing counterfeit currency.

[Return] W.K. Clifford: English mathematician and philosopher (1845-1879). His contention in “The Ethics of Belief” that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” is considered to be a rebuke against religious faith, and was attacked by philosopher William James (1842-1910) in his essay “Will to Believe.”

[Return] Sir Roland House: Likely a reference to the physicist and Spiritualist Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), who was a close friend of Conan Doyle. He had published Raymond or Life and Death (1916), documenting the séances he and his wife had attended in their attempt to reach their son, who was killed in battle. “Raymond” told him that the afterlife was similar to Earth. People looked as they did when they were alive, and there were even whiskey and cigars available (which caused of much merriment in the press).

[Return] Asinorium Club: Latin for “donkey” (or, more likely, asses).

[Return] Foxes: The three Fox sisters of New York launched the Spiritualist movement in 1848 when two of them—Margaret (1833-1893) and Kate (1837-1892)—claimed that they could communicate with spirits through knocking through code. The children’s report caused a sensation, and during the 1850s gave hundreds of séances in New York City despite allegations of fraud. Their sister Leah (1814-1890) became their manager and they became popular successes. Magaret and Kate admitted in 1888 that they were fakes and publicly demonstrated how they could make the raps; in Margaret’s case by cracking her toe joints. Despite their confessions (which Kate recanted the next year), they’re still treated seriously in parapsychological literature.

[Return] Jerry Cruncher: A porter in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. As a “resurrection man,” he steals bodies from their graves and sells them to medical schools for dissection.

[Return] Old clo’: Old clothes, inspired from the street cry of the clothes peddler.

[Return] Resurrection-man: Someone who digs up fresh corpses and sells them to medical schools. The most famous resurrection men were William Burke and William Hare of Edinburgh, who took the shortcut of murdering their victims.