Navigate / search

The Adventure of the Immortal Detective: Discovering Sherlock Holmes in the Archives

By Arcadia Falcone

The BBC’s modernized television adaptation Sherlock and the steampunk-inspired Hollywood blockbuster Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are only two of the most recent incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. The Ransom Center holds an eclectic array both of Sherlockiana and of materials illustrating Doyle’s diverse pursuits.

Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in the novel A Study in Scarlet, which received several rejections before being published in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual (alongside the forgotten tales “Food for Powder” and “The Four-Leaved Shamrock,” as well as some truly terrifying Victorian advertisements—“Steiner’s Vermin Paste, It Never Fails!”). The Center holds one of the 11 complete copies known to exist, as part of the Ellery Queen book collection. The Queen collection also includes books from Doyle’s true crime library, many of which previously belonged to W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

The character of Irene Adler plays a significant role in both the mentioned recent adaptations, but she appears in only one Doyle short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle papers include the handwritten manuscript for this story, as well as a manuscript page from the most famous Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Doyle papers also contain some interesting oddities, such as Doyle’s laconic answers to an autobiographical questionnaire (His favorite food? “Anything when hungry—nothing when not”) and a fan letter Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker in praise of Dracula.

The popular image of Sherlock Holmes owes much to Sidney Paget, who illustrated the original publication of many of the stories in The Strand Magazine. It was he who put Holmes in the iconic deerstalker, never specifically mentioned by Doyle (Sherlockians will tell you that the “ear-flapped travelling cap” described in “Silver Blaze” is the closest reference). The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle art collection includes two original Paget drawings featuring Holmes and Dr. Watson—but no deerstalker.

The Center’s collections also document fans’ longstanding obsession with Sherlock Holmes. Christopher Morley, whose papers the Center holds, founded the first American Holmes fan society, the Baker Street Irregulars, in 1934. Elsewhere in the collections, one may find a manuscript of Dorothy L. Sayers’s learned disquisition on the conflicting dates given in “The Red-Headed League,” a handwritten essay celebrating the centenary of Holmes’s purported birth by A. A. Milne, and T. S. Eliot’s perceptive review of the collected stories in a 1928 issue of the Criterion.

In later life, Doyle developed a strong interest in spiritualism and the supernatural. The Center holds a large collection of Doyle’s spirit photographs, in which ghostly apparitions hover over the living, as well as his copies of the Cottingley fairy photographs. Doyle used the photographs to illustrate an article he wrote for The Strand Magazine about fairies and interpreted the images as clear evidence of their existence. The Center’s personal effects collection includes Doyle’s Ouija board. (Also present: two pairs of his socks.)

Sherlock Holmes himself has had an afterlife to rival any of Doyle’s spirits. The Center holds some early examples of what today would be called fan fiction: Maurice Leblanc pits his gentleman thief against a Holmes substitute in Arsène Lupin versus Herlock Sholmes (1908); in the same year, the first in a series of Spanish plays paired Holmes with A. J. Raffles (himself a Sherlock-inspired figure from the pen of Doyle’s brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung). Holmes even went to Broadway in Baker Street: A Musical Adventure of Sherlock Holmes (1965). As a bumper sticker from the Baker Street Irregulars proclaims, “Sherlock Holmes is alive and well!”

Click on the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Comments

Randall Stock
Reply

Thanks for making this excellent blog post!

For those have not been able to get to the Ransom Center, this blog is your first chance to see some rare and unusual Sherlockian items at the HRC. Watch the slideshow (Flash required) in full-screen mode and click through all the objects.

Sherlockians may be interested in more details about the items shown. I’ve written about some of these, including the Ransom Center’s:

- Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887 (copy R14 on my census)

- Hound of the Baskervilles manuscript leaf (H28 on that census)

- Sidney Paget drawings (census entries for The Naval Treaty and The Norwood Builder)

Each census is available online and can be found from my main Conan Doyle Manuscripts web page.

The slideshow also includes a photo from the manuscript of A Scandal in Bohemia. The Baker Street Irregulars & HRC produced a facsimile of that entire manuscript in 2011. I contributed to that book and have a summary review of it on my website. The BSI has already sold out of the book, but a special limited edition will be produced as part of a Texas Boxed Set that also includes the facsimile of another Holmes manuscript (The Golden Pince-nez) held at the Ransom Center.

Randall Stock
The Best of Sherlock Holmes

Marthe Smith
Reply

Loved seeing this (especially my grandfather’s signature on Morley’s BSI membership document – Edgar W. Smith, Buttons-cum-commissionaire). I will explore your web page further. Thank you.

Joe Sherfy
Reply

While I enjoy Sherlock Holmes, one of my great interests is the Napoleonic wars. Some years ago I came across Conan Doyle’s short stories about the great French cavalryman Brigadier Gerard. Does the Ransom Center have any documents related to that wonderful character?

Harold Billings
Reply

For some reason, the HRC continually fails to mention that I acquired Doyle’s textbook that he used in medical school in which he made significant annotations and brought it to the Ransom Center many years ago. I used it as the basis for an essay on Holmes (“The Materia Medica of Sherlock Holmes”) that won the Morley-Montgomery prize for the best essay published in the Baker Street Irregulars Journal in 2006. It forms the 50th, and final, essay published by the group in its collection of such winning essays covering its first 50 years.

Arcadia Falcone
Reply

Regarding the Brigadier Gerard stories, the Ransom Center holds an autograph manuscript for “How Etienne Gerard Said Goodbye to His Master,” published in May 1903 as “The Last Adventure of the Brigadier.” The Center’s book collection also includes several early editions of the Brigadier books, some previously owned by members of Doyle’s family.

Marilyn Penner
Reply

Was Mr. Billings’ donation the textbook in which Doyle wrote rhymes about the actions of various drugs as a memory aid? That is a prize indeed. I think Mr. Billings quoted three verses in his essay, and I so longed for more. They were both humourous and clever. I could imagine the young Doyle conning them for his examination.

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website