A Missing Persons Case–August, 1895

Poking around 19th century British newspapers–particularly those published in larger cities–one cannot but be struck by the number of notices for “missing persons.”  Lloyd’s Weekly even went so far as to devote an entire column to these poignant ads in the 1890’s, a column so popular that it helped persuade Chief Commissioner Sir Edward Bradford of the Met to ask the Strand Union Board of Directors to keep records of people coming and going at the Bear Yard workhouse, which had been “found to be the resort of many wanderers of all descriptions.” The hope was that the Met would be able to use the receiving ward book as an easy way to answer requests for help “from the Colonies, as well as from all parts of the United Kingdom.”  One might imagine that Sherlock Holmes made some use of it as well, and who knows but that some of the records are not actually those of various unfortunates, but of the Great Detective in disguise.

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Work House, Bear Yard, from Lloyd’s Weekly, 1 September, 1895

While it’s possible that a younger Holmes used the missing persons notices to scrounge up cases, by the time Lloyd’s  began running its column, he likely scanned it, but only took notice of those which pertained to a current case, or which carried with them a whiff of the outré. Likely he was able to tell, with just a glance, who had run off to Australia, who had eloped with her unsuitable boyfriend, who had been coshed in the head and tossed into a canal, and who was likely resting in a newly-dug flower bed or under a cellar floor.

Being just as curious but not nearly as clever, I decided to take a few cases from Lloyd’s column and do my own detective work, this time with Ancestry.com and the British Newspaper Archives Online just to see if I could find out what had happened to some of the “Missing.”  It was a great deal of painstaking fun, with some solutions more obvious than others.

Case 1: [Hector?] Sheehan, August 1895

 

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Lloyd’s Weekly, 11 August 1895

First of all, I did a newspaper search for “Hector Sheehan,” just in case he had been found shortly after, and someone had seen fit to report it. There were no results found. I then went over to Ancestry.com and searched again for “Hector Sheehan,” this time with the name of his mother, his approximate year of birth (I gave it a leeway of +/- 2 years), and that he had lived in London, England.

Again, no “Hector,” but remember, that was the name on the cap, and not necessarily the name of the boy.

My next step was to try to find the missing boy’s family via census records, using Amelia Sheehan and Marylebone as starting points.  I’ve noticed from other research, as well as from reading biographies, that people tended to move a good deal in Victorian England, so I knew that, while it would be nice to find Sheehans on Homer-street, that wasn’t necessarily going to happen. I hoped to find the family in the 1891 English Census, but unfortunately, the only Amelia Sheehan I could find was likely too old to have had a 2 year-old in 1895. I then moved to the 1901 English Census, where I found three possible households and proceeded to eliminate two by determining whether or not any of their male children could have been 2 in 1895. That left this family:

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John and Amelia Sheehan Family, 1901 English Census

The Sheehans lived in Montague Mews North, #5, Upper George Street, Marylebone. Their son Henry was just the right age to have gone missing in Hyde park at the age of two in 1895. One thing that bothered me about Mrs. Sheehan’s report was that her toddler son’s older brother left him in the park when he refused to go home.  That made no sense to me–surely any half-way responsible brother would have known to just pick up his sibling, or drag him out of the park, and would never have simply left him. I was however, assuming that the older brother was old enough to be half-way responsible. If we have the right family here, Henry’s older brother would only have been around four years old–certainly not old enough to haul a determined toddler home, and likely not even old enough to realize that leaving the little boy there was dangerous.

It is very possible, of course, that this is not the correct family, that Amelia Sheehan’s young son was never found, and that the family is one of those which eludes all sorts of official records. The census was, after all, taken once per decade; it was perfectly possible that the Sheehans moved in and out of London without ever being listed. Still, I’d like to think that, no matter what the name on his hat, the little boy was Henry Sheehan, and he was brought home safe and sound.

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Young Boy (victorianchildren.org)

 

 

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Samuel March Phillips on Circumstantial Evidence and the Trial of John Donellan

In The Damnation of John Donellan, reviewed in the last blog post, Elizabeth Cooke refers to Phillips’ views on Sir Justice Buller’s conduct of the Donellan trial. Here, with minor edits, is that section of his book, taken from the Introduction of Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence: With an Introduction on the Theory of Presumptive Proof.  There are several editions of the book available online; this is from the second edition, published in Boston in 1874 by Estes and Lauriat, accessed via https://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/b/texts/P1ovAAAAIAAJ.pdf

One expects that Sherlock Holmes had a copy on his bookshelf.

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A presumption, which necessarily arises from circumstances, is very often more convincing, and more satisfactory, than any other kind of evidence; it is not within the reach and compass of human abilities to invent a train of circumstances, which shall be so connected together as to amount to a proof of guilt, without affording opportunities of contradicting a great part, if not all, of these circumstances. (Charge of Mr. Justice Bullen [sic], on the trial of Captain Donellan.)

I deny the position. I maintain, that the theory is repugnant to the received principles of jurisprudence; as known to the best foreign writers on the law of evidence. I maintain, that it is not warranted by experience,–the greatest proof of every rule, the proof of proofs. And I may further assert, that it is new to the practice of English law.

[Here, Phillipps goes on to quote from Mascardus and Menochius, and discusses his thoughts on the matter. He takes up the Donellan case again on page xvii of this edition.]

The next occasion on which this doctrine appears, is on the celebrated trial of Captain Donellan, in 1781, before Mr. Justice Buller, in the passage already quoted. But he was altered the position a little, by shifting the criterion from facts to circumstances. Facts, before, were the standard of truth; circumstances are now made to be so. For circumstances cannot lie. But what else are circumstances but facts, or minor facts; and I must take the liberty to say, that circumstances are still more liable to deceive, or to lead to deception, than even facts. A fact being more an object of sight, is easier apprehended by the senses than a circumstances; which, from its triviality, often escapes the attention altogether, is misapprehended, or assigned to a wrong cause.

The trial in question, will afford a most unparalleled illustration of the truth of this observation; it will show the fallibility of circumstances, and the very opposite conclusions which different men will draw from the same appearances.

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The Death of Theodosius Boughton

I shall here give the general shape of the case–

If shape it might be called, which shape had none,

Or substance might be called, which shadow seemed.

Sir Theodosius Boughton, a young man of a delicate constitution, had sent to a country apothecary’s shop for a draught of medicine. Different vials appear to have been in his chamber, at the time he took he draught; which was intended to be a composition of rhubarb, jalopy, and lavender water.

He was suddenly seized with convulsions in his stomach, and foaming at the mouth; and expired before he could give any explanation. On rinsing one of the vials, the sediment gave the effluvia of laurel water, which is known to be a strong poison. Convulsions, foaming at the mouth, and sudden death, are the natural effects of that liquid.

But every man who dies in that way, is not, therefore, poisoned. The apoplexy will produce the same effects and appearances: of which disease, the father of the young man was known to have died. No evidence whatever was produced as to the existence of the laurel water.

Captain Donnellan [sic], the brother-in-law of Sir Theodosius, was living in his house at the time of the accident. He was the next heir to the estate, and accordingly, the person who had the most immediate interest in his death. He certainly betrayed some uneasiness on the event, and appearances indicated that he was afraid of being suspected as the author of the mischief. But, if it was natural that he should be suspected, if the cui bono points out the actor of a nefarious deed, it was not unnatural that he should find himself placed in circumstances of peculiar delicacy, and manifest embarrassment and confusion in his conduct.

Captain Donnellan was brought to trial, on  a charge of poisoning Sir Theodosius Boughton.

The leading point in every case of this sort, is–did the deceased die of poison? For, if he did not, there is an end of the whole. Where there was no poison, there was no poisoner.

But this was altogether a question to be decided by the opinion of medical men. From what then did they form their opinion? From any of those broad marks, respecting which all men judge alike. No; there was nothing of the kind to guide their judgment. The whole cause turned on circumstances; and conjectures supposed from circumstances never proved. Four physicians inspected the body, on dissection, the eleventh day after the death. They gave their opinion to the jury, and described the circumstances on which that opinion was founded; the four said, they believed him to have died of poison.

The circumstances on which they had given their opinion, were stated, at the trial, to Doctor John Hunter, the most eminent physician of the age. He declared he could not discover, in any of those circumstances, nor in all of them united, any sign of the deceased, having died from poison, nor any symptoms beyond those incident to a man dying suddenly.

Q. from the court to Mr. Hunter. Then, in your judgment, upon the appearance the gentlemen have described, no inference can be drawn from thence that Sir Theodosius Boughton died of poison?–A. Certainly not: it does not give the least suspicion

In questions of science, and above all, in those of medical science, the faith to be reposed in any opinion, will be regulated by the professional eminence of the person giving it. One man’s sight being generally as good as that of another, as to a mere matter of fact; as whether he saw, or did not see such a thing, the learned and the ignorant are upon a par, and one witness to a face is just as good as another. But the case is very different as to a matter of science; for one man’s judgment will outweigh that of many. Upon a point of law or equity, we would not put the opinion of a country attorney, or of four country attorneys, against that of a chief justice, Doctor John Hunter stood, at that time, at the very head of his profession; his opinion face the law to that profession, both in England, and in every country in Europe. Had the profession been to estimate his opinion, and not the jury, a very different verdict would have been given. The case referred peculiarly to to  [sic] Doctor Hunter’s line of study,–that of dissection, and the appearances incident to a body on sudden and convulsive death. He pronounced, that the dissection had been irregularly made, and in a way not to afford the true criterion to judge by. And, where the process is irregular, when the experiment is defective, the conclusion must always be vague and doubtful.

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John Hunter, Surgeon

The gentlemen composing the jury did not perhaps know the eminence of Mr. Hunter’s character; nor, consequently, the weight due to his opinion. But the judge, on the bench, no doubt knew this; and in balancing the evidence, and in summing up, it was clearly his duty to have stated the great weight to be attached to Mr. Hunter’s observations. He stated nothing of all this; but took them numerically, “four medical men to one.”

Thus, from an irregular dissection, a positive conclusion was admitted.

It is a rule of law, and above all in cases of life and death, that the want of any one circumstance will prevent the effect of the whole. Thus, if the dissection were irregular, the opinion formed in reference to that dissection was a mere nothing. As well may you suppose that proposition itself to be true, which you wish to prove, as that other, whereby you hope to prove it.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc–a species of argument which often leads to fallacy.

Because the fact immediately followed; therefore it was occasioned by that which it followed. He died immediately after taking the medicine; therefore, he was killed by the medicine.

The present question is, was the process on the trial according to law? Was the conclusion arrived at by regular and legal forms? The grounds on which the legal inference is to be drawn, must always of themselves be clear and certain; there is no presumption upon a presumption; there is no inference from a fact not known.

When the judgment of the law is passed in reference to a certain thing, the existence of that thing should be first clearly made to appear.

The fact of poisoning ought to have been established beyond a shadow of doubt, before any person was convicted as the poisoner.

But the jury, it will be said, were satisfied on this point. Had the evidence been duly summed up by the judge; had they been told, as they ought to have been, that in experimental philosophy, such as the tracing the effects of a particular poison, in tracing the causes, so many and so complicated that lead to death, if the experiment is defective,if the process is vitiated in one instance, the result is also vitiated and defective. Every practitioner in philosophy is sensible and aware of this truth; and wherever he finds that he has erred in his experiment, he sets the case aside, as affording no satisfactory result, and renews his process in another subject.

But, unfortunately, it is a matter of pride, in some men, to be always certain in their opinion, and to appear beyond the influence of doubt. Very different was the practice of that modest and eminent man who gave his evidence on this trial: he was accustomed to the fallaciousness of appearances,–to the danger of hasty inferences from imperfect proofs, and refused to give his assent to an opinion, without facts being first produced to support it. “If I knew,” said Mr. Hunter, “that the draught was poison, I should say, most probably, that the symptoms arose from that; but when I don’t know that that draught was poison, when I consider that a number of other things might occasion his death, I cannot answer positively to it.”

During the whole course of this celebrated trial, there was not a single fact established by evidence, except the death, and convulsive appearances at the moment. These appearances, Mr. Hunter declared, offered no suspicion whatever of poison, and were generally incident to sudden death, in what might be called a state of health; not only there was no fact proved, but there was not one single circumstance proved. One circumstance was supposed from another, equally suppositious, and from two fictions united a third was produced. The existence of the laurel water was thus made out: the sediment found in the vial, from which the unfortunate young man had drunk, was supposed to smell like bitter almonds; for, as the smell of laurel water was not then known to Lady Boughton, she could not trace the resemblance further; bitter almonds were supposed to smell like laurel water.

It is here to be observed, that the smell attached to the vial was momentary, for it was washed out almost immediately, and could not be twice experienced. But what so uncertain as the sense of smell? Of all the human senses, it is the most uncertain, the most variable, and fallacious. It is often different to different men, and different in the same person, at one hour, from what it is at the next; a cold, a slight indisposition, the state of the stomach, a sudden exposure to the air, will extenuate or destroy this impression.

But this train of proof was altogether at variance with principles. In law, as already observed, the arguments should be drawn from one reality to another; but here, the argument turned upon the breath, the smell of a woman, distracted at the moment, with the loss of her son, and ready to ascribe that evil to the first thing that came in her way.

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The Donellan trial, 1781

All proof must being at a fixed point. The law never admits of an inference from an inference. Two imperfect things cannot make one perfect. That which is weak, may be made stronger; but that which has no substance, cannot be corroborated. The question is never what a thing is like; but the witness must swear to his belief, as to what it is. A simile is no argument. Upon the principle, that comparison of hands is no evidence, in a criminal trial, comparison of smells must be held to be equally defective. Besides, there are a variety of articles that resemble bitter almonds in the smell, and many of these altogether innoxious.

In circumstantial evidence, the circumstance and the presumption are too often confounded; as they seem to have been throughout this trial. The circumstance is always a fact; the presumption is the inference drawn from that fact. It is hence called presumptive proof; because it proceeds merely on presumption or opinion. But the circumstance itself is never to be presumed, but must be substantively proved. An argument ought to consist in something that is itself admitted; for who can prove one doubtful thing by another. If it was not laurel water, that Sir Theodosius drank, the proof fails as to the effect; and certainly, some of the usual proofs, some of the common indicia or marks of things, should have been established. Where did the prisoner procure it? From whom did he obtain it? Where, and what time–and by whom, or how did he administer it? [A/N: Footnote containing quote from Quintillan here omitted] Nothing of this kind was proved.

The whole proof, as to laurel water, rested upon the comparison of the smell. Question to Doctor Parsons, “You ground your opinion upon the description of its smell by Lady Boughton?” Answer: “Yes, we can ground our opinion upon nothing else but that, and the subsequent effects.”

But the judgment of the cause from its effects, Mr. Hunter has already shown to be equally conjectural as that formed from its resemblance in smell.

The proof proceeds. He was supposed to be poisoned, because it was believed to be laurel water; and it was believed to be laurel water, because he was supposed to be poisoned. We will not say that both of these suppositions might not have been true; yet still they were but conjectures, unsupported by any proof, and formed against all the rules of law.

But the accused, it is said, furnished the proof against himself, by his own distrust of his innocence. He no doubt betrayed great apprehensions of being charged with murder; but are innocent men never afraid of being thought guilty?

We readily recognize all the general truisms, and commonplace observations, as to the confidence of innocence, and the consciousness of guilt; but, we find, from history, that innocence loses its confidence, when oppressed with prejudiced; and that men have been convicted of crimes, which they never committed, from the very means which they have taken to clear themselves.

“An uncle who had the bringing up of his niece, to whom he was heir at law, correcting her for some offense, she was heard to say, ‘Good uncle, do not kill me;’ after which time she could not be found; whereupon the uncle was committed upon suspicion of murder, and admonished, by the next assizes; against which time he could not find her, but brought another child, as like her in years and person as he could find, and apparelled her like the true child; but on examination she was found not to be the true child. Upon these presumptions (which were considered to be as strong as facts that appear in the broad face of day), he was found guilty and executed; but the truth was, the child, being beaten, ran away, and was received by a stranger; and afterwards, when she came of age to have her land, came and demanded it, and was directly proved to be the true child.

The above case was referred to by Lord Mansfield, in his speech in the Douglass cause, as an illustration that forgery, and falsehood itself, has been sometimes used to defend even an innocent cause. “It was no uncommon thing,” he observed, “for a man to defend a good cause by foul means, or false pretenses.”

Captain Donellan was liable to suspicion, and to great suspicion, on the general relations of the subject, independent of particular circumstances, and would have been suspected by all the world, had he been never so innocent.

In the first place, it was a well-known fact, that he had been obliged either to quit the army (to which he originally belonged), or had been cashiered by the sentence of a court-martial.

Secondly, he was of all other men the person who was to have gained by the death of Sir Theodosius Boughton; to whose estate and property he succeeded as his brother-in-law. No other human being had an interest in the case. [A/N: This is not true; however, without real detective work, it is unlikely that the other suspects would have been readily uncovered.]  Such is the disposition in human nature (founded perhaps on a too just knowledge of our feelings and principles of action), that first suspicion always points to the person who is to gain by it, as the author of any mischief of which the real perpetrator is not known. The cui bono  was not invented by Cassius Severus, to whom it is ascribed,–but every man is alike the rock of the accused, in this respect.

If, therefore, it was natural, on general grounds, that Mr. Donnellan should be so suspected, it was also natural for him to be sensible that he would be so, and consequently, to be alarmed, distracted, and uneasy.

But it will be said, that, granting all this, he displayed more uneasiness than was even natural to one in his situation. It is a delicate thing to answer this question,–it is a nice thing to fix the standard of human feelings,–and to say what degree of perturbation a man, already branded with guilt and conviction, shall feel when placed under circumstances which make him to be suspected of a capital crime.

Lawyers, and those accustomed to see and advise with persons in that unfortunate predicament, only can tell the terrible apprehensions that every man feels at the idea of being a second time brought to a public trial; it is altogether a new view of human nature, and we seldom estimate, rightly, feelings which we have never experienced, nor expect to experience in our own persons, nor have witnessed in that of other persons;–

“To thee no reason,–

“Who good has only known and evil has not proved.”

They who have been accustomed to carry on criminal prosecutions, must be fully aware of the influence which a former trial and conviction is calculated to have on almost any accusation; but in no case can that influence be greater than where the trial turns on presumptive proof. For here it is often the feelings, the prejudices, and opinion of the jury, that supply the want of evidence.

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Justice Francis Buller, who presided over the Donellan trial.

Suspicion is to be distinguished from proof,–a thousand suspicions do not form one proof. We understand, in common language, by the term suspicion, the imagining of something ill, without proof. It may, therefore, form a proper ground of accusation, but never of conviction: it seems to arise from the general semblance of things, and often from the morals of the individual, rather than from any distinct act. Thus, in the civil law, a guardian is regarded as suspected, whose morals render him so.

A suspicion is one thing, and a necessary inference another: a suspicion is an impression on another man’s mind,–an inference is made from the fact itself.

There certainly was no overt act proved against the prisoner during the whole course of this trial; it was not proved that he gave the poison, or saw it given, or had such in his possession. Many things, no doubt, in his demeanor and conversation, gave strong suspicions against him; but, if the civil law positively forbids a man being condemned on suspicion, can that be justified by ours?

“The wisdom and goodness of our law appears in nothing more remarkably, than in the perspicuity, certainty, and clearness of the evidence it requires to fix a crime upon any man, whereby his life, his liberty, or his property can be concerned: herein we glory and pride ourselves, and are justly the envy of all our neighbor nations. Our law, in such cases, requires evidence so clear and convincing, that every bystander, the instant he hears it, must be fully satisfied of the truth and certainty of it. It admits of no surmises, innuendoes, forced consequences, or harsh construction, nor anything else to be offered as evidence, but what is real and substantial, according to the rules of natural justice and equity.” *  [*Lord Cowper’s speech on the Bishop of Rochester’s trial.]

We have been the more full in our observations on this trial, because it has been so often quoted with a sort of triumph, as forming a model and illustration of the nature of circumstantial evidence. It is an illustration, indeed, of how little evidence one man has been convicted on; but it is an illustration of nothing else.

–pp. xvii-xxvii.

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Samuel March Phillipps, c.1826

 

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Wish You Were Here….

As I read the evidence at the inquest, which led up to a verdict of willful murder against some person or persons unknown, I realized more clearly than I had ever done the loss which the community had sustained by the death of Sherlock Holmes

“The Adventure of the Empty House”

Sherlock Holmes spent almost three years–from May 4, 1891, until (apparently) the beginning of April, 1894, as a dead man. And whatever he was up to during that time–spying for Mycroft, studying at the feet of Tibetan mystics, mopping up the remnants of Moriarty’s gang, conducting exciting experiments on coal-tar derivatives, or even enjoying a romantic interlude with “The Woman”–he was not solving crimes at home.* This meant, just as he told Watson, “an unhealthy excitement among the criminal classes.” Even a few hours’ meandering through an online newspaper archive  reveals dozens of murders (or possible murders) which seem to have gone unsolved–crime which the police would gladly have turned over to the world’s only consulting detective, had he not been (supposedly) in his own grave at the foot of the Reichenbach Falls. Every so often, we’ll examine a few in this blog; today’s mysterious offerings all took place in 1892.**

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Inspector Lestrade will solve this Adair case–he has several ideas already.

One thing that leaps out at even the most casual researcher are the number of corpses which are found in or around bodies of water–whether that water be a canal, a river, a pond, or the ocean. The inquest frequently returns a verdict of drowning, and often of suicide, as in the death of Gertrude Elizabeth Smith:

THE SUICIDE OF A HARROGATE LADY.–Yesterday, at the Victoria Hotel, Harrogate, an inquest was held before Mr. Henry Wood, coroner, on view of the body of Gertrude Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Mr. George B. Smith of Rose Lea, Beech Grove, Harrogate, who committed suicide by drowning at Harrogate, as already reported in our columns.–Harry Russell Smith stated he was a land agent, and that the deceased was his youngest sister, and was a spinster. Witness saw her on Sunday morning last and spoke to her about a quarter-past eleven. She went to see an aunt about going away for the good of her health. The lady was not in, and he deceased returned in the direction of her home. Witness saw her pass the garden gate, and rapped at the window. The deceased came to him, and he proposed going for a walk. She said she would make Cold Bath-road as the limit of the walk. The deceased complained of a headache the same morning. At the gate she said she was too tired to talk, and that she would rather go by herself. She did not say that in a complaining tone. The deceased did not return at noon. After tea they became anxious, and decided to make a search, and the police were instructed to assist. Witness and his sister searched the Harlow Moor, and the first place visited was the wood, as the deceased was fond of rambling in the woods. He heard about one a.m. on Monday morning that the deceased had been found by the police in the reservoir, close to the place where they had been searching. The body was afterwards taken home. The deceased had been found by the police in the reservoir, close to the plane where they had been searching. The body was afterwards taken home. The deceased had been at Newnham College, and since that time had been under a specialist at Brighton for an ailment in her back. She had shown no signs of depression, but was disappointed at not being able to go to London and abroad for her health. When the deceased left him she was not in a state of mind that would lead anyone to think she would commit suicide. P.S. France stated that along with two other constables he searched Harlow Moor and the Harlow reservoir. After that they went down to the filter beds of the Ironbridgegate Road reservoir. By flashing his lamp he caught sight of a hat floating in the reservoir, and further on he saw the face of the deceased. They subsequently got the body out of the water. Deceased was quite dead. Her watch stopped at a quarter to 12. There would be about 18 inches of water where they found the deceased.–Dr. Ward deposed to examining the body. There was a wound on the bridge of the nose an inch long, and a slight abrasion on the cheek. He had no doubt that death was caused from suffocation by drowning. She had complained to him of having a pain in her head whilst she was at Bradford.–The Coroner having summed up, the jury returned a verdict of suicide during temporary insanity.

–York Herald, Wednesday , 3 February 1892, p.3

 

Of course, Miss Smith’s death could very well have been suicide–it probably was. She may have hidden her state of mind from her family. But, if there were doubts–if there were, for example, no note, and the marks on the body, as well as the depth of the water occasioned any suspicion, Sherlock Holmes may have found this an interesting case.

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Harlow Moor, around the turn of the century. (From oldukphotos.com)

Other drowning deaths were much more suspicious….

The body of an elderly man named Morris Samuels, a Jew, living Gravesend, was picked up yesterday morning in the Canal at Hingham. He had been missing since March 27, on which day he was seen to enter a train at London. How he came into the canal is a mystery.

–Morning Post (London), Tuesday, 12 April, 1892, p.5

 

A CHESHIRE CANAL MYSTERY–Jane Badrock, a Cheshire servant girl, who had been missing since the 18th inst., was found on Sunday night in the Shropshire Union Canal, near Calvely, Cheshire. When the body was taken out it was found that both arms were broken, and the face had been badly scratched, while there were other marks of violence. The last time the girl was seen she was with her lover, whom she afterwards left to go home, the way to which was a lonely walk of about a mile and a half by the canal side. The police had examined the path, but failed to find any trace of a struggle. It is suggested by some that the girl has been a victim of violence, but others believe that it is a case of suicide, and that the bones were broken by barges. Badrock was to have been married next Christmas.

–Daily Telegraph, Tuesday, 27 September, 1892 p.4

 

ENVELOPED IN MYSTERY.–Mr. G. P. Wyatt, coroner for East Surrey, received information yesterday morning of the death of Henry Stone, aged 27, proprietor of the Beaufort Arms, Commercial-road, Peckham, whose body was floating in the Grand Surrey Canal, near the Globe Bridge. Deceased had only just take possession of the tavern, and up to the present time his death is enveloped in mystery. An inquest will be held.

–Hull Daily Mail, Wednesday, 31 August 1892, p.3

 

The archives reveal nothing more about Mr. Samuels, Mr. Stone, or Miss Badrock. John Taylor’s death was also a drowning. Had he been available, however,  Sherlock Holmes,  may have objected to the official police conclusion:

THE DERBYSHIRE MYSTERY:–The Press Association’s Matlock Bath correspondent telegraphs this morning that the young man who was found drowned near there with his hands and feet tied, has been identified as John Taylor, of 19, Varley-street, Manchester. It is supposed now that it is a case of suicide, and that Taylor after tying his feet together, managed to tie his hands together with the aid of his teeth, before jumping into the water.

–Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette,

Thursday, 22 September, 1892, p.3

 

Ok then….

 

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You can’t seriously believe that.

Watery graves weren’t the only ones yielding up their dead that year, either. Home renovations took a decidedly macabre turn in at least two incidents. One provided at least some answers in a the case of a gardner’s missing wife:

 

THE BLACKHEATH MYSTERY:–An inquest will be held in the course of a few days upon the human remains found some weeks ago buried under a laundry at Dartmouth-hill House, Blackheath, and believed to be those of Eliza Smith, or Flabbell, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances on Christmas-eve, 1870. The bones have been examined and pronounced to be those of a female.  The doctor will be able, at the inquest, to state approximately the time that has elapsed since death. The skull is missing, and it is surmised that if the woman met her death by foul means, the murderer burnt the head in a large furnace used for the purpose of heating the conservatory. It is not now considered probably that the husband of the missing woman will be traced, as he has been lost sight of for 17 years.

–Exeter and Plymouth Gazette , Saturday, 26 March, 1892, p. 6

 

The dead woman was found with beads which Eliza Smith’s daughter claimed had belonged to her mother, and during the inquest a Mrs. Tomlinson denied having received a letter from the deceased saying that she had gone off to Brighton. Another witness, Jane Spooner, testified that when she had accused Smith’s husband, Frederick, of murdering his wife, “he replied that they could look as much as they liked, but they would never find her.” A man believed to be Mr. Smith, a gardner at Anerley, was present at the inquest, but there was some disagreement as to whether  he had been the victim’s husband, or was truly the “John Smith” he claimed to be. In the end, the London Morning Post reported that the jury’s verdict was that “the evidence failed to show who the deceased was, how she came by her death, and where the death occurred.”***  Sherlock Holmes would have sorted everything out in short order.

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The Green Man, where the Blackheath inquest was held.

Shortly after the sensational discovery at Blackheath, another body was found during a demolition, this time in Ireland’s County Cork:

MYSTERIOUS DISCOVERY:–The body of a girl was discovered on Saturday in a labourer’s cottage about two miles from Bandon, It was buried under the floor, and must have been there for a considerable time, as it was much decomposed. An inquest was held, but the evidence given threw no light on the affair. The house had been unoccupied for some time. The police are investigating the affair.

–Portsmouth Evening News, Monday 4 April , 1892, p.  2

 

The girl’s name, and what happened to her are lost to history, as is that of this unfortunate gentleman:

SINGULAR DISCOVERY AT DARWEN:–Yesterday afternoon very considerable sensation was caused by a discovery which was made at a colliery recently opened by Messrs. Place at Eccleshill near Darwen. A man named John Holden was looking down the “L” hole, in which the pumping shaft works when he observed a man’s body, 18 ft. from the surface. The man was standing on his head in a hole, and when brought to the top was found to be quite dead. His jaw was broken and his head very much swollen. The body was apparently that of a man of about 30 years of age of the labouring class. The deceased is entirely unknown in the neighbourhood.

–Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser

Wednesday,  16 November 1892, p.  6

 

When he pointed out those “three unsolved murders in one year,” therefore, Holmes was obviously just being kind to his old friend Lestrade. One has to wonder if he didn’t spend quite a few hours over the next year quietly putting cold cases like these to rights. Thank goodness for Sherlock Holmes. If he didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.

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*William S. Baring-Gould hypothesized that the detective Nero Wolfe was the son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler Norton, conceived in Montenegro during the Hiatus.

**Contrary to what Watson writes in “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,”  Sherlock Holmes was not at Baker Street during this year.

***Morning Post, Wednesday, 13 April, 1892, p. 8. This article also gives the interesting detail that the body had been cut into eleven pieces, by someone who was not very skilled in such things.

 

 

 

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Verdict: The Damnation of John Donellan

Note: I know, it’s been AGES since I’ve posted a book review, and this one has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes. The truth is, the kind of review I write tend to be very labor-intensive, and I have been swamped with life for quite awhile now. There have been times when I’ve considered shelving this blog for good, but…I just can’t.

The following review was written for another blog I started a long time ago, lightly linked to this one, the idea of which was to look at historic crime as they related to our Favorite Detective and his Boswell. If you saw my kitchen right now, you would realize how insane I was for even considering keeping more than one blog, but…I am at heart an optimist.

I hope to be able to post my next Sherlockian book review soon; I have the notes done, so it’s just a matter of having a day to actually write it. In the meantime, I though you might like this one, written about a murder that most certainly had a place in Holmes’s commonplace books.

 

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Cooke, Elizabeth. The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England. New York: Walker and Company, 2011.

 

The saying goes that “only the good die young, ” but on the day that he died, 20 year-old Sir Theodosius Boughton was not exactly a good man. Left fatherless at twelve when Sir Edward Boughton, 6th Baronet, dropped dead, and apparently neglected by Sir William Wheler, the man tapped to serve as his guardian, Theodosius spent his brief time at Eton brawling, overspending, and enjoying all of the charms of female companionship. By the time his mother, Anna Maria, decided to bring him home, he had made one poor decision too many, and contracted syphilis.

Until penicillin came on the scene in the mid-1940s, the only treatments available to the syphilitic patient were completely ineffectual and typically involved repeated doses of mercury; both the disease and its treatment caused horrific symptoms, and given the nature of mercury poisoning, one or the other would eventually prove fatal. Sometime during the summer of 1780, Sir Theodosius either contracted a new syphilitic infection, or experienced a resurgence of his first. Whichever the case, Lady Boughton obtained medication for her son from apothecary Thomas Powell. Theodosius found the liquid foul-tasting and balked at taking it, so on the morning of Wednesday,  August 30, his mother made sure that he swallowed his daily dose as prescribed. She could not have imagined, as she urged him to finish it, that within minutes her son would be in convulsions, and within an hour, he would be dead.

Or did she?

 

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In The Damnation of John Donellan,  Elizabeth Cooke tackles a case which for decades was held up as an example of the dangers of circumstantial evidence. The unexpected, dramatic death of a young aristocrat who was (as far as the public knew) in good health caused a  virulent rash of rumors to spread across the county; with a week, the question was not why Sir Theodosius had died, but who had poisoned him. Although, as Cooke points out, there were several viable suspects, the finger of Justice quickly moved to point at Theodosius’ brother-in-law. Captain John Donellan was a disgraced soldier who had also served as doorman at a notorious London social club before eloping with Theodosia Boughton three years before. Despite this scandal, Donellan had, by 1780, become a trusted member of the family, living with his wife and their two children at Lawford Hall and taking charge of much of the household business, including looking after the young heir after he left Eton and getting him out of various scrapes, boyish and otherwise. Although he did not give Sir Theodosius his medicine, and wasn’t even in the room when the young man was first taken ill, Donellan, according to witnesses, did and said several odd things after being summoned by Lady Boughton. He washed out the medication bottles stored on the dead man’s mantel  (possibly pouring their contents into a waste basin) and had them removed from the bedroom. He insisted to others that his brother-in-law had taken cold, and allegedly told coachman William Frost that “you are my evidence” after confirming with him that he had been nowhere near Theodosius’ room that morning* Most damning, however, was Lady Boughton’s testimony that her son’s tonic smelled of “bitter almonds,” and the fact that Donellan possessed a still, ostensibly for distilling lavender and rose-water, but which, it was whispered, he also used for concocting laurel-water, a source of prussic acid.**

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If wagging tongues conspired to have John Donellan suspected, and ultimately arrested, for the poisoning of his brother-in-law, the English justice system of the late 18th century seemed designed to work against him as well. Modern readers used to the notion of “innocent until proven guilty,” and the right to a competent defense will wonder at Cooke’s description of a trial that was highly criticized even in its own time for bias and inadequacy–and which, in our century, would be farcical were man’s life not  at stake. Witnesses were coached and intimidated (or not called at all), questions went unasked by both sides, and potential exculpatory evidence was ignored or missed entirely. The most useful testimony of all, that of famed surgeon Sir John Hunter, was criticized by the magistrate, Sir Justice Francis Buller, and buried under the weaker evidence presented by several less able colleagues. Still, Captan Donellan maintained his innocence and, on the eve of his trial, was looking forward to being back in London once his ordeal was finished.

Devotees of Dateline-style television mysteries are familiar with true crime documentaries that lead viewers to favor  one side, only to flip their opinions like pancakes with a new set of information. Cooke begins her story with an in depth description of Theodosius Boughtons’ last hours, taken from his mother’s depositions and testimony. I have read this book twice, and even the second time, I have to say that there appear to have been very good reasons to fear poisoning, and to suspect John Donellan. As the  book progresses, however, the weight of reasonable doubt becomes greater and greater, to the point that one wonders if there had never been a crime at all–only gossip which drove weak men, and one weak woman, to the point of sacrificing an outsider on the altar of public opinion.

Or perhaps he did it.

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The Damnation of John Donellan is a deft combination of whodunit, courtroom drama, medical history, and social commentary, stuffed into a compact 254 pages. Thanks her skillful analysis of Boughton family documents and newspapers of the time, Cooke is able to portray Sir Theodosius, Donellan, Anna Maria, and even minor players as real, sympathetic human beings with strengths and foibles. By telling the story chronologically, she keeps up the suspense while providing the reader with the same evidence the jury was given. Made up of well-to-do landowners and tradesmen (though not of the aristocracy), this jury sat in a courtroom which operated quite differently than those the reader might be acquainted with; Ms. Cooke explains the workings of British justice in 1780 clearly, while at the same time pointing out how John Donellan’s attorneys frequently fell below the standard of practice for their own time, let alone our own. For all of the detail involved, The Damnation of John Donellan manages not to be dry; it does, however, lag in places, largely due to the difficulty of presenting the two very different timelines described by Lady Boughton and Donellan himself. The two accounts can be difficult to follow; a chart contrasting both would have been a welcome addition.

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And how would Sherlock Holmes have viewed this case? We know from his advice to Watson regarding Thoreau’s “trout in the milk” in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,”  that he did not discount circumstantial evidence. At the same time, however, he was well aware of its dangers. “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” he warned his friend in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”:

It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.

Given his success  in “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,” we also know that Sherlock Holmes did not discount medical information in favor of more sensational interpretations.*** He may have come to see Sir Theodosius’ death as due to a coincidental seizure or other event, either completely unrelated to his purging draught, or accidentally triggered by it. Unlike nearly everyone involved in the case (except for the nervous Powell himself), Holmes would not have ignored the possibility that at least one bottle of the young man’s physick had been mislabelled, or misprepared in some way, leading to a tragically accidental poisoning. Nor would he have forgotten a phial of medication Sir Theodosius had allegedly ordered made up for himself which contained Occuli indicus berries, a known convulsant–commonly prescribed for mercury poisoning. Coming across this case as a boy or a young man–and it is likely that he did–Holmes would also have been struck with the difficulty of reconciling witness testimonies and timelines, and he may well have wondered, as does Cooke, what role John Donellan’s social status (particularly when contrasted with that of the Boughton family)  played in his arrest, and his treatment in court. As an adult, Sherlock Holmes was no respecter of persons, nor did he see women as necessarily virtuous; a thorough reading of the Donellan case and its critics would have only added another layer to this foundation of his character.

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In most crime stories–including the cases of Sherlock Holmes–focus tends to shift very quickly from the victim to the list of possible perpetrators. In her conclusion, Cooke brings us back to Sir Theodosius, reminding us that he was only twenty years old when he died, still quite capable of emerging from a protracted adolescence to fulfill the responsibilities which were his inheritance, every bit as much as Lawford Hall. The reader might be forgiven, however, for looking past the body on the bed to the man and woman by the fireplace, holding empty bottles, staring at each other with frightened, suspicious eyes.

The Damnation of John Donellan is available from all major booksellers, in hardback, paperback, and e-book formats. Elizabeth Cooke, who also writes fiction, can be found on both Twitter and Facebook. You can learn more about her work on her website, http://www.elizabethcookeauthor.com.  Those interested in primary sources on the trial of John Donellan can read (free of charge) The Proceedings at Large on the Trial of John Donellan, Esq., for the Willful Murder (by Poison) of Sir The[odosius]…Boughton….  at https://archive.org/details/b20443602.  Interestingly, A Defence and Substance of the Trial of John Donellan, Esq.,  the accused’s thorough answer to the evidence presented against him at trial, which was published and sold by his attorneys, is currently only available as a paid reprint.

Footnotes:

Cooke, p. 140.

**It would be revealed after his trial that Captain Donellan did, indeed, distill laurel water, which he claimed was used for foot lotion. Cooke points out that Lady Boughton is the only person who reported a bitter almond smell associated with her son’s medication, although Dr. David Rattray, one of the physicians involved in the (worthless) attempts to autopsy the body, also mentioned an acrid smell coming from the corpse. What Cooke misses, however, is the fact that not everyone can smell cyanide. Figures range from 50% to the “one in ten” mentioned in this article from the National Institutes of Health (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2043049/). It is, therefore, quite possible that Anna Maria Boughton was right, and the phial did contain laurel water. Who put it there, and with what intent, would be another matter entirely.

***Of course, in “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” the solution is both medical and  sensational.

 

 

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7th Annual 12th Night Giveaway: Final

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Congratulations!!!

Hearty congratulations to Jim McArthur, who is our Grand Prize Winner! Here is his answer to the question: What do you think was Sherlock Holmes’s favorite case?

I believe that A Scandal In Bohemia was Holmes’s favorite case: for several reasons.

He had the opportunity to indulge himself in his love of disguise, theatrics, technical devices, and the utilization of agents. . . to deal with Royalty, while demonstrating to His Majesty that he, Holmes, was the smarter man. . . he received a jeweled, gold snuffbox as his reward: and more importantly, his treasured photograph of Irene Adler.

He met the woman he most came to admire, and (most important of all to him, since he loved a genuine contest of wits), he had one of his few experiences of being bested by an opponent.

Also, since much of his professional life was lived amidst gore and murder, he would have appreciated the fact where no real crime was committed in this case: other than by himself and Watson.

And with that, the 7th Annual 12th Night Giveaway comes to an end.  I want to thank you all for sticking with me this year, which has not been my best blogging year ever. I hope to make it up to you in 2019. Now to ship off the prizes, and start gathering more for next year…time flies when you’re having fun!

Wishing all the best in 2019. May it be your best year yet–but not your best year ever!

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7th Annual 12th Night Giveaway: Day 14

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January 6, 1895

 

It seems a bit magical that we would end up here, in the “memorable” year Watson declared “I have never known my friend to be in better form, both mental and physical, than in the year ’95.” Of course, on this, his 41st birthday, Sherlock Holmes had no idea of what awaited him. Perhaps he was even on a case, and the day went wholly unnoticed. But I like to imagine him in the sitting room of 221B, looking out on a cold winter’s night (the weather report for that day shows 30 degrees and yellow fog), warm and glad to be back for his first full year in London since 1890. Perhaps there was sherry. Perhaps Mrs. Hudson had made a Victoria sponge to celebrate to occasion. Maybe Watson treated him to a birthday dinner at Simpson’s, and Mycroft popped ’round for cake and chess.

Hopefully, it was happy.

It seems fitting, then, in a year that is a calendar twin to that remarkable anno 1895, to close out this year’s Giveaway and open a New Year of blogging with a poem that takes us up to the lamplit window of 221B, and lets us stand in the glow of goodness it cast over the darkest corners of London, and of our hearts.

221B

Here dwell together two men of note

Who never lived and so can never die:

How very near they seem, yet how remote

That age before the world went all awry.

But still the game’s afoot for those with ears

Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo;

England is England yet, for all our fears–

Only those things the heart believes are true.

 

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane

As night descends upon this fabled street;

A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,

The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.

Here, though the world explode, these two survive,

And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

Vincent Starrett

 

And, of course, as it is The Birthday, it’s time for the Grand Prize. Remember, everyone is allowed to participate, even if they’ve won twice this time around. As for the question? Since I’m feeling reflective at the moment, how about…

What case do you think was Sherlock Holmes’s favorite? Why? You can choose from one written in the Canon, or one of the “unsolved” cases with which Watson delights in teasing us.

Send in your answer via blog post or FB message. If your name is chosen in the drawing, you’ll receive…

 

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You know you need this on your wall, right next to your portrait of General Gordon. I haven’t torn open the matte, but while the photo seems like a high-quality print, while the autograph is genuine, from well-known and reputable dealers Markus Brandes. I will include the COA (certificate of authentication) with the autograph. The winner will be drawn on Monday evening, after 9:00 pm EST (which is when I get off work). Best wishes for a wonderful Birthday!

 

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Congratulations!!!

Congratulations to Claudia, who won the Birthday Eve Book Club prize! The answer was, of course, Hatherly from “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.”

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7th Annual 12th Night Giveaway: Day 13

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Christmas, 1894

 

It may not have been the happiest Christmas of John Watson’s life, but it was certainly the happiest in recent memory. His Mary would always be a ghost of Christmas past, but at least there was only one ghost, now. 221B reeked of shag again, papers all over the floor–and his own medical magazines and writing things. He was back in the flat with “the best and wisest man,” and if he only wrote of two of their cases that year, it wasn’t because they’d been idle. Work was the best antidote for sorrow–but it was nice to not have two deaths to mourn anymore.

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I’ve shared a lot of murder with you this Giveaway (and those were not the worst cases I found) but crime wasn’t always grim in Victorian London. Sometimes it was just…ridiculous. Here are some cases that never made it to 221B:

THE LATEST BOMB SCARE IN WHITEHALL.

STUPID WORK OF A PRACTICAL JOKER.

Some little excitement was occasioned at several of the Government offices by the delivery of suspicious-looking parcels addressed to the Secretary of the Duchy of Cornwall, Colonel Sir Nigel Kingscote, Chief Commissioner of Woods and Forests, and three or four other officials. In one case the parcel contained a box, with mechanism attached; and fears being entertained as to the possibly dangerous character of the parcels sent to Scotland-yard for examination. They were, however, found to contain nothing more dangerous than paper torn up, and it was evident that some person had perpetrated a stupid practical joke. The parcel addressed to the Chief Commissioner of Woods and Forests was sent from Tamworth, Staffordshire, and was delivered at the offices in Whitehall by a Midland Railway porter. It was handed to a messenger, who cautiously untied the string and, noting the appearance of the enclosed box, immediately gave information to the police.

THE ARREST OF TWO MEN.

The sequel to the receipt of the mysterious packages at the various Government offices in London yesterday followed at Tamworth to-day, when Detective Fisher arrested Charles Joseph Bent, master plumber and decorator, and Frank Cannock, mechanic, of Tamworth, on a charge of sending parcels containing twenty-four bombs to the Government offices at Whitehall. The police believe the action of the accused was a ruse for securing the prize for advertizing a certain periodical, copies of which were enclosed in the packages. It is stated that the bombs were provided with a cap which would explode with a loud noise, but were otherwise harmless.–Pall Mall Gazette,  December 1, 1894.

I don’t know what the “periodical” was–but I can’t imagine he won the prize, can you?

THE POLICE COURTS.

BOW-STREET.–A Striking Christmas Box.–One of the prisoners who was stated to have been fighting said to the magistrate: “It was like this, your worship. A man comes up to me, and says, says he, ‘Here’s a Christmas box for you.’ With that he gave me a box. I accepts it because I couldn’t help it, and returns the compliment.” –Sir John Bridge: What sort of Christmas box was it?–Prisoner: One behind the ear-hole, your worship, and a good ‘un it was. (Laughter).–It was stated the prisoner was a hard-working man, and he was discharged.–Another man charged with being drunk and fighting urged as an excuse that he had been to a music-hall.–Sir John Bridge: It is said that music charms the savage breast. It seems to have aroused your fighting instincts. (Laughter.) Go away.–The Daily News,  December 28, 1894

Now for today’s question, in which, astoundingly, Canon and real life may well collide…..

Do you ever wonder what happened to Holmes’s clients after their cases were concluded? I found this interesting little article in Reynolds’s Newspaper of December 16, 1894:

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Allowing for the (reasonable) possibilities that Watson changed the name of the client in order to protect his identity, and that Baring Gould was wrong on the date he assigned this particular case, which story would this article be a fitting coda for?

If your entry is selected in the drawing, you’ll win the final “book club” prize of the year, this time including books that examine the history of Sherlock Holmes and his creator:

 

 

As always, to enter, send your answer in via blog comment or FB message. Now to get caught up on the drawings! We’ve got one more day!!!

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Congratulations!!!

Noreen Pazderski is the winner of the Strand subscription!  Here is what she thinks Holmes did after pitching over the edge in “The Adventure of the Final Problem.”

I think that Holmes needed some time to recover from injuries sustained trying to escape from Reichenbach so he did spend time in Tibet and traveling Europe in disguise. Then he cleaned up the remainder of Moriarty ‘s network before coming home to London to defeat Moran.

 

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