“A Superstitious Nurse and the Ghost of a Murdered Man”–Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, Wednesday 20 July 1864

For your perusal, another entry in our series of spooky stories Sherlock Holmes may have encountered–and scoffed at. Like the previous article, this one appeared in a Yorkshire paper when Holmes was ten years old. Given his youthful familiarity with the typefaces used in various papers, it is likely he read Miss Campbell’s story; one wonders if, even then, he could imagine the many possible motives behind it.

Mary Ellen Campbell, Toxteth-street, Toxteth-park, sued Arthur Grindrod, St. James’s-place, Toxteth-park, her master, for 11 s. 6 d, wages. The plaintiff, who is about twenty years of age, and had been in defendant’s service for two years, alleged that she was turned out of her situation on the 16th of June without any notice, and she therefore claimed a month’s wages. Defendant’s wife on the other hand affirmed that the servant left of her own accord, and that she was sorry when she went. The girl had frequently told her that she could not live in the house, because a murder had been committed in her bed-room, and she had seen a ghost there. She said that a man had told her that a murder had been committed there, but she refused to tell his name.–

Defendant: Two persons were murdered, one in my bed-room, and one in the room under. They were buried in the kitchen, and I was dreadfully alarmed. I saw something like a ghost in my bedroom; it was like a man.–His Honour: And that frightened you did it?–Plaintiff: No, but what a girl told me afterwards did. She told me that someone had been murdered.–His Honour: I hope you have more sense than to believe what you have heard. Plaintiff: I can’t help it; I can’t stand it.–A young man was call in as a witness, who denied that the plaintiff had been turned out of doors; but said that she told him that two of the bodies were buried in the kitchen, one on the west, and one on the south-east. The girl too him that she would be content to live there if the kitchen was examined, and the ground underneath, where the bodies rested, dug up. The plaintiff left the service on account of having seen a ghost.–Plaintiff: Not on account of the ghost, Sam.–His Honour: What was it, then?–Plaintiff: Because I had heard that a murder had been committed in the house. You have sworn false, Sam. I could live very well in the family, but not in the house. I am not afraid of ghosts but of the murder.–His Honour (addressing defendant): But there has been no murder committed there, has there?–Defendant: Undoubtedly not.–His Honour, to plaintiff: But even supposing there had been, Why should you let that disturb your sleep?–Defendant: No one could have taken more trouble to prove to her the fallacy of ghosts than I have, but she persisted in saying that she would convince me that she had seen one. On Saturday night I had great trouble in getting her and her fellow servant to bed on account of these ghost stories, and it was two o’clock on Sunday morning before they went to bed. I told them they must either go to bed or leave the house, upon which plaintiff said that she would rather leave the house, but that Mrs. Grindrod would not allow her.–His Honor gave it as his opinion that the plaintiff had discharged herself in consequence of her fears being excited; but before he gave a verdict he suggested that defendant should pay the poor girl her wages.–Defendant said he would most readily have done so, had not the plaintiff made reflections on his wife’s character.–Verdict for the defendant.–Liverpool Albion.

ghost photo woman scared by apparition

“No Ghosts Need Apply”

“This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground and there it must remain.

The world is big enough for us.

No ghosts need apply.”

(“The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”)

So Sherlock Holmes famously declares to Watson when the pair go to solve the case of what, at first, appears to be a case of vampirism. Of course, Holmes never imagined for a second that an actual member of the undead was draining members of the Ferguson household of blood; nor did he believe that a spectral hound was haunting the Baskerville family. Sherlock Holmes was a man of science and, when it came to the supernatural, the ultimate sceptic. Still, he lived in an age when many Britons, regardless of background, were ready and willing to believe in the ghostly–witness the Spiritualist beliefs of Watson’s literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–so he could hardly escape hearing about the hauntings, groanings, rappings, and mediumistic hijinks occurring (supposedly) all around him. This month, we’ll look at a few supernatural sources Sherlock Holmes may have encountered during his childhood, youth, and public career…

First up, an article which actually debunks several ghost tales, taken from the Leeds Intelligencer from 7 May, 1864.  If, as Baring-Gould tells us, Sherlock Holmes spent his boyhood in Yorkshire, he may well have read this piece at the impressionable age of ten, and taken from it that every supernatural event has a natural explanation:

(From The Guardian website)
               (From The Guardian website)


You may not admire my taste, good reader, but I am very fond of ghost stories. Bear with me–I’m a lonely bachelor, and my friends–some of whom are slightly idiotic if not downright lunatics–say somewhat eccentric. Well, not to talk more of my poor self, the ghost, I may say, has been the great bugbear of our lives from infancy to manhood, and many a time on long winter nights, when the tempestuous north winds are discoursing doleful and weird-like music, and when the ‘wrathful skies gallow the very wanderers of the dark,’ I think of  ‘dear friends departed,’  who are said not to rest easily at the bourne from whence, as the immortal bard of Avon says, ‘no traveller returns.’ I live on a great moor–dreary enough on dreary winter nights–and as I am of a somewhat dreamy and superstitious nature, the reader may easily fancy about the ‘noon of night’ the directions that my reveries sometimes take. The house in which I have lived since childhood has a ghostly reputation, but the ghost in question, although it has had many opportunities of giving me a flying call, she–although I fully believe our ghost is of the epicene gender, viz., a Fan Tom–hsa not had the good manners to do so as yet. However, to be serious–frightened into a belief in ghosts and hobgoblins by our nurses in childhood, the belief has clung to us with terrible pertinacity, all through after life, often exerting a very injurious influence, not only upon our imaginations and nervous system, but also our general health of body. Many good and eminent men of various nations and in all ages have, indeed, been believers in ghosts; it is not difficult, however, to trace this belief to the influence of early education; and upon a subject of this kind great names must not be considered as authoritative against common sense and the universal experience of mankind, which is–that no one has ever seen a ghost himself, but always knows someone else who has! But, thanks to Professor Pepper, the ghost has now become a popular and pleasant companion and we have been let into some of the secrets, in reference to the manufacture of ghosts ‘wholesale and retail.’

Professor Pepper's
Professor Pepper’s “Ghost” was a popular phantasmagoric entertainment at the time. Beginning in 1862, John Henry Pepper of the Royal Polytechnique, using a mirror technique developed by Henry Dircks, thrilled audiences throughout Britain who came to see his “specter” onstage. Had the young Sherlock Holmes been among them, he had yet another reason to assume that ghosts only existed through trickery.

I shall not now, however, on the present occasion, undertake to deny the possibility of spectral appearances–all that I shall attempt to do is simply to show the utter groundlessness of the belief in supernatural appearances, as evinced in the generally received ghost stories, and to show the impossibility of such appearances subserving any useful purpose in the economy of nature, without which object in view they would not be employed as agent in accomplishing God’s purposes. There are many who, although they do not really believe in spectral appearances, are, nevertpe less the subjects of continual fear, arising, it may be, from nervous temperaments causing an involuntary and indescribable feeling of dread whenever passing, for example, thorough a churchyard, or other lonely spot,

‘At the witching hour, when churchyards yawn,

And graves give up the dead.’

Now, it is my wish, if possible, to remove this fear, and, therefore, without denying spiritual existence, or even the possibility of spiritual appearances, I shall endeavour to show in what way many of these supposed appearances may be accounted for. And sometimes, no doubt, they may arise from natural delusion produced by fantastic objects indistinctly seen under the influence of an excited imagination. Who, for instance, has not conjured up in his mind, while sitting in a gloomy mood over a winter’s fire, all kinds of fantastic and frightful objects, which have appeared to flit before his eyes like so many imps out for a holiday. I have many a time and oft. So, in many cases, the imagination has conjured up a ghost or hobgoblin, as may be seen from the following instance, related by Sir Walter Scott, in his first letter on Demonology and Witchcraft.

Scott Letters on Demonology and Wtichcraft

A friend of his own, he says, was ‘engaged during the darkening twilight of an autumn evening in perusing one of the publications which professed to detail the habits and opinions of an illustrious poet. It was when laying down his book, and passing from his sitting-room into an entrance hall fantastically fitted up, through which the moon was beginning to shine, that the individual spoke of, saw right before him, and in a standing posture, the exact representation of his departed friend, the poet, whose recollection had been so strongly brought to his imagination. He stopped for a single moment, so as to notice the wonderful accuracy with which fancy had impressed upon the bodily eye the peculiarities of dress and posture of the deceased poet. Sensible, however, of the delusion, he felt no sentiment, save that of wonder, at the extraordinary accuracy of the resemblance, and stepped onwards towards the figure, which resolved itself, as he approached, into the various materials of which it was composed, which were merely a screen, occupied by great coats, shawls, plaids, and such other articles as usually are found in a country entrance-hall. Now, it is evident, in this case, that if this gentleman had been an ignorant and superstitious man, this supposed appearance of the deceased poet would have been passed off as a real ghost. Another very striking case is also mentioned by the same author. A society of gentlemen were accustomed to meet on a certain evening in each week in the summer-hour of a garden in Plymouth, ‘On once occasion they came together as usual, when the president of the evening was known to be alarmingly ill. From a sentiment of respect the chair was left vacant, and the general conversation turned upon the absent president, when suddenly the door opened, and the appearance of the president entered the room. He wore a white wrapper, a night cap round his brow, and the appearance of his face was that of death itself. He stalked into the room with unusual gravity, took the vacant chair, lifted the empty glad which stood before him, bowed around, and put it to his lips; then replaced it on the table, and stalked out of the room as silent as he had entered it. The company were of course appalled. At length, after many observations on what they had seen, they resolved to send two of their number as visitors, to see how it fared with the president, whose appearance they had just seen. They went and returned with the frightful intelligence that he had just died.’ Here, then, was, without a doubt, a veritable ghost; and so, probably, thought many of the members, for the affair remained a mystery for many years until the nurse, who had attended the president at his death, on being taken ill herself, sent for one of the members, to ‘whom she acknowledged with many expressions of regret that she felt great distress of conscience on account of the manner in which he died. She said that, as his malady was attended by light-headedness, she had been directed to keep a close watch upon him during his illness. Unhappily, she slept, and during her sleep her patient had awaked and left the apartment. When, on her own awaking, she found the bed empty and the patient gone, she hurried out of the house to seek him, and met him in the act of returning. She got him replaced in bed, but it was only to die there. She added, to convincer her hearer of the truth of what she said, that immediately after the poor gentleman had expired, a deputation of two members from the club came to inquire after the president’s health, and received for answer that he was already dead.’

scary-ghost-story mental floss

‘There are,’ says Calmet, several kinds of specters or ghosts which haunt certain houses, make noises, appear there, and disturb those who live in them; some are sprites, or elves, which divert themselves by troubling those who dwell there; others are specters or ghosts of the dead who molest the living until they have received sepulture; others show themselves or make themselves heard, because they have been put to death in that place, and ask that their death may be avenged, or that their bodies may be buried. So many stories are related concerning these things, that now they are not cared for, and nobody will believe any of them. In fact, when these pretended apparitions are thoroughly examined into, it is easy to discover their falsehood and illusion.’ A case of this kind occurred in Picardy, where at a certain chateau flames and smoke were seen, and cries and frightful howling heard. The owner of the chateau was a brave man, and he resolved to find out the spirit and see what it was made of. Accordingly, when one night there was a great noise over the room in which he slept, himself and two friends rushed up into the room, each holding a pistol in one hand and a candle in the other, when a sort of black phantom, with horns and a tail, presented itself and began to gambol about before them. One of the gentlemen immediately fired off his pistol, but the specter, instead of falling, turned round and skipped out before him; the gentleman then tried to seize it, but it escaped by the back staircase; the gentleman followed it, but all at once, it entirely disappeared from his sight. But just when the spirit disappeared it was observed that there was a trap=door which was bolted underneath; they forced open the trap and there they found the pretend spirit, which was none other than the gentleman’s own farm bailiff. He owned all his artifices, and that what had rendered him proof against the pistol shot was having a buffalo’s hide which tightly fitted to his body.

Illustration for Sheridan Le Fanu's
Illustration for Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery.”

But the two most singular instances of haunted houses, perhaps, were Mr. Mompesson’s, at Bedworth, and the Rev. Wesley’s, at Epworth. In the one case, according to Glanvil, it appears that in March, 1661, Mr. Mompesson, who was a magistrate, had committed to prison, as a vagran,t a drummer who had been for some time levying alms from the people. The drum was, of course, taken from him, and detained by the proper officer. This was a proceeding by no means approved of, it appears, by either drum or drummer; for about the middle of next month (April), Mr. Mompesson being about to make a journey to London, himself took charge of the drum, and from that moment his troubles began; for, says Mr. Glanvil, ‘After this the noise of thumping and drumming was very frequent, usually five nights together, and then it would intermit three. It was on the outside of the house, which was most of it board. It constantly came as they were going to sleep, whether early or late. After a month’s disturbance without, it came into the room where the drum lay, four or five nights in seven, within half an hour after they were in bed, continuing almost two. The sign of it, just before it came, was a hurling over the house; and at its going off, the beating of a drum, like that at the breaking up of a guard.’ This continued, it seems, for about two months, only intermitting during Mr. Mompesson’s confinement, and then commencing with greater violence than before. For an hour together it would beat, as well as any drummer, ‘Roundheads and Cuckolds,’ the ‘Tattoo,’ and several other military pieces; it would then life the children from their beds, follow them about, and play all manner of pranks in the family. This continued altogether about two years, Mr. Mompesson himself ascribing it to ‘the malice of the drummer, in league with the evil one.’ In the present day we should not find it difficult to assign a more reasonable cause.

An illustration from Glanvil's account of the Tedworth Drummer, which by the mid-19th century had been determined to have been a hoax.
An illustration from Glanvil’s account of the Tedworth Drummer in “Saducismus Triumphatus” which by the mid-19th century had been determined to have been a hoax.

In Mr. Wesley’s case it would seem that at his parsonage-house at Epworth, there occurred, throughout the months of December, 1716, and January, 1717, sundry, unaccountable disturbances, of which he kept a detailed journal, and an account of which was afterwards published by John Wesley, in the Arminian Magazine. These disturbances consisted in doors opening and shutting without apparent cause, knockings in the wall and on the floor, throwing about the furniture, walking up and down-stairs, &c. There can be no doubt but that, in both these instances, we may account for the noises in the same way as the Cock-lane Ghost, the Stockwell Ghost, and others, namely from some trickery or imposture–although the Wesleys were disposed to account for the visitation in their case, from the fact of  Mrs. Wesley declining to say ‘Amen,’ when the king was prayed for. Some ghosts and specters no doubt owe their existence to a timorous or distempered imagination, while others take their rise from the reciprocal pleasure of deluding and being deluded. In fact, to this we attribute a great majority of cases of this kind. We all know that turnip, hollowed our by mischievous boys, with holes in the face of it, to represent eyes, nose, and mouth, and with a light placed inside, and stuck upon a pole with a sheet hung round, makes a capital ghost, and has frightened many an old woman of either sex. A winding sheet, also, wrapped round the body of a living man, makes a tolerable walking spectre on a dark night, especially in the neighbourhood of some haunted spot, or scene of recorded murder. Many such tricks are mentioned in the ‘Ghost Seer’ by Schiller, who describes in forcible language how apparitions may be created by means of the magic lantern; and how a man may be so charged with electricity as to be rendered invulnerable to the sword. And some instances of a similar kind may be found in Catherine Crowe’s “The Night Side of Nature.”

Epworth Rectory, site of the Wesley family's ghostly experiences in the early 18th century.
Epworth Rectory, site of the Wesley family’s ghostly experiences in the early 18th century.

Practical jokes are often play which have a very disastrous effect upon the individual upon whom they are practised. A gentleman of intelligence had been a frequent visitor in a family of distinction. The subject of ghosts was often discussed; the heads of the family contending for their occasional appearance, the visitor opposing that opinion. Upon one occasion the family determined to test the firmness of their friend’s views, and, accordingly, a sort of domestic drama was got up with this object in view. It was given out that the butler, a highly valued servant, had expired, and the whole family was put into mourning. When therefore the visitor next went to the house, he saw a new servant in the butler’s place, and at the dinner-table, he was informed of all the circumstances attending the supposed illness and death of the butler. In the midst of this conversation the gentleman, happening to turn his head, was greatly amazed to find the figure of the butler standing by the side-board; the conversation went on, no one but himself appearing to see the figure, which remained motionless until the company retired. At bed-time, he saw the same figure standing in a corner on the landing-place, as he ascended to his bed-room. By a little artifice, the gentleman’s attention was now directed by his host to some paintings, during which the butler vanished and when the visitor entered his bed-chamber the figure of the butler was there. He had not had candour enough during the evening to express his alarm, fearing that he should be laughed at; but now no sooner had the chamber-door closed upon him, with what he believed to be a ghost in the room, than the fear, which had tormented him all the evening, attained his climax, and he swooned away. The butler, finding things had gone too far, became alarmed and called for assistance; but the visitor was dead. Then, again, who had not heard of the case of the German student, who, for a wager with a fellow student, was watching in the same room with a coffined carcass. At  midnight, the body in the coffin rose slowly up like a white phantom, swaddled as it was in the sad habiliments of the grave. The student presented a pistol, but the body advanced–he fired–the spectre flung back in his face the innocuous bullet! What was the consequence? The apparition was a living, but the student was a dead man, for he survived not the shock. And yet nothing was more simple than the deception. His companion had extracted the bullet from his loaded pistol–removed the dead body–borrowed its habiliments–and taken its place in the coffin.  Again, a young Frenchman lost his betrothed on the eve of marriage; and believed that he saw her spirit every night in her bridal dress. His friends, to prove to him the folly of this belief, dressed a twin sister of the deceased in a dress precisely similar, and placed her at the foot of his bed, exactly at the hour the spirit was won’t to appear to him. He looked up, and crying out ‘Ah! ceil! en voila deux!’ fell back dead upon his pillow. Some few years ago, a friend of my own, at that time residing in Norfolk, had occasion to be from home very late one night. On his return home he had to pass through the churchyard, through which was a public pathway, crossed by a stile. The moon was shining in all its resplendent beauty, and every object around was distinctly visible. He had reached the middle of the churchyard, when he saw, what at first he supposed to be the shadow of a tree on the top of a flat gravestone. He advanced; but, as he did so, the apparent shadow, black from top to toe, gradually raised itself to a sitting posture. Terror took instant possession of the mind of our friend, and he was deprived of all power to move or speak, when slowly the spectre thus spoke–‘Please, zur, a’ yow zeen my dickey?’ Now, had this good friend suddenly fled, instead of being riveted to the spot by fear, this would always have been related as a ghostly appearance; but the fact of the case was, that a poor chimney-sweeper had been making his rounds during the day, and finding himself at night, overcome by fatigue, had sent his donkey (vulgo, in Norfolk, dickey) to graze, while he rested himself on a gravestone–he fell asleep, and did not wake until the footsteps aroused him; and his first thought about the welfare of his ‘dickey’ led to the inquiry which undeceived his terrified beholder as to his true character.

Old St Pancras

Dr. Fowler, Bishop of Gloucester, was not only a believer in ghosts, but wrote several works in defense of their existence on earth. Judge Powell was a great antagonist of the bishop, and attempted by the following device to convince of his error. The judge called one morning early at the bishop’s palace, when the following conversation ensured:–

Judge: Since I saw you I have had ocular demonstration of the existence of nocturnal apparitions. 

Bishop: I am glad you have become a convert to truth; but do you say actual ocular demonstration? Let me know all the particulars.

Judge: My lord, I will. It was–let me see–last Thursday night, between the hours of eleven and twelve o’clock, as I lay sleeping in my bed, I was suddenly awakened by an uncommon noise and heard something coming up-stairs and stalking directly towards my room; the door flying open I drew back my bed curtain and saw a faint glimmering light enter my bed-chamber. 

Bishop: Of a faint colour, no doubt. 

Judge: The light was a pale blue, my lord bishop, and followed by a tall figure, with hoary locks, and clothed in a long loose gown, a leathern girdle about his loins, a large fur cap on his head, and a long staff in his hand. I remained for some time motionless and silent–the figure advanced staring me full in the face; I then addressed it and said–Whence and what art thou? 

Bishop: What was the answer? Tell me; what was the answer? 

Judge: The following was the answer I received: I am watchman of the night, an’t please your honour, and make bold to come up-stairs to say that your street-door is left open, and if not soon shut you may be robbed before morning.

Well, if he looked like this....
       Well, if he looked like this….

As a general rule, it may be affirmed that ghosts never prey on healthy subjects surrounded by cheerful accessories. ‘Your lordship,’ said Sir Thomas Wolde to Lord Lyndhurst, on one occasion, ‘your lordship is not the kind of man to see apparitions; besides, you do not eat suppers.’ ‘Any one who thinks he has seen a ghost, says one, ‘may take the vision as a symptom that his bodily health is deranged. Let him therefore seek medical advice; and ten to one, the spectre will no more haunt him. To see a ghost is ipso facto to be a subject for a physician.’ The following case will exemplify this remark–it is said that of a gentleman of rank, resident in Edinburgh, who imagined that regularly and daily, precisely at the hour of six o’clock, when he had just finished dinner, his dining-room door flew open, an old withered hag rushed in with a furious countenance, and, muttering wrath and execration, knocked him to the ground with her staff. He consulted the celebrated Dr. Gregory, who requested permission to dine with him, and having witnessed, not the old hag herself, but the effects of her stroke, found the illusion to proceed from periodic shocks of the nature of apoplexy, happening regularly at that hour. The doctor succeeded, by blood-letting and other remedies,in disenchanting his patient. The hag was a mere spectre of his imagination, precisely similar to the sensations produced by nightmare, and was the effect of a morbid and diseased mind. ‘Conscience,’ says DeFoe, ‘raises many a devil that all the magic in the world cannot lay; it shows us many apparitions that no other eyes can see, and sets spectres before us with which the devil has no acquaintance; conscience makes ghosts walk, and departed souls appear when the souls themselves know nothing of it.’

Ebenezer Scrooge might have something to say about this.
Ebenezer Scrooge might have something to say   about this.

Two ladies once loved each other greatly. One of them was taken ill with small-pox and died; the other, fearing infection, did not go to see her friend. But after she was dead the deceased paid a visit of reproach to her living friend. she appears at her friend’s house in the dress of a widow, and politely asks to be allowed to see her. Her friend was then engaged at cards, and did not care to be troubled with any ghostly visitor, and, therefore, did not go down until the game was ended. When she went down to the apparition, to know her business, ‘Madam,’ said the ghost, ‘you know very well that you and I loved each other well, and your not coming to see me I took ill at your hands. I am now come to tell you that you have not long to live, and when you are at a feast and the thirteenth is number, then remember my words.’


There is also a peculiar state of the brain in which such appearances are not unusual. A remarkable case is quoted by Newnham in his Essay in Superstition, in which this extraordinary state of brainular disease is traced to the influence of tobacco fumes; and another, in which a German student subjected himself to the influence of hemlock, &c., for the purpose of exciting his imaginative powers. The brain is easily influenced, and hence the prevalence of morbid hallucination. It is related in the Memoirs of Pastor Oberlin, that there appeared nightly to the family of of one his parishioners, the ghost of an ancient knight, who gave information of treasure hidden in some cellar. Of course the good pastor who was called in, could see nothing; but he very wisely addressed the supposed apparition in a commanding tone, desiring it to delude his people no longer; and it never came again. To this cause, also, we attribute the supposed  remarkable appearance of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford, and many others of the same kind. A ghost, then, is, after all, a mere illusion, and has no substantially. If the ghost be substantial, it is evident that its habiliments must be substantial also; for a ghost never appears naked, but always clad in the dress of the time in which it lived. Even Shakespeare represents the ghost in Hamlet as clothed in armour from head to foot. Whence, we ask, comes this dress and this armour, and the habiliments are generally clothed? It must be evident that they come not from the grave, nor direct from the unseen world. They are the mere creatures of a disordered brain which, in conjuring up the ghost, naturally conjures up [] the dress usually worn. In the story of Mr. Thompson, as related by Mr. Dale Owen, it appears that, while he was lying ill in bed in his own house, his apparition (or double) appeared to two ladies, dressed in a blue frock coat [] satin waistcoat, black pantaloons, and hat, while he [] was observed to be particularly fine and []. In reading this story we are disposed to inquire whether the sick man or his friends missed any articles of apparel from his wardrobe. But George Cruikshank has made this the subject of special investigation; and although, [] certainly, his “Discovery” is not new, yet he has placed the matter before the public in such a manner as [] seriously to damage the belief in all ghosts, [] or dressed. Upon the whole, therefore, we may [] that none will ever see them, or be troubled with them, but those whose credulity, disordered frames, and superstitious fears, or hopes and wishes, give them an imaginary existence. There is no tangibility about them, and, like many other things of which we are acquainted, they will end in smoke; thus Homer:–

‘He said, and with his longing []

In vain to grasp the visionary state;

Like a thin smoke he sees the []

And hears a feeble, lamentable cry.”


Certain Qualities Essential to an Investigating Officer–Hans Gross, 1883

Hans Gross
                                  Hans Gross

Sherlockians are (whether they know it or not) acquainted with the work of Austrian Examine Justice Hans Gross. In his influential Manual for the Examining Justice (1883), he details the case of a man who committed suicide using a method similar to that employed by Maria Gibson in “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” As Holmes realized quite early in his career that there is (in the words of Solomon) “nothing new under the sun,” (quoted in STUD), it is quite likely that he not only read Gross’ book (we can infer from his quotes from Goethe that Holmes was fluent in German), but that it stuck with him enough that his suspicions were aroused the day he stood on the bridge with Watson and saw that small chip.


This makes me wonder if the young Sherlock Holmes drew inspiration from Gross’ writing in other ways, too. Read this selection from his Manual and see if it doesn’t sound…familiar…..

pistol royalty free

“It goes without saying that an Investigating Officer should be endowed with all those qualities which every man would desire to possess–indefatigable zeal and application, self-denial and perseverance, swiftness to read men and a thorough knowledge of human nature, education and an agreeable manner, an iron constitution, and encyclopaedic knowledge. Still, there are some special qualities whose importance is frequently overlooked to which attention may be peculiarly and forcibly directed.

“First and above all an Investigating Officer must possess an abundant store of energy; nothing is more deplorable than a crawling, lazy, and sleepy Investigating Officer. Such a man is more fit to be a gentleman-at-large than an Investigating Officer. He who recognizes that he is wanting in energy can but turn to another branch of the legal profession, for he will never make a good investigator. Again the Investigating Officer must be energetic not only in special circumstances, as when, for example, he finds himself face to face with an accused person who is hotheaded, refractory, and aggressive, or when the work takes him away from office and he proceeds to record a deposition or make an arrest without having his staff or office to aid him but energy much always be displayed when he tackles a difficult, complicated, or obscure case. It is truly painful to examine a report which shows that the Investigating Officer has only fallen to his work with timidity, hesitation and nervousness, just touching it, so to speak, with the tips of his fingers; but there is satisfaction in observing that a case has been attacked energetically and grasped with animation and vigour. The want of special cleverness and long practice can often be compensated by getting a good grip of the case, but want of energy can be compensated by nothing. Those incomparable words of Goethe, true for all men, are above all true for the criminal expert,

“Strike not thoughtlessly a nest of wasps,

But if you strike, strike hard.”

The Investigating Officer must have a high grade of real self-denying power. It is not enough that he is a clever reckoner, a fine speculator, a careful weigher of facts, and possesses a good business head, he must be self-denying, unostentatious and perfectly honest, resigning at the outset all thoughts of magnificent public success. The happy-go-lucky apprehension of the policeman, the effective summing up of the judge, the clever conduct of the case by a counsel, all meet with acknowledgement, astonishment, and admiration from the public, but such triumphs are not for the Investigating Officer. If the latter be working well, those few people who have had an opportunity of really studying the case as it goes along will discover his unceasing and untiring work from the documents on record and will form some correct idea of the brain work, power of combination, and extensive knowledge which the Investigating Officer has employed. The Investigating Officer will be held responsible for the smallest and most pardonable mistake, while his care and his merits are seldom acknowledged. Let him be conscious of having done his duty in the only possible way. Beyond this we can only say, “Virtue is its own reward.”

(STUD, Richard Gutschmidt)
       (STUD, Richard    Gutschmidt)

“But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession–or rather, created it, for I am the only one in the world.”

“The only unofficial detective?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“The only unofficial consulting detective,” he answered. “I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection. when Greyson or Lestrade or Athelney Jones are out of their depths–which, by the way, is their normal state–the matter is laid before me. I examine the data, as an expert and pronounce a specialist’s opinion. I claim no credit in such cases. My name figures in no newspaper. The work itself, the pleasure of finding a field for my peculiar powers, is my highest reward. “ (A Study in Scarlet)

“Another quality demanded at any price from the Investigating Officer is absolute accuracy. We do not mean by this that he must set out details in the official records exactly as they have been seen or said, for it goes without saying that this will be so done. The quality indicated consists in not being content with mere evidence of third parties of hear-say when it is possible for him to ascertain the truth with his own eyes or by more minute investigation. This is to say no more than that the Investigating Officer should be accurate in his work, in the sense of being ‘exact,’ as that word is used in its highest scientific signification. Indeed the high degree of perfection to which all science have to-day attained is entirely due to ‘exact’ work; and if we compare a recent scientific work, whatever the subject, with an analogous book written some decades ago, we will notice a great difference between them arising almost wholly from the fact that the work of to-day is more exact than that of yesterday. Naturally in all inquiries a certain amount of imagination is necessary; but a comparison between two scientists of our time will always be to the advantage of the one whose work is the most exact: the brilliant and fruitful ideas of the scientist which astonish the world being often far from sudden and happy inspirations but the outcome of exact research. In close observation of facts, in searching for their remotest causes, in making unwearied comparisons, in instituting disagreeable experiments, in short, in attempting to elucidate a problem, the Investigating Officer will observe it under so many aspects and passing through so many phases that new ideas will spontaneously come to him which, if found to be accurate and skillfully utilised, will certainly give positive results. Since ‘exactness,’ or accuracy of work, is of so much importance in all branches of research, this accuracy must also be applied to the work of the Investigating Officer. But what is to be understood by accurate work? It consists in not trusting to others but attending to the business oneself, and even in mistrusting oneself and going through the case again and again. By so proceeding, one will certainly being about an accurate piece of work. A thousand mistakes of every description would be avoided if people did not base their conclusions upon premises furnished by others, take as established fact what is only possibility, or as a constantly recurring incident what has been observed by once. True it is that in his work the Investigating Officer can see but a trifling portion of the facts nor can he repeat his observations. His obliged largely to trust to what others tell him and it is just here that the difficulty and insufficiency of his work lie. But this inconvenience can to a certain extent be remedied; on the one hand by wherever possible making sure of things for himself instead of accepting what others tell him; and on the other hand by trying to give a more exact form to the statements of others, by comparison, experiment, and demonstration, for the purpose of testing the veracity of the deponent’s observation and obtaining from him something exact, or at least more exact than before. In endeavouring to verify the facts for himself, the Investigating Officer must personally examine localities, make measurements and comparisons, and so form his own opinion. If a small matter which can only be established by accurate observation is in question, data furnished accidentally must not be relied upon but only ascertained facts and investigations specially carried out.”

DEVI--Gilbert Halliday
          DEVI–Gilbert Halliday

“One experiment served to show me the line of his investigation. He had bought a lamp which was the duplicate of the one which had burned in the room of Mortimer Tregennis on the morning of the tragedy. This he filled with the same oil as that used at the vicarage, and he carefully timed the period which it would take to be exhausted. Another experiment which he made was of a more unpleasant nature, and one which I am not likely ever to forget.”  (DEVI)

However, as Gross points out, no matter how closely you investigate a case, it’s still possible to find yourself on the wrong track….

“…it is mankind’s nature to cling to points of support which have but little solidity; one hears of a circumstance (often but incidentally referred to by a witness) and is easily disposed on its verification to base an argument upon it. Perhaps this argument is not without merit and, giving satisfaction, another and yet another argument is made to cling to it. The case grows interesting and a successful result is in sight. All the points yet gathered together are most minutely and carefully gone into, but meanwhile the re-verification of the primary fact on which the whole structure is based has been neglected. Carried away  by zeal and the desire to bring the case to some conclusion, the Investigating Officer has proceeded too fast and without the calm and prudence requisite to such inquiries, and so all his work has been in vain. There is but one way to avoid this, to proceed “steadily,” be it at a walk, at a trot, or at the charge; but in such inquiries a halt must from time to time be made and instead of going forward he must look back. He will then examine one by one the different points of the inquiry, taking them up in order from the beginning. he will analyse each acquired result even to the smallest factor of those apparently of the least importance, and when this analysis is carried to its furthest limits, will carefully verify each of these factors from the point of view of its source, genuineness, and corroboration. If the accuracy of the elements be established, they may then be carefully placed on with another and the result obtained examined as if viewed for the first time. The case will then generally assume quite another complexion, for at the outset the sequence was not so well known; and if it has a different aspect from at first each time the matter is so revised, the question has to be asked whether it is in proper adjustment with the whole argument which has been formulated and whether there is any mistake to rectify. If the whole result is defective, the Investigating Officer must have sufficient self-denial to confess, ‘my calculation is false, I must begin all over again.'”

While Holmes did not exactly “solve” the mystery of “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” he did at least keep those principles in mind. After a fashion.

YELL with little girl
                        YELL–Sidney Paget

“What do you think of my theory?”

“It is all surmise.”

“But at least it covers the facts. When new facts come to our knowledge which cannot be covered by it, it will be time enough to reconsider it. We can do nothing more until we have a message from our friend at Norbury.”  (YELL)

Next up, our favorite magistrate covers an Investigative Officer’s interpersonal skills…..

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 know but that some of the records are not actually those of various unfortunates, but of the Great Detective in disguise.

Work House, Bear Yard, from Lloyd's Weekly, 1 September, 1895
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 it a whiff of the outre. 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

Lloyd's Weekly, 11 August 1895
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:

John and Amelia Sheehan Family, 1901 English Census
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 determine 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.

Young Boy (victorianchildren.org)
Young Boy (victorianchildren.org)

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.**

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

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

You can't seriously believe that.
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.

The Green Man, where the Blackheath inquest was held.
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.



*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.

“A Most Instructive Case”

The following excerpt is taken from Criminal Investigation: A Practical Handbook for Magistrates, Police Officer, and Lawyers,  by Austrian professor and magistrate, Hans Gross. The original 2-volume work was published in 1893; this is from a 1906 edition, “translated and adapted to Indian and Colonial practice” by John Adam J. Collier-Adam, both barristers in Madras, India, and available online at archive.org.* This section has no paragraph divisions; I have added some for better online readability.

Title page; via Open Library
Title page; via Open Library

“On the other hand, the presence of the weapon is for the most part quite indifferent; it is common to find no weapon beside persons who have undoubtedly committed suicide. This is generally attributed to the theft of the weapon by those arriving first on the scene, the weapon used by a suicide being usually supposed to produce superstitious effects. The following is a most instructive case.

Early one morning the authorities were informed that the corpse of a murdered man had been found. At the spot indicated, in the middle of a bridge crossing a rather deep stream, the body was found of a grain merchant, A.M., supposed to be a well-to-do man, face downwards with a gun shot wound behind the ear. The bullet after passing through the brain had lodged in the frontal bone above the left eye. His pocket-book was missing and the seam of the inside pocket in which it was usually carried was ripped up, as if the pocket-book had been rapidly and violently snatched out. His watch and chain were also missing, of the latter the ring attaching it to the waistcoat button was alone left. A policeman stated that A.M. had been seen the evening before in a spirit shop, were he drank with moderation and left about 10:30 pm, stating that he was about to return home. To reach his house he had to pass over the bridge where he was found dead. In the spirit shop there was at the same time as A.M., an unknown, wretched-looking man, who throughout the evening drank but a single glass of spirits and left shortly after A.M. The latter had several times taken out his pocket-book, which appeared well-filled, though no one could say whether  he had any money or how much. The supposition was therefore natural that the unknown had followed A.M., murdered him on the bridge, and robbed him; he was accordingly searched for, arrested, and brought to the spot. He denied all knowledge of the crime and said he passed the night in a barn, which however he could not point out to the police.

Hans Gross
Hans Gross

Just when the inquiry was concluding and the corpse was about to be removed after the post-mortem, the Investigating Officer observed quite by chance that on the decayed wooden parapet of the bridge, almost opposite the spot where the corpse lay, there was a small but perfectly fresh injury which appeared to have been caused by the violent blow on the upper edge of the parapet of a hard and angular body. He immediately suspected that this injury had some connection with the murder; examination with a magnifying glass showed nothing important, but it was impossible to avoid the impression that here the murderer had thrown something into the water and thus damaged the parapet. Accordingly the Investigating Officer determined to drag the bed of the stream below the bridge, when almost immediately there was picked up a strong cord about 14 feet long with a large stone at one end and at the other a discharged pistol, the barrel of which fitted exactly the bullet extracted from the head of A.M.

The case was thus evidently one of suicide; A.M. had hung the stone over the parapet of the bridge and discharged the pistol behind his ear. The moment he fired he let go the pistol, which the weight of the stone dragged over the parapet into the water, but the pistol had struck violently against the parapet in passing over and so caused the injury observed. Experiment showed the trick to be quite easy and that the parapet was damaged every time. Subsequent inquiries disclosed that the pistol actually belonged to A.M., that his affairs were hopelessly involved, and that he had just effected an insurance on his life for the benefit of his family for a large sum. As the company did not pay in cases of suicide, A.M., had adopted this means to conceal the suicide and lead to the belief that he had been murdered.

As the astute Sherlockian (are there any other kind?) no doubt recognizes, Sherlock Holmes handled a similar case in October of 1900. It’s highly possible that he had read Gross’ work in the original German, perhaps in its first edition–or a later English translation–and thus knew to look for the chip in Thor Bridge….

Illustration from “The Problem of Thor Bridge”


*The selection appears in “Part IV–Particular Offences. Chapter XVI, Bodily Injuries and Poisoning.”

This Week in the Agony Columns….

He took down the great book in which, day by day, he filed the agony columns of the various London journals. “Dear me!” said he, turning over the pages, “what a chorus of groans, cries, and bleatings! What a rag-bag of singular happenings! But surely the most valuable hunting-ground that ever was given to a student of the unusual!”–The Adventure of the Red Circle

If Sherlock Holmes happened to be glancing through the agony columns on March 21-26, 1881 (and we have no reason to believe that he didn’t) here’s what he would have seen…..

The London Standard, March 21, 1881:

Screenshot 2015-03-19 20.12.33

The London Daily News, March 21, 1881:

Took her time, didn't she?
Took her time, didn’t she?

Screenshot 2015-03-19 20.44.54

The London Standard, March 22, 1881:

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.00.14

The London Standard, March 24, 1881:

It really doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to decode "Harrowgate."
It really doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to decode “Harrowgate.”

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.25.58

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.26.15

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.26.23

London Daily News, March 24, 1881:

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.47.03

Mum? Is that you?
Mum? Is that you?

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.46.21

London Standard, March 25, 1881:

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.59.31

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.59.22

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.58.51

Screenshot 2015-03-20 11.59.08

London Daily News March 25, 1881:

He's being very thorough.
He’s being very thorough.

Screenshot 2015-03-20 12.10.06

Screenshot 2015-03-20 12.09.55

The London Standard, March 26, 1881:

Screenshot 2015-03-20 13.34.18

Still looking....
Still looking….

Screenshot 2015-03-20 13.35.21

Screenshot 2015-03-20 13.38.44
That’s a wide time frame…and one of the more suspicious-sounding ads so far….

Screenshot 2015-03-20 13.39.28

Screenshot 2015-03-20 13.39.14

Screenshot 2015-03-20 13.38.34

London Daily News, March 26, 1881:

Sounds like a good idea, really.
Sounds like a good idea, really.
Let's hope Mlle. Doignon read the papers.
Let’s hope Mlle. Doignon read the papers.

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

Admin. Note: One of the reasons I began this blog was that I wanted to opportunity to post interesting excerpts from out-of-print sources, both primary and secondary. In The Damnation of John Donellan, 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

Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence frontispiece
Title page from yet another edition. Obviously.

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.

Donellan bedroom scene
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.

John Hunter, Surgeon
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.

Donellan Trial scene
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.

Justice Francis Buller, who presided over the Donellan trial.
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.

Samuel March Phillipps, c.1826
Samuel March Phillipps, c.1826

Verdict: The Damnation of John Donellan

The damnation of john donellan image

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?


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.**

There are many species of laurel, but Prunus laurocerasus, the cherry laurel, is a source of prussic acid, or cyanide.

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.

Donellan standing

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.

From "The Boscombe Valley Mystery"
From “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

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.

John donellan profile

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.


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.

The Opening Argument….

courtroom engraving

You don’t know about me without you have read a blog by the name of The Well-Read Sherlockian; but that ain’t no matter.

I began that blog in order to be better able to share my love of Sherlock Holmes–and, more particularly, Sherlockian reading material–with anyone and everyone whose souls reside, at least partly, where it is always 1895. One of the most wonderful aspects of the Sherlockian world, however, is that a passion for the Great Detective often leads to other, just as consuming, interests. I know people who have followed  his stealthy footsteps into drama, art, music, the sciences, costuming, gaming, public speaking, and writing–both fiction and non-fiction. Just about anything that can interest a human being, one can find in Baker Street.

I chose crime.

It is a slight quirk of mine that, as much as I love fiction, what really fascinates me are the tantalizing bits of reality one can find in any story. It’s what compelled me, at the very last minute, to change my college major from English to history, and what led me, very early on in my Sherlockian life, to explore the world of Conan Doyle himself, and to wonder what bits of truth  lay behind the case details Dr. Watson readily admits he obscures.

If Sherlock Holmes were in active practice today (and who’s to say that he isn’t?), he would likely have an advanced degree in a detection-related field. He would have access to scores of databases, as well as to the support and opinions of similarly-trained (while not as brilliant) men and women. When he first began to see himself as a consulting detective (thanks to the suggestion of a friend’s father), he had no resources other than a partial university education in the sciences and an unusual gift for observation and deduction.* Just as he invented his job, he also seems to have invented his training. We gather from A Study in Scarlet that Holmes had access to the lab facilities at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (hereafter to be referred to as “St. Bart’s,” or simply “Bart’s”), and like many scientists and physicians of his day, was not averse to testing substances on himself–or others. He remedied a need for forensics knowledge through experimentation–like beating cadavers to observe postmortem bruising–and, on the day he met a certain Army doctor, had just discovered a quick and reliable method for identifying  blood stains. In “The Musgrave Ritual,” he tells Watson that, in his early days in Montague Street, he spent a good deal of time studying in the British Museum–likely the anatomy, botany (poisonous plants), and geology the doctor mentions in his famous list, “Sherlock Holmes–His Limits.”

Then, of course, there is his knowledge of crime itself. In that same list, Watson tells us that Holmes “appears to know every detail of horror perpetrated in the century.” We know from his mention of Jonathan Wilde in The Valley of Fear that the doctor should have included the 18th century as well. Holmes spends a good deal of time wandering through the less salubrious areas of London, making the acquaintance of men like Shinwell Johnson–as well as “the most winning woman I ever knew” (who murdered her children for the insurance); Parker the “harmless” garroter, and “my old friend Charlie Peace.” From them, he gains not only sources, but knowledge of how human beings think and behave, particularly when they’re being no better than they should be.

All of this information, of course, he stores in his “brain attic,” along with a mental edition of The Newgate Calendar. Yet even the most capacious mind needs a backup–hence, Holmes’s large collection of commonplace books (in which he places clippings on crime and other relevant topics), and his indexes, where he compiles information about various individuals and subjects of particular interest. Irene Adler has an entry there, as do vampires; he is apparently rather proud of the “M’s.”

my collection of Ms is a fine one

Over the last few years, as I’ve read and reviewed Sherlockian fiction, I found myself wanting to branch out a bit, to include different types of books which any well-read Sherlockian might find interesting. Some I could reasonably include in the WRS blog–a book on cocaine, another on the real man behind Birdy Edwards. Others…didn’t fit as well, and may have detracted from that blog’s stated mission. Nor did I always  wish to review them; sometimes I just wanted to share an interesting passage, a useful old book, an exciting Sherlockian connection, for ultimately the Sherlockian world is all about excitement and connections and sharing. This blog, then, isn’t about the adventures Holmes and Watson may have had, or might still be having. In The Commonplace Books, I hope to take you into the world of 221B–or at least a sordid little corner of it–to sit down together while we page through the indexes and scrapbooks, to see what Sherlock Holmes knows about crime and detection–and to wonder, occasionally, what he thought about it. There will be occasional reviews, excerpts, musings, clippings–anything and everything covering crime from the moment Cain struck Abel in the fields until the 1950’s. Please note that, given the subject matter, this will inevitably be a more adult blog, although I aim to keep it suitable for the 16-and-older crowd. I don’t plan to post gory crime scene photos, although I may provide links for those who are interested to follow at their own discretion. All entries with potentially disturbing content will be labelled as such, and comments will be heavily moderated. Remember, of course, that everyone mentioned is innocent until proven guilty–and, occasionally, when proven guilty as well.

Shall we begin?


*For the tragic story of how Sherlock Holmes came to realize that detection was his “line of life,” see “The Gloria Scott” in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.