Matt Laffey's Twitter feed reminded me of a certain challenge by Peter Calamai this week. A veteran newsman, Peter seems to like official sources, and has challenged the Sherlockian world to prove that the old story of Strand Magazine readers wearing black crepe bands in mourning of Sherlock Holmes's death at Reichenbach Falls, when they read of it in 1893.
Both Peter Calamai and his inspiration in the quest, Philip Bergem, seem to have reached a frustrating limit in their own researches and are ready to declare the story a myth we should forego rather than cherish. But you know me. Something in the Keefauver DNA always requires that I take the role of Devil's advocate . . . especially when it seems like someone is trying to lower that high pedestal our friend Sherlock Holmes stands upon, by even a millimeter.
The first mention of the mourning bands seems, at this point, to come in 1949's publication of The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by John Dickson Carr. Reading Carr's introduction, it becomes clear that the author had access unlike anyone before, or after, to Conan Doyle's papers, his still-living children, and the benefit of a life lived among many of Doyle's aged contemporaries.
"Here he [Doyle] was with a real tragedy on his hands, while letters of anger or protest or abuse poured in on him; and in London, sporting young City men went to their offices with crape bands tied round their hats for the death of Sherlock Holmes," Carr wrote.
A later writer, Reginald Pound, would express it differently in Mirror of the Century, his history of The Strand Magazine:
"If in protest rather than sorrow, young City men that month put mourning crepe on their silk hats, there were others for whom the death of a myth was akin to a national bereavement. From that hour a literary cult of exceptional vitality began stirring in the womb of time. Reporting to the shareholders of his private company, of whom Conan Doyle himself was one, Newnes referred to the dispatch of Holmes as 'a dreadful event.'"
Where Carr had vast Doylean resources, Pound had a wealth of resources regarding The Strand Magazine, and to suggest he merely cribbed from Carr would seem a bit unworthy. Note the slightly different details in his account. Silk hats, the emphasis on protest . . . the variation suggests different sources for the tale. And different sources suggest corroboration.
Do a little research into black crepe armbands or hatbands, and you'll find they were very much a thing of the Victorian era, and not something we should at all be surprised to see pop up in the swell of emotion over Holmes's death. Queen Victoria had palace servants wearing black crepe bands for years following her husband's death in 1861. And the world's first consulting detective was a prince of a fellow to many a reader, so why should he not have a few as well?
When Sherlock Holmes met his demise in 1893, it was a different time than we know today. The information age was far in the future, and newspapers were not yet into pop culture or what fans might be doing in a single day's conspiracy of fun. And yet the the folks at The Strand Magazine were sure to have noticed such a thing, even if they weren't going to write it up for their publication. And I'd wager they were the ones to tell Doyle about it, as we don't expect that he was present in that exact area of the City where it took place.
Oral tradition, that passing of knowledge from generation to generation by the spoken word, is mankind's oldest data resource, and even as fallible as it may seem to us now, was the source of most of our earliest written histories. It was still going strong a century ago, and it still goes on now. The stories we tell are our lives, and the story of black crepe mourning bands over the death of Sherlock Holmes was somebody's once as well. Denying it just because our researches don't find it in a newspaper archive may attain the level of denying the Holocaust, but it is still a wee tragedy all its own.
And after all, here in America, for all our little faults, we have this idea of "innocent until proven guilty." And while John Dickson Carr may be guilty of not documenting his every source for the more obsessive-compulsive among us, he is still innocent of creating a hoax until proven otherwise.
And if I have to march around with a black crepe mourning band on my arm to protest that innocence, I shall do so. I don't expect anyone to record the event. But I'll do it just the same.