Was Sherlock Holmes born on January 6 or June 17?
Sherlockians certainly have celebrated that birthday on enough January 6s to solidify the earlier date. But for a time, back in 1956 and 1957, that question was being debated in the typewritten pages of The Baker Street Journal.
Russel McLauchlin, Rolfe Boswell, and Nathan Bengis all went hard at the argument, writing at a level of trivial evidence that only madmen . . . or those enjoying a little recreational insanity . . . would descend toward. Astrology, gemology, minor comments made large -- the three men made their cases with a fervor that isn't always pleasant to read, not because of the emotional intensity, but just because they're playing the game at its most arcane level. Demons have surely been raised with less obscure chanting.
At the end of it all, in the October 1957 issue of the Journal, Bengis seemed to get in the last word and was later seemingly declared the winner by Williams S. Baring-Gould in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, a work that was certainly the Canonical Bible of choice for many of my generation of Sherlockians. I like to think it was settled then, as it meant the world was just that much more peaceful just before my own birthday, but I remember a few of my friends who still want to go the June 17th route. (Maybe for the warmer weather for celebrating? There are places that are warm in January that one could go to.)
With two Twelfth Night quotes and an untasted hangover breakfast in The Valley of Fear as chief evidence for January 6, I think that really, like Christmas, it's a birthday that is more tradition than actual historical fact. McLauchlin and Boswell were certainly iconoclasts when they pushed the June 17the date back in the 1950s, based on an emerald birthstone and a Sarasate concert. Their arguments were every bit the equal of Boswell's, but they were fighting an uphill battle and probably sure to lose no matter what they came up with.
Christopher Morley had set the date back in the 1930s, just as Emperor Constantine set another famous birthday back in the 300s, and tradition is a hard nut to crack.
Sherlock Holmes might have once cried, "Data! Data! Data! I can't make bricks without clay!" but when it comes to birthdays, I definitely don't think we're so picky. Just pick a day, start celebrating on that day, and eventually it will stick.
Unless, of course, someone wants to take up that debate again, as happened sixty years ago.
(Meanwhile, celebrating Sherlock's birthday in Peoria between 3 and 5 PM at Peoria's North Branch Library this Saturday. Too late to change it now!)