Saturday, January 25, 2014

A friendly wager.

As written about yesterday, The Baker Street Journal has raised the question of the authenticity of a certain well-loved detail regarding the death of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. When Holmes's death was first announced by The Strand Magazine, we've been told for years, black crepe mourning bands were worn by multiple folk in London in reaction to that horrible event.

In the modern era, thanks to this wonderful thing we call the internet, no one would deny that fan reaction had "We believe in Sherlock Holmes" posters put up all over the place. But as 1893 was without cell phones equipped with cameras, the evidence for those fan mourning bands is rather slim.

In fact, the theory proposed by Phil Bergem, then pushed by Peter Calamai and seemingly, The Baker Street Journal itself, is that Adrian Conan Doyle just made up the thing and told Doyle's biographer. Adrian, born in 1910, seventeen years after the event, would have no way of knowing anything about it, of course. And the theory runs that his paternal pride was so great that he felt like pumping up Sherlock Holmes further by making the mourning band thing up.

A theory, made up by Phil Bergem. (Nothing against Phil, mind you. Nice guy, dedicated researcher, but theorist, nonetheless.)

The Baker Street Journal has now ramped up the question by offering the following reward: "The first person offering proof (as judged by your Editor) of Londoners wearing mourning bands upon the publication of "The Final Problem" in response to Sherlock Holmes's "death" wins a year's free subscription to the Journal."

The esteemed publication offering this reward would seem to offer more credence to this theory that Adrian was playing with Carr, so in order to balance the scales, I'm perfectly willing to raise the stakes on the opposite side.

Sherlock Peoria, this humble, yet fiesty blog, will offer one hundred American dollars cash money to the first person offering concrete proof (as judged by the writer of this blog, to borrow the Journal's stipulation), that the story of the black mourning bands, first reported in 1949 by John Dickson Carr, is a fabrication. I'm sure The Baker Street Journal would be more than willing to publish such proof, and I'd be more than pleased to ballyhoo such a discovery here in this blog.

Unlike the Sherlock versus Elementary battle, which can never be truly won by either side despite the disparate size of the armies, this little debate has the opportunity for someone to produce definitive proof outside of an opinion in the comment section. And until such proof is produced, both sides are merely operating on their own beliefs, and we can't simply Snopes our way out of this one.

I believe in Sherlock Holmes. And black crepe mourning bands. And there's a C-note in it for anyone able to dissuade me of one of those beliefs.


  1. I recall finding an announcement of the "death" in a 1893 UK paper and feeling a bit disappointed there was no mention of fans wearing mourning, etc. I suspect this will always remain one of those bits of fan lore we can't prove. But we have seen something similar in the #believeinsherlock movement two years ago, so who knows?

  2. This seems a safe bet on your part as, unless Adrian Doyle or John Carr wrote in a diary somewhere that they fabricated the armband incident, it is unlikely that such proof will be forthcoming.

    It is impossible to disprove a negative (no one wore armbands to mourn the death of Sherlock Holmes in 1893), the lack of contemporary citations does increase the likelihood of Phil Bergem's theory. The fact that Reginald Pound's 1967 "Mirror of the Century" mentions it in a slightly different form does necessarily mean he had a separate, different source with which to site the story. Possible, but not probable.

    I'm not one of those persons who believe "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Nor do I believe that refuting the armband legend diminishes Sherlock Holmes one iota. I think the truth is fascinating, if messy, enough. The real anguish of the death of a fictional character reader felt that we can verify through different, independent sources is certainly sufficient to show the high regard Holmes was held in.

    Belief is a tricky thing. Doyle believed in the Cottingley fairies despite overwhelming proof to the contrary. I would never say that there was not one man or woman in Victorian England who wore black crepe in mourning for Holmes after the publication of "The Final Problem". But let us see one news story, one contemporary diary entry to corroborate Carr. "Only those things the heart believes are true" maybe fine for misty-eyed Sherlockians but Holmes had a different view: "This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply."

  3. You should have joined the "can't disprove a negative" club in the comments to the previous post. This time around I'm asking the black mourning band deniers to prove a positive -- their own myth that Adrian Conan Doyle supplied Carr with a lie. Anything else is calling John Dickson Carr a bald-faced liar, which is easy to do since he's not around to say otherwise. I'm not promoting fairies, I'm defending the honor of a fine writer of another era. And "misty-eyed Sherlockians?" I'll stand with them against big ol' jerk Sherlockians any day!

    1. I read this post first and "Standing with the black crepe mourning band" second and I frankly didn't read the comment section for it, so apologizes for that. Adrian had a bad reputation among Sherlockians of a certain era. Carr's biography presents a delightful anecdote, accepted for many years as fact but called in to question by subsequent scholars who cannot find independent verification. The theory that Adrian is responsible for the armband story as a way to increase his father's stature, especially in light of Hesketh Pearson's biography, is a reasonable one. It is also reasonable to believe that Carr had access to information that verifies the armband story. It is just as reasonable for Peter Calamai to ask fellow Sherlockians to help him find that verification. As I don't have Phil Bergem and Peter Calamai's writings in front of me, I cannot state for certain that they raised these issues in a way offensive or insulting to Carr, but my memory of them is that they did not.

      Your defense of Carr's reputation is noble and not misplaced. But his reputation is not a house of cards that will come tumbling down if it turns out the armband story is an embellishment. Watson was known "occasionally to embellish", according to Holmes, and his stature seems secure.

      Your Benjamin is safe in your wallet, or under the mattress, as I doubt a smoking gun is forthcoming to prove "Adrian Conan Doyle supplied Carr with a lie".