Friday, January 24, 2014

Standing with the black crepe mourning band.

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.


  1. Black armbands and hatbands were a staple in Victorian society...but how would anyone know if they were being worn for Holmes or for a death of a family member? It's also likely that they were worn for some other protest, but no one can prove the meaning behind armband-wearing, regardless.This apocryphal tale often continues on with the erroneous conclusion that this alleged protest over Holmes's death was what brought Doyle to then resurrect Holmes, when in fact Doyle wrote "The Hound of the Baskervilles" eight years after The Final Problem (and then "The Empty House" two years after that) to pay for the construction of Undershaw, his home in Hindhead, Surrey. If the armband myth were true, it certainly had no immediate impact on him.

  2. My question remains, why is this suddenly a "myth"? Why the need to discredit Carr and Pound these days? We have no evidence that there were no mourning bands. Just because it's been altered from hatbands to armbands and apparently had "influenced Doyle" added to the tale doesn't mean the basic story had no basis in fact.

  3. Entire religions have been started with less proof. And look where that's gotten us...

  4. I never had the impression that anyone was out to discredit Carr on this point. It seems more likely that the story of the black armbands was reported to Carr by Adrian Conan Doyle as part of his perpetual glorification of his father and his rabid protection of the character of Sherlock Holmes. It would not be the only story told by Adrian that turned out to be a myth.

  5. It's also curious to me how John Bennett Shaw did workshop after workshop citing this fact for years with nobody questioning it. Phil Bergem raised the issue in 2006 -- seven years ago -- and nobody makes a fuss. Kristina Manente cites it ONE TIME this year and suddenly, we're all, "Ooooh, it's a myth!!" I question the motives behind this sudden turn, as well as the fact that its supporters are willing to believe an unsupported theory that Adrian said something to Carr, which is more fairy dust than the original fact.

    Jeez, people, doesn't anyone recall a little phrase, "Once you have eliminated the impossible . . . ?" You ain't eliminated the impossible yet, and you're just pushing your own theory as truth. I'm calling "bull crap" on it, just as you want to do the black crepe bands.

    1. Brad, people have been questioning the armband story long before Kristina mentioned it. And as we all surely know, just because a falsehood is repeated time and time again it does not make it true. It makes it an urban legend. Consider this as an example: How many people believe that 50% of marriages end in divorce? A misconstrued statistic led to that unsupportable conclusion, yet you hear it repeated time and time again to the point that many people now believe it to be fact. Urban legends are born when people repeat what they've heard or read without taking the time to do a little research. I'm not "pushing my own theory"; I'm just not one to succumb to urban legend.

    2. Excellent point. I bought the 50 percent divorce line hook, line, and sinker because I never bothered to look into it. Thanks to Jacquelynn, I now know better. (BTW, congrats on the BSI investiture!)

      As for the armband story, I pretty much started questioning it back in college more than 30 years ago. What probably happened was that a few of the Strand staffers, or perhaps some waggish university students, wore armbands as a lark, and over time the story got magnified out of all proportion. That's how these things work, after all.

    3. Thank you, David! I consider it a great honor to be recognized by the BSI.

  6. Oh, and the BSJ is offering a year's free subscription to anyone who can prove it happened? I'll top that and offer a hundred bucks in cold, hard cash to anyone who can prove the black crepe mourning band story is fabricated. And I'd be happy to pay it. Put up or shut up, armband deniers, to more bluntly paraphrase Calamai's original challenge.

  7. As in religion, one doesn't have to prove a negative. It's up to the person professing faith to do the proving.

  8. My original point remains: If, in fact, people were wearing black armbands and hatbands after Holmes and Reichenbach, it is a huge jump to presume causality. If there is anything out there which shows correlation between the two, I've not seen it. Did Doyle "kill" Holmes? The public believed so. Did people wear symbols of mourning as a practice in Victorian society? We know that to be true. Is there anything to connect those two, other than what Carr wrote? Carr may have presumed it, but unless he knew of a specific organized movement which involved symbolic mourning it is only speculation on his part. Without any other corroborating evidence, I have to classify this as a myth. I'll be very interested to see if anyone can produce such evidence, and will be glad to eat my words if it indeed is proven.

  9. As noted in the closing lines of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" (which contends with only a couple of others for my favorite movie of all time):

    "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

    I am all for printing the legend. And believing it if we want to. Like you, Brad, I want to believe it, too. But David's right, you can't prove a negative. And even though it is probably a myth, we can have some fun clinging to the possibility that at least a few super fans in Victorian England wore a black band in their hats or on their arms (I have seen it both ways) for good old Sherlock Holmes.

  10. Judging by the nature of our hobby, I think we can all get on board with a little suspension of disbelief. But passing judgment on "believers" versus "nonbelievers"--even when it comes to what did or didn't people do after The Final Problem--doesn't add a thing to The Game. Nor does it support friendship among us. Knowing it's your blog, Brad, and you can play in your sandbox however you choose, I just wish this was still a fun place to hang out.