-- John H. Watson, "The Adventure of the Final Problem"
When John Watson tells us that newspapers reported the deaths of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, one truly has to wonder just what was written in those reports.
No bodies were recovered. No witnesses actually saw what happened. And other than some words in a note from a man no longer around to corroborate it, there wasn't much evidence that Professor Moriarty himself was even in Switzerland. When one considers the source for any reporting of the event at all, that source had to be the same one we had all along: John H. Watson, M.D.
And we know what he knew, thanks to his own written account.
Watson guesses that Holmes and Moriarty went over that cliff together, but why? How does he know for a fact that Moriarty didn't just throw Holmes off and escape? He writes of "an examination by experts" of the crime scene, but if one of them wasn't Sherlock Holmes, how expert could they be?
There were two lines of footmarks in the muddy soil when Watson examined the scene, but he had rushed up to the edge and laid on top of the actual crime scene mud to look down into the waterfall, an act which would have irritated any expert worth his salt that came along later. And 1891 being far from the forensic world of today, the first post-Watson individuals on the scene probably weren't any better at preserving the site. Probably just local folk, trying to be helpful and see if Watson missed anyone up there.
The newspaper accounts in the days immediately following had to be Watson's view of the situation, embellished with the thoughts of any police, reporters, or town loudmouths with reason to pronounce themselves an expert upon the matter. Scotland Yard was able to uncover Moriarty's gang with the evidence Holmes provided, but even Watson admits, "Of their terrible chief few details came out during the proceedings . . ."
The men who connected Moriarty to the crimes of others were probably very timid about giving details of the criminal mastermind as they could never be certain such a man was truly dead, and not going to punish their loose tongues. But Watson, on the other side of things, had no reason not to publicly sing the praises of Sherlock Holmes's sacrifice.
It's fascinating that Watson finds his own nemesis in Colonel James Moriarty, as they fight a war of words, both trying to mold history's view of events neither of them could be certain of. It's a war of words we only get to see one side of, as, like the newspaper reports, Colonel Moriarty's letters defending his brother are lost to us as well. Did the Colonel have a response to Watson's publishing of "Final Problem?" One would suspect he did.
Only Sherlock Holmes's return, years later would bring the full truth of the matter to all concerned, if Holmes's account is to be trusted. (And as Sherlockians, I suppose we must.) But in the days that followed the Reichenbach Falls incident, who really knew anything?
Those newspapers would be a marvelous thing to see.