Thursday, June 25, 2020

Severed ears and sisters

Our local Sherlock Holmes discussion group met online this evening to discuss "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" for a second time, the tale notoriously appearing in two separate collections and thus tricking its way into our rotation twice, as different folk set the order for different years. And yet, even with a repeat session, some very new things were there to be learned.

Melissa Anderson was back with us tonight, and brought along a historical tidbit I don't remember hearing of. While we all know "Cardboard Box" has Watson thinking of Henry Ward Beecher, a fiery speaker against slavery who came to England to drum up support for the Union during the Civil War, we don't often think about Henry Ward Beecher's famous sister.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, writer of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was active in the anti-slavery movement, even helping with the underground railroad. And when her book was published, she got death threats, as well as a package in the mail with a severed human ear. The ear was that of a slave, which makes it all the worse, as it wasn't just a victim of the moment, but a lifelong victim.

In "Cardboard Box," we have the severed ear of what may have been an abuse victim coming to someone's sister as well, and given that Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother figures prominently in the story's opening, one can see where Doyle might have had the Beecher family on his mind.

Domestic abuse and alcoholism may be the featured social issues of that story and not slavery or racism, but that severed ear and specifically named Beecher  . . . there can be no coincidence here. Conan Doyle read much of the Americas and wove our problems into his tales, and this, though all the characters are British, still seems to be one of those times.

Our conversations went deep into the relationships and mindsets of the characters of "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box," as they are deep waters indeed. Did Conan Doyle portray sailors as anything but murderous? (Yes, there was that good one in "Abbey Grange," but he still killed a guy.) How much different was Jim Browner's version of events from what really might have happened, and what Sarah Cushing might have told us, had she gotten to speak in the story? Were Sarah and Mary "oops" babies of a marriage, being twenty years younger than their sister Susan, or might this been a case of daughters passed off as siblings to keep the good name of the family?

Deep waters indeed, maybe even deeper than the English Channel where the earless bodies of Mary Cushing Browner and Alec Fairbairn were dumped, never to be found. "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" may not have started as a favorite when we began our discussion, but by the time we hit the end, we all had to admit there was a lot here to discuss, and well worth consideration.

No matter who your sister is.


  1. Where there is a gap in ages, it's often useful to consider whether there were two marriages, one where the wife became sickly (so had no more children) and eventually died, replaced by a younger wife who had a second family in effect, using the older daughter (if there were one) as an unpaid nursemaid.

  2. It was good to be back with the group after a long hiatus. I look forward to next month's meeting!