The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

A Case of Coincidence

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

A Case of Coincidence is an article written by Lyndon Orr published in The Bookman (US version) in april 1910.

A Case of Coincidence

The Bookman (april 1910, p. 178)
The Bookman (april 1910, p. 179)
The Bookman (april 1910, p. 180)

Relating to Sir A. Conan Doyle

In 1904, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to re-peat the extraordinary success which he had won with his earlier books wherein Mr. Sherlock Holmes was the central figure. The new stories, for which a heavy price was paid, and which were finally collected in a volume called The Return of Sherlock Holmes, contained one tale, the title of which is "The Adventure of the Dancing Men." It will be readily remembered that the story centres about a mystery relating to the American wife of a fine old English squire, Mr. Hilton Cubitt. Mr. Cubitt discovers that his wife is being terrorised by a series of strange pictures, obviously forming a cryptogram and roughly drawn on the stable door and sundial at night. Unlike most cryptograms, this does not consist of arithmetical numbers (as in Poe's The Gold Bug) nor were any ciphers employed in it. Rather it is based upon very small black figures of men, with pin-point heads and black lines for the bodies, legs and arms. Each of these "dancing men" represents a letter of the alphabet.

Now this story was considered a fairly good one compared with the other stories in the same book ; and some credit was given to Sir A. Conan Doyle for the ingenuity of his cryptogram. Not very long ago, however, an eminent surgeon of this city who has, like so many of his profession, a fondness for literature, happened, on a rainy day, to be looking over a bundle of old magazines. Among them was a copy of the first volume of St. Nicholas. In the number for May, 1874 (page 439), there occurs a puzzle given under the title "The Language of the Restless Imps." A verse, apparently of poetry, is written out in a cryptogram, each letter representing a "restless imp" in one position or another. The solution of the puzzle is given in St. Nicholas for June, 1874 (page 502), and turns out to be simply the well-known childish verse:

Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
etc., etc.

The interest of all this comes in when one observes that the "restless imps" of the St. Nicholas magazine for 1874 are precisely the "dancing men" of Sir A. Conan Doyle's story, published just thirty years after. The alphabet has been transposed in most cases, but the "dancing men" are the same, so far as they enter into Sir A. Conan Doyle's narrative. The gentleman who made this discovery took it for granted that some one had suggested (or perhaps sold) the cryptogram to the British writer. He, there-fore, wrote a courteous letter to Sir Conan Doyle, pointing out to him that his cryptogram was really three decades old and warning him against the possibility that other aged material might be palmed off to him. In reply came a half-penny post-card which read as follows:

Pure Coincidence.
Yours try.,

This was not a very satisfactory answer when sent to an eminent member of Sir A. Conan Doyle's own profession. It was curt in tone and was not even provided with sufficient postage to carry it to the gentleman to whom it was addressed, without requiring him to pay for its delivery. Naturally he was somewhat incensed. Therefore, he countered on Sir Arthur by sending him a one cent post-card addressed:

(s) Windlesham.
Sussex, England.

On the other side of the card appeared the following:

Repaying well-meant courtesy by yours, indeed profound,
In prompt acknowledgment thereof, I bow me to the ground.
But having tried all other things, to justify your acts,
Im-"pure coincidence" alone remains — and fits the facts!
Yours truly,

We tell this story simply as it happened, leaving our readers to decide whether the coincidence was pure or impure. But this case of coincidence deserves to be set side by side with Sir A. Conan Doyle's well-known narrative which he calls "A Case of Identity."