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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Blunders of Sherlock Holmes

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Blunders of Sherlock Holmes is an article published in The Chicago Tribune on 30 november 1902.

Blunders of Sherlock Holmes

The Chicago Tribune (30 november 1902, p. 61)


After all, does Sherlock Holmes deserve the fame he has won as a detective? There is at least one distinguished authority on criminal law who thinks that the hero of Dr. Watson is vastly overrated. A. B. Mackenzie publishes in the Green Bag [1] an article in which the alleged wonders of Sherlock Holmes are mercilessly dissected.

"Taking up a little while ago for diversion the collection of Conan Doyle's entertaining detective stories, which, with his "Sign of the Four," made him famous, writes Mr. Mackenzie, "the writer could not fail to perceive how much his character's methods meant to be those of a clear sighted, well disciplined worker, justify criticism; how often, from unstable premises, he builds faulty conclusions.

"It is right to premise that while this conception of his theory and practice will be duly impressed as the discussion proceeds, not the least aim is to inquire to what extent the various circumstances brought to light in his experiences constitute legal evidence of crime. Entering on the treatment of Holmes' deductive process exhibiting the fruit, as he himself makes known, of an observance of trifles, the curious may be interested to learn that Zadig, an oriental figuring in the dawn of history, was the first to obtain for it secure footing as a system. Many will no doubt remember the tale of the lost dromedary, about which its owners, two prosperous merchants, sought information from the expert, unknown to them to be such at the time of making their inquiries. Able to convince them that if the missing quadruped had one blind eye, was deprived of a tooth, and bore on each flank different commodities — honey and rice — he had recently visited the neighborhood, they, to his intense surprise, cite him before a magistrate as admitting knowledge that would seem to implicate him in its larceny. He is discharged in triumph from the accusation on explaining that, although he had never seen the animal, its presence not long before was attested by the facts that grass along its track had been cropped from one margin only, and that every tuft removed showed a gap in the middle, besides the symptom that flies had gathered about the leakage from its burden at one side of the road, while ants lingered in the vicinity of that on the other.

Hasty and Maladroit.

"The self-centered authority whom these comments involve — who betrays, at one time, the depth and caution or an adept, at another, the haste and maladroitness of the tyro — is frequently observed to stray without valid excuse from the path in which his professional brothers, controlled by wisely ordained laws, feel themselves constrained to walk, habitually ignores landmarks which the regular experimenter is well satisfied to recognize. Now, of all work to which ability and resource may be pledged, that of the unearther of crime ought, by its performance, to gain respect, one would think, for the maxim, 'Too many cooks spoil the broth.' Nevertheless, he too often prefers to lean on the contradictory assurance, 'In a multitude of counselors there is safety, a doctrine which, placed over against the other, evokes the moral that man should not pin his faith to proverbs. Among the peculiar shifts to which he resorts is the roping in of a group of idlers for the purpose of bringing about a make believe street quarrel, in order that upon its reaching its height he may be violently thrown to the ground and suffer to all appearances grave injury — hat simulated issue leading to his being humanely carried into the house where his crucial move is afterwards to be made. Would these confederates, it may be inquired, have risked their not unlikely arrest by the police for causing a breach of the peace, without insisting beforehand that they should to some extent at least, be taken into the manager's confidence. And, if drawn to the scene, what measure of credence would the guardians of public order attach to a representation that the whole affair was a sham?

Makes Too Many Confidants.

"Following his prey on this occasion, the hunter, as we gather from his own intimation of the result, was unable to keep himself concealed behind the stalking horse called to his aid. At the by no means trifling risk of some of them revealing the secret, he several times allows three or four in this way to become privy to his intentions, and share in their putting into effect.

"Having once mapped out the course to be followed — chosen the cards he will play — Holmes never sticks at the means by which his end shall be accomplished. When he is not pointing a loaded revolver at some wrongdoer's head to reduce him to submission he, without fear of an action of assault and false imprisonment before his eyes, turns the key of his door on another, the more readily to extort a confession, secretly flying in the face of the wholesome requirement that neither threat of evil nor promise of favor must be exerted to achieve this consequence. Nor does he scruple when carrying out his design, so impatient is he of control, to lay himself open to the charge of being an "Accessory after the fact or of being concerned in misprision of felony. Mark this astoundingly candid report of the manner in which he obtains possession of a stolen article and deals with the felon: 'It was a delicate part I had to play there; and I knew that so astute a villain would see that our hands were tied in the matter. At first, of course, he denied everything. But when I gave him every particular that occurred, he tried to bluster and took down a life preserver from the wall. I knew my man, however, and clapped a pistol to his head before he could strike. Then he became a little more reasonable. I told him that we would give him a price for the stones he held — £1,000 apiece. That brought out the first signs of grief he had shown. "Why, dash it all," said he, "I've let them go at £600 for the three." I soon managed to get the address of the receiver who had them. On promising him that there would be no prosecution, off I set to him, and after much chaffering I got our stones at £1,000 apiece.' [2]

Conscience Is Too Elastic.

"The shady relations our adventurous zealot confesses to have established with the receiver are worthy of being noted. The conscience, moreover, of this untrammeled operator is not always too nice to deter him from encouraging his clients to accept hush money, or, indeed, to save him now and then from pocketing a tidy reward himself to off-set expenses for receiving the criminal dowry. One of the least defensible of Holmes' practices, as it appears to the writer, is the making responsible officials of Scotland yard parties to compromises approval of which, if incident to real life, would unquestionably cost them their positions. Imagine, for example, a superintendent of police being complaisant enough to overlook a systematic robbery for years of the public by a fraudulent beggar and undertaking without demur net to prosecute.

More Sophistry than Logic.

"Some Illustrations of Holmes' theorizing may be adduced to make good the assertion that quite as liberal a proportion of sophistry as logic is there embodied. He argues, in one case, from the circumstances of a stranger's hat, which he submits to close inspection, not having been, as he professes to detect, brushed for weeks, that the partner of his bosom has ceased to love him. Is it the customary lot of the male to find his hat relieved, where needful, of accumulations of this kind by a ministering Eve, supposing him blest with one? Still descanting upon the hat, he maintains that candles, and not gas, furnish the medium of illumination in its possessor's dwelling, because a number of tallow stains adhere to the brim; adding the suggestion that 'he walks upstairs at night, probably with his hat in one hand and a tallow candle in the other.' But why take his hat upstairs at all, or, if he were in the habit of performing this out of the way detail, why put it elsewhere than upon his head? Then how would the grease from the candle, held in one hand, fall on the hat, carried in the other? Again, surmising the identity of a criminal from certain traces he leaves behind, his left handedness is deduced from observing 'that the blow (inflicted on the murdered man) was struck immediately from behind,' and an exceptional height from the compass of his stride in walking. To pass unchallenged the reasoning as to left handedness, is not the length of a man's pace largely a matter of idiosyncrasy — something which is not, at any rate materially, dependent upon stature? Do not many tall men take comparatively short steps, and a good number, of less inches, cover more ground with each? Have we not, besides, experience to testify that the upper and lower halves of the human body are often largely disproportioned?

Useless in Details.

"On a further occasion, trying to elucidate his coarse of proceeding at the expense of his associate, Dr. Watson, he thus deliberates: 'My dear fellow, I know you well. I know the military neatness which characterizes you. You shave every morning, and in this season you shave by the sunlight; but since your shaving is less and less complete as we get further back on the left side, until it becomes positively slovenly as we get round the angle of the jaw, it is surely clear that that side is less well illuminated than the other. I could not imagine a man of your habits looking at himself in an equal light, and being satisfied with such a result.' Was not the calculator, to be able to draw this inference, required to impart a factor into the equation which may not have represented the fact — namely: that it was his friend's custom to face the north when pursuing this routine, so that the light would strike on the right cheek?

The Engineer's Thumb.

"A noteworthy instance of what strikes the writer as distinctly vulnerable argument is contained in the story entitled, 'The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb.' An hydraulic engineer, who had come from London to examine a machine, the purpose of which his employer told him was to extract 'fuller's earth,' is, from certain appearances it presents, forced, to the belief that it is being put to a questionable use; and on hinting this is forthwith, by way of revenge, placed underneath it; the machine — which is, in reality, employed for towing — being at the same time set in motion. A coal oil lamp is in the room, standing well under the press. After watching, for a few seconds, the terrible engine of death proceeding on its downward course, intent upon crushing him, as he meditates, 'to a shapeless pulp,' he notices a small panel being pushed backwards at one side of the room, the walls of which, it is important to know, are built of wood, though ceiling and floor are of iron.

"Immediate contact of the machine with the floor must be the outcome of its progress, in the absence of any metal to be impressed. The engineer miraculously escapes through this opening; and having returned to London, takes Holmes back with him, in the hope of locating the coiner's retreat, to which he had been previously conducted blindfolded. They find the house on fire, and this is the detective's remark to his companion: 'Well, at last you have had your revenge upon them. There can be no question that it was your oil lamp, which, when it was crushed in the press, set fire to the wooden walls, though no doubt they were too excited in the chase after you to observe it at the time.' Could igniting by any chance follow under the circumstances? And, even if such were possible, would not the flame have been too momentary to allow of its extension to the walls? Where, too, would a draft sufficient to keep it alive come from?

Wouldn't Hold in Court.

"Looking at them in the mass, as it behooves a critic to do, the writer is led to the conviction that, were the incidents on which they are exercised made to run the gantlet of the rules of evidence, nearly all of Holmes' dialectic efforts would fall short of actual demonstration of the point to be settled in each case. His present attempt to review some of the episodes met with in the career of that renowned exponent of the detective's art may be fittingly closed with the statement that any impression of the marvelous and profound in his estimates becomes perceptibly weakened by their valuer bearing in mind that it is nowise difficult, where there is a preconceived solution of a tangle, to suit every development to its needs."

  1. The Green Bag was a legal magazine published in Boston, Massachusetts between 1889 and 1914, containing news of legal events, biographies, and essays, generally in a lighthearted tone.
  2. From the final explanation of The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.