On November 16th…

Eugen Sandow (1889)

In a diary entry on November 16, 1898, Arthur Conan Doyle recorded his clothed weight as 219 pounds. As he approached his 40th birthday, his rather sedentary lifestyle was catching up with him. To get back into shape, he adopted the fitness regimen prescribed by famous strong man Eugen Sandow.

Nothing, in my opinion, is better than the use of the dumb-bell, for developing the whole system, particularly if it is used intelligently, and with a knowledge of the location and functions of the muscles. (Eugen Sandow, Sandow on Physical Training: A Study in the Perfect Type of the Human Form, 1894)

He was the fitness guru of the day, perhaps something like a Richard Simmons without television appearances.

Sources: A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes, by Leah Guinn (JHWS “Amber”) and Jaime N Mahoney (JHWS “Tressa”); The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by Andrew Lycett

“Chips” notes that if you don’t have a copy of the fabulous A Curious Collection of Dates, you might want to suggest it as gift for an upcoming holiday.

On June 18th…

Arthur and Jean (c. 1920)

While touring in America in 1922, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, Jean, stopped at Atlantic City, where they were able to spend time with friends Harry and Bess Houdini. During the visit, on June 18, 1922, Sir Arthur invited Harry to the Doyles’ hotel room so that Jean could perform an automatic writing session for him, contacting a deceased loved one who would “dictate” a message through Jean.

The Houdinis were skeptical of seances – Harry spent years debunking mediums and would later reveal some of their methods in his A Magician Among the Spirits – but Harry agreed to go. Before he went, Bess mentioned to him that she had been talking with Jean the previous evening about Harry’s mother, Cecilia Weiss, who had died in 1913.

Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle (Atlantic City, 1922)

In the Doyles’ room at the Ambassador Hotel, Jean entered a “trance” and began to write:

Oh, my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I’m through – I’ve tried oh so often – now I am happy. Why, of course I want to talk to my boy – my own beloved boy – Friends, thank you, with all my heart for this. […]

When complete, the message covered 15 pages. Cecilia Weiss assured her son that she was happy, that she loved him, and that she was grateful to the Doyles for the chance to speak with him again.

Harry Houdini was polite, but the seance proved to be a breaking point in his friendship with Sir Arthur. Among other problematic aspects, the purported message from his mother was in fluent English, which she never spoke.

Cecilia Weiss, Harry Houdini, and Bess Houdini (1907)


Sources: A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes, by Leah Guinn (JHWS “Amber”) and Jaime N Mahoney (JHWS “Tressa”); Teller of Tales: The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by Daniel Stashower; and “A Magician Among the Spirits: The Improbable Friendship of Harry Houdini & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”, by Joe McGasko.

On May 22nd…

Photograph of Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle by Herbert Rose Barraud (1893)

We have no Canonical happening for today, but we celebrate a rather important event!

Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born May 22, 1859 at Picardy Place, Edinburgh, to Charles Altamont Doyle and Mary Doyle (née Foley).

In honor of Dr Doyle’s 158th birthday, we’d like to share some fascinating facts from A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes by Leah Guinn (JHWS “Amber”) and Jaime N Mahoney (JHWS “Tressa”). We rely on this excellent volume for inspiration for many of our non-chronology entries. As a rule, we avoid posting such long extracts from published works; we hope that this small taste will inspire you to grab a copy of the book from Wessex Press for yourself!

Ten Facts about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle You Might not Know

from A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes by Leah Guinn and Jaime N Mahoney

  1. He was six years old when he wrote his first story. An adventure story about a hunting party’s encounter with a Bengal tiger, it was, as is typical for little boys’ tales, realistic about its protagonist’s fate: the tiger went away filled.
  2. He had a miniature monorail train built at Undershaw for his children and their friends.
  3. He could be musical. In the early spring of 1898, he wrote to his mother that he was learning the banjo: “To hunt and to play a musical instrument would 2 years ago have been picked out as the two things in the world that I was least likely to do.” (We cannot tell if he stuck with it.)
  4. He did not like corn on the cob. During his 1894 tour of the States, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that he “does not seem to be infatuated with ear corn.” Sweet potatoes and eggplant were apparently more palatable.
  5. He seems to have been asked to join The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose alleged members included William Butler Yeats, Arthur Machen, and Sax Rohmer. He declined the invitation, from a “Dr. Brown,” claiming that he simply did not have the time. A month later, he encountered “Dr. Brown” again at a social gathering, and heard him and a friend discussing their experiences with astral projection. “…I remain under the impression that I brushed against something strange,” he wrote later, “and something which I am not sorry that I avoided.”
  6. He could be a bit of a thrill seeker. In 1901, he excitedly reported to his mother that he had taken a ride in a hot air balloon, flying 25 miles from the Crystal Palace to Sevenoaks, “We went 1½ miles high,” he exulted, “It was a most extraordinary sensation and experience… […] I have always wanted to do this & am glad I have done it.”
  7. If he were shipwrecked on a deserted island and could choose only one book to have with him, it would be Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This is, in fact, a multi-volume work, which might be considered cheating.
  8. He showed remarkably poor judgment… when, on Christmas morning in 1892, he decided to dress as a monster and jump out to scare his family. Four year-old Mary was traumatized, and biographer Daniel Stashower tells us that Arthur was give nighttime comfort duty, a just and fitting punishment.
  9. His name was valuable. In October of 1895, Conan Doyle felt obligated to write to a New York paper, The Critic, to alert readers that someone was publishing an anthology of stories under his name. He had only one story in Strange Secrets, he wrote, “a short one in the middle of the book.”
  10. He owned property in Canada. During his trip to Canada with Jean in 1914, he bought land in Fort William, Ontario, as an investment, paying $15,000. In 1965, his heirs sold the lot at a loss for $14,000.

On February 28th… Arthur Conan Doyle Goes to Sea (Twice)

“On the quarterdeck” [from Life on a Greenland Whaler]
On February 28, 1880, Arthur Conan Doyle, still a medical student, set sail from Peterhead on the Hope, a whaling ship bound for seven months in the Arctic. He was to be the ship’s surgeon  taking the place of a friend who could not make at the last moment.

He published an account of his journey in The Strand magazine in January, 1897, under the title “Life on a Greenland Whaler”.

It is brutal work, though not more brutal than that which goes onto supply every dinner-table in the country. And yet those glaring crimson pools upon the dazzling white of the ice-fields, under the peaceful silence of a blue Arctic sky, did seem a horrible intrusion. But an inexorable demand creates an inexorable supply, and the seals, by their death, help to give a living to the long line of seamen, dockers, tanners, curers, triers, chandlers, leather merchants, and oil-sellers, who stand between this annual butchery on the one hand, and the exquisite, with his soft leather boots, or the savant using a delicate oil for his philosophical instruments, upon the other.

He kept a journal of his experiences. That handwritten journal, complete with illustration sketches, can be seen in Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure (2012), edited by Jon Lellenberg (JHWS “Towser”) and Daniel Stashower. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Arthur Conan Doyle’s personality as well as his adventures. In an interview for NPR, Lellenberg says:

I remember there’s one entry where he says, ‘We had nothing to do, and we did it.’ And another entry, he talks about spending the night with the crew, which is basically an evening of music, song, drinking — he says, ‘gin and tobacco in the crew’s berths.’ And the next entry starts, ‘Suffered for the gin and tobacco.’ … He’s a young man reporting what he’s seeing and hearing and experiencing in quite a remarkable way.

Two years later, on February 28, 1900, Arthur Conan Doyle boarded the troop transport Oriental for the 3 week voyage to South Africa. He had been waiting for his orders to come he asked by a friend to go to the South African town of Bloemfontein. He was to help set up a hospital. He was help pick personnel, work as a physician and be unofficial supervisor.

Information for this post comes from the excellent A Curious Collection of Dates by Leah Guinn (JHWS “Amber”) and Jaime N Mahoney (JHWS “Tressa”)

Posted by Chips and Selena


William Smith, Osteopath and thought-to-be model for John H Watson, MD.

Our ever-resourceful Charter Member from Dubai, Kumar Bhatia “Bobbie,” alerts us to breaking news out of the UK and Scotland:

By ANDREW ARGO, 6 February 2014 11.40am.

Dr Watson, companion of Sherlock Holmes in fiction’s most famous detective double act, was a doctor in the west end of Dundee.

The elementary and astonishing piece of evidence that Watson was based on osteopath William Smith has been discovered by city osteopath Tim Baker.

He also learned that the inspiration for the famous detective’s companion treated patients a few yards from his own surgery on Perth Road from 1910 to 1912.

Tim was attending the annual meeting of the Scottish Osteopathic Society in Aberdeen when a guest speaker related the story of William Smith — a story with some surprising twists.

Smith (1862-1912) was one of Britain’s first osteopaths. He opened a practice in Dundee in 1910 after years working in the United States but Tim knew little of his background.

Conference speaker Jason Haxton, curator of the American Museum of Osteopathy, brought various artefacts to illustrate his talk, including an article from an American newspaper written by Smith’s son Cuthbert in 1938.

In the Des Moines Sunday Register account headlined “Watson’s Son Reveals Real Sherlock Holmes,” Cuthbert Smith disclosed Holmes’ author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle modelled Dr Watson on his father, William Smith.

Doyle and William Smith were fellow medical students at Edinburgh University in the 1880s and it was their experience with Dr Joseph Bell that inspired Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes and his trusting companion.

Doyle was so impressed by Bell’s powers of deduction — an uncanny ability to diagnose patients before they would speak a word to him about their afflictions — that he used him as the inspiration for Holmes.

Dr John Watson, a Southsea doctor who served time in Manchuria and was an acquaintance of Doyle, was honoured with having Holmes’ partner named for him.

There is also evidence from A Study in Scarlet, Doyle’s first story to feature Sherlock Holmes, that Surgeon-Major Alexander Francis Preston may have been the model for Dr Watson, as their experiences from the Afghan war were similar

However, the revelation that Dr Watson was based on William Smith casts new light on the character.

Tim Baker attended the Scottish Osteopathic Society annual meeting and found a table with various curiosities brought over by Mr Haxton from the American museum.

“I glanced at the display but did not really pay heed to it,” Tim said.

“Jason Haxton had done some work on the history of osteopathy with reference to Scotland and two of the main players were William Smith and Martin Littlejohn, both Edinburgh-trained doctors who went to America and played a leading role in bringing osteopathy into the 20th Century.

“I started to pay a bit more attention as I knew that William Smith had a practice in Dundee in the early part of the century but I knew nothing else.

“Over coffee I asked Jason more questions and I realised that William Smith had been practising 50 yards from me 100 years ago.”

Tim then saw the speaker’s archive material, which contained the startling revelation in the article by Smith’s son that his father was Dr Watson.

In the Iowa state capital’s newspaper on January 16 1938, Cuthbert Smith recalled Doyle, who also became a doctor, fashioned Sherlock Holmes on Bell.

Cuthbert Smith said: “The detective’s companion Watson was my father William Smith.”

He explained how Doyle and his father marvelled at Bell’s talent presented in a daily parade of breathtaking deliberations.

One day, Doyle confided in William Smith that he was playing around with the idea of writings based on the faculties of Bell, who was approached and not only agreed but offered many helpful suggestions.

“The character of Watson was written around my father but it was merely a friendly gesture on Doyle’s part and not based on any personal merits connected with the remarkable character of the stories of Joseph,” wrote Cuthbert ?Smith.

Cuthbert Smith went on to describe when, as a pupil at Dollar and his father was in Dundee, he was taken by his father to meet Bell and Doyle in Edinburgh — a special occasion when Holmes and Watson were with their creator.