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Into The Hive Mind: Sherlock Holmes And The Adventures Of The First Fandom

Christine Bancroft |
February 27, 2013 | 2:46 a.m. PST


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in all his glory. And look at that mustache. You work that 'stache, bro.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in all his glory. And look at that mustache. You work that 'stache, bro.
This is the first of three columns in a series about "Sherlock Holmes" and its fandom. Please be advised that there are probably going to be spoilers littered about. (If you get upset with me about the existence of pre-warned spoilers about a subject that is over a hundred years old, then you need to unknot your knickers.)

Update: Thank you to Jon Lellenberg, BSI historian, author, U.S. representative and literary agent of the Conan Doyle Estate for helping to correct some errors in this article. Help is always appreciated—I want to be as accurate as possible.  

If you have never heard the name Sherlock Holmes, I would now like to advise you to evacuate from the rock under which you have been living for your entire life.  

There have been over 200 films with 70 actors portraying the main character—in 1995, it was surmised that there were over 25,000 appearances of Sherlock Holmes, from music to film to comic books and everything in between. Since then? I can name over 10 additional appearances by the iconic detective, not even including individual film and television adaptations. 

Let me warn you first of the overwhelming enthusiasm and love I hold for the detective and his stories: when I was nine, I read "The Greek Interpreter" and fell in love. As you can imagine, they are my babies and I am the mama bear (even if my "babies" happen to be middle-aged, Victorian Englishmen who are also very unfortunately fictional).

My love is so great, in fact, that this fandom doesn't get one column, it gets three. 

(Actually, it's because there's just so much damn material that one column wouldn't cover it satisfactorily, but also. My love is vast and deep, like an ocean or something. An affectionate ocean.)

And now, my dears: the game is afoot

Subject: The "Sherlock Holmes" canon

My favorite character of all of "Sherlock Holmes" is a one-off character named Dr. Stamford. He only appears in one story, "A Study in Scarlet"; although his appearance is short-lived, his legacy lives on. 

Dr. Stamford introduced Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson, you see. That makes him my favorite. Stamford? Without Stamford, there wouldn't be any stories.

The "Sherlock Holmes" canon is a collection of four novels and 56 short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician, author and historian, most of which were published in the "Strand" magazine. It details the many adventures of the consulting detective/insufferable genius/general prat Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart and long-suffering best friend/Boswell/fanboy/actual saint Doctor Watson. Beginning with "A Study in Scarlet", the two of them make their residences at 221b Baker Street in London. 

Together (and occasionally with the aid of various officers at Scotland Yard), they solve crimes. With friendship! And sometimes illegality. And deductions! And a style of thinking that reinvented the way that police looked at crimes and crime scenes!

I've always envisioned Holmes as some sort of tall, intimidating bird-like man. Sidney Paget agrees with me.
I've always envisioned Holmes as some sort of tall, intimidating bird-like man. Sidney Paget agrees with me.
Most of the stories are told through the point of Watson, a discharged Army surgeon who accompanies Holmes, probably because no one else can stand the misanthropic detective. Holmes is approximately 30 in their first meeting, with many scholars placing his birth on Jan. 6, 1854. He developed his logical reasoning, which he calls "deductive reasoning", in his university years (he most likely attended Cambridge over Oxford, with my personal opinion leaning towards the former because of its emphasis on the sciences), has very few friends but employs some number of lower-class and homeless individuals, mainly young boys described as "street Arabs", who act as his "agents" and informants. He refers to these people as the "Baker Street Irregulars". He uses these agents, as well as a handful of others (including Shinwell Johnson and Langdale Pike, who appear in "The Illustrious Client" and "The Three Gables", respectively). 

His official biography is somewhat lacking. In "The Greek Interpreter", Holmes says that he comes from a line of country squires and he is related to the French artist Vernet. His only family is his older brother, Mycroft, who is fat and awesome and probably a bit cleverer than his little brother. 

Watson was a surgeon during the Second Afghan War, where he served in India and Afghanistan as a member of the Berkshires and Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers. He was educated at the University of London and trained at St. Bartholomew's Hospital and then further trained to become a military surgeon. At the gruesome Battle of Maiwand, Watson was shot and invalided back to London, whereupon he meets and moves in with Holmes.

While Watson is sometimes considered to be a daft, bumbling fool in contemporary society, his canonical incarnation actually paints him as a young, athletic, intelligent ladies' man (but presumably still with a bitchin' mustache). He's no fool—he's a surgeon of not-inconsiderable talent and is considered to be invaluable to Holmes in his investigations, even if the detective criticizes his "sensationalist" renderings of the "science" of his work. 

As much as we love Arthur Conan Doyle, he occasionally lacks consistency—there is some textual evidence to suggest that Watson may or may not have up to five other wives over the course of the stories. Presumably not at the same time. We just don't know. In addition, Watson has a migratory bullet wound, which seems as though it should be problematic. At first, it seems that Watson was shot in the shoulder in Maiwand, but it seems like Doyle either forgot or couldn't decide, because some later references to the injury place the wound in the leg. We just don't know. But, as Lellenberg said, "inconsistencies like these, and especially with regard to dates, are what make the Sherlockian mock-scholarship possible."

The stories are not without their diabolical villains, either. Professor James Moriarty is considered to be one of the most famous fictional villains in history, even though he only appears in three stories. He is notable in that he [SPOILER] kills Sherlock Holmes by tossing the both of them off the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Well, he mostly kills Holmes, who stays dead for all of three years before he reappears at Baker Street, no harm, no foul. 

The stories range from terrifying ("The Adventure of the the Speckled Band", anyone?) to heartwarming ("The Three Garridebs") to bizarre ("The Adventure of the Lion's Main"), but with so many different stories, there's something for everyone. Because it was my first story, I have a significant fondness for "The Greek Interpreter", although I love "The Valley of Fear" and "The Adventure of the Empty House".

The stories themselves seem to take inspiration from a variety of sources, including Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, of whom Doyle was very much aware. Dr. Joseph Bell, a physician at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, and Bell's colleague at the University of Edinburgh was Dr. Patrick Heron Watson, served as inspirations as well. Doyle noted that Bell, who made great breakthroughs in forensic science and pathology, would often, at random, use close observation techniques to discern details of strangers. 

The stories themselves almost immediately bred a huge popular response, thus beginning what arguably could be considered the first fandom. 

Fandom name: Sherlockians (a name which has had a long history in the United States, but also often refers to fans of the BBC series), Holmesians (usually referring to canon or fans in Europe and the UK). For use in this column, we will use the term "Holmesians". 

Oh God, not the hat!
Oh God, not the hat!
Holmesians are often considered to have been the first modern fandom, becoming officially active in the 1930s. One of the most active fandoms to date, the Holmesians are also often incorrectly depicted as havingthe first instance of a fandom successfully bringing a deceased character back to life, although, according to Lellenberg, it was more due to financial reasons than anything else. 

In "The Final Problem", Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes by throwing both the detective and his villainous counterpart Moriarty off the Reichenbach Falls. After publication, there is a popular (but unsupported) urban legend that fans began wearing black clothing to mourn the fictional character. 

Doyle, who really just wanted to be done with the detective, whom he'd grown tired of, reluctantly revived the character in "The Adventure of the Empty House", which features him returning to Baker Street and a grieving Watson (for both his friend and his recently deceased wife, whose cause of death is not specified). The outpouring of joy was enormous, and brought Doyle a not-inconsiderable amount of money, although it did mean he had to write more stories (not that I'm complaining). This was due to a deal with an American publisher who called for a collection of stories known as "The Return of Sherlock Holmes"; "The Hound of the Baskervilles" had been published in the interim. 

With the sheer amount of material to go through, not including all of the adaptations, it is fairly easy to get into the Holmes stories. Not to mention, all of the stories are available for free online; the short stories can be read, on average, in 20-30 minutes, so if you're bored and tired of studying, take a break and read one. 

Fandom activity: Write fanfiction, costly, organize official societies, fan activism, organize unofficial societies, conventions, write scholarly articles, make multimillion dollar, award-winning adaptations (casual)

The first official "Sherlock Holmes" societies were the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) in New York City, founded in 1934, which continues to this day and includes honorary members Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, as well as Neil Gaiman, Isaac Asimov and others. However, the BSI did not admit women until 1991; in the 1960s, a female-only Holmesian society, The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes (ASH), was created; however, it has admitted male members for six years. The BSI has "scion societies", offshoots, in America, that function as similar societies on a smaller basis. Also in 1934, London saw the creation of the Sherlock Holmes Society. 

The Sherlock Holmes Museum has a replica of the flat's sitting room, a bust of Sherlock Holmes and a silly hat you can wear. And this guy.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum has a replica of the flat's sitting room, a bust of Sherlock Holmes and a silly hat you can wear. And this guy.
If you were to go to 221 Baker Street, you would be able to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Here, you can visit reconstructions of the Baker Street flat, find out biographical information about Conan Doyle and his works, as well as a complete history of the "Sherlock Holmes" canon. However, there's been a family dispute regarding financial entitlements regarding the museum and its owners, which you can read about here. You can also visit the Sherlock Holmes Pub, at 22 Northumberland Street. If you happen to find yourself in Switzerland, curiously, you can find two Sherlock Holmes-related exhibits. The first is the Conan Doyle Collection in Lucens; the second is in the village of Meiringen, similar to the Baker Street museum. Meiiringen is adjacent to the Reichenbach Falls; if you were to hike up to the top, you would find a plaque declaring that location as the spot that Sherlock Holmes almost met his death. Conan Doyle has a collection at the Portsmouth City Museum.

Fans have been very active, organizing charity drives and the like, but most recently, the Undershaw Preservation Trust was formed in order to save Arthur Conan Doyle's home, Undershaw, from re-development. However, the home is in poor condition, which has become the community's next focus. 

In addition to being hugely entertaining works of fiction, there have been entire academic circles devoted to understanding Holmes and his stories. USC has a class that dedicates part of its curriculum to studying the Sherlock Holmes stories; much like Tolkien's works, scholars have devoted entire careers to understanding and analyzing the subject. 

In addition, a common theme with "Sherlock Holmes" fan is to participate in the "Sherlockian game", which asks fans to consider that Holmes and Watson were real people and that Conan Doyle was Watson's literary agent. By doing so, it encourages fans to work out the issues with inconsistencies, develop backstories and analyze the text in relation to real-world events. This may have been the first main interaction with "meta" in any fandom. 

And, in a way, any adaptation of the canon material could be considered one huge fanwork. BBC's "Sherlock" and "Elementary"? Modern alternate universes (AUs). "Basil of Baker Street", which features Watson and Holmes as mice? Anthropomorphized AUs. Any time any of the "Holmes" characters appear in non-"Holmes" related material? Crossover. Anytime a creator builds upon the original canon material, it could, in this definition, be considered a fanwork. Just these ones tend to get a lot more publicity, more funding and potentially, industry awards. 

The Regulars (or "good people to know"): the main cast of characters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and notable incarnations of Holmes and Watson, Sidney Paget

Of the characters to know, the most famous are Holmes and Watson, who not only have appeared in hundreds of adaptations but also have been used as character templates in a variety of works. The dynamic between the (eccentric, emotionally stunted, aloof, colder, socially awkward, et cetera) genius and the more genial, long-suffering best friend has been reiterated countless times. "House" is the most well-known, with the titular character as a similarly misanthropic genius, complete with drug problems and a rather tolerant best friend in Dr. James Wilson. Other versions of the two could be found in "Psych", "Bones", "Rizzoli and Isles" and more. 

The most famous of the Yarders whom Holmes works with is Inspector G. Lestrade, who, along with his fellow inspector Tobias Gregson, are the "best of a bad lot", which is about as good a compliment as a non-Watson character is apt to get. Inspector Stanley Hopkins appears in three stories, and is an eager student of Holmes' methods. Eagerness does not necessarily equal effectiveness, unfortunately for poor Stan. 

Lestrade appears in the most stories, and I love him for two reasons: the first, because, in spite of his tenacity, he has no real crime-solving abilities. Secondly, all of the other Scotland Yard inspectors are described in some way as "tall", except for him, which makes me feel bad for him. I understand, man. He also has a longstanding rivalry with Gregson, which results in them being separated for future cases. Like toddlers. I sometimes feel as though Holmes is a heavily put-upon schoolteacher and all the Yarders are running about him wildly. 

"Whatcha thinkin' about, Holmes?" "Oh, I dunno, crime stuff, I guess."
"Whatcha thinkin' about, Holmes?" "Oh, I dunno, crime stuff, I guess."

Holmes' elder brother Mycroft is seven years older than him, and described as excessively corpulent but marginally cleverer than Sherlock. He is described as a minor official in the British government, although due to his excessive knowledge of every department and the inner workings of the government, Holmes responds that "[Mycroft] is the British government". Mycroft, in his fat lardiness, spends almost all of his time in the same general area near Whitehall, frequenting the Diogenes Club. According to Mycroft, many high-ranking officials visit this club, mainly because of its location and the strict rule that all verbal communication is strictly prohibited. He first appears in "The Greek Interpreter", and his description of him made me imagine him to be a very fat penguin. (I was an imaginative child.)

Dear Mrs. Hudson is the landlady of 221 Baker Street, who puts up with all of the ridiculousness of Holmes' antics, including a various and sundry of eccentric characters and bizarre clients, Holmes' "weird and often malodorous" scientific experiments and violence that permeates Holmes' detective business. She's also a decent cook, typically considered to be an older woman and Holmes once called her "Mrs. Turner", for reasons unknown. This may be another case of throwing all consistency to Hell, though. Although she houses presumably "the very worst tenant in London", she still dotes on Holmes and, by extension, Watson. 

Mary Watson née Morstan appears first in "The Sign of Four", presenting a mystery but ending the story engaged to Dr. Watson, whom she marries in 1889. Watson moves out of Baker Street after he is married, but occasionally moves back into the Baker Street rooms, gallivants all about England with Holmes and very rarely mentions his wife. After she passes away during the Great Hiatus (presumably due to either consumption/tuberculosis or childbirth, in which both she and the child die), Watson returns to Baker Street, makes one vague reference to his "own sad bereavement" and then never mentions her again. True love. 

In the (sadly) real world, illustrator Sidney Paget included artwork in Conan Doyle's publication of the Strand stories. Although Holmes is never once depicted with his now-iconic deerstalker, he is represented as such in Paget's art, creating an image that defines the character. According to Lellenberg, the deerstalker may be a reference to "The Adventure of the Silver Blaze", as Holmes is described wearing an "ear-flapped travelling cap", but it's unknown if Paget and Conan Doyle ever corresponded, as there is no suggestion of a partnership in letters between Strand editor H. Greenhough Smith and Conan Doyle. However, Paget did paint Conan Doyle's portrait much later.


Words to know:

The Great Hiatus: the three years in which Holmes was considered dead by everyone who knew him. After he "dies" at the Reichenbach Falls, he spends some time flitting about the world, spending time in Norway, Tibet and other countries

Sigerson: During the Great Hiatus, Holmes take on several pseudonyms, including that of the Norwegian Sigerson, leading to some speculation that Holmes' father's name was Siger Holmes, following traditional Scandinavian naming conventions. This is pure conjecture from William S. Baring Gould; it should not be taken as fact (or, necessarily, anything near it). 

Canon: the 56 short stories and four novels written by Conan Doyle. Anything else is considered extra- or non-canonical works, even through Conan Doyle himself wrote some of these.

Deduction versus induction: According to Holmes, he uses deductive reasoning to solve his crimes. He observes; he deduces. However, there is some argument that Holmes actually uses inductive reasoning rather than deductive reasoning, which relies on specific information to make more general conclusions. For example, determining a stranger's occupation based off of minute details requires the use of inductive logic.

Watsonian versus Doylist: Two separate ways of thinking while approaching canon. Watsonians approach canon as though it were actually written by Dr. Watson as real, biographical texts about Holmes. Doylists approach it by standing outside of the text. While both are valid ways of approaching the text, and have been applied to other fandoms as ways to approach other subject matters as well.

Is your feeble mind in need of extra assistance? Check out these resources: Here you can read all the canon stories for free. Do it. In fact, the sherlockian.net is indispensible as a fandom resource, as are schoolandholmes and the official site of the Sherlock Holmes Society. These fanlore pages for Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes are also helpful for character analysis. Here is a complete list of "Sherlock Holmes" communities and forums to get involved with, varying from canon to all the different popular reincarnations. Also, I highly recommend this ridiculously awesome (awesomely ridiculous?) article about the "Sherlock Holmes" fandom as well as some essays on Sherlock Holmes here. For a complete catalogue of all the actors who have played Holmes and Watson, check out the Howard Ostrom Holmes and Watson Collection. Here are the two TV Tropes pages related to "Sherlock Holmes", one for the topic (and character) overall and the second for the canon material. Because of the extensiveness of both the canon and the fandom, basically every trope since ever might be able to be applied to "Sherlock Holmes". Have these three: The Watson, Inspector Lestrade and Sherlock Scan

A variety and sundry of nominally interesting factoids: 

I'm not sure how to feel about this.
I'm not sure how to feel about this.

The phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson" was never once uttered by anyone in the stories. He did, however, use the word "elementary" somewhat often. 

The word "ejaculate" in Victorian literature means "to shout" or "to cry out". Watson does this very often. I am actually a 12-year-old boy, so I still kind of snicker sometimes. 

Sherlock Holmes' favorite quote was "If you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Holmes was a boxer, very good at disguise and attended two years of university. 

At one point, Mary Morstan-Watson refers to Dr. Watson as "James". It isn't clear if Conan Doyle forgot what John's name was, or if she was referring to his middle name. Because his given middle initial is "H", some scholars (as well as the BBC's "Sherlock") suggest that John's middle name is "Hamish", the Scottish variant of "James". 

(It's more likely that he forgot. Just like the bullet wound.)

"A Study in Scarlet" very heavily features anti-Mormon themes. One story features the KKK. I have no idea what Conan Doyle thought Americans were up to, but, in spite of this, it appeared he was supportive of Americans in later stories. 

Lellenberg informed me that 221 Baker Street of Conan Doyle's day was a part of the Abbey National Building Society, which employed a secretary to answer fanmail. Baker Street had different number and confines at the time; the current 221 Baker Street, where the museum is housed, was not a part of Baker Street at the time.

"221 used to be within the Baker Street numbers for the Abbey National Building Society," Lellenberg said. "During its existence, [the museum] had one employee as 'secretary to Sherlock Holmes' to answer the mail. This was not the museum's location, which, in Conan Doyle's day, wasn't even part of Baker Street. The convicted fraudster John Aidiniantz*, who started the Museum, tried to take the mail away from the Abbey National, and today pretends to have been 221 Baker Street, one of its many deceptions upon the public."

The Special Operations Executive (SOE), whose headquarters were at 64 Baker Street, were nicknamed the Baker Street Irregulars by the British government during World War II. 

Holmes...enjoyed somewhat regular cocaine use, preferring intravenous use and a "seven per-cent solution". 

There is some speculation that Sherlock Holmes was an autistic savant. There have been essays examining this possibility. Others declare him a sociopath, a neurotypical jerk or simply socially awkward. 

Conan Doyle helped investigate crimes and freed two innocent men, George Edali and Oscar Slater, who were charged incorrectly with several crimes. These men were charged, convicted and were serving time but released with the author's help.

And I will leave you with this factoid: Holmes' original first name was Sherrinford. Watson was originally going to be called "Ormond Sacker", which is hilarious. Maybe it's because we're much more used to hearing the name "Sherlock Holmes", but "The Adventures of Sherrinford Holmes and Dr. Sacker" doesn't have the same ring to it, I think.


At the risk of sounding insane, far too enthusiastic, or reaching ten pages worth of material, I'll cut it off here. I could quite easily write and write and write about this subject; it's been a huge part of my life for many years, but there's always next week. And the week after that. 

Next week? We'll go into several incarnations of the duo, save for the BBC "Sherlock" fandom, which will be the subject of the final column of this series. 

* EDITOR'S NOTE: John Aidiniantz's conviction, under the United Kingdom's Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, is now spent and no longer on record under the laws of his lands.

Reach Columnist Christine Bancroft here or find her on Twitter here.



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