Did Dr. Watson Really Write Sherlock Holmes?

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Getty Images

A few years ago, a poll found that 58 percent of British teenagers thought Sherlock Holmes was a real person (meanwhile, 47 percent thought that Richard the Lionheart was not). That may be just a sad statement on the education system, but that doesn’t mean those kids are alone. There’s actually a whole group of people who enjoy the theory that Sherlock Holmes – or at least sidekick John Watson -- was real.

The explanation is simple: Dr. Watson chronicled the work of the London detective Sherlock Holmes and their relationship. Arthur Conan Doyle? He was Watson’s literary agent and helped bring the stories to The Strand magazine and other outlets.

Of course, Doyle wasn’t just an agent. He claims to have based the Holmes character off of his former teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, who was said to have similarly impressive deductive powers. The Holmes pieces, starting with 1887’s “A Study in Scarlet,” quickly became his most famous works, overshadowing anything else he wrote (a fact that frustrated Doyle and led to his decision to "kill" Holmes in "The Final Problem"). Eventually, Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels featuring Holmes across 40 years.

However, Doyle’s presence creates another problem for the Holmesians who believe in the canon. The author was never one to stick closely to his earlier works and said on many occasions that he wouldn’t let the canon stand in the way of a good story. That means dates don't line up and scholars have had trouble putting the cases in chronological order. Likewise, characters meet and re-meet, physical descriptions change and even personality traits disappear or shift as needed.

For example, in several stories Holmes refuses to take a reward, even claiming that “my profession is my reward.” But in other cases, such as “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” he takes as much 4,000 pounds. This seeming inconsistency has been brushed off with a simple explanation: Holmes only accepts money from wealthy clients when he needs it.

The “great game” of studying the Holmes canon began with Ronald Knox, who sought to apply Holmes’ own methods on the canon in his essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.” In it, he tackles the exact order and date of the canon mysteries, Holmes' ever-shifting routine of investigation and even the flaws in Watson's personal history. Knox even offers up an explanation of the inconsistencies in Watson's work:

"I believed that all the stories were written by Watson, but whereas the genuine cycle actually happened, the spurious adventures are the lucubrations of his own unaided invention. Surely we may reconstruct the facts thus."

Interestingly, the idea of believing in canon and acknowledging the author can be applied outside of the Holmes literature. For example, TVTropes.org explains how Doylists and Watsonians exist in TV fandom: a Doylist would understand that an actor had to be recast, while a Watsonian would infer that the character in question had gotten plastic surgery to change his or her appearance.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

This Test Will Tell You How Many Books You Can Read in a Year

iStock.com/elenaleonova
iStock.com/elenaleonova

It's tempting to compare yourself to others when pursuing a reading goal. According to the Pew Research Center, the average person in the U.S. reads about 12 books per year—but that number won't help you if you read at a different pace than the average American. To figure out how many books you should read in a year, Lenstore has come up with a test that measures your individual reading skills.

To start, click on the test below and read the passages that pop up at your natural reading speed. Once you've finished, you'll be asked a few questions about the reading to prove you understood it.

Lenstore gave the test to 1600 people and found that the average participant took 101 seconds to complete the passage. If a person reads for 30 minutes a day at that speed, they can get through 33 books a year (assuming book lengths average out to 90,000 words). Speedy readers who blast through the passage in 60 seconds can read 55 books in a year with 30 minutes of daily reading time—which comes out to just over one book a week.

If half an hour of reading a day sounds overly optimistic, you can see how your book goal would change based on your reading schedule. Lenstore also shows you how long it would take to read specific books based on your reading speed. They give examples of long reads that require many hours of commitment, like War and Peace, as well as quick books like The Color Purple.

After taking the test, check out our list of the best books of 2018 for some suggestions of what to read next.

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