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15 Curious Facts About Sherlock Holmes and the Sherlockian Subculture

The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes is a sprightly, riveting exploration of Sherlock Holmes—and the character’s thriving, eccentric subculture. Zach Dundas, the book’s author, reveals that the frenzy surrounding Sherlock isn’t strictly a Benedict Cumberbatch phenomenon. The master of Baker Street has always inspired fanatical devotion and feverish anticipation. Here are 15 details about literature's greatest detective, as revealed in The Great Detective.

1. There is the Sherlock Holmes equivalent of Trekkies.

There are as many as 300 societies dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. Devotees of the detective call themselves Sherlockians or Holmesians. There is some division in their ranks as to how the terms should be applied, though generally speaking, American fans are Sherlockians and British fans are Holmesians.

2. Sherlock Holmes societies are a kind of literary United Nations.

Perhaps the most prestigious Sherlock Holmes society is the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only organization that was originally named for Holmes’s intelligence network of homeless children. Other clubs include the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, the Bootmakers of Toronto, the Great Herd Bisons of the Fertile Plains, and the Seventeen Steppes of Kyrgyzstan. There are also trade-specific Sherlock societies for such groups as poets, psychologists, and mathematicians (“the last named for Moriarty, of course,” writes Zach Dundas).

3. Holmes’s influence was vast among elite writers.

T.S. Eliot said, “Every writer owes something to Holmes.” John Le Carre described the short stories as “a kind of narrative perfection.” Dorothy Sayers even wrote a treatise on Watson’s name, attempting to work out how it changed from John H. Watson to James in a later story. She eventually speculated that the middle initial H is short for Hamish, the Scottish form of James. (This is the convention used in the television series Sherlock.)

4. It all started with Edgar Allan Poe.

Detective fiction was still in its infancy when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his stories. Edgar Allan Poe introduced to the genre the concept of a single detective whose cases span several stories. Later, Wilkie Collins elevated the genre with his serials. Conan Doyle brought together the forms of the genre, elevated it with his prose and pacing, and modernized it by having his protagonist use science as part of his investigation. The first character in fiction to use a magnifying glass to help solve a case? You guessed it.

5. The proto-Holmes was a doctor ...

When Conan Doyle began sketching out the character, he thought back to his medical school days and recalled a professor with an astonishing eye for detail. Dr. Joseph Bell was known to make accurate diagnoses of his patients from such details as patterns of wear on trousers, bearing, and general disposition. “All careful teachers have first to show the student how to recognize accurately the case,” Bell explained. How stunning was the Bell-Holmes resemblance? Upon reading a Sherlock Holmes story, Robert Louis Stevenson, a fellow student of University of Edinburgh, wrote Conan Doyle a letter complimenting the character and his adventures, and asking in closing, “Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?"

6. ... Or maybe not.

The “St. Luke Mystery,” a sensational, real-life case in 1881 in which a London baker disappeared, might have in some way inspired Conan Doyle. A German named Walter Scherer was brought on to help investigate the incident. He described himself as a professional “consulting detective”—hardly a commonplace professional description, and the same one that would eventually describe the man working from 221B Baker Street. Some, most notably author Michael Harrison, argue that Scherer, not Bell, was the model for Sherlock Holmes.

7. Conan Doyle popularized a new storytelling format.

When Conan Doyle wrote his short stories, he recognized that serial narratives were falling out of favor with readers—it was too easy to miss one issue and thus lose one’s place in a continuing story. For his Sherlock Holmes stories, he developed a format in which the characters and general circumstances would remain the same, but each story would be standalone and able to be read in any order.

8. Sherlock Holmes was the original success kid.

Long before we took to Twitter to write, “I believe in Sherlock Holmes,” the detective was a viral sensation. One year after publication of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first Holmes short story, some magazines were already parodying the character, some were publishing thinly-disguised rip-offs, and theatrical companies were performing the character in unauthorized stage productions.

9. The hunt for 221B is ongoing.

Part of the allure and longevity of the Sherlock Holmes short stories are their settings. Holmes’ London is real and thriving, and the places in which he has his adventures are real places. His apartment, 221B Baker Street, however, is fogged in mystery. When the stories were written, Baker Street addresses did not go as high as 221, and Conan Doyle refused to divulge the building’s inspiration. For nearly a century, scholars have worked hard to uncover it, going so far as to subject the numbers mentioned in the Holmes texts to Voynich-Manuscript-level scrutiny, and even mapping the back yards of Baker Street, comparing them to details mentioned in the text.

10. True crime these stories are not.                 

Conan Doyle’s historical novels were meticulously researched. As The Great Detective notes, to get the details correct, the author might read “hundreds of volumes on, say, English archery, or Napoleon.” The Sherlock Holmes stories, however, were dashed out as quickly as four in two weeks. In “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” for example, Holmes determines that the murderer controls a snake with a whistle and a bowl of milk. As Zach Dundas writes, “snakes can’t hear and don’t drink milk. Does anyone care?”

11. While on a nature hike, Conan Doyle decided how Sherlock would die.

The fabulous success of Sherlock Holmes might eventually have become a bit too much for Conan Doyle, and to get on with his life he eventually resolved to kill off the detective. Just about everyone begged him not to, from his mother to his publisher, but his mind was set on it. He only needed a death suitable for his icon. While vacationing in Switzerland, he and a group of friends went hiking. When they came upon Reichenbach Falls, Conan Doyle decided that it was a fitting grave for Sherlock Holmes.

12. But the great detective wasn’t done yet.

At the time of Holmes’s untimely death, Conan Doyle was a wealthy man and a fixture of society. Years later, his spending began outpacing the growth of his income, and returning to Sherlock Holmes became an appealing option. Rather than raise the detective from the dead, he authorized a stage production based on Holmes. In 1901, Strand magazine began serializing The Hound of the Baskervilles, a new Holmes novel written by Conan Doyle. (To get around the thorny problem of Holmes having plummeted down Reichenbach Falls, the novel was set in a time previous to that story.) In 1903, Collier’s Weekly made Conan Doyle an offer: $1.3 million (in 2015 money) for a new series of Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle’s response, by postcard: “Very well.”

13. Conan Doyle: father to Sherlock Holmes—and peer?

During his lifetime, Arthur Conan Doyle did a little bit of everything, from transforming literature to running for Parliament to playing competitive sports. But Conan Doyle has had a post-death nearly as active as his life. Sherlock Holmes lives on, of course, but Conan Doyle has also become a compelling character in fiction. On the page, stage, and screen, the author can be found solving crimes that no one else can.

14. Conan Doyle's sanity was questioned.

Toward the end of his life, Conan Doyle embraced spiritualism and invested considerable capital, both personal and financial, in spreading the message. He frequented psychics and mediums, held séances, and argued the existence of fairies, defending even the worst photographic forgeries of the winged sprites. One headline at the time summed up the situation, asking if the author was “hopelessly crazy.”

15. Holmes was first in peace, first in war, first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Though Conan Doyle couldn’t conceive of Sherlock Holmes in a world post-World-War-I, the great detective saw quite a bit of action during World War II. As noted in The Great Detective, Holmes appeared in British propaganda videos; one of his stories was required reading for soldiers in the Soviet army; Britain’s wartime spy agency set up shop on Baker Street and called themselves the “Baker Street Irregulars”; and one of the two films found in Hitler’s bunker was The Hound of the Baskervilles.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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