The Dissecting Room . . . November 1985
"A Column for the Stout at Heart"
They were "dirty little scoundrels." Landladies wailed in disgust upon seing their naked feet upon the rugs. At least one medical authority claimed they were among the filthiest street people he had ever seen. No place was safe from them once they set their minds to infest it. They went everywhere and overheard everything, at the going rate of a shilling per man, per day. They were the unofficial detective force of Baker Street -- Sherlock Holmes's "irregulars." And their leader's name was Wiggins.
All that we know and don't know of the Baker Street irregulars can be seen in Wiggins. He is not only the ragged group's leader, he is its epitome, and any questions we can ask ourselves about him are questions that apply to the group as a whole, its composition and its development. So let's take a close look at Wiggins and see what we can learn.
For the first point of inquiry, let's try something simple: was Wiggins a boy or a girl? He/she has no first name. Perhaps that was an intentional omission on the part of a clever girl to maintain the respect of her peers. Holmes may call Watson by his last name, but he also calls Billy by his first, as one would tend to do with a child. Except for Wiggins, that is. Could the lead irregular's first name have been Amelia? Clothes are no help at all in this matter, for in the poverty in which a street urchin grew up, one wore whatever clothes were available. If a girl had to wear an older brother's cast-offs, so be it. And as for any other indication, such as voices -- Watson tells us the entire group had "shrill voices." Everyone does at that age. So we are left with a group of Baker Street boys who may not all have really been boys at all, including their leader. Holmes, of course, does refer to one or the other of them as "boy" on occasion, but how reliable a witness is he in the area of telling males from females. Remember SCAN?
When we originally encounter the gang of street arabs in STUD, they number six. All appear to be the same age. Six years later in SIGN, there are twelve in the group, and Wiggins is now taller than the rest, although he/she still doesn't seem to have reached puberty. There are other changes in the group as well. Holmes now sends a telegram to Wiggins to summon the group, an act which immediately calls for a "how" and "why" to be asked. How did Holmes address a telegram to a child who lived in the streets? Why did the detective have to send a telegram to someone who once seemed to dwell on his own street? Were the "irregulars" ever truly natives of Baker Street? One would tend to think so from the way Holmes refers to them, using such phrases as "the Baker Street division of the detective police force," but by the time of SIGN the group must be sent for by telegram, not to mention reimbursed for subway fare they had to pay to get to 221B Baker Street to begin with.
If the "irregulars" were originally from Baker Street, then it would be an easy assumption to make that the original gang of six broke up between 1881 and 1887. The twelve in SIGN were all new irregulars, except for Wiggins who recruited them all, hence the reason why he/she is now taller than the rest. The thought of a reactivated group is further evidenced by Holmes's words "the old scale of pay." Such a phrase would not follow if the twelve had all been in regular use. (Note also that Holmes again has to tell them to stay outside and let Wiggins alone come up to report, something six-vear veterans in the detective's service would not have to be reminded of). Wiggins undoubtedly gathered the first group together, and he/she could do it again.
But let's focus in on Wiggins again for a moment. In SIGN, as we've said, six years had passed since Wiggins led the irregulars in STUD. Also, as we've said, the child does not seem to have reached puberty. Although now taller and older than the rest, Watson still describes Wiggins as a "disreputable little scarecrow." But wait a minute. If, six years before, Wiggins was old enough to lead the group, something one would expect at least an eight or nine year old would be needed for, then why, at the age of fourteen or fifteen in SIGN, is the head irregular still joining in with the "clatter of high voices"?
Let's face it: Wiggins was a woman.
Suppose for a moment that Wiggins was entering puberty in that telegram-distant neighborhood she now lived in. Still skinny, she could easily disguise what physical changes had begun to take place, and if Mr. Holmes needed her help, she could still pass for a boy at least one more time. Actresses did it all the time. Her career as an irregular was coming to a close, however, even as she reactivated the group. By the time of CROO, one or two years later, we find that Wiggins is no longer the one whom Holmes calls upon when he needs a man followed. She has been replaced by a new lead irregular named Simpson.
And he wasn't telling his first name either.
(Printed in Plugs & Dottles, November 1985)