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From September 2000

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Birth of a Watson, Birth of a Canon

By Brad Keefauver

It is a painful thought, but true: The natural study of Sherlockians being Sherlock, matters in the life of Dr. John H. Watson sometimes get second billing.

“Mais non!” the Sherlockian given to French phrases will cry, “we’ve paid plenty of attention to Watson: his wounds, his marriages, his middle name . . .”

Yet, what, I have to then ask, of his birthday?

The birthday of Sherlock Holmes is celebrated every year by the largest annual Sherlockian function we have, the Baker Street Irregulars weekend. The arguments for Holmes’s January 6th birthday are legendary: the references to Twelfth Night, the untasted breakfast from the opening to The Valley of Fear — a hangover from the previous night’s birthday celebrations. Despite arguments for other birthdates, that January 6th date remains the sort of thing we’d put into a primer for novice Sherlockians . . . one of the basic, most-cherished conclusions of Sherlockian scholarship.

But what of Watson’s birthday? Anyone happen to remember the date? Any guesses?

In his pamphlet, Watsoniana, Elliot Kimball placed Watson’s birthday on July 7, 1852. (Of course, he also claimed that Watson’s middle name was “Hubert.”) In his Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William S. Baring-Gould states that several commentators place Watson’s birth on July 7th, based on the fact that Watson took Beaune with lunch to celebrate. It is a horrible date for any Sherlockian to contemplate celebrating . . . Watson’s literary agent died on that same day in 1930, and I don’t think it was because he overdid it at Watson’s birthday party. Perhaps Baring-Gould realized this, as in his Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, Baring-Gould cites August 7th as Watson’s birthday. Later compilers, like Matthew Bunson in his Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana, uncomplainingly follow those two leads, but I have to wonder: Can’t we do better?

Now, we all know that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were both fairly young fellows in the 1880s. So why does Holmes get to celebrate to the point of hangover on his birthday, while Watson settles for a little wine at lunch when he’s not yet the sedate married man? Who do we think Holmes was partying with to get his hangover? Would we deny Watson the sort of wild birthday that requires one to suffer a bit the morning after? Of course not!

Using the time-honored hangover system of dating birthdays, I would, therefore, like to propose the opening of “The Speckled Band” for the morning after Watson’s birthday bash. In that April morning of 1883, Holmes awakens a slightly resentful Watson at 7:15 a.m., the doctor being a bit put out as he fully expected Holmes to sleep in. Daylight, according to Violet Stoner, came well before six that morning, so 7:15 is hardly an ungodly hour to be wakened . . . unless, of course, one had a rough night before.

As to the exact date of this hangover . . . the clues are fairly plain: “Early in April in 1893” and a day when the workmen were not at their task of repairing Stoke Moran (Sunday, the traditional day off). The earliest Sunday in April of 1893 falls on the first of the month, and there, as Nathan Bengis once wrote in the quest for Holmes’s birthday, is “a day to conjure with.”

Step back in time with me to with me to March 31, 1853. Mama Watson goes into labor in the evening, and it’s not a particularly easy labor. Giving birth to legends is never easy, and in the course of things, the household loses all track of time. Once the delivery is over and the child is born, more time passes while the health of mother and child looked after. When all is said and done, no one is exactly sure if young John H. Watson was born before midnight on March 31 or in the wee morning hours of April 1. Like their son, the Watsons were never very good with dates — it’s genetic, you see.

“But April 1 is All Fool’s Day!” one of his parents protests. “We can’t have our son growing up thinking he’s a brainless fool.”

So it is decided that March 31, 1853 will be little John H. Watson’s official birthday. Whether or not he’s a fool will be left to time and destiny . . . and Hollywood moviemakers. But our story doesn’t end there, of course. Thirty years later, John H. Watson is celebrating his thirtieth birthday on March 31, 1883. It isn’t a particularly happy time for him . . . he has yet to marry, he’s still suffering the physical after-effects of his short-lived military career, and he has neither the money nor energy to start his own practice. Like most people passing a milestone birthday, Watson questions his life thus far: What has he accomplished? What does he have to show for his existence on planet Earth? And he’s not happy with the answers he’s come up with when he finally goes to bed that night.

But the next morning is not just any April Fool’s Day — this time it’s Grimesby Roylott’s Day. Unknown to good old Watson as he celebrates his birthday on that final night in March, a particularly imaginative murdering step-father is trying to do in his step-daughter with a particularly rare snake. As Watson would later write:

“On glancing over my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes. . . . Of all these varied cases, however, I cannot recall any which presented more singular features than that which was associated with the well-known Surrey family of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran.”

Since Dr. Watson did not start seriously writing and publishing Holmes’s cases en masse until after his friend’s “death” at Reichenbach Falls, we can take his words “the last eight years” to be the eight year span between “Speckled Band” in April 1893 and “Final Problem” in May 1891. That span of years would seem to completely ignore A Study in Scarlet, which most Sherlockian scholars think took place in 1881. The reason they think it took place in 1881? Because the timing of Watson’s military career works out that way . . . Watson and Holmes met and started sharing rooms in 1881. It is only when one looks closely at the investigation leading to the capture of Jefferson Hope, the actual detective case of Study, that one notices the matter might not have occurred in 1881 at all.

The events of the Drebber/Stangerson/Hope case begin on Tuesday, March 4. The only problem is that March 4 was not on a Tuesday in 1881. Or 1882. Or 1883. It is not until 1884, the year after “Speckled Band,” that March 4 appears on a Tuesday. Watson lets an indeterminate amount of time elapse in the narrative between telling of his inital meeting/moving in with Holmes and the investigation of the Brixton Road murder, a quite purposeful move on his part, done to cover the other cases that came between his meeting Holmes and the matter he called A Study in Scarlet. And it was most especially done to cover up that fascinating matter that made him first consider writing up Holmes’s cases for the public . . . the case that would later be known as “The Speckled Band.”

“I cannot recall any which presented more singular features,” Watson writes of the case which occurred a full four years before he published A Study in Scarlet. So why didn’t he put his best foot forward and publish the more interesting case first? He tells us himself: “It is possible that I might have placed them upon record before, but a promise of secrecy was made at the time, from which I have only been freed during the last month by the untimely death of the lady to whom the pledge was given.”

In 1883, years before Watson would send A Study in Scarlet to the publisher, Dr. Watson was promising Violet Stoner that he wouldn’t write up her tale until after her death. Why should he promise her that, if he hadn’t written or published any of Holmes’s cases prior to 1893? Unless “The Speckled Band” was the case that originally inspired him to think that there might be literary value in these investigations of Sherlock Holmes. Unless it was such a remarkable adventure that he asked Miss Stoner if he could write it up as soon as it was over.

She asked him not to, of course, and taking her words to heart, Watson would not write up another of his cases with Holmes until he came across A Study in Scarlet in 1894 . . . a case in which all of the major non-investigating players were dead by the time the tale is done. No one to refuse permission on that one; the Scotland Yard men involved were written up in newspapers every day.

Thus we find that not only was John H. Watson, M.D. born on March 31, 1853, the Sherlockian Canon itself was truly born on April 1, 1883. Just as he turned thirty, Dr. Watson finally found his life’s calling,, documenting the cases of Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective. He apparently kept in touch with Helen Stoner-Armitage after that time, and her husband Percy undoubtedly was the one who let Watson know of his wife’s all-too-early demise, probably thanking Watson for his part in saving her life, so that Percy could have what precious years that he did have with her. And though Watson could no longer publish “The Speckled Band” as the first tale of the Sherlockian Canon, he could subtly honor Helen Armitage’s tale by making it number ten. But why, you ask, why did he allow us to go on thinking A Study in Scarlet came first?

Because it isn’t fools that are born on April first (or the eve before) . . . but the pawky-humored pranksters that make fools of the rest of us.