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Sherlock Holmes, Paranormal Investigator

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 16.1, March 2006

Ahead of his time, Sherlock Holmes was not just (in his own words) the world’s “only unofficial consulting detective” (The Sign of Four), but also a pioneer serologist (A Study in Scarlet), questioned-document examiner (e.g., “The Reigate Puzzle”), cryptanalyst (“The Adventure of the Dancing Men”), crime-scene technician (as in “The Resident Patient”), author of true-crime stories (“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”) and paleographer (“The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez”), among others.

Significantly, in light of today’s fascination with “unexplained phenomena,” Holmes was also a pioneer paranormal investigator. (“Paranormal” is a broad term that includes not only supernatural claims but others beyond the normal range of nature and human experience—Bigfoot for example.) As such, he was a rationalist and advocate of naturalism (a philosophy which denies the supernatural). In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” the detective announced: “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”

Yet the case of the Sussex “vampire” at first seems to cross the threshold into the supernatural: Robert Ferguson’s Peruvian wife acts strangely and is even caught sucking blood from a wound in her infant boy’s neck. But Holmes pronounces at the onset: “Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in the grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.” Indeed, he soon uncovers the truth, seeing in the partially paralyzed family dog a clue to the mother’s sucking of her child’s wound: the older stepbrother had pricked the object of his jealousy with a poisoned arrow from his father’s collection. The “vampire” claim is vanquished.

Again, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes confronts a family “curse,” involving a seemingly demonic beast, when the current tenant of Baskerville Hall is found dead; nearby are “the footprints of a gigantic hound!” Yet the detective chides the local physician for having “quite gone over to the supernaturalists,” and in time he uncovers a very real plot. Entomologist Jack Stapleton proves to be a black-sheep Baskerville who hopes to inherit the family fortune. Taking advantage of an old legend and local superstitions, he simulated the ghastly beast with a massive killer hound smeared with phosphorous. After being given the intended victim’s scent, it was loosed upon the night.

Similarly, apparently paranormal phenomena are suggested in four other stories. In two, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” victims seem to have confronted something so inexplicably horrible that they were frightened to death. A third, “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” features as “strange” a problem, said Holmes, “as had ever confronted me.” And “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” presents distinct overtones of a Jekyll/Hyde transformation.

Yet Holmes discovers that each of these cases has a real-world, naturalistic explanation. The first two (“Devil’s Foot” and “Speckled Band”) were murders caused by, respectively, a poisonous Devil’s foot root and the bite of a swamp adder, “the deadliest snake in India.” The attacks on the beach in “The Lion’s Mane” proved not to be homicidal but rather from the deadly stings of Cyanea capillata, a type of Atlantic jellyfish. And the strange behavior of Professor Presbury in “The Creeping Man” was due to his injections of Langur monkey serum, taken for “rejuvenescence” in anticipation of marrying a much younger woman.

In addition to these six cases, at least two of Holmes’s unchronicled cases also evoke the paranormal. In one (mentioned in “The Sussex Vampire”) Holmes refers to “the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.” This suggests a matter for cryptozoologists (those who study alleged, unknown creatures, like the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster). On the other hand, the gargantuan rodent may have been an imported animal like the typical “Giant Rat” of carnival sideshows: The South American capybara. Or it may only have somewhat resembled a giant rat and have actually been, say, a Sumatran tapir. Or there may have been still some other solution. (Recall, for example, that in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” the dying victim’s mention of “a rat” proved to be a reference to Ballarat in Australia.) Perhaps it was not even the creature itself, but instead some other element in the case, for which the world was supposedly unprepared.

Another unchronicled case that suggests the paranormal is described by Dr. Watson as “that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.” The case is mentioned in “The Problem of Thor Bridge” which, having been published in 1922, could have recalled the mysterious disappearance of American horror writer Ambrose Bierce (in late 1913) or that of Canadian theater magnate Ambrose J. Small (1919).

Interestingly, Bierce had published a trilogy of stories titled “Mysterious Disappearances,” each of which had elements of the supernatural. And some mystery mongers have suggested that disappearances like Bierce’s may have a paranormal, other-dimensional explanation. However, evidence I developed in 1982, and later endorsed by Bierce’s biographer, Roy Morris Jr. (Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, 1995), shows that the famous writer had carefully planned his own disappearance-suicide.

Perhaps Holmes eventually would have deduced a similar fate—or perhaps uncovered an accident or a murder plot—behind the disappearance of James Phillimore, even though Watson pronounced it one of the detective’s “complete failures” and indeed among those “unfinished tales.”

In any event, Holmes was a committed rationalist—a firm believer in the scientific method and the investigative approach. “I make a point of never having any prejudices,” he said in “The Reigate Puzzle,” “and of following docilely wherever fact may lead me.” Many have wondered how the man who introduced the analytical genius to the world, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, could have himself been so emphatically credulous, endorsing Spiritualist phenomena, fairy photographs, and other silly claims.

Holmes was Conan Doyle’s alter ego, embodying the rational faculty that existed in the creator himself. But to him, that could be carried to extreme and Holmes represented something of a caricature. For example, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” regarding the topic of love, Watson says of his friend, “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.” In fact, Conan Doyle’s own excessive credulity of the paranormal was obviously due to his habit of thinking with his emotions. But, despite the caricaturing and the occasional instance of faulty reasoning that he unwittingly attributes to the pipe-smoking sleuth, Sir Arthur actually wrought much better than he knew.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.