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Inspection Report II

The Adventure of the
Speckled Band
and Questions of
Dates and Death

Richard Hartman
2000

The Diogenes Club:  Link to the Norwood Building Inspectors:  The Sherlock Holmes Society of Charleston, West Virginia

 

It is always a pleasing exercise in deduction for Holmesian scholars to attempt to
date the events contained in the Sherlock Holmes stories or to fill in missing
details. Dr. Watson, the official chronicler of Mr. Holmes, is sometimes negligent
in providing accurate and sometimes even consistent dates and details of the
adventures.

The highly respected Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould
concludes that the story of The Adventure of the Speckled Band took place on
Friday, April 6, 1883, the location being Surrey. This is a county south of London
proper in which several Holmes cases take place, including The Reigate Squires,
The Navel treaty, the Solitary Cyclist and Wisteria Lodge.

Given the April 6, 1883 date, upon which most records I have looked into agree,
what other dates and conclusions can we deduce within the text of The Adventure
of the Speckled Band?

Watson states in the beginning that he is only now been freed from a promise not
to write of these events by the untimely death of the lady to whom a pledge of
silence was given.

The details missing from Dr. Watsonís rendition, which I hope to supply, answer
the following questions Ė

                              Who was the lady in question?

                                     When did she die?

                           Was her death an "untimely" one and

                   Do we have any clues as to the cause of her death?

The lady in question must surely be the main character and the only living female
participant in the adventure, Miss Helen Stoner. So, it must have been Miss Stoner
who died allowing the story to be set down by Dr. Watson. The question now is;
when did she die. This should be easily determined by the date of the publication
of the story.

However, it may be conjectured that Dr. Watson delayed writing the events for a
great period following being freed from his promise by the ladyís passing. This
seems unlikely. Not only were the narratives he produced ennobling his friend
very popular but The Adventure of the Speckled Band was one of the best
received. His literary agent Dr. Doyle listed it in later life as his favorite. It is also
clear from the beginning passages that this story had "more singular features" than all the others he was perusing at the time. His stated as well that he felt a duty to quell the widespread rumors surrounding the death of Dr. Roylott, the antagonist in the case. So I would conclude Dr. Watson wrote the tale shortly after Miss Stonerís death.

Still, the question may rise that several years may have passed from Watson
penning the tale and his efforts to place it before the publisher. This would make
it difficult to establish other important dates related to the case. However, I do not
think Watson allowed any time to pass from completing his summary and its
publication.

It is clear from the vast popularity of the Holmesí adventures that Dr. Watson,
upon writing his recollections did not hold onto them but directly forwarded them
to his literary agent, Dr. A. Conan Dolye for publication as soon as possible. The
Strand Magazine was a monthly publication and printed the Holmes adventures
consecutively for ten to twelve months at a time. Any delay between Dr. Watsonís
setting them down and their printing would be counted in days or weeks, not
months or years.

So it is clear that the "untimely" death drove him to not only set the case to paper
quickly but to rush it to print. The Adventure of the Speckled Band was published
in the strand Magazine in February 1892, so Helen Stoner probably died in
December 1891 or January 1892.

Therefore Miss. Stoner lived only nine brief years after the events depicted in the
story. So was her death "untimely"? We must now determine her age at the time
of her demise.

Watson said upon first seeing her in the Baker Street sitting room of Sherlock
Holmes that, "her features and figure were those of a woman of thirty". Dr.
Watson was well known to have a keen eye for the ladies but he was off by a
couple of years. Helen Stonerís twin sister, Julia, whose prior death was the
purpose of her visit to Mr. Holmes, was thirty years old when she died from a
horrible and mysterious cause. This tragic event happened two years ago,
according to Miss. Stonerís narrative. This makes Helen stoner thirty-two when
she seeks Sherlock Holmesí assistance. So Helen Stoner died at the age of
forty-one. This was indeed "untimely".

Finally, what of the cause of her death? The narrative of Miss Stoner to Mr.
Holmes detailed a life of terrible oppression from her stepfather, Dr. Roylott. Her
description of him was of a hard and brutish man with little concern, let alone
affection for either Julia or Helen. Under such a household from the age of two
and with no parental salvation upon the death of their mother their fragile youth
must surely have been that of imprisoned torment. Only upon her sister Juliaís
announced engagement was any happiness detected. This was of course snuffed
out quickly and horribly by Juliaís death. Now, two years later Helen finds a
possible happy escape with a proposal of marriage from a Mr. Percy Armitage. It
is the repeated small occurrences that preceded Juliaís unexplained death
occurring now around her that sends Helen Stoner to seek the assistance of
Sherlock Holmes. Naturally Sherlock Holmes discovers the mystery in time to
prevent Dr. Roylott from murdering Helen in the same exotic manner as he ended
her sisterís sad life. The solution was such to cause the means of death to be
visited upon the stepfather instead of the stepdaughter.

Given these facts and others contained in the story what might have been the
cause of Miss Stonerís death at such an age? It could be assumed that any type of
accident may have overtaken our Miss Stoner, a fall from a horse, a collision with
a carriage or any manner of everyday calamities. Still she had married into a more
than modest family and accidents were more likely to befall those working the
streets or in dangerous industrial centers. She may have become a victim of a
crime but again this is unlikely as Dr. Watson would have remarked on it and
another possible case would have ensued. Disease however claimed more lives
than accidents or crime in the late 19th century England.

Again, although Watson does not state the cause of Miss Stonerís, now Mrs.
Armitageís untimely death which allowed him to publicly unveil this adventure
we can make a deduction. A review of the usual epidemics that crawled across the
English countryside during the time in question offers no definitive clue. The
common diseases of Tuberculosis, Smallpox, Cholera and Influenza were
tremendous pandemic visitors as well as singular killers of people throughout
Europe. There were however no reportable swaths of disease during the winter of
1891-92, when Miss Stoner probably met her end. The Great Worldwide
Influenza Epidemic, which killed millions, does not occur until 1918 and the last
pandemic prior to 1891 was the Smallpox epidemic of 1871-72, which killed
42,000 people in and around London. This scourge was unique in that it brought
down more adults than was usual. The health authorities at the time concluded
that this was caused by a failure of persons to be either vaccinated or failing to
have acquired natural immunization from a childhood contraction of the pox
virus. This may present an important clue. It was obvious that Dr. Roylott
possessed no paternal feelings toward his young charges so it is doubtful he
arranged for vaccinations of either Julia or Helen. Being a trained physician we
would certainly have known about the existence and benefit of the new
immunizations. It is also clear that he isolated them from the usual contacts with
other children, which would have afforded an opportunity to contract the
childhood pox that creates an adult immunity. Therefore the introduction of Miss
Stoner into the society at large following her marriage was that of introducing an
immune deficient child into a world of germs. Although any number of illnesses
could claim her it was probably small pox innocently acquired from the family,
friends or acquaintances of Mr. Armitage that ended Helen Stonerís doomed life.
It is a wonder she lasted as long as she did. But would a lack of immunity suffer
such a death on a woman of only forty-one?

It can be concluded that the life under her stepfatherís ill treatment and the two
years alone with him following her sisterís horrible death have aged her
prematurely. As Watson notes upon her visit to Baker Street that "her hair was
shot with premature gray, and her expression was weary and haggard." Holmes,
himself notes sign of injury to his clientís wrist which elicit the response from
Miss stoner " He is a hard manÖand perhaps he hardly knows his own strength".

Therefore I would conclude that even the nine years of supposed happiness with
Percy Armitage would not mitigate, let alone reverse the damage to her
constitution from the years of mental and physical abuse, stress and loneliness.
Her lack of immunity and her deteriorated condition was a deadly partnership.

It is clear that Dr. Grimesby Roylott, of Stoke Moran killed both of his
stepdaughters; the first as quickly as the bite of a Speckled Band and the second
through years of abuse, nervous exhaustion and grinding subservience.

Presented by
Richard Hartman, "The Hound of the Baskervilles"
before
The Norwood Building Inspectors
The Sherlock Holmes Society of Charleston, West Virginia
March 16, 2000

Copyright 2000, Richard Hartman, All Rights Reserved


 
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