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An On-line Column by
Ronald Rosenblatt



As many Holmesian scholars have noted, the stories of the Holmes canon are a veritable Victorian zoo of exotic and unlikely animals who put in frequent and at times inexplicable appearances in the cases Holmes is working to solve. This is less surprising than it might otherwise appear when we remember that the late nineteenth century was a great field-day for British naturalists and sportsmen who ventured off to the far corners of the Empire to find trophies and scientific specimens of the exotic wildlife to be found in Africa and Asia. As a result of all this activity, public interest and excitement about rare wild animals was high, and it is not thus surprising that Watson should have chosen to emphasize those cases in which unusual wild animals figured prominently.

Unfortunately, Watson is not always reliable in his accounts, to put the matter as gently as possible. A man who cannot remember whether he has been wounded in the shoulder or the leg can hardly be expected to get scientific facts straight, and indeed Watson often does not. It is therefore left to the scholar to set matters aright as much as may be possible. In the matter of animals mentioned by Watson, it is often necessary to speculate further on the true identity of the creatures involved, as Watson's information is often fragmentary and inaccurate.

The Trained Cormorant and the Repulsive Story of the Red Leech

First, we may pass lightly over some of the references to animals that are simply too fragmentary to be of much use in drawing valid inferences. In this category, for example, we may place the trained cormorant whom Watson refers to as figuring in the "case of the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant." This passing statement in "The Case of the Veiled Lodger" really is not very illuminating. Presumably the cormorant was trained to catch fish and bring them to its master, as this is in fact what cormorants in the Orient are frequently trained to do. Just what the connection with lighthouses and politicians is, though, we cannot really tell.

The cormorant is certainly a suitable bird to be involved in a criminal matter for when it has emerged from the water it often sits on a rock with wings outstretched in a manner very reminiscent of a large bat, and with its snakelike head and long sharp beak, the cormorant assumes a rather sinister, reptilian appearance at these moments. More than this, however, we simply do not know.

In a similar limbo must remain "the repulsive story of the red leech" and the leech's repulsive master Crosby. To what use Crosby put his obnoxious pet we do not know, just as we do not know exactly how the "venomous lizard or gila" listed in Holmes' index may have figured in a crime. As the gila and its close relative the Mexican beaded lizard have the unpleasant habit of fastening their jaws in a vise-like grip upon their victims until their venom is injected, we may well imagine the unsavory story in which they may have figured. As these creatures are native to the American Southwest, we must assume that some American renegade was involved in the case as well, for it is unlikely that the lizards arrived in England of their own accord. Once again, though, all is speculation.

The Giant Rat of Sumatra

It is with some relief, then, that we can pass on to firmer ground, where scientific and bibliographic research may yield some results. Surely the most tantalizing creature mentioned in the Holmes memoirs is the Giant Rat of Sumatra, which somehow managed to infest the unhappy ship Matilda Briggs in so terrible a fashion as to leave behind a tale "for which the world is not yet prepared," or at least was not prepared for at the time of the case of the Sussex Vampire (who turned out to be only the mischievous Master Jacky and not, unfortunately for those of zoological bent, a South American bat of unpleasant dietary habits known as Desmodus rotundus.) Now we may fruitfully speculate on the identity of this mysterious rodent, the Giant Rat, and we may, in fact, offer a speculative suggestion as to its true name and nature.

There can be no question that giant tropical rats do, in fact, exist. The African giant rat (Cricetomys gambianus) is found in Tropical Africa, where it is highly esteemed as food, and often reaches a length of nearly three feet from nose-tip to tail-tip. These giant rats are often accompanied by a highly unusual parasite, a "weird, wingless cockroach," (Hemimerus talpoides) nearly one inch in length. This creature will be found described on page 218 of Desmond Morris' The Mammals (Harper & Row, 1965). We may also mention in passing the Indian giant squirrel (Ratufa indica) another rodent that reaches a length of three feet. Thus, there is nothing in the least preposterous about a giant Sumatran rat. We must briefly consider as well whether the Giant Rat of Sumatra may have been merely an unusually big specimen of the common ship rat (Rattus rattus), since these creatures, though it is not well known, often grow to truly impressive size, as large as a rabbit or a cat. Such a creature might easily grow up on the wharves of a Sumatran seaport before slipping aboard the unsuspecting Matilda Briggs to wreak its terrible crimes. Such a creature might easily have carried the bubonic plague aboard the ship, and if the Matilda Briggs had then docked at London or other European seaports, Holmes might have been very wise in keeping the story a secret, as the panic resultant from such news might have been very great indeed.

However, there is another possibility in this question which to the author's knowledge has never been suggested before. There lives on the island of Sumatra, as well as in Southern Asia and on the island of Borneo, a very curious animal called a "Moon Rat". This animal's scientific name is Echinosorex gymnurus. While it is not in fact a rat, being more closely related to the hedgehogs, its appearance is very rat-like, with long sharp snout and whisker, hairy body and long naked tail. This creature reaches a body length of sixteen inches with an eight inch tail, or a total length of twenty-four inches, or two feet. Surely this is giant enough for anyone's taste. Could this animal be the very creature we seek? A giant "rat" indigenous to Sumatra does indeed answer our needs. Most interesting is the following statement about the Sumatran Moon Rat by Desmond Morris: "Anal glands secrete a musky substance that gives these animals their highly characteristic smell. This is so distinctive that it has even been made the subject of native legends." (Page 80, The Mammals.) Might this perhaps be the key that unlocks why the world was not yet prepared for the story of the Sumatran rat? Was it merely Victorian prudishness that forced Holmes to keep silent on the Matilda Briggs affair? Was some native deviltry or voodoo involved in the case? No doubt we shall know the answers to these questions someday.

The "Speckled Band"

We now pass on to the case in which animals figure so prominently, namely "The Adventure of the Speckled Band." Here it must be admitted at the outset that Watson has done a dismal job of garbling the facts. It simply will not do to tell us that the baboon is an "Indian animal," when, as every schoolchild knows, the baboon comes from Africa, not India. The supposed ferociousness of the cheetah is also very much in doubt, as cheetahs are well known for their docility and the ease with which they are trained. (As the cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, became extinct in India shortly after the turn of the century, Dr. Roylott's specimen must have been one of the last of its race.) No doubt Watson filled in these and other details at a late date and simply relied on his imagination to supply facts which he had long since forgotten.

Now, as to the identity of the "speckled band" itself, we may quickly discount Holmes' statement concerning "An Indian swamp adder. It is the deadliest snake in India," as there is no such animal as an Indian swamp adder. At any rate, no such animal will be found listed in Gharpurey's Snakes of India and Pakistan (Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1935) and similar reference sources. What we do find mentioned by Gharpurey is a snake that fits very nicely the description of the "speckled band." The most dangerous poisonous snake in India, after the cobra, is the krait and we find this description of the banded krait (Fig. 4): "Banded Krait (Bungarus fasciatus). It has all the distinctive characteristics of the krait, but in addition it has across the back large broad bands, their colour alternating yellow and black. The bands may be 1 to 1 1/2 inches broad. The Banded Krait has a very beautiful appearance. It is a deadly poisonous snake, its venom being estimated to be sixteen times as powerful as that of the Cobra." (Page 56) These latter statements are very significant, for they explain both how the snake might have been mistaken for a handkerchief or headband and also how the snake's venom dispatched the huge and powerful Dr. Grimsby Roylott so easily and instantaneously. The author submits that a careful survey of venomous Indian snakes will turn up no other so suited to the identity of the "speckled band." We shall not speculate here on whether Dr. Grimsby Roylott could actually have trained a snake to respond to a whistle and the reward of a dish of milk. Suffice it to say that snakes have not external ears and hence have little sense of hearing and also snakes, contrary to popular myth, have no liking whatsoever for milk. (The American "milk-snake" for example is so called because it is often found in dairy barns. But its reason for being there is not to suck the milk from the cows as was popularly thought, but to catch the mice and rats that live in the straw found in such barns.) Thus, Watson's account is suspect in the extreme, and we must conclude that the true facts of the murder of Helen Stoner's sister and Dr. Grimsby Roylott's sudden demise remain to be told in full.

The Terrible "Lion's Mane"

Our final instance of an unusual creature in a Holmes adventure is the terrible "Lion's Mane," the homicidal sea beast which so rudely interrupted Holmes' vacation by the seashore and which is found in one of the few adventures actually narrated by the Master himself. Here we find, in complete opposition to Watson' slipshod narrative, a very precise scientific account. Now the first question is whether such a creature as Cyanea capillata actually exists and whether Holmes' description of it and its deadly effects is correct as presented. We must answer a resounding "yes" to both questions.

For if we turn to page 104 of F. S. Russell's The Medusae of the British Isles, Volume II, Pelagic Scyphozoa (Cambridge University Press, 1970), we shall find no less than thirty-five pages devoted to our culprit, Cyanea capillata, the Lion's Mane, which turns out to be a stinging jelly-fish (Fig. 6 & 7). Of the sting, Russell states: "...the sting of C. capillata is relatively severe. This jellyfish is especially avoided by fishermen...Bad stings can give rise to blisters, lassitude, irritation of the mucous membranes and muscular cramps, and may affect heart and respiratory activities." Russell further states that: "The stinging powers of C. Capillata are retained long after the medusa has been stranded on the shore." This, of course, explains how the washed-up Lion's Mane was able to deliver its poisonous stings.

Of Holmes' encounter with this creature Russell is by no means ignorant. He states: "A modern Sherlock Holmes might well have solved his problem by examination of the nematocyts on the dead man's skin without having to find the jellyfish itself!" This is somewhat unfair as Holmes did, in fact, suspect the jellyfish, after confirming his suspicions in J. G. Wood's Out of Doors, from which Russell also quotes extensively. Thus we must give Holmes full marks for accurately presenting the mysterious creature that killed Fitzroy McPherson and attempted to kill Ian Murdoch.

Many other aspects of Holmes' adventures with wild animals might be explored. Was it, in fact, to search for the Abominable Snowman or Yeti that Holmes went to Lhasa at the Dalai Lama's request, disguised as a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson, as some writers have suggested? Did Holmes ever turn his hand to the mystery of the Loch Ness monster, so temptingly near at hand? These and other questions remain to be unraveled. When they are, we can only hope that the world will be prepared.

NOTE: For the benefit of bibliophiles, it is interesting to take note of some books that might have been in Holmes' library in connection with these cases. We have already noted J. G. Wood's Out of Doors of 1882, in which Holmes found his account of the stinging of C. capillata: "...Both the respiration and the action of the heart became affected, while at short intervals sharp pangs shot through the chest, as if struck by a leaden missile....Several days elapsed before I could walk with any degree of comfort, and for more than three months afterwards the shooting pang would occasionally dart through the chest." It is interesting to realize that these are part of the very words Holmes must have read while doing his research!

Some books Holmes might have consulted in the Matilda Briggs case include An Account of the Rats of Calcutta published at the turn of the century by William C. Hossack, M.D., by the Baptist Mission Press, Calcutta. No doubt William C. Hossack, M.D. was an old Army friend of Watson's from the Afghan campaign, and he would surely have sent Watson an early draft of first edition of this valuable book. Holmes would surely have purchased a copy of Henry C. Barkley's The Art of Rat Catching, published in 1896 in London, and indeed he may have asked Henry C. Barkley himself into the case as a consulting expert. When we think that 1896 may in fact have been the year of the Matilda Briggs case, this seems very possible indeed.

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