Reader Challenge: “It was the band!”

Holmes & Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles

A Reader Challenge & Prize.

Peter Calamai, the 2012 Morley–Montgomery Memorial Award winner, issues a challenge in the Letters section of the Spring 2013 BSJ. His curiosity, honed from many years as a journalist, inspires us to issue this further encouragement:

The first person offering proof (as judged by your Editor) of Londoners wearing mourning bands upon the publication of “The Final Problem” in response to Sherlock Holmes’s “death” wins a year’s free subscription to the Journal.

To submit your evidence, send us an email.  [Update 8/8/18: to date, no one has provided such evidence]

“It was the band!”

In her readable and revealing article in the Winter 2012 BSJ (“Validation of Internet Fandom”), Kristina Manente cautiously refers to “the legend of Victorians marching along the Strand in black armbands” after “The Final Problem” was published.

Unfortunately, the use of the word “legend” is insufficient to signal readers that no contemporary evidence has ever been identified that anyone in London wore black armbands in public mourning for Holmes. Suggesting a march of armband-wearers along the Strand is an unfortunate escalation of a story which is no better than a myth.

In a letter in the Winter 2006 BSJ, Philip Bergem reported on his own research into primary sources, such as The Times, The Bookman, The Strand Magazine, and the John Bennett Shaw archives. He found no contemporary mention of black mourning bands. The earliest appearance that Bergem could identify was in John Dickson Carr’s The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. He suggests that Adrian Conan Doyle may have foisted the tale upon Carr as part of his paternal myth-making.

I have also looked at The Star, the largest-circulation London evening paper at the time, plus some memoirs and autobiographies. Again, no evidence surfaced of black mourning bands.

Yet the myth will not die and is propagated by commentators, including several academics, who either cite no evidence or refer to a previous publication, which itself cited no evidence.

I would like to challenge readers of the BSJ to either put up or shut up. If there is contemporary evidence for black mourning bands being worn in public after Holmes supposedly plunged to his watery grave, then let’s hear it. If not, then please stop over-egging the pudding. As Bergem commented, “the actual level of reaction . . . is still quite noteworthy.”

Peter Calamai
in The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

To submit your evidence, send us an email. Results will be printed in the BSJ.

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