Origins of the BSI
In 1932, there were no Sherlockian societies. However, it is likely that the first Sherlockian society was founded by Christopher Morley in 1902, at age twelve with three friends on the streets of Bolton Hill in Baltimore. They called themselves “The Sign of the Four.” Morley then went on to study at Haverford College. (His father had taught mathematics at Haverford and moved to Baltimore to head up the Math Department at Johns Hopkins University.)
Christopher wanted to be a writer. In 1917, he wrote a delightful book about a traveling bookseller, Parnassus on Wheels, which turned out to be a bestseller. He wrote many more excellent and well received books. During the 1920s, Morley helped found the Saturday Review of Literature (SRL). He never lost his enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes. In 1926, he began to plant Sherlockian references in his column in the SRL. In 1930, Doubleday commissioned Morley to write the introduction to the first Complete Sherlock Holmes.
Morley also liked to share his meals with friends. To do so, he formed many “clubs” that met periodically for meals. One of his favorites was the “Three Hours for Lunch Club,” which met at speakeasies in Manhattan starting around 1920. Out of that, in 1931, grew the Grillparzer Sittenpolizei Verein (Grillparzer Morals Police Association) or the Grillparzer Club, which Morley named after a random book he happened to buy.
Attendees to the club would sign their names in the book and added comments. Club “members” (attendees who signed the book) included W. S. Hall, Rex Stout, Edward G. Robinson, Elmer Davis, A. A. Milne, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Montgomery, Nelson Doubleday, Ginger Rogers, Morley’s brothers Frank and Felix, Don Marquis, Ogden Nash, H. G. Wells, A. S. W. Rosenbach, T. S. Eliot, Gene Tunney, Judith Anderson, and many more men and women. A number of its members shared Morley’s interest in Sherlock Holmes, and, out of these, grew another club.
1930 brought a heightened interest in Sherlock Holmes, partly because of the death of Arthur Conan Doyle. S. C. Roberts’s book Dr. Watson was published in 1931, T. S. Blakeney’s Sherlock Holmes, Fact or Fiction in 1932, H. W. Bell’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson and Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes followed in 1933.
In 1933, the SRL published several articles on Sherlock Holmes, including Morley’s assertion that Holmes’s birthday was January 6 and reviews of some of the aforementioned books. Meanwhile the practice of asking challenging questions began to arise in Morley’s clubs (with the loser having to buy a round of drinks). Some of these questions related to the Canon, and people started re-reading the stories a bit more closely.
In late 1933, Morley noticed that the SRL would be publishing an issue on January 6, 1934, his date for Sherlock Holmes’s birthday. He called for a cocktail party at the Hotel Duane to celebrate the event. There were some birthday toasts at the party, and while Morley may have mentioned the Baker Street Irregulars, no one took any notice of it. However, three weeks later, Morley reported in the SRL:
W. S. H. [i.e., Bill Hall], secretary of the Baker Street Irregulars, has allowed us to look over the minutes of the first meeting of the club. Among other business it appears that the matter of an official toast was discussed. It was agreed that the first health must always be drunk to “The Woman.”
Thus, the BSI was born.
The First BSI Dinner
Following that, mention of the BSI occurred regularly in Morley’s articles in the SRL. Then, Morley printed Elmer Davis’s Constitution of the BSI. The SRL began receiving letters from people who added “Baker Street Irregular” to their names. Morley became concerned that his whimsical little idea for having meals with his friends was getting out of his control.
His brother Frank had developed the Sherlock Holmes Crossword Puzzle and sent it to Morley. Morley published it in the SRL, using it as a requirement for membership in the BSI. He asked people to mail him their completed puzzles. Men and women from all over the country did so.
Someone in the U.K. must have been reading the SRL. Morley received a letter stating that the English Sherlock Holmes Society was now formed, sends its greetings to the Baker Street Irregulars, and would hold its first dinner on June 7, 1934. Morley felt that the British had recognized the BSI’s seniority, and he did not want to lose the “first formed” status.
He was spurred to hold a BSI dinner before the London group met. Hence, he wrote a letter to all of the people who successfully (or almost successfully) completed the puzzle that the BSI would hold its first formal dinner on June 5th. He added a phrase that would haunt the BSI for nearly sixty years. “This first meeting will be stag.”
Some of Morley’s clubs were stag, while others were not. Morley seemed to like the character of both co-ed and all male groups. (The Three Hours for Lunch Club was stag, and the Grillparzer Club was not.) A lot depended on which friends he wanted to dine with. For example, sometimes, they happened to be other male authors, sometimes they were authors of both sexes. And there is certainly no evidence that Morley was a misogynist. At any rate, once the BSI took flight, it did not change its policy for decades.
The BSI held its “first annual” dinner on December 7, 1934. The attendees included Morley, W. S. Hall, William Gillette, Elmer Davis, Earle Walbridge, Frederick Dorr Steele, H. W. Bell, Vincent Starrett, Gene Tunney, and others, including Alexander Woollcott, who had been invited by Starrett and proceeded to alienate the others.
As Morley always considered the BSI to be an informal club that met at his whim, it did not meet again until January 6, 1936. In the meantime, Scion Societies of the BSI formed, such as the Speckled Band of Boston, the Six Napoleons of Baltimore, and others.
Evolution of the BSI
But the BSI, as a formal organization, seemed to be fading in Morley’s interest. He would continue to have lunches with his close Irregular friends, but the BSI would not meet again until 1940. In 1938, Edgar W. Smith, a Vice President at General Motors, began writing to Morley and Starrett (befriending Starrett). Smith offered to take over many of the chores of planning the dinner from Morley, and Morley let him. From that time on, the BSI met every year thereafter.
Smith formalized the BSI. He did all the work, and the BSI escaped being Morley’s whimsical plaything. Morley may have been the titular head, but Smith became the engine that drove it. After Morley’s death, Smith ran it. He was followed by Julian Wolff, then Tom Stix, and now Mike Whelan.
In 1991, Stix made an announcement that would change the BSI forever. At the BSI’s annual Cocktail Reception on the Saturday of the BSI Weekend, he announced that he had some investitures to make. The investitures included six women, and the BSI has been co-ed ever since.
The BSI is part literary society, part social group, and part source of whimsical entertainment. One does not join the BSI. One is invited to join (and, then, usually after several years of attending the dinner as an invitee). Membership is generally given after significant accomplishment, and, thus, BSI members are generally accomplished adults, either in the Sherlockian community or in their professions (but having a deep love of, and interest in, Sherlock Holmes).
The BSI has approximately 300 members from around the world. About half attend the annual BSI Dinner in New York City every January, which draws people from all over the U.S., as well as the U.K., Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, and other countries. The weekend surrounding the BSI Dinner is filled with speakers, other dinners, cocktail parties, and other Sherlockian events, many of which are open to the general Sherlockian community, not just BSI members.
More About The BSI
About the BSI (overview)
BSI History & Biography books
Explanation of BSI Honours & Terms (at the BSI Trust website)