Saturday, August 30, 2014

John Hamish Watson, MD or The Mystery of the Carried Gun

Among readers of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, there has always been speculation about the identity of Dr. Watson’s mentioned but never named “service revolver”[1] and that has dovetailed with my interest in Victorian armament.  So I have put together a list of possible suspects.  Let me say I am by no means a sage on Holmesian literature and the study of British firearms of the Victorian period is a tangled web at best.  Further, the study of British 19th century cartridges and manufactures is even more fraught with confusion.  But first, let me set out some pertinent information about our esteemed Dr. Watson.  Self-depreciating, Watson seldom talked about himself outside of the chronicled adventures with Holmes, so we have do a little detective work ourselves. 

We find out in A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle (written 1886, pub 1887) that Watson got his medical degree in 1878 and at some point afterward he joined the British army (rank unknown), at some time and then attached to the 66th Berkshire Regiment of Foot (no doubt in the capacity as doctor).  He was wounded during the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War at the Battle of Maiwand (27 July 1880).  Doyle may have also lumped the catastrophic retreat to Kandahar into the action, but probably not the subsequent  Battle of Kandahar and the relief action itself.  Dr. Watson survived the battle and his wound, and he recuperated for a few months (presumably in India or possibly South Africa) before returning from overseas to London and leaving the army.  That would make it at least 1881 or so, (with travel time added) that Watson meets Holmes in London, presuming they met fairly soon after his arrival.  Another indicator of the time frame is that the ever-perceptive Holmes did not comment on Dr. Watson’s wound so it must have fully healed, nor did Watson suggest it slowed him down in the least during A Study in Scarlet, indicating a full recovery.

As a side note, Dr. Watson was not the bungling second-rater or stooge as depicted on the stage and in later films[2], but a battle-hardened veteran and combat doctor, exposed to the grueling life on the frontier as well as having seen (and treated) casualties and a horrific battle, retreat, siege, battle again and relief, not seen since the Sepoy Mutiny (or the earlier 1st Afghan War) just a generation previously.  He survived a wound and was willing to go on to adventures with his new-found friend and later roommate, Sherlock Holmes, about a year after these traumatic events.  Watson’s toughness, resourcefulness, and overall pluck were overshadowed by his reluctance to put himself forward when writing these stories.  Consider that Watson never put himself forward in the Holmsian screeds nor even wrote a memoir about horrific the Battle of Maiwand, so that you never see the real Dr. Watson.  But if you read a bit about the battle and the 66th you might get the idea of the level of carnage and bravery of the action.
Back to our story.  If you presume that Watson carried his standard issue pistol from Afghanistan in at least the first few adventures, then it would probably be the approved and issued Adams Mk III in .450 caliber.  It was a large-framed, bulky military holster revolver and not conducive to concealed carry necessary for a detective, nor would it fit well into all but the largest overcoat pocket.  The Mark III was directly descended from the venerable percussion revolver of Sepoy Mutiny and Crimean War fame, with numerous upgrades such over the years such as the action being modified from double action only to a double action/single action mechanism and to take metallic cartridges.  This much-modified product of years of tinkering and the final product, the Adams Mk III was finally declared obsolete for the British Army in 1882.  The replacing gun was nearly as bulky, the Enfield revolver in 1882, which was replaced again, this time by the Webley Mk I in 1887, a much more compact and modern gun.  The Webley series of revolvers continued to serve Britain for decades. 

However, because many British officers had the option to choose and purchase their own pistols, it might have been another weapon than the official Adams Mk III.  Also, seeing that Watson, having been an ex-military man and a modern detective, he might have just purchased a newer, more state-of-the-art gun every time a useful new model came out to keep up with technology.  So it would not be a single gun, but a suite of revolvers suited to specific purposes (like concealment) used by Dr. Watson over the years, such as the Webley R.I.C or a Webley Bulldog, which were not British military issue service guns, but quite popular officer purchase weapons and for carry with police and private individuals.  The Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) was a popular British police issue gun and there were and many copies were made on the Continent as well.  Yes, London Police carried guns and they had been armed off and on since 1883, with 821 receiving firearms instruction that year.   Even earlier, police were irregularly armed over the previous decades and even earlier they carried a light sword as well as a brace of flintlock pistols, but that is beyond our story.
I have handled a number of guns listed here over the years such an early Adams models, a number of Bulldogs, both British made and popular Belgian copies as well as the time-honored Webley Mk I through the Mark VI.  Excluding the Adams because of its great size, they all are sturdy and functional, moderately concealable, eminently carryable on the person without a holster and had stout, heavy cartridges for close work and very popular in their day.  The Adams traces its origin back to the muzzle loading, percussion cap era of the early 1850s with constant updates, while retaining the same large frame, with a rather weak cartridge but was the standard service arm of the British army for a long time.

To further muddy the waters, the author himself (Doyle), was apparently not well versed in arms or weapons terminology and made a few errors himself:  Referring to an Eley’s No. 2 (a large bore rifle cartridge) when he might have meant a Webley Revolver No. 2 in .440 rimfire or possibly a Webley R.I.C. No. 2, which would have a variety of loads from .450 to .320  (The Speckled Band, 1892).   The Eley Brothers made and imported cartridges of all types but they never made firearms.  He also mentions Boxer cartridges, which refers to a type of patented cartridge primer system, not to any particular cartridge and certainly not to any specific gun (Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894).  Given number of gun references in Watson’s narratives, apparently firearms were lying all about the apartment and certainly daggers adorned the walls.  I’m sure they shared guns or had a common arsenal. 

The true answer to this gun quandary is that the Ely Number 2 references was probably to a cartridge very similar to a .22 CB cap [7] and fired from a variety of small guns (single shot and revolver) made for indoor target shooting much like a gallery or saloon gun.  The Number No. 2 Ely cartridge had no propellant powder and the bullet was just sent down the barrel by the power of the primer only.  I told you it was confusing and Doyle’s unfamiliarity with firearms and cartridges of the late Victorian  period just muddies already murky waters. The only other alternative is another Eley No. 2 (headstamped such, see illustration) for an express rifle and 4 ½ inches long – clearly not a pistol round and not for shooting indoors, at least I wouldn’t do so.   See footnotes [3] [4] [5] [6]

So what we have here are probably several guns used by the good doctor (and his partner Holmes as well) over a period of years.  The first of the bunch being the pistol that Watson carried in Afghanistan and in the first adventures.  Later he probably procured smaller, more modern pistols as his career continued through the decades.  Some of the best guesses for later guns would be the Webley R.I.C. or Bulldog (and copies) and possibly later than that, the venerable military issue Webley Mk I (adopted 1887 and available as a civilian purchase model).  All of these later guns are somewhat compact and have powerful cartridges.  But ultimately, there is no proof positive of any particular gun being used by Dr. Watson in his adventures beyond the shadow of a doubt.  With this final Holmesian mystery about which gun(s) Watson might have carried, I leave the reader with the admonishment that it is indeed not elementary at all.
I actually originally wrote the bones to this article about three years ago, mostly in response to a Propnomicon post about a cased prop Watson gun, but let the article languish uncompleted.  Once I came back to the subject, I found that a few others had attempted to figure out the Watson gun question, so I decided to polish up the article and publish it finally.  I had intended to also produce a second Holmsean weapons article about the air gun used by Col Moran in the Adventure of the Empty House, but it didn’t go much beyond the outline stage.  Hopefully I’ll get that article put together.

Footnotes (of course)
[1] "I have my old service revolver and a few cartridges."  Dr. John Watson to Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet.

[2] Early depictions of Sherlock Holmes and Watson have actor William Gillette set the stage in his interpretation of Holmes and the associated clichés.  Most notably, Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce followed the Gillette formula in film.  Lately some of the caricatures have been rehabilitated and the clichés have finally been retired.   See also

[3] Because of this confusion on gun loadings, many guns had the calibers stamped on the barrel, often with specific manufactures recommended or mandated.  Many novices mistake the cartridge attribution information stamped on the barrel or frame for the model of the gun.  The danger of using the wrong loadings has only increased with time as more powerful smokeless cartridges might be used in more fragile black powder frames with dire consequences.

[4] There was an article published in the magazine Black Mask:  John Stanley attended several gatherings of the Baker Street Irregulars and even authored a monograph on the handguns used by Holmes and Watson that appeared in the July 1948 issue of Black Mask.  Vol 31 No 4.  The cover was by Peter Stevens, "Leave Killing to the Cops" by Curtis Cluff.  I haven’t been able to find a copy, but this might lead somebody to put the article on line. 

[5] In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he has Holmes emptying “five barrels into the creature’s flank,” he undoubtedly meant five chambers as I doubt Holmes was carrying an obsolete pepperbox revolver.  In The Musgrave Ritual (1893) Holmes says, ... ”I have always held, too, that pistol practice should distinctly be an open-air pastime; and when Holmes in one of his queer humours would sit in an armchair, with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.”  Again, Boxer is a primer system not a cartridge manufacturer.  Besides it was probably Eley No. 2s he was shooting with a saloon gun shooting CB caps, as anything else would have done more than just pock the wall plaster.

[6] A few additional gun-related quotes written by the good Doctor:
In The Adventure of the Speckled Band, (1892) Holmes suggests, “An Eley's No. 2 is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel poker's into knots. That and a tooth-brush are, I think, all that we need.”  In The Adventure of the Dying Detective, (1913) Doctor Watson reveals that, “His [Holmes] occasional revolver practice within doors ... made him the very worst tenant in London.”  Apparently he wasn’t evicted for shooting holes in the walls back in The Musgrave Ritual.

[7] CB standing for Conical Bullet and BB for Bulleted Breech, but for our purposes they are about the same.  The term BB bears no relationship to our modern spring guns and airguns firing copper coated iron .177 cal “BBs” we are now familiar (You’ll put your eye out).  The CB cap was developed by Louis-Nicolas Flobert originally in 1845, one of the oldest self contained metallic cartridges, although it contained no powder, it just uses the power of the primer as the propellant.
Links of Interest

Notes on the arming of British police

Notes on saloon, salon, parlor guns and their craze.   
You can also Google the manufacturers Flobert and Remington for examples.


Friday, August 8, 2014

The First Female Pharaoh Nitocris, H. P. Lovecraft, and the Tennessee Williams Connection

If you like strong women, you have come to the right place. 

The Father of History, Herodotus wrote of a female pharaoh called Nitocris in his histories (which he finished circa 440 BCE) and the story was picked up by Lovecraft and Tennessee Williams four thousand years after her death.  That’s some staying power and some story: murder, revenge, mass killings, and suicide.  Her closest rival in that scenario would be Cleopatra VII and that is two thousand years later.  The pharaoh Nitocris was supposed to have ruled from 2148 to 2144 BCE, the last ruler of the 6th Dynasty and ended up on a barbeque. 

Herodotus says of the Pharaoh Nitocris:  (Book II, 100)  
" ... the name of the woman who reigned was the same as that of the Babylonian queen, namely Nitocris*. Of her [the Egyptian one] they said that, desiring to take vengeance for her brother, whom the Egyptians had slain when he was their king and then, after having slain him, had given his kingdom to her, desiring I say, to take vengeance for him, she destroyed by craft many of the Egyptians.  For she caused to be constructed a very large chamber under ground, and making as though she would  [make a] handsel [of] it, but in her mind devising other things, she invited those of the Egyptians whom she knew to have had most part in the murder, and gave a great banquet.  Then while they were feasting, she let in the river upon them by a secret conduit of large size.  Of her they told no more than this, except that, when this had been accomplished, she threw herself into a room full of [burning] embers, in order that she might escape vengeance."

Now Nitocris may have been the first female Pharaoh, but certainly not the last, click the links to find out more.

The 3rd century BCE Ptolemaic era Egyptian historian, Manetho says of her in his history of Egyptian rulers, Aegyptiaca, “There was a queen Nitôcris, the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time; she had a fair complexion, and is said to have built the third pyramid.”   The Greek version by Eusebius is a bit more expansive, “There was a queen Nitôcris, braver than all the men of her time, the most beautiful of all the women, fair-skinned with red cheeks.  By her, it is said, the third pyramid was reared, with the aspect of a mountain.”  Other versions, such as a Latin Armenian version says about the same, but if they were copying from each other and from the same text, you would expect it.  By those accounts, she was a looker.  There is a  possibility that she appears under other names or honorifics, which is common enough in Egyptian royalty.  Additionally, the Turin Egyptian King List also mentions her as pharaoh on a papyrus fragment, but that is now under question.+  Real or not, Nitocris has survived the centuries to be written about and we’ll just have to wait until the academic heavyweights thrash it out.  In the mean time we have some excellent fiction written in the early 20th century.

Now that we have established a basis for Nitocris by historians, let’s jump forward a few thousand years and on the other side of the planet.  When only 16, budding southern author Tennessee Williams (but born in Columbus, Mississippi, go figure) wrote a historical fiction short story, The Vengeance of Nitocris and it was published in the magazine Weird Tales in August of 1928.  This was his first published story, but not his last.  Tennessee Williams didn’t do much more with his weird fiction writing experience, but instead began writing his own weird tales of the 20th century about his view of America, families, and the south.  
As an aside, Robert E. Howard's story Red Shadows, the story that introduced Solomon Kane, which is the cover story of Weird Tales of the same edition that also had Tennessee William’s The Vengeance of Nitocris story inside.  As you may know, Howard also wrote Lovecraftian types tales.  See my previous blog entry:  The Sixtystone – A Web of Deceit and Illusion. 

H. P. Lovecraft ghostwrote a short story for Harry Houdini, which mentions Nitrocris.   It was originally published under Houdini’s name in Weird Tales in February 1924, as Under the Pyramids (AKA Entombed with the Pharaohs, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs).  But even before that, Lovecraft  had written a short story, The Outsider in 1921, (but published in 1926) with a reference to Nitocris in the story.   This early date shows he was aware of Nitocris  (maybe from Herodotus and possibly even Manetho) and had written about her rather early on and before he wrote Under the Pyramids. 

Part of this story has some synchronicity, with Propnomicon having recently published a blog post based on the story, Entombed with the Pharaohs and me just reading a short bio of Tennessee Williams, which mentions his Nitocris story.  Of course I quickly remembered the Lovecraft story and the Propnomicon blog entry, so it all began to fall together along with a bit remembered bits from Herodotus about Nitocris.  Well the entry just pretty much wrote itself with all the connections and coincidences jelling at once. 

Clearly there is something enticing about the Egyptian Nitocris story, which has kept it in circulation for centuries.  I have to wonder if there is any link between H. Rider Haggard’s novel about another strong beautiful ruler, She A History of Adventure (1886) and the two Nitocris mentioned in Herodotus?  Maybe, but I haven’t found proof of it yet.  Haggard’s first novel, King Soloman’s Mines was an instant hit and created the new fiction genre of the Lost World, but that’s another story for another time.

Bram Stoker (you know Dracula and all that) wrote a story called, The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), about an attempt to revive an ancient Egyptian female ruler’s mummy (fictional Queen Tera), which makes me wonder if Lovecraft had read it and if the story had had any connection to Stoker possibly reading Herodotus.  I’m sure a Lovecraft scholar out there might know the answer. 

Well we can see that a four thousand year old queen, who may or may not be mythical, can still generate some classic weird fiction stories.  I hope that this blog entry wasn’t too long or too serious, but I felt that the information was far too interesting to leave out of the article.  There are probably some that feel it was too much and other too little information.  But I sincerely hope that it has piqued your interest and you will download some of the cited stories.  Additionally, you prop makers out there ought to be interested in the two historical rulers named Nitocris, the weird fiction stories spawned, and the possible earlier association with H. Rider Haggard’s She, who gained her immortality in flames, rather than killed  For you writers and prop makers, there should be some good ideas in all this.  Good reading to you all.     CoastConFan
* There is another queen called Nitocris (6th century BCE, daughter of Nebuchadnezzer II, who made the Hanging Gardens) and also mentioned by Herodotus, but this other one is Babylonian and 1,500 years later, but just as crafty.  She also had a flair for architecture, especially her tomb.  Go to the bottom of the article to find out about her according to Herodotus (Book II, 185), if you have any interest.  Nebuchadnezzer is also mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, during the period of the Babylonian Captivity, but you'll have to look that one up yourself.

+ See Kim Ryholt’s article, The Late Old Kingdom in the Turin King-list and the Identity of Nitocris, ZAS 127 (2000) pgs 87-100.  It’s a little involved, but also sheds light on the difficulties in reconstruction of damaged ancient records.  
     Update Dec 2014:  For those of you deeply interested in Egyptology, the New Reconstructed Chronology of Egyptian Kings by M. Christine Tetley (Vols I & II) is available for download at


Download Herodotus’ history in English:
A smaller 1464k text-only version is available for download

Download Mantho’s book of Egypt’s history, Aegyptiaca in English*.html

Article on the Lovecraft/Howard axis

Blog article about archeology in H. P. Lovecraft

Download Tennessee Williams’ story, The Vengeance of Nitocris

Download H. P. Lovecraft’s story, The Outsider  and Imprisoned with the Pharaohs

Download Bram Stoker’s story, Jewel of Seven Stars

Now for a bit of lagniappe, some information on the Babylonian queen Nitocris:   An absolutely outstanding article about the Babylonian Queen Nitocris by Robert Lebling on his blog, A Strange Manuscript  and some obligatory Herodotus.
What Herodotus says this about the Babylonian Queen Nitocris (Book II, 187):  
 "This same queen [Nitocris] also contrived a snare of the following kind: - Over that gate of the city through which the greatest number of people passed she set up for herself a tomb above the very gate itself.  And on the tomb she engraved writing which said thus: "If any of the kings of Babylon who come after me shall be in want of wealth, let him open my tomb and take as much as he desires; but let him not open it for any other cause, if he be not in want; for that will not be well."  This tomb was undisturbed until the kingdom came to Dareios [Darius]; but to Dareios it seemed that it was a monstrous thing not to make any use of this gate, and also, when there was money lying there^, not to take it, considering that the money itself invited him to do so.  Now the reason why he would not make any use of this gate was because the corpse would have been above his head as he drove through.  He then, I say, opened the tomb and found not indeed money but the corpse, with writing which said thus: ‘If thou hadst not been insatiable of wealth and basely covetous, thou wouldest not have opened the resting-places of the dead."
^I’m guessing she was not actually buried with her treasure or that it was pilfered long before Darius shows up.  Her impressive architectural exploits start at 185, but the above concerns the tomb alone.
If you are interested, you can download Herodotus in English:   or