When Sherlock Holmes came to the Valley: famed writer Arthur Conan Doyle visited Amherst and Northampton in 1894

  • Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914, at age 55. He made a number of trips to the U.S.; his first, in 1894, included visits to Amherst and Boston. Image from Wikipedia/public domain Great Britain and U.S.

  • A 1904 portrait of Sherlock Holmes by British artist Sidney Paget, the illustrator of many Sherlock Holmes stories in the magazine “The Strand.” Image from Wikipedia/public domain Great Britain and U.S.

  • Doyle with his family in New York City in 1922. Doyle made a number of trips to the U.S.; his first, in 1894, included visits to Amherst and Boston. Image from Library of Congress/public domain U.S.

  • At right, an illustration of Sherlock Holmes, left, and his assistant Dr. Watson from the Doyle story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” Illustration is by Sidney Paget.

  • Sherlock Holmes struggles with an opponent in an illustrated scene from the story “Reichenbach Falls”; illustration by Sidney Paget. Image from Wikipedia/public domain Great Britain and U.S.

For the Gazette
Published: 11/21/2018 2:12:50 PM

Until recently, I knew little about the super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and even less about his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. As an adolescent, I was captivated by his amazing tales, but soon my interests changed and my reading shifted to other writers.

Then last year I read a review of a recently-published audio book of Sherlock Holmes stories, read by the British actor Stephen Fry. Here was my chance to renew my acquaintance. By the time I had taken in a few of these highly entertaining narratives, I was hooked. Soon my curiosity about the author led to researching his life. To my surprise I discovered that he had not only been to America, but had visited the Pioneer Valley.

In the autumn of 1894, Doyle embarked on what would be the first of four lecture tours in North America. At age 35, he was already a celebrity. His tales about Sherlock Holmes’ amazing talent for solving complicated crimes had captured the imagination of readers throughout England and the United States.

Though Doyle traveled as far west as Chicago and south to Washington D.C., his two-month visit in 1894 took him primarily to cities and towns in the Northeast, including Northampton and Amherst. He would give his lecture, “Readings and Reminiscences,” at least 34 times (the tour had been organized by a New York City impresario by the name of Major James Burton Pond).

At an early age, Doyle became fascinated with America from reading stories by authors such as James Fenimore Cooper, Francis Parkman and Thomas Mayne Reid. He later became well acquainted with other American authors such as Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe, often considered the creator of the detective genre.

Born in Scotland in 1859, Doyle was especially drawn to American frontier life: His first Sherlock Holmes mystery, “A Study in Scarlet,” has an extensive flashback that takes place in Utah among the early Mormon settlers, who are portrayed in a less than positive light. His novel about colonial America, “The Refugees,” is set in the territory between New York state and Canada.

Doyle’s grandfather and father were well-known illustrators, and in spite of his father’s alcoholism and years of confined rehabilitation, he was able to illustrate some of his son’s early stories.

After graduating from the University of Edinburgh medical school, Doyle opened a medical practice in Portsmouth, England. But soon he was also publishing short stories in magazines and newspapers.

He credited one of his professors, Dr. Joseph Bell, as an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes because of the professor’s obsessive attention to detail and ability to make diagnoses merely by observing patients in his clinic’s waiting room. Within a few more years, Doyle gave up medicine to concentrate full time on writing and life with his wife and two young children. 

By 1894, Doyle had crafted two novels about Sherlock Holmes, 24 short stories, and three historical novels; he’d also introduced another popular figure, Brigadier Gerard, a cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army, to his work. He often said his talent came from his mother, whom he described as a natural storyteller.

To the new world

Doyle arrived in New York City on October 2, 1894, accompanied by his 21-year-old brother Innes. He had a few days before his tour began and first wanted to see the Adirondack region in upstate New York, where he found the wilderness much as he imagined from his readings.

He next headed for Boston to meet Oliver Wendell Holmes. Unfortunately, Dr. Holmes died shortly before Doyle arrived; Doyle had long admired the physician, poet and writer who had served as the inspiration for Sherlock’s last name.

On October 30, Doyle and his brother took the train to Northampton, where local dignitaries met them at the station. Conan Doyle gave a lecture that evening in City Hall, about which the Daily Gazette (as the newspaper was then called) wrote the next day:

“A. Conan Doyle, in his address delivered from manuscript, said that he remembered Thackery as a lad, and the impression made upon him at the time helped him much in his life. His recital of his early literary experiences, with now and then a flash of wit, with a few passages from his works, constituted the evening’s entertainment.”

A Smith College student, Lydia Kendall, who attended the lecture recorded her impression of the talk in her journal, which is now part of the college’s special collections.

“I went to hear Dr. Conan Doyle read from his writings. He is English and the author of Sherlock Holmes, The Refugees and The White Company. He is a fine looking man of thirty-five, very tall and well proportioned. He read us a paper about his own life and experiences and wove in readings from his own books.… He told us girls a little of his assent up the ladder of fame, how he wrote his first Sherlock Holmes story, and how at first he could not get it published anywhere.”

After brief visits to Boston and Worcester, the Doyle brothers arrived in Amherst on November 2, where Conan Doyle gave a lecture at Amherst College’s College Hall.

An article in the Amherst Student, dated November 10, wrote in part: “The college lecture course opened auspiciously Friday evening November 2, with a lecture by Dr. Doyle. He proved to be a very interesting speaker and reader. After a brief review of his school life, the latter part of which was spent in the study of medicine, he told in very interesting manner his early experiences as an author, and he related the difficulties he encountered from the English custom of keeping a young writer’s works anonymous.”

After completing the tour, the Doyle brothers departed New York for England on December 7 aboard the Cunard liner Etruria.

A prolific writer

For the remaining 35 ½ years of his life, Doyle continued to prosper as an author and lecturer. His chilling mystery, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” one of his best-known tales and the source of numerous film and television adaptations, was published in 1902. His history of the Boer War (1899-1902) resulted in his receiving a knighthood, also in 1902.

In addition, he was an avid letter writer and corresponded with a wide range of friends and associates. His most enduring correspondent was his mother, to whom he wrote countless letters, beginning as a youth in boarding school (many of his letters have survived).

He also co-wrote a play with the actor William Gillette, who played Sherlock Holmes. It opened on Broadway in November of 1899 and was a smash hit. Following the death of his wife from tuberculosis, Doyle re-married and had three more children. None of his offspring had children of their own.

In his later years, Doyle became increasingly involved in spiritualism, a movement whose devotees believed that, with the help of mediums and séances, one could communicate with the spirits of the deceased. It struck many as inconceivable that Doyle, a physician and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whose success relied on logical proof, would embrace this movement.

Yet, despite criticism and the risk of tarnishing his reputation, he drew large crowds to his spiritualism lectures in Great Britain, which led to tours in Australia and the United States. He maintained these beliefs for the rest of his life, and just before his death in 1930 at age 71, he wrote: “The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now.”

Lawrence Siddall lives in Amherst and can be reached at lsiddall@crocker.com.


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