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Laurence M. Klauber

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The Truth About the Speckled Band
by Laurence M. Klauber

From The Baker Street Journal, an Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 149-157, 1948.
Republished here with the permission of the Klauber family.

TO ANY STUDENT of the Writings one of the most disturbing elements is the frequency with which Dr. Watson has carelessly, and with obvious inaccuracy, recorded some statement of the Master. From such have resulted those uncertainties of explanation so puzzling to his reverential following. They must, certainly, have been shocking to one like Holmes, who treasured, above all, lucidity of thought and directness of conclusion. One may picture him pacing among his bee-hives, torn between loyalty to his old associate and a natural desire to protect his own great name. Since he has not yet come forward to correct the curious aberrancies with which Watson's careless writing has saddled him, we can only assume that he has decided on the nobler course. Nowhere is there a wider discrepancy between Watson's record of a Holmes statement and what was actually said than in The Adventure of the Speckled Band. Here is one of the most important chapters of the Canon; in fact the one most often chosen[1] as the perfect exemplification of all those qualities that have placed the Writings on their deserved pinnacle. Yet the dénouement, as given us by Watson, is so fantastically impossible that some other explanation must be forthcoming. We must go beyond the Watsonian transcription for a knowledge of what really happened.

As to my own position in this matter, I had previously concluded that to divulge the facts would lead to results no one could contemplate with composure. To have spoken before would have jeopardized the marital happiness of many a newly appointed Civil servant boarding a P. and O. boat, outward bound for Madras. But now that the British have withdrawn from India, I feel free to disclose the truth. In the past we had been told of "Young ladies refusing eligible matrimonial alliances because they did not like to go to a place [India] so full of snakes."[2] And how much more frequent would have been these blasted weddings, had the prospective brides been aware of hazards more terrible than any snake, whether met within the formal gardens at Benares, or the dank morass of the jungle at Inner Madaripur. At last I welcome the privilege of speaking, now that skilled natives, rather than unaccustomed Europeans, will be called upon to deal with the menace initiated by that calculating scoundrel, the late Dr. Grimesby Roylott of Stoke Moran.

The nature of the creature that snuffed out the life of Julia Stoner, and, two years later, her unlamented step-father, has long been a puzzle to herpetologists. They have not been satisfied with the accusation leveled at the "swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India" for, of course, there is no such reptile. How Holmes must have recoiled at the Watsonian version of his identification of the creature that glared at the intruders from its vantage point on Dr. Roylott's brow. That, in fact, Holmes did recognize it for what it was, testifies to his profound knowledge of ophiology, a matter of no surprise; for medical jurisprudence abounds in cases of both simulated and disguised snake-bite, with all of which the great detective was familiar. We know that the Holmes library was particularly complete on every phase of toxicology[3]. As of April, 1883, it must have contained such recent works as The Reptiles of British India, by Albert C. L. G. Guenther, The Ray Society, London, 1864; Indian Snakes: An Elementary Treatise on Ophiology, second edition, by Edward Nicholson, Madras, 1874; Report on . . . Indian and Australian Snake Poisoning and the Physiological, Chemical, and Microscopical Nature of Snake-Poisons, by The Commission[4] Appointed to Investigate the Subject," Calcutta, 1874; Descriptive Catalogue of the Reptiles of British India, by William Theobald, Calcutta, 1876; The Poisonous Snakes of India [Prepared] for the Use of the Officials and Others Residing in the Indian Empire, by Joseph Ewart, London, 1878; Destruction of Life by Snakes, Hydrophobia, etc., in Western India, by an Ex-Commissioner,[5] London, 1880; and Indian Snake Poisons, Their Nature and Effects, by A. J. Wall, London, 1883. But especially Holmes would have had recourse to that authoritative work, published in folio with magnificent colored illustrations by Hindu artists, The Thanatophidia of India: Being a Description of the Venomous Snakes of the Indian Peninsula, by J. (afterwards Sir Joseph) Fayrer; London, 1872; second edition, revised and enlarged, London, 1874.

Now the important point is that in none of these more than adequate works in the Holmes library is there any mention of a swamp adder or, indeed, of any kind of adder[6] in India. It might be reasoned that Holmes, with his encyclopedic knowledge in those fields related to crime and death had lately heard of some snake in India not yet recorded in the scientific treatises of the time. But even today the latest and most authoritative work on the subject[7] fails to mention such a creature.

That the causative agent in the deaths of Julia Stoner and Dr. Roylott could have been no "adder" is immediately apparent to anyone having even the most superficial knowledge of ophiology. It has been carelessly suggested that the reptile was the common Indian snake variously known as Russell's viper, tic-polonga, or daboia (Vipera russelli russelli).[8] Nothing could be more incredible. The daboia is a bulky, lethargic snake growing to a length of 5½ feet. We are told by Malcolm Smith (loc. cit., p. 484) that 5-foot specimens are not unusual. Roylott's pet was an adult, for he had kept it in his room not less than 3 years, allowing for a year of training and experimentation prior to the death of Julia Stoner; and these snakes become adults, although they do not reach maximum size, at the age of 3 years. An adult Russell's viper would weigh 4 or 5 pounds, with a bulk that would more than fill a gallon jar. For such a large snake to balance itself on Dr. Roylott's head would be impossible; if for no other reason the weight would have tipped the head back, as "his chin was cocked upward," and the snake would have rested on, and completely hidden, his face, which, we know, was not the case, as "his eyes were fixed in a dreadful, rigid stare."

Nor does this snake answer to the description: "round his brow he had a peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles" -- for Russell's viper is brown, with black-edged dorsal and lateral blotches, as can be seen from Fayrer's plate 11. It is unthinkable that even Watson would have so distorted the description merely to achieve a better title than "The Adventure of the Black-edged Brown-blotched Band." Finally, the symptoms, whether in the case of Julia or the doctor, are not those of daboia poisoning, as may be noted by anyone who cares to consult the authorities for example cases involving some rather gruesome details.[9]

But these discrepancies in the choice of some specific snake are immaterial compared with the basic fact that the culprit could not, by any possibility, have been a snake at all. Consider these obvious absurdities: The creature lives on milk, not the natural food of any snake, and one that it will accept only rarely as a substitute for water, if the latter be unobtainable. It is recalled to the doctor's room by a whistle: how could this be when it is well known that snakes are quite deaf? It is true that they are extraordinarily sensitive to vibrations of the substratum upon which they rest, so they often appear to hear sounds of sufficient magnitude to affect such a vibrator as a box in which they may be kept; but this could not be the case with a snake clinging tenuously to a flimsy bell-rope. Finally, while admitting that a snake might slide down a bell-rope, it could certainly not climb up one, particularly with the lower end swinging loose above the fatal bed. For snakes do not climb -- as many think -- by twining themselves around an object; they climb by wedging their bodies into any crannies and interstices, taking advantage of every irregularity or protrusion upon which a loop of body may be hooked. It is by this method that they progress rapidly up the rough bark of branching trees or the tangled skein of a vine. And, to add to the difficulty of the Roylott snake, it is required to climb on a cold night, for one tragedy took place when the "wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows" and the other when there was "a chill wind blowing in our faces." Central heating, of course, was unheard of then; and we know that no grate fire[10] was burning in either room at the time of the final fatality because Holmes insisted "We must sit without a light. He [Roylott] would see it through the ventilator"; and after midnight, when the doctor's stealthy activities began, there was a "momentary gleam of light up in the direction of the ventilator." So we have a creature performing the -- for it -- impossible feat of climbing a loose bell-rope at a temperature at which an ectothermic animal, such as a snake, would be practically comatose. There are eleven other reasons, evident to any beginner in ophiology, why the theory of a snake having caused either death is untenable, but I shall not labor the subject. A small work of my own upon the principles involved can be seen at the British Museum.

It will be remembered that, after the departure of the pugnacious doctor from Baker Street, when Holmes had straightened the poker again, he set off for Doctors' Commons. He returned at one o'clock and reported to Watson upon some unimportant details of the late Mrs. Roylott's will. Now obviously he would have had this from the Recorder's office. Then why Doctors' Commons; what did he learn there of the sinister doctor's Indian career? Did he only verify Miss Stoner's tale of the robberies in the house and the death of the butler?

Were it not for a fortunate coincidence, I should be as much at sea as Watson, but now I know that Holmes been engaged in more definitive researches. Not long ago I was ferreting out the literature of reptile hybridization preparatory to reporting on a captive-bred hybrid rattlesnake,[11] when a name attached to an old reference in the Zoological Abstracts caught my eye. Roylott, G. appeared familiar, but I could not place the connection. The title "Hybridization on the Suborder Level" seemed near enough to my field of interest to warrant study, and after some correspondence, I found myself in possession of a biofilm copy of the doctoral thesis of Griscom[12] Roylott (Cand. Med.), 1855. 1 shall not weary the reader with technicalities; let it suffice that Roylott was an advanced worker in the field of hybridization barriers. Some of his experiments in artificial fertilization were amazing for that day, and there was to be noted a flair for involved research that made one wonder why the name Roylott was not more frequently met in the bibliographies. How curious are the patterns of memory! It was at a concert devoted to the di Lasso motets that I first connected this Roylott with the Canon. I need hardly say that despite the late hour I had the film threaded into the reading machine, and the Writings open at The Adventure of the Speckled Band as soon as I reached home.

Space does not permit my citing the confirmatory evidence found in the thesis except that the author concludes, in detailing the results of some experiments with the European green lizard and the grass snake: "and the fact that a viable embryo made its appearance would lead to the belief that the hybridization of even such diverse animals as Heloderma horridum[13]and Naia tripudians[14] is by no means impossible. What a creature that would be!"

How Roylott was enabled to carry on his researches after his arrival in India we do not know. Without question the gypsies formed the line of communication through which he secured his Mexican specimens. We may look with doubt upon the report of his beating his butler to death because of "robberies which had been perpetrated in the house"; clearly the butler had learned of the success of the doctor's frightful experiments and was engaged in blackmail. And as to that poor girl, the young widow of Major General Stoner, we can only imagine her loathing upon discovering the character of her second husband. We may even visualize the true nature of the so-called accident that led to her untimely demise on the railway near Crewe.

Whether some of the offspring of the foul miscegenation perpetrated by Dr. Roylott ever escaped and became established in the wild is not definitely known, but there are three evidences that they did: First, Sherlock Holmes had heard rumors of some such creature and verified its existence by his fortunate find of a copy of the thesis on a tip from Doctors' Commons. Secondly, we know that Roylott secured one or more specimens after his release from prison, and was able to bring them to England; these must have resulted from the pre-confinement experiments. And, finally, there are reports of deaths from the bite of an exceedingly active and venomous lizard emanating from an ever-widening circle of localities around Ghatal, including Kharar, Khirpai, and even as far west as Chandrakona. No doubt it was somewhere in this vicinity, not far from Calcutta, that Dr. Roylott maintained his laboratories.

It is to be hoped that the new Government will take the necessary steps to extirpate this menace. For we have here a sinister combination -- a creature uniting the intelligence and agility of the lizard with the inimical disposition of the snake. It has fangs in the upper jaw inherited from one parent, and in the lower jaw from the other,[15] and a venom incomparably strengthened by hybridization, thus assuring the almost instant demise of any victim. Here we have an animal that would feed on the batter that was mistaken for milk, for so does its parent, the Gila monster; one with ears like any lizard, wherewith to hear a whistle; and one whose legs and claws permitted it to run up a bell-rope as readily as down, especially when it knew there was the warmth of a coal-oil dark lantern awaiting its return to the doctor's room. Here was a reptile that would be handled with a noose on a dog switch; whereas any snake handler would have used a stick terminated with a hook. And, above all, when we combine the cobra and heloderm the result is certain to assume the likeness of a speckled band.

Which brings as at last to the explanation of all the inexplicable points in the Canon -- Watson's characteristic inaccuracies. What Holmes didn't say was, as reported by Watson: "It is a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India." On the contrary, what he did say was "It is a samp-aderm,[16] the deadliest skink[17] in India." Watson evidently transliterated Holmes's words on the theory that what seemed to him a slurred pronunciation was the result of Holmes's horror at sight of the speckled band. But Holmes, as usual, was being coldly accurate in employing a composite name for a hybrid creature not yet known to science.

End Notes

1. The Baker Street Journal, Vol. I, p. 457. Here it is placed at the top of the merit lists of both Watson's literary agent, Conan Doyle, and the Baker Street Irregulars. [back]

2. Surgeon-General W, B. Beatson, discussing the paper entitled "On Serpent-Worship and on the Venomous Snakes of India and the Mortality Caused by Them" read by Sir Joseph Fayrer before the Victoria Institute, 7 March, 1892 [vide Trans. Vict. Inst., Vol. 26, p. 106]. [back]

3. "Well up . . . in poisons generally." A Study in Scarlet. [back]

4. Composed of J. Ewart, Pres., Vincent Richards, and S. Coull Mackenzie. Richards subsequently published The Landmarks of Snake-Poison Literature, Calcutta, 1885; second edition, 1886. Of the earlier edition I have a copy, indited on the title page "Edwin O. Milward, M.A., Surgeon Medical Staff, Camp V/B, R.H.d., Mustaphabad, Punjab, Dec. 1885." Milward was somewhat skeptical of Richards' conclusions, certain of his marginal notes reading "Draw it mild old chappie," "yah-yah," and "pulling his leg." His last raucous comment was induced by Richards' having repeated the ancient story of the lady who awoke one morning to find her infant pushed aside by a Snake that had replaced the child at her breast. Richards, of course, didn't believe this myth and merely repeated it as having been told him by an Englishman who did. Milward was frankly skeptical that anyone could be so simple-minded as this anonymous Englishman. This leads us to conclude that Milward's and Watson's paths had never crossed in India, despite the similarity of their callings. [back]

5. My copy of this work contains this dedication written on the fly-leaf: "To the Misses Winch from the Author." Why the continued anonymity, even with his friends the Winches? Can this be connected with the reasons for his being an Ex? Has anyone the Winch address so I may make further enquiries? [back]

6. A rather loose term at best. The European vipers (Vipera berus) are often called adders, as are the African venomous snakes of the genera Causus and Bitis. In Australia there is the death adder (Acanthophis antarcticus). In the United States the harmless hog-nose snakes (Heterodon) are frequently referred to as puff or blowing adders. [back]

7. The Fauna of British India, Ceylon and Burma. Reptilia and Ampibia, Vol. III, Serpentes, by Malcolm A. Smith, London, 1943. [back]

8. "Dr. Roylott's Wily Fillip" by Rolfe Boswell, The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 1, p. 307. [back]

9. George Lamb and William Hanna: "Some Observations on the Poison of Russell's Viper"; Scientific Memoirs by Officers of the Medical and Sanitary Departments of the Government of India, no. 3, Calcutta, 1903 (see p. 37); Hideo Noguchi: Snake Venoms, Washington, 1909 (see pp. 108, 135); Major Frank Wall: The Poisonous Terrestrial Snakes of Our British Indian Dominions (including Ceylon) and How to Recognize Them. With Symptoms of Snake Poisoning and Treatment, fourth edition, Bombay, 1928 (see pp. 102-114). [back]

10. There was a grate in each room; that in Miss Stoner's room is referred to as "a gaping fireplace" and the doctor's room was a duplicate. [back]

11. Crotalus viridis oreganus x Crotalus ruber. The result looks surprisingly like Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus. See also "An Intergeneric hybrid Rattlesnake" by Reeve M. Bailey, in American Naturalist, Vol. 76, pp. 376-385, 1942. [back]

12. 1 am unable to explain this discrepancy; Watson, again, I presume. [back]

13. The Mexican Gila monster; with Heloderma suspectum, the Arizona Gila monster, the only known poisonous lizards. [back]

14. The spectacled or Indian cobra, now known as Naja naja naja. [back]

15. Strangely, the Gila monster's venom glands and fangs are in the lower jaw, thus differing from all poisonous snakes. [back]

16. May be translated "snake-Gila-monster." Samp, is Hindustani for snake; for example, the banded krait is raj samp (Fayrer, loc. cit., p. 10) and the Indian cobra nag samp (Nicholson, loc. cit. p. 133). Richards (loc. cit.) refers to snake catchers as samp-wallahs (p. 34), and to the mythical two-headed snake as do morkhka samp (p. 21), which Milward, in a mraginal note, corrects to do mookha ka samp. The derivation of the suffix aderm from heloderm, the common or vernacular name of the Gila monster generally used by European naturalists, is self-evident. [back]

17. Skinks are smooth-scaled lizards of the family Scincidae, many of which are swift in movement and snake-like in form. The little blue-tailed skink of the United States is often mistaken for a snake, but has well-developed legs. [back]