Holmes Is Where the Heart Is: The Sherlockians of NYC

Susan Rice is an expert on the post-retirement pursuits of a man who never existed.

In “His Last Bow,” one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last stories about Sherlock Holmes, the great detective withdraws from a life of deducing and sleuthing in London to keep bees on a small farm in the English countryside. The detective’s beekeeping exploits have become a scholarly obsession for Rice, who is a leading member of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, a New York-based, co-educational literary society devoted to Conan Doyle’s detective fiction.

“Part of my Sherlockian expertise is on beekeeping, because Holmes retired to be a beekeeper,” says Rice, who is sixty-five and a former wholesale travel representative. She rolls up her sleeve and shows me a bracelet that is made of interlocking pendants, each one shaped like a bee. “I’ve written a book, and a lot of articles, and given presentations on this topic.”

It is the first Wednesday of October. Rice and I are sitting at a long, chestnut table on the top floor of a pub in Midtown Manhattan. The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, also known as ASH, are hosting one of their monthly meet-ups, which members of the group affectionately call “ASH Wednesdays.” Twice a year, in the spring and in the fall, ASH hosts formal events that adhere to a packed schedule of lectures, discussions, and toasts to obscure characters. But tonight, the atmosphere is fluid and relaxed. ASH Wednesdays are simply an opportunity for the Sherlockians of New York City to eat, drink, and schmooze.

 As members of ASH trickle into the pub and order their dinners, I turn to the young woman who has settled into a chair next to mine. Her name is Tiffany Knight, and she is a twenty-five year old theatre actress. She tells me that she likes coming to the ASH Wednesday meet-ups because they are “a good way of meeting other Sherlockians.”

“What makes someone a Sherlockian?” I ask.

Knight blinks hard, revealing swaths of sparkly purple eye shadow. “I think as long as you have a real love of Sherlock Holmes, in whatever incarnation, I think that could make you a Sherlockian.”

Evelyn and John

Evelyn and John

The men and women who turn up at the pub for the ASH Wednesday dinner certainly do have a real love of Sherlock Holmes, although even that may be something of an understatement. These are not one-time readers of The Hounds of the Baskerville, or swooning fan girls who don’t realize that Sherlock Holmes existed before Benedict Cumberbatch came to the BBC. (Although it is not entirely relevant, I would like to point out that the actor’s legions of female admirers refer to themselves as “ Cumberbitches”). The Sherlockians at the ASH dinner are relentlessly passionate about Conan Doyle’s detective fiction. Throughout the evening, I hear the group describe the Sherlock Holmes stories in terminology that verges on devout; the complete set of Conan Doyle’s works is the “The Canon,” Holmes and Watson are “The Masters,” and to trips to Holmes’ address on Baker Street are nothing less than “pilgrimages.”

Were it not for their common love of Sherlock Holmes, the assembled crowd of Sherlockians would be an unlikely group of friends. Some are in their twenties, others are middle aged, and still others are well into their retirement. The Sherlockians also boast a remarkably diverse range of occupations; two actors, a chemist, a computer programmer, a publisher, a police officer, a former Wall Street  financier, and a retired lawyer are among the twenty-odd men and women who have come to the pub for the ASH Wednesday dinner.

Also present at the event is Evelyn Herzog, who claims the honor of being the “Principle Unprincipled Adventuress” of ASH. She and a group of female friends founded the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes in the 1960s, while they were students at Albert Magnus College. Herzog had loved Conan Doyle’s detective stories since she was a child, and while reading a fictional biography of Sherlock Holmes by the scholar William S. Bering Gould, she learned about the existence of formal organizations of Sherlock Holmes fans.

“I about lost my mind,” says Herzog, who is sixty-five and a retired legal secretary. “I was in high school, so there was certainly no question of my going anywhere and finding them, but I was able to subscribe to the Baker Street Journal right away.”

The Baker Street Journal is the official publication of The Baker Street Irregulars, also known as the BSI. Founded in New York City in 1934, the Baker Street Irregulars remains the preeminent Sherlockian society to this day. But the Irregulars can be a shadowy, exclusive bunch. They meet once a year, in January, to celebrate the detective’s birthday. Membership to the group is by invitation only, and comes if and when an established Sherlockian is vouched for by a an existing BSI member, whom the Sherlockians refer to as a “godfather.” And back when Evelyn Herzog began to dip her toes into the world of Sherlock Holmes fandom, the Irregulars did not allow women to join the society.

“It was kind of sad that there were few groups that we would have entry to, and that we could never hope to attain membership to the Baker Street Irregulars,” Herzog says, recalling the early days of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. “In 1968, in January, we picketed the BSI dinner. Somehow we felt if we only brought it to their attention that they were doing what was wrong, they would change their minds and do what was right.”

It took twenty-three years and the death of a leading Irregular for the BSI to open its doors to female Sherlockians. In the meantime, Herzog met her husband while protesting at an all-male Sherlock Holmes society in Philadelphia, and the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes became a popular New York “scion” (as the Sherlockians prefer their groups to be called). Women were finally invested into the BSI in 1991, and that same year, the first men officially joined the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes (or, in the words of the scion’s website, were “allowed to make an ASH of themselves”).

 The gender tensions among the Sherlockian groups of America may have dissipated, but an uncomfortable truth about the character of Sherlock Holmes still remains: the great detective does not usually hold women in particularly high regard. “The motives of women are so inscrutable,” complains Holmes in “The Adventure of the Second Stain. “Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling-tongs.”

That kind of statement makes Holmes an odd hero for ASH, a literary society that was once comprised entirely of women. Actually, Holmes is a pretty strange hero for any literary group to latch onto. If Conan Doyle’s stories had been written in recent times, Holmes in all likelihood would have been slapped with some sort of diagnosis. (Psychology Today once ran an article titled “Does Sherlock Holmes have Asperger Syndrome?”). The character is beyond brilliant, but he is curmudgeonly, socially obtuse, and a hopeless drug addict. As Watson writes in “A Scandal in Bohemia”: “Holmes, who loathed every form of society … remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition”

But Holmes’ humanity in the face of his genius seems to be precisely what makes him so appealing to leagues of Sherlockians.

“He’s better than us, but also incredibly flawed,” explains Kelsey Hercs, a twenty-four year old sales representative, who also dabbles in theatre. “So we can see ourselves in him. I like that he almost has a magic power, but is not magical at all. My favourite thing is when he’s able to deduce a lot of things about people instantly… I love the mysteries too, but that moment is just the best.”

The Sherlockians seated around Hercs nod in agreement, and then begin to chat about their favorite Sherlock Holmes villain. Conan Doyle’s stories are certainly the topic of many discussions that I overhear during ASH dinner, but I also catch snippets of conversations about such diverse topics as George Harrison, pasteurization, and the HBO series Girls. At one point, a Sherlockian named Nick Martorelli stands up and announces that he has been offered a new job at Random House. The other Sherlockians cheer and raise a toast to his success.

With its informal structure and lack of required readings (there are quizzes at other Sherlockian events), the ASH Wednesday meet-up is clearly an opportunity for a group of friends with a common interest to get together and catch up. Yet John Baesch, who is married to Evelyn Herzog (the one and only Principle Unprincipled Adventuress of ASH), explains that the function of all Sherlockian scions is as much social as it is intellectual.

“What generally happens is you start off enjoying the Sherlock Holmes stories,” he says, and then drops his voice to a theatrical rumble. “Then there comes this blinding moment … when you are confronted with the evidence and the reality that there are others. You are not alone. And these others each have their own story and each bring an awful lot with them … It all starts with Sherlock Holmes, but it’s about the people, the people, the people.”

For Sherlockians looking to find other devotees of Holmes, Watson and Co., New York is definitely the place to be. There are over one thousand Sherlock Holmes societies in America, but New York has become the epicenter of Sherlockian culture in the United States. New York City is, of course, home to the Baker Street Irregulars, that pillar of all Sherlockian scions. Manhattan boasts the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes and a recently revived group called the Priory Scholars. Then there are The Montague Street Lodgers in Brooklyn, The Three Garridebs in Westchester, The Altamont’s Agents in Albany, and many more societies sprinkled across the state.

Christopher Zordan, who is forty-three and works as a pharmaceutical chemist, tells me that after he received his graduate degree from the University of Delaware, he decided to take a job in New Jersey so he could be close to all the Sherlockian goings-on in New York.

 “I schedule a large portion of my calendar around these events,” he tells me. “I had known about BSI and the scion societies for a long, long time. When I finished grad school, one of the opportunities I had was to move closer to New York and start participating actively in this world … This is something that really sparks your fancy at some point – being able to meet people who have that same passion.”

 I ask him which Sherlockian meeting I should check out next.

“The next one you should check out is all of them,” he answers. “If nobody has told you, there’s a Sherlockian calendar online.”

New York has become a hub of Sherlockian activity, but the connection between New York and Conan Doyle’s fiction is not necessarily an intuitive one. The Sherlock Holmes stories are rooted firmly in Victorian London; the narratives are rife with depictions of swirling London fogs and narrow streets, with the drudgery and the beauty of the city. “Outside, the stars were shining coldly in a cloudless sky, and the breath of the passers-by blew out into smoke like so many pistol shots, writes Watson in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Our footfalls rang out crisply and loudly as we swung through the doctors’ quarter, Wimpole Street, Harley Street, and so through Wigmore Street into Oxford Street.”

 According to Jeanne Thelwell, a retired lawyer who joined ASH in 1978, it is precisely the vividness of Conan Doyle’s writing that makes it possible for the Sherlockians of New York to transport themselves into the world of their literary hero.

“You can smell London, you can hear it, when you read the stories,” she says. “Also, New York has its own bits and places and corners that you can kind of imagine yourself into – if you go to places like Keanes , with all the pipes and the smoke. There have always been these places you could go that felt like it was some hundred years ago.”

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Christopher and Nick

 But there is more to Sherlockian culture in New York than the fact that it is not based in London. Because Sherlock Holmes fandom has taken off in the city in such a big way, these days, being a Sherlockian in New York means having access to an instant community of like-minded friends. And in this large, bustling city where it is so easy to feel lonely or overwhelmed, a good friend can be a very valuable thing.

“Imagine a city that’s this big and this confusing,” says Susan Rice, ASH’s resident expert on Holmes’ beekeeping endeavours. “This is where I found all of the people who were important to me.”

She points to her wife, Mickey Fromkin, who is sitting a few seats away from us. The couple was introduced in 1980 by a mutual friend, who is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. When Rice and Fromkin got married several years ago, only fifteen of the one hundred and thirty guests at their wedding were not part of the Sherlockian community.

“Sherlockians get together and they are of every different everything you can imagine: age group, economic pattern, education level,” Rice tells me. “And whatever brings us all together is so much bigger than all those differences that Sherlockians become a sort of family.”

 As the ASH Wednesday dinner concludes, the Sherlockians pay their cheques and begin to say their goodbyes. This has been my first interaction with Sherlock Holmes super fans and it will probably turn out to be my last one, but I find myself feeling glad that I stumbled upon this tightly knit community. Somehow, the Sherlockians’ friendship lends a pleasant circularity to Conan Doyle’s fiction and the people who love it so very much, almost one hundred years later. After all, at the heart of the suspense and excitement that drives the Sherlock Holmes stories is the relationship of an eccentric detective and his dear friend, John Watson.