The Charles Augustus Milverton Virtual Picnic

Once again we must cancel an event: Watson’s Picnic, originally scheduled for June 11, because of that dastardly COVID-19.

We are instead planning a virtual picnic with a discussion of “Charles Augustus Milverton,” a gripping story of blackmail, burglary, and murder. Attendees are encouraged to bring their devices outside, weather permitting, and to enjoy picnic food while talking about the story and listening to presentations.

Sidney Paget, The Strand, April 1904

We ordinarily have our Blind Auction at Watson’s Picnic; we are working on the logistics of holding it over Zoom.

To avoid conflicting with a meeting of The Parallel Case of St. Louis, we have moved the date one week later: It will be held on Saturday, June 18. Details are on the Events page; keep an eye on that or our Facebook page for any changes or updates.

At our virtual meeting today, we had several fascinating presentations about “The Priory School” We also welcomed as a new member Rich Krisciunas (from Michigan!). As Rich is already a member of several Scions, he will skip the Egg phase and go straight to a full membership.

Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. All interested guests are welcome to join us, as Rich did. The one advantage of the virus is that it is making it more common for us to meet Sherlockians from geographically distant locations!

“He Was Eager That I Should Break the Entail”: What the Blazes Is an Entail?

As part of our June meeting, your Gazetteer researched the inheritance issue behind the crime in “The Priory School” (and discovered a legal pastiche while she was at it). The following is adapted from her presentation.

The Duke of Holdernesse with James Wilder. Sidney Paget, 1904

Entails: What Are They, and What Did It Mean to Break One?
by Janice M. Eisen

As recounted by Dr. Watson in “The Priory School,” Sherlock Holmes deduced that James Wilder, the Duke of Holdernesse’s illegitimate son, had plotted the kidnapping of young Lord Saltire in an attempt to force the Duke to break the entail on his estate and make Wilder his heir. Entails crop up in several of Holmes’s other cases: The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” and “The Missing Three-Quarter.” Entailment features prominently in 19th-century British fiction as well, such as the works of Jane Austen. Aficionados of Masterpiece Theater may also be familiar with entails from Downton Abbey. So it’s worth asking what an entail was, why it was so difficult to break, and why it existed in the first place.

An estate, no matter how large, soon dwindles to a patchwork of tiny parcels if it is divided equally among the landowners’ sons with each generation. Think about an estate split into 3 or 4 parts; in just a few generations, it will just be a bunch of tiny parcels.

The solution to that problem was primogeniture, the principle that the firstborn legitimate son inherits his parent’s entire main estate. (There were all kinds of possible complexities that we won’t get into here.) This idea dates back to Biblical times—see the tale of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25—and it reemerged in feudal Europe. In England, by law all real estate passed to the eldest male descendant until 1540, when the Statute of Wills allowed landowners more control over who inherited. Primogeniture remained the legal default until 1925, and it continues to control the inheritance of titles of nobility even today. (Female children were given equal status for succession to the throne in 2015, but efforts to pass legislation to extend that equality to all peerages have failed.)

Allowing estate owners to alter their inheritance, however, meant that estates could be over-divided, as mentioned above, as well as giving rise to the possibility of inheritance disputes. There were also concerns that some dissipated spendthrift or gambler who inherited the estate might be tempted to sell it off to raise cash. So how could a man ensure that his family’s status would continue indefinitely? He established an entail (also known as a fee tail), a form of trust that legally prevented the estate from being sold or inherited by any but the eldest legitimate male heir, in perpetuity.

This was the problem faced by the avaricious James Wilder in “The Priory School.” As an illegitimate son of the Duke of Holdernesse, he was prevented by the estate’s entail from inheriting. As the Duke explained Wilder’s motives for kidnapping young Lord Saltire:

In his view he himself should have been heir of all my estates, and he deeply resented those social laws which made it impossible. At the same time, he had a definite motive also. He was eager that I should break the entail, and he was of opinion that it lay in my power to do so. He intended to make a bargain with me—to restore Arthur if I would break the entail, and so make it possible for the estate to be left to him by will. (PRIO)

Although the Duke claimed he couldn’t possibly meet Wilder’s demands, there would, in fact, have been several ways for the Duke to break the entail if he wanted to. Illegitimate children ordinarily couldn’t inherit land; however, if the Duke went through the legal procedure of “barring” [breaking] the entailment, he could then have changed his will to leave the estate to Wilder. That would, of course, have caused the scandal that the Duke was so desperate to avoid that he employed the unprincipled Wilder as his secretary. Even if the Duke had agreed to accede to Wilder’s demands, it is likely that a court would have voided the will on the grounds of coercion.

One problem frequently faced by heirs to great estates, in Victorian times and later, was lacking the means to maintain one’s land, but being barred from selling any of it to raise capital. This is the reason for the frequent appearance, in both fiction and real life, of the nobleman in search of a wealthy heiress to marry. Indeed, rich American families might bring their daughters to Europe for the purpose of marrying them into the aristocracy. (Edith Wharton depicts this scathingly in her 1913 novel The Custom of the Country.) In more recent times, high inheritance taxes have caused many of the great estates to be donated to the government.

As a non-lawyer, I don’t ordinarily go around reading the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Journal. But in researching entails, I ran across a fascinating study of the law in the Holmes cases that involve them, as well as other adventures in which inheritance furnishes the motive: “The Game Is Afoot!: The Significance of Gratuitous Transfers in the Sherlock Holmes Canon,” by Professor Stephen R. Alton, published in that legal journal in 2011. I reproduce the abstract here:

This article presents a recently discovered and previously unpublished manuscript written by John H. Watson, M.D., and annotated by Professor Stephen Alton. Dr. Watson’s manuscript records an extended conversation that took place between the good doctor and his great friend, the renowned consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes, regarding issues of gratuitous transfers of property—issues involving inheritances, wills, and trusts—that have arisen in some of the great cases solved by Mr. Holmes. This felicitous discovery confirms something that Professor Alton has long known: these gratuitous transfer issues permeate many of these adventures. Often, the action in the case occurs because of the desire of the wrong-doer to come into an inheritance, a bequest, or the present possession of an estate in land more quickly—perhaps by dispatching the intervening heir, beneficiary, or life tenant. Professor Alton has annotated this manuscript, providing extensive analysis of these issues and citations to relevant, contemporary authority in his footnotes.

Alton, Stephen R., The Game Is Afoot!: The Significance of Gratuitous Transfers in the Sherlock Holmes Canon (2011). Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Journal, Vol. 46, Spring 2011. Free PDF available.

Anyone who wishes to better understand the legal issues confronted by the Master should read Watson’s analysis and Alton’s annotations. They greatly improved the work you have just finished reading.

“We Went at Once to the Lawyer”: Pastiche Found in a Legal Journal

As a non-lawyer, I don’t ordinarily find myself reading the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Journal. But in researching entails for a discussion of “The Priory School,” I ran across a fascinating study of the law in the Canonical cases in which inheritance furnishes the motive. The paper, written in the form of a pastiche, is titled, “The Game Is Afoot!: The Significance of Donative Transfers in the Sherlock Holmes Canon,” and was published in that legal journal in 2011.

Sidney Paget, “The Crooked Man,” 1893

The abstract:

This article presents a recently discovered and previously unpublished manuscript written by John H. Watson, M.D., and annotated by Professor Stephen Alton. Dr. Watson’s manuscript records an extended conversation that took place between the good doctor and his great friend, the renowned consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes, regarding issues of donative transfers of property—issues involving inheritances, wills, and trusts—that have arisen in some of the great cases solved by Mr. Holmes. This felicitous discovery confirms something that Professor Alton has long known: these donative transfer issues permeate many of these adventures. Often, the action in the case occurs because of the desire of the wrong-doer to come into an inheritance, a bequest, or the present possession of an estate in land more quickly—perhaps by dispatching the intervening heir, beneficiary, or life tenant. Professor Alton has annotated this manuscript, providing extensive analysis of these issues and citations to relevant, contemporary authority in his footnotes.

Alton, S. (2011). The Game Is Afoot!:The Significance of Donative Transfers in the Sherlock Holmes Canon. Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Journal, 46(1), 125–171.

All Sherlockians will find it worthwhile to read Watson’s analysis and Alton’s annotations, especially those who want to better understand the legal issues confronted by the Master.

“The Lowest and Vilest Alleys”: A Mobile Game Influenced by “The Valley of Fear”

During the lockdown, your Gazetteer has played a lot of escape-the-room games on an iPad. These are basically what it says on the tin: The player is trapped somewhere and must solve puzzles and/or find objects in order to escape.

One day I downloaded a game called Alleys, which locks you inside a theme-park reconstruction of an English coal-mining town where, you soon learn, something mysterious and terrible once occurred. In addition to the usual tasks of the genre, you gradually discover pieces of the backstory as you play. It’s not a great game, but it is diverting and challenging without being too difficult, and the graphics are impressive. It was created by Shi-Chi Shen of Taiwan and is quite the accomplishment for a solo programmer.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that this English town was located in the Vermissa Valley, and the villains were called The Scowrers. Shen must be a devoted fan of the Master, because scattered throughout the game are Sherlockian references, and not just to The Valley of Fear. For example:

Hmm, those names sound familiar …. But who is Dan Raines?

There are some clues that were left by someone described as a Pinkerton detective, but when you find them, these are the notes that accompany them:

Do not be misled: This is not a Sherlock Holmes game, and the storyline will win no awards, but I had fun both solving the puzzles and keeping an eye out for Canonical references.

Yes, Mycroft, we truly do hear of Sherlock everywhere.

“His Orders Were to Stay in the House”: More Upcoming Virtual Gatherings

That fiendish pandemic is still preventing Sherlockians from gathering socially. Fortunately, we now have videoconferencing, and three more free virtual gatherings have been announced.

  • Saturday, June 19, 12:30 pm PT: NMSOBC meeting to discuss “The Priory School.” Email bluecarbuncle1971@gmail.com for the Zoom info.
  • Saturday, June 27, 5 pm PT (virtual cocktail hour, 4:30 pm): The Torists International, a scion society based in Chicago, invites all Sherlockians, friends, and family to “an infinitely introspective program.” The meeting will include a eulogy for Sherlockian scholar and Torist co-founder Tony Citera; the investiture into the Torists of the winners of the Beacon Society-Joel Senter Memorial Contest 2020; a presentation on the sources of the ciphers in “The Dancing Men”; and a reading of Vincent Starrett’s 221B. Register here; email Jonathan Shimberg for more info.
  • Saturday, October 10, 10 am PT: Save the date for the virtual Left Coast Sherlockian Symposium! Speakers will include Mina Hoffman; Leslie Klinger, BSI; Bonnie MacBird, BSI, ASH; Angela Misri; and Rob Nunn. Visit the Symposium website for more info or to register.

Stay well, everyone, and when you must go out, wear a mask!