Sherlock Holmes and Drugs

In this talk I want to propose to you a theory I have developed from the story ‘The Sign Of Four’, first published in February 1890, regarding Holmes’s drug usage. Has there ever been a more shocking opening to a story than this vivid description?

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

Many people have read this to be proof that Holmes was a drug addict. But was he? I would like to propose that yes, he had been, but not by this time. And addicted to what? Many believe it to be his “seven percent solution” of cocaine, but Watson asks, “Which is it to-day, morphine or cocaine?” So, which is it?

The Sign Of Four opens in September 1888, but to explain my reasoning I want to take you back to Holmes’s college days some 15 years earlier when a bull-terrier owned by Victor Trevor “the only friend I made during the two years I was at college” fastened itself onto Sherlock’s ankle one morning on his way to chapel. It was obviously a nasty bite as it laid him up for ten days. Trevor began to visit Holmes. He says, “At first it was only a minute’s chat, but soon his visits lengthened.” Holmes admits that he was never a very sociable fellow, so did he say this to Watson to distract him from Trevor’s true purpose for visiting? Such a bite must have been extremely painful. In Sidney Paget’s drawing of Sherlock on the sofa in The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott’, he certainly looks in some discomfort. Then, as it is today, Morphine was excellent for the relief of severe pain. In Victorian England morphine – and cocaine – were perfectly legal, and were in common usage. Was Trevor providing Sherlock with morphine and was this later to lead to something more sinister? Was Holmes afraid to admit to Watson that this attempt at self-prescribing was where it all began?

Forward now to November 1879. Baring-Gould in his excellent ‘biography’(?) of Sherlock Holmes tells us that Holmes took to the stage and sailed to America with the Sasanoff Shakespearian Company for a tour of 128 performances in many of America’s principal cities. Did the prospect of 128 performances as Malvolio in Twelfth Night take Sherlock’s mind back to the days when he was laid up? To the euphoria, and the feelings of well-being that morphine provided? For someone whose “mind rebels at stagnation” and “abhors the dull routine of existence”, wasn’t Morphine the ideal thing to see him through? He isn’t the only actor ever to have taken drugs!
Morphine has a high potential for addiction. By the time Holmes returned to England in August 1880, I believe he had become addicted to Morphine. But help was on its way.
In early January 1881, Sherlock took lodgings at 221B Baker Street with retired military surgeon, Dr. John H. Watson. Sherlock, as addicts are wont to do, was hiding his problems from his new co-habitant. Watson had noticed “such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.” Even June Thomson, in her informative book, ‘Holmes And Watson’, believes that “Presumably, Holmes injected himself in the privacy of his bedroom and took care to keep the evidence of his drug addiction concealed from Watson and Mrs. Hudson”. But, I believe that as their relationship developed Watson – who was an intelligent man – saw through the acting. Watson was becoming aware that Holmes’s behavior and deductions were getting more erratic, as famously seen in ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, a case set in April 1883. Holmes admits to having made an “erroneous conclusion” about the gypsies on Roylott’s estate, not conclusive evidence alone, but add to this that, on top of beating cadavers with a stick and poisoning dogs, Holmes had now also killed a man, however indirectly it may have been, and admitted that it was unlikely to weigh very heavily upon his conscience!

So what did Watson do? Here, I believe, we have an alternate answer to a common Sherlockian problem. What exactly was happening in 1884?
June Thomson records nothing for that year. Baring-Gould, in ‘Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street’, tries to make us believe that Watson went to America for 3 years to visit his sick brother, set up a practice, and marry Constance Adams. Mike Ashley, editor of The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, calls 1884 “The Missing Year”, “a relatively dark period when Holmes’ cases are not well recorded.” Even online searches such as ‘’ and ‘’ have nothing definite – except for the possibility of “The Adventure of The Yellow Face” having taken place in early Spring 1884. June Thomson puts this case in 1882 because, and I agree, “It is unlikely that Holmes could have kept his addiction secret from Watson for four or five years.” But I believe 1882 to be too early. Mike Ashley dates this case in 1886, which I believe to be too late but could still fit in with the theory that I am about to propose.

I believe 1884 to be correct. Watson was a doctor with ambitions to return to practice. He would have kept himself informed of the latest medical advances, and would have read a paper called ‘Uber Coca’. In the spring of 1884 Sigmund Freud recommended cocaine as a means of treating morphine and alcohol addiction. Could this be the time when Watson is feeling secure enough to suggest that Sherlock confronts his addiction and even going so far as to offer cocaine as a possible cure? Think about it.

Sherlock’s drug habit is directly observed only in The Sign Of Four and A Scandal In Bohemia, with vague or historical references in only a few other cases, and they are usually there to make a definite point. In ‘The Adventure of The Yellow Face’ Watson writes, “Save for the occasional use of cocaine he had no vices”. Watson also sees the Yellow Face as one of his failures. Why try to impress this on us now? Was he trying to highlight that this was the last of Holmes’s failures? Had Holmes’s admission of his problem made him ”so far relaxed as to go for a walk with me in the park” and spend the next two hours away from Mrs. Hudson’s eavesdropping to formulate a plan of action? Were the “first faint shoots of green upon the elms” and “the sticky spearheads of the chestnuts” metaphors for his feelings of success and the problems that lay ahead as Holmes began his rehabilitation? I put it to you that Watson was not keeping many notes on Holmes’ cases in 1884 because he was too busy keeping an eye on Holmes himself.

By the time of the opening of The Sign Of Four, had Watson come to believe that Holmes had swapped one addiction for another, and held himself responsible? Of Holmes’s injecting he writes, “Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.” No wonder his conscience swelled nightly and he was irritated, when he believed that it was he that had brought Holmes to this position. Did he also fear that Holmes was tipping back into his old ways, and that Sherlock’s demons were, in fact, too great for him to control? “Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject; but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty. His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.” Or was this his conscience again?? Bolstered by possibly too much burgundy wine at lunch, Watson gains the courage to challenge Holmes. Hence the question, “Which is it today, morphine or cocaine?”

And here Holmes, who often teased Watson, does so again because I believe that he has already deduced Watson’s feelings and been awaiting this confrontation. He may have plied Watson with too much wine and then intentionally exasperated him with “the extreme deliberation of his manner” in order to provoke a reaction. He certainly gets it with his answer.
“It is cocaine,” he said, “a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?”

Watson, in treating Holmes, would be fully aware of the dosage of Holmes’s cocaine, therefore this was said with the intention of initiating an outburst from Watson which has the desired effect of getting Watson to face up to his own conscience. “Remember that I speak not only as one comrade to another but as a medical man to one for whose constitution he is to some extent answerable.”
Clever Sherlock. No wonder “He did not seem offended. On the contrary, he put his finger- tips together, and leaned his elbows on the arms of his chair, like one who has a relish for conversation.” Or one with an air of smugness.

Holmes in this exchange shows Watson that, thanks to his “comrade and medical man”, he has full control over his drug usage, that he is no longer an addict, but a recreational user. “Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.” As indeed he does. Throughout the case Holmes’s drug taking is never mentioned again, and at the very end of the tale, Holmes cannot resist making this clear to Watson by means of another jibe.

Watson says, “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit; pray what remains for you?” “For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, ” there still remains the cocaine-bottle”. One can almost see the smile on his face as he stretches his long, white hand up for it.

In conclusion, in “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter”, published in The Strand of August 1904, Watson confirms all that I have proposed here. “For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career.” He doesn’t specify which years, but does add the rider that, “ I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping.”

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