Good ol’ Sir Arthur sure did love his secret societies, didn’t he? And who can blame him? There’s nothing more intriguing than a group of people with odd (to us) beliefs and rituals (that may or may not be real) that go out of their way to keep those beliefs and rituals hidden from the rest of the general population. You can make up all kinds of theories about what they do and why they do it and assign motives, malicious or benign, to their every action when you don’t really know what goes on behind those closed lodge doors. Epic fodder for fiction, right?
Sherlock Holmes’ entry into the world of mysterious organizations of dubious intent started with A Study in Scarlet, when Doyle introduced his brilliant detective and stalwart doctor to the odd ways of fundamentalist Mormonism. Then, in “The Five Orange Pips,” he introduced British audiences to the violent ways of the Ku Klux Klan. In The Valley of Fear, Doyle decided to take a stab at the strange, ancient ways of the fictional group The Eminent Order of Freemen, a riff on the Freemasons, starting a tradition that “National Treasure” and Dan Brown would follow decades later. Except, Doyle wasn’t really talking about Freemasons when he invented the order, Body Master McGinty, or his murderous pack of Scowrers . What he calls Freemen, and applies Freemason-like ceremonies to, are actually based on the Pennsylvania branch of a group better known as the Molly Maguires.
Quickish history lesson: The Molly Maguires, or “Mollies,” were a collection of young Irishmen rebelling against what they saw as the destruction of Ireland’s traditional agrarian industry by large-scale pasteurization and corrupt landlords. Land that had once been primarily used for potato farming was being bought up and doled out in tenanted tracts by “evil” land agents, and the Mollies objected, strenuously, to this practice. Dressed in women’s clothes and with their faces blackened by burnt cork, they would break fences, plow over pasteurized fields, and “disturb” livestock in the name of the fictional Mistress Molly Maguire. (“Disturbing livestock,” by the way, translated to running the animals off on a good day, or killing and/or mutilating them on a bad one). The Mollies generally targeted land agents and their employees, those unfortunate souls who took possession of homes or lands taken by said land agents via eviction of the previous owners, or shopkeepers whose prices were deemed unreasonable. Threats were common practice; agents and tenants also ran the risk of beatings, or worse. “Donations” were solicited from local merchants and failure to comply with the request for “charity” usually led to wholesale theft and a stern reminder of what might happen to them if they decided to go to the authorities.
Irish immigrants brought the concept of the Mollies with them to the states and applied their techniques to the coal and iron mines of Pennsylvania and the cause of unionization. The American Mollies didn’t dress like their traditional counterparts or dedicate their acts to ol’ Mistress Maguire, but their techniques for showing their displeasure with the mine bosses (and anyone else that looked at them funny) were otherwise identical. For the sake of appearances, they hid their association behind the façade of another Irish group – the Ancient Order of Hiberians, which were a fraternal organization with lodges all across the United States. Organized in these “lodges,” usually headed by a local tavern owner, the Mollies often loaned out their members to neighboring, similarly-minded AOH’s if there was crime that needed doing, in return for the promise of a similar loan when they needed someone roughed up, intimidated, or killed. These trade-offs allowed the local lodge to claim innocence, should the authorities come looking to cause trouble. The mine bosses and railroad owners eventually recruited the assistance of the Pinkerton Agency to put a stop to the Mollies’ reign of terror. Allan Pinkerton sent one of his agents, an Irishmen by the name of James McParlan, to infiltrate the gang and hopefully find evidence enough to bring them down. Eighteen months of deep cover work eventually led to the conviction, and hanging, of thirty Mollies.
Doyle once spent a transatlantic boat journey in the company of William Pinkerton, Allan’s son, where he heard the whole sordid tale of greed, assassination, intrigue, and eventual justice. From that conversation, he created the character of Birdy Edwards, aka John McMurdo, a Pinkerton agent sent to infiltrate a lawless band of Freemen in the mining towns of California who winds up crossing paths with Sherlock Holmes eleven years later in connection to a murdered man and a missing wedding ring. To this, he added the specter of Professor James Moriarty, adding breadth and reach to the mild-mannered maths professor-turned-master criminal that was lacking in his previous appearance in “The Final Problem.”
Much like A Study in Scarlet, the story of McMurdo is a prolonged flashback that takes up the majority of the second part of the novel, book-ended by the investigation and the explanation of the deed. It seemed less jarring, the transition to this California adventure than the sudden relocation to Utah in Holmes’ first adventure; Watson spends time preparing us for the fact we’re about to be told someone else’s story, and is, in fact, handed said story in paper form to relate to the reader when he gets around to penning the tale. It’s not quite the same experience as turning the page, finding yourself suddenly in the American West without much explanation, and wondering if there was a mixup at the publishing house and two unrelated stories got mistakenly smashed together.
I personally enjoyed McMurdo’s tale more than I did Jefferson Hope’s, though I couldn’t really put my finger on what about it I like better. Maybe Doyle had more practical information about the organization he was writing about and could paint the scene better because of that. Or maybe it’s because I found McMurdo a more interesting character and that his story was intriguing on its own, beyond just how it related to the central mystery waiting for us back in a dreary Sussex study.
Secret societies are a trope that writers have made use of for years, and it’s not likely it’s going to disappear anytime soon. Doyle made plentiful use of it himself – for good or ill, depending on your opinion of the stories he used it in or the execution thereof. At least his use of them remained somewhat realistic: Holmes wasn’t doing battle against an unstoppable Illuminati slowly taking over the world with the cunning use of
flags control of the global economy. Fictionalized Freemasonry served only as a backdrop; the real villain at the end, who succeeds and escapes only because he has to in order to show up later in the timeline to fall over a cliff, is Moriarty. And he is much more deadly than all the Masons, real or fictional, in the known world by Sherlock Holmes’ estimation.