Full disclosure: I’m writing this while watching a “Firefly” marathon inspired by nothing more than it being too long since I’ve last had one and it showing up in my recommended list on Hulu (it’s already in my queue on Netflix, of course, and the DVDs are just across the room from me. We’ll leave the digital copies in my iTunes out of this). I apologize now if a “shiny” or two shows up along the way because of that. I’ll try to restrain myself.
Victorians kind of lacked a bit in terms of exciting modes of entertainment. They didn’t get recorded music, by way of wax discs, until the 1890s. Mostly they got by on books, museums, the theater, sports, concerts, dinner parties, hunting, and the occasional oddity that came to town or opened up shop. (Competitive walking, known as “pedestrianism” was also a thing, by the way.) Of course, there were your less virtuous varieties of time-passing too, same ones that exist today. Prostitution was a thriving business, after all; alcohol was a free-flowing thing, despite the Temperance movement; and narcotics were considered medical miracles (potentially with the exception of opium, as opium dens were looked down upon more than a bit). Then, on top of all those, there’s the other favorite Victorian vice – gambling.
Some quick history
Horseracing was probably the most respectable of the gambling institutions of the time, enjoyed by and bet upon by members of all the various classes. The “season” for racing ran the summer months and involved races with fancy-sounding names like “The Derby,” “The Ascot,” and “Goodwood,” all three of which still exist as part of Britain’s racing season today. Men and women put on their Sunday best to come out and watch the collected horses and their jockeys speed around an oval track and try to cross the finish line ahead of the rest of the pack. Envision the race scene from “My Fair Lady” and you’ll have a good visual cue to go by. It wasn’t just about the betting or the winning; it was a social event, vice mixed neatly and acceptably with the equivalent of a garden party.
Other forms of gambling existed too, of course. Gaming houses, some of them within the gentleman’s clubs, some setup in private homes or other buildings, ran games that likely looked a lot like the casino table games that exist now. Private parties also hosted a variety of opportunities for anteing up. Families played penny hands of Whist or Cribbage or Loo, then the men of the house would go out and up the stakes at less friendly tables. Poker hit Britain in the 1870s. Queen Victoria showed interest in the game, which inspired the first publication specifically about poker to be written in order to provide her the rules of the game; it didn’t gain widespread popularity there until around World War I, influenced by American troops. The predecessor of Craps, known as Hazard, was a highly popular dice game in gambling “hells” – less posh than gambling houses, more likely to be rife with criminals and the lower classes. They were called hells for a reason, after all.
It wasn’t just the poor that lost their shirts. Whether it be in upscale halls, private games, or seedy hells, gambling ran rampant among the upper classes and cost more than one respectable gentleman his estate or his reputation. Even the Royal family had their gaming scandal, called the Tranby Croft Affair, that involved baccarat, Prince Albert, and an accusation of cheating.
Back to Holmes
“The Adventure of Silver Blaze” is a story about the disappearance of a race horse and the mysterious death of its trainer just before the Wessex Cup. Blaze is the favorite to win this year’s Cup, in fact, before he disappeared. That there are just as many people who would profit from his not running as would if he did is obvious, which means there are more than a few suspects to choose from. Holmes is only on the scene a few hours before he has most of the sordid tale figured out – cracked via a cataract knife, a handful of bills in someone else’s name, a few horseshoe prints in the mud and “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
If that last one sounds weird, it just eludes to the fact that the dog didn’t bark at the person who took the horse out of the stall, which is a highly important detail to Holmes’ deduction. When wouldn’t a dog bark at a horse thief? Why, if the dog knew the thief, of course. How can a murder be committed without an actual murderer? Eh, for that one, you probably need to read the story. It’s an interesting twist, though. Let’s just say, Silver Blaze gets to run in the Wessex, and Holmes gets to show off in front of the uninitiated again while also frustrating the hell out of them. Because that’s what Holmes does.
There seems to be some speculation among fans and scholars that Watson had a bit of a gambling problem of his own, of the “lost the rent on more than occasion” level. It seems to stem from good old Mr. Baring-Gould, who speculated that the doctor must be a gambler because Holmes keeps Watson’s checkbook in a locked drawer of his desk, per a reference in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” The same story would maybe infer his game of choice is billiards, by the way, since the two references – to billiards and Watson’s hidden checkbook – appear in relation to each other.
There’s no other mention of Watson and gambling in the canon to provide any sort of support to Baring-Gould’s conclusion, but it’s a flaw in Watson’s character that gets mentioned as fact often enough. Jude Law’s Watson in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” and its sequel is a confirmed gambler. Holmes makes sure to illuminate that particular flaw on numerous occasions in the course of the films, using it to demonstrate the doctor’s unfitness for matrimony, in fact.
None of us can know for sure, unless someone has their hands on notes to the contrary, whether Doyle intended Watson to be a gambler. He doesn’t state it plainly anywhere, nor does he explain exactly why Holmes keeps Watson’s checkbook in a drawer to which only he has the key. So we only have conjecture to base any discussion of Watson’s gambling on. If it’s true, it does even out the vices between the two, though: Holmes has his cocaine (and morphine, though we only have one reference to that as well), and Watson, possibly, has his gambling. What we do know, though, is that it’s Holmes, not Watson, that places a bet on the second race at Wessex during “Silver Blaze.” Whether that means anything in the grand scheme of the debate or not I can’t say. I kind of like a character with a few flaws. Even heroes aren’t perfect.