So, this week is going to be a busy blogging one, since I managed to miss last week entirely (remember that “life” thing I mentioned last time? Yeah, it kind of sucks right now) and need to play catch up this week. Which means today, we’re going to talk about “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” and later this week, we’ll talk about The Hound of the Baskervilles. The shorts might wait for the weekend for both, but they’re coming. Expect Hound to pretty much be a John Watson Appreciation post, because it’s likely to be. I refuse to apologize for my unabashed Watson adoration.
Today, though, we’re going to talk about little old ladies that get severed ears sent to them via post and what it takes to figure out who they belong to.
The whole thing starts with the delivery of an unexpected parcel to the address of Miss Susan Cushing, an elderly landlady in Croyden. The delivery itself isn’t the cause for alarm, of course – it’s the pair of human ears inside the box that causes Miss Cushing to summon the police, who in turn call upon our intrepid heroes to come take a look. Miss Cushing is convinced it must be a mistake. Lestrade thinks it’s a prank perpetrated by a trio of medical student boarders who got the heave ho for being less than exceptional lodgers. Holmes, of course, suspects that it’s all much more sinister than either of those options almost from the moment he sees the specimens. It’s the ears that lead Holmes to the right questions, which then lead him to the conclusions that wind up turning the entire case.
Here’s one of the things that always kind of fascinates me about Doyle. The story, which is set in 1888 or 1889 (depending on which chronology you go by), was published in 1892. Holmes mentions that he’s published “two short monographs” on the topic of distinctive qualities of an individual’s ear in the previous year’s Anthropologicl Journal. While the study of fingerprints began as early as ancient Babylon – where they were used as signatures and a method to prevent forgery – and their evidentiary value was understood (minimally, anyway) since 1880 (thank you Henry Faulds), the history of using the human ear to definitively identify a suspect (or victim) is nowhere near as long. And earprints themselves didn’t come into the equation until the 20th Century.
In the late 19th Century, ear measurements were included as one of eleven anthropometrics, but they weren’t a vastly used investigative tool, and I’m sure most people couldn’t look at one person’s ear, then look at a severed one, and definitively declare the two ears related. That’s what Holmes does: after the initial chat with Miss Cushing, Lestrade shows Holmes and Watson the ears, then Holmes requests to ask the poor old lady a few more questions. These questions mostly deal with her family. Holmes soon learns that Miss Cushing has two sisters, once who is married to a sailor, and another that has lived with (or near) both her sisters at one time or another, but moved out after quarreling with the elder (the recipient of the package) and falling out with the younger and her husband.
That leads him to narrow the owner of one of the ears to either of the remaining sisters, though he still has to figure out which. Not that it takes him too much energy to really do that. Soon enough, Holmes has a working theory on the owner of the ear, that further evidence holds up, meaning he just identified a person via a severed ear and her sister’s comparative sample. Like in most things, Holmes – and thus Doyle – is ahead of his time.
Identifying the other ear doesn’t seem quite as impressive comparatively. He can only deduce it’s male and that it belongs to a sailor, based on the fact it’s pierced and sunburned. What else is he supposed to glean from a body part otherwise free of context? Holmes is brilliant, but he’s not psychic.
It’s funny. As I’m writing this, I’m watching a first season episode of CSI, “Sex, Lies, and Larvae,” where the secondary case partially hinges on an earprint left behind on a wall during a robbery. Even in 2000, Catherine is dubious about the worth of the evidence until Warrick reminds her that a murderer was convicted a year earlier based on just that sort of evidence. So maybe Holmes was ahead of our time, too.