The Sign of the Three – Numerology in Sherlock Holmes

Yeah, I know, the book’s called The Sign of the Four.  I’m making use of the twist Moffat and Gattiss made for season three of “Sherlock.”  Let’s just pretend for a second that I’m being clever and not riding on the coattails of someone else’s wordplay.

I noticed something when I was looking at my list of stories to read in preparation for this week’s discussion of “The Three Students”: Doyle titled a lot of things “The Three” something or other.  He also used numbers in titles of other stories – The Sign of Four, “The Five Orange Pips,” “The Second Stain,” and “The Six Napoleons” – but the number three shows up in the titles of, and as part of the plot in, four different stories.  (You may argue that four isn’t a lot, but just work with me here, okay?  Four out of 60 is possibly statistically significant.  Maybe.  Somewhere.  Anyway…)

This could be discounted as just whim or it being Doyle’s lucky number, except that the number three is kind of big in various forms of spiritualism and in many religions.  And, as we know, spiritualism was of major importance to Doyle, particularly later in his life.

Doyle the Spiritualist

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first became involved in spiritualism in around 1887.  That’s the year he wrote a letter to the journal Light to “come out” as a spiritualist the first time.  He attended several séances also in 1887, helped found the Hampshire Society for Psychical Research two years later, and became a member of the London chapter in 1893.  He didn’t hard-core join the movement, though, until World War I and the influence of the Doyle nanny, who claimed to have psychic abilities.  It was during this period, helped along by the loss of close friends in the War, that he started believing in ghosts and the ability to commune with the spirits of the deceased.  The deaths of one of his sons, two brothers-in-law, and another family member only increased his interest.

(Some like to claim that Kingsley Doyle’s death in 1918 drove his father deeper into spiritualism, but Doyle published his first war-time treatise on the topic two years earlier, debunking that assumption.  The loss didn’t make him a spiritualist – it just pushed him further into the practice.)

He wrote several texts on the subject, both fictional – a Professor Challenger novella titled The Land of Mist – and non-fictional, such as his book on the Cottingley Fairies photos and one called The Vital Message on general Spiritualist topics.  His quest for proof of life after death led him to associate with men like Harry Houdini, William Thomas Stead, and Harry Price.  Over the course of his investigations, he managed to get taken in by faked photos of fairies (see the Cottingley photos mentioned above) and fake psychics like the Zancigs.   By all accounts, he was a man on a desperate mission to prove that those we lose are never, ever really gone.  Considering he buried a wife and a son, other family members, and numerous friends thanks to a bloody war, who could really blame him for his quest?

While there’s nothing specifically that points to Doyle having a direct interest in numerology, it is an interesting coincidence.  The stories in question – “The Three Gables,” “The Three Students,” “The Missing Three-Quarter,” and “The Three Garridebs” – were all written after 1900, placing them well after Doyle’s initial dive into spiritualism.  So it’s possible he was thinking of the significance of the number when he wrote those stories.  It’s also possible he just liked the number.  Doyle wasn’t known for doing a lot of planning of any of his writing.  (Doyle was a true pantser; I’m sure he would’ve found NaNoWriMo a very intriguing concept.)

The Number Three

What’s so special about the number three, then?  It depends on who you ask.  In baseball, three strikes and you’re out and three outs end an inning; there’s a three-point shot in basketball and a field goal is worth three points in football, too.  People like to count to three before doing things – just ask Murtaugh and Riggs of “Lethal Weapon” fame.  Mathematically, 3 is how you round down pi.  It’s also the first odd prime number and the first number attributed to a shape (the triangle).  It’s a lucky number to the Chinese and it is said that the third time’s the charm, right?

But it goes deeper than that.  Three plays a significant role in many religions.  Christianity revolves around the holy trinity – The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.  Wicca follows the Rule of Three: whatever you put out in the world, for good or ill, will be returned to you threefold (so always make sure to put out good energy, of course).  In Greek mythology, the Titan, Cronus, had three sons that represent the rulers of Olympus/Heaven, the Ocean, and the Underworld/Hell.  A lot of religions have triple deities as well: Hindus (the Trimurti and the Tridevi), Buddists (the Three Jewels of Buddhism), Wicca (the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone), and the aforementioned Christian Holy Trinity.  And hey, we all know that three’s company, right?  Just ask Jack Tripper.

We see in three dimensions.  In some branches of mysticism, three represents The Triad – the beginning, the middle, and the end; birth, life, and death; past, present, and future.  The moon has three phases as well.  If you look to movies and television, we’ve got the Three Musketeers, the three witches that deliver the prophesy to Macbeth, and innumerable trios of heroes from Harry, Ron, and Hermione to The Doctor, Amy, and Rory.  “Charmed” is all about a family of witches who reach ultimate power when the three Halliwell sisters invoke the Power of Three.  Three is the sort of natural number we just find ourselves drawn to, apparently, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if we’re drawn to it because of its relation to religion and myth, or if it became so prevalent there because the people writing down said myths were drawn to it themselves.

Holmesian Threes

Technically, we’ve only gotten to two of the four listed stories, so I won’t dwell too long on this subject, but it is relevant, I think, to mention how the number plays a part in the two stories I have read.  The three eponymous gables refer to the house the poor old widow lives in that someone has such desperate interest to buy that they’re ready to purchase everything in it as well as the structure.  Of course, the gables themselves and the house in particular actually have nothing to do with why the buyer is interested.  She’s just after the manuscript in the widow’s son’s trunks.   In “The Three Students,” the number shows up a few times: the professor’s bedroom window has three panes; the Greek text to be translated at the exam is three pages long; and there are three students who live above the professor’s rooms.  One of those students is, of course, the almost-dirty cheat responsible for the quasi break-in.

Let’s not even forget that there are three Openshaws – the uncle, the father, and then eventually the son – that die before the killers disappear (likely to die at sea) in “The Five Orange Pips.”  I just thought of that.


If I really wanted to belabor the whole numerology point, I’d go into the relevance of the other numbers used in the canon – four and five in particular, since the numbers in both those stories play such a big part in the plot – but I’m not much of an expert on the topic.  And I admit, I’m one of those people drawn to the natural harmony of three, too.  Besides, it would mean adding a fourth header, and stopping at three seems very fitting.

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