Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his Sherlock Holmes stories and his literary references to Freemasonry
Arthur Conan Doyle was initiated into the Phoenix Lodge, No. 257, at Southsea, Hampshire, on the 26th of January, 1887, and he made many literary references to Freemasonry in his work, especially in the Sherlock Holmes stories. According to Masonic scholar Yasha Beresiner, it was at the Phoenix Lodge that Conan Doyle met a certain Dr James Watson, who inspired the character of Dr Watson, the ever loyal companion of Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle referred to Freemasonry in his Sherlock Holmes stories, such as in The Red-Headed League (1891), when Holmes – who was obviously very familiar with Masonic symbolism – recognised that a certain gentleman was a Freemason, the particular gentleman being surprised that Holmes knew of his membership:
‘I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc and compass breastpin.’
He also referred to Freemasonry in other Sherlock Holmes stories, such as The Adventure of the Norwood Builder (1903) in which Holmes referred to a character as a Freemason. In The Adventure of the Retired Colourman (1926), a character is described as wearing a Masonic pin, and in A Study in Scarlet (1887) a gold ring with a Masonic device is described. A Scandal in Bohemia (1891) has Holmes saying to Watson that ‘There is a wonderful sympathy and freemasonry among the horsey men. Be one of them, and you will know all that there is to know.’ The mention of Freemasonry in these stories added to the mysterious texture and gave an element of secrecy. It also presented that both Holmes and Watson were aware of the Craft, which was popular amongst the late-Victorian middle-classes.
The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, published in 1893, is a story that is based on a secret ritual belonging to a family, the ritual having a noted resemblance to a Masonic catechism:
‘Whose was it? His who is gone.
Who shall have it? He who will come. Where was the sun? Over the oak.
Where was the shadow? Under the elm. How was it stepped?
North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under. What shall we give for it? All that is ours.
Why should we give it? For the sake of the trust.’
One particular reference to a London gentleman’s club in his 1893 Sherlock Holmes short story The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter (1893), is of interest here. Though not Masonic, it gives the same texture of secrecy to the story. Sherlock Holmes visits his brother Mycroft at the mysterious ‘Diogenes Club’ which he describes as:
‘the queerest club in London’ being for gentlemen ‘who have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals.’
The bizarre rules of the club are described:
‘No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the Strangers’ Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, permitted, and three offences, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion. My brother (Mycroft) was one of the founders, and I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere.’
The location of the club in the story was given as being on Pall Mall, a short distance from the Carlton Club, Conan Doyle presenting its interior as having a games room and ‘a large and luxurious’ reading room. The ‘Diogenes Club’ was fictional, but with Mycroft’s secretive career in government, the club was presented as having a possible deeper and overall mysterious political agenda.
Other Conan Doyle stories that referred to Freemasonry, though not Sherlock Holmes include The Lost World (1912), and The Land of Mist (1926), which touched on the possibility of certain occult groups:
‘…that is a pompous ass named Weatherby. He is one of those who wander about on the obscure edges of Masonry…’
Conan Doyle, along with other Victorian Freemasons, such as Arthur Edward Waite, had embraced psychic research, an interest that developed after the death of his wife and several other close family members, and until his death in 1930, he ardently supported spiritualism and constantly sought proof of life after death, a curiosity which can be somewhat paralleled with writer and Freemason Mark Twain’s interest in parapsychology in the USA. Conan Doyle’s 1926 work The History of Spiritualism also lent his support to séances conducted by various psychics at the time and their supposed spiritual materialisations. One of the spiritualists that Conan Doyle supported was Daniel Douglas Home. Fellow Freemason Lord Lindsay was also a supporter of Home, having witnessed the spiritualist mysteriously levitate out of a third story window only to return through the window of an adjoining room.
Conan Doyle certainly used references of Freemasonry to add a further texture of mystery and secrecy to his works, the Craft clearly inspiring him to add these references. During the time Conan Doyle was writing his Sherlock Holmes stories, Freemasonry was becoming extremely popular with middle-class males, and to add a touch of Masonic flavouring to his stories would of course appeal. The character of Sherlock Holmes knew about Freemasonry; he knew its signs and symbols but wasn’t a Mason himself, and therefore his knowledge of Masonry adds to the somewhat mysterious persona of Holmes, creating an extra layer to his character.