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Sherlockian scion societies
by Bill Vande Water

Originally published (with the preface missing) as the invited introduction to a catalogue for the Los Angeles book dealer Vinnie Brosnan ("Sherlock in LA")

Brief exculpatory preface

It is a perilous thing for a Sherlockian to go into the book selling business; schizophrenia lurks at every turning. Holmes's Canonical precedent only heightens the danger. For how is his Sherlockian soul -- and all Sherlockians are accumulators, if not outright collectors -- going to let go of all this splendid material? And, if he does decide to keep some items, how does he square this with his bookseller's mind, which knows that he must, at the very least, make enough profit to pay for the next lot?

The estimable Mr. Brosnan has hit upon an excellent solution to this dilemma. He includes a Sherlockian essay in each catalog. These articles make the catalog more interesting, gaining more readers and, he hopes, more sales. If the essays take up pages normally devoted to books, is it his fault he's forced to remove items that just happen to be of interest to his Sherlockian soul? This time he conceived a master stroke. He asked a particularly prolix writer for an essay on scion societies, a topic good for a hundred pages from the most spartan of authors. Done correctly, such an article should leave room for about a dozen items in the catalog.

We have however, a certain duty to our fellow Sherlockians (and a lively respect for their abilities at creative retribution). This essay, is, therefore, not done correctly. As Peter Blau once remarked the writings are fine, but the real history is in the stories. The admittedly insufficient comments that follow are at best the chapter headings. Go and read the stories. Read them in such books as Bill Rabe's Who's Whos and Jon Lellenberg's BSI History series. Better yet, read the publications of the groups themselves.

All they need is organizing

What is a scion society? According to John Bennett Shaw, it's two Sherlockians, a copy of the Canon, and a bottle. In a pinch, he says, you can dispense with one of the Sherlockians.

This is exactly what Helen Yuhasova had to do in 1946. When she couldn't locate any other interested women, she formed The Solitary Cyclist of Washington D.C. and met at unspecified intervals with herself. Most groups do contain more than two people. In fact most contain more people than their name implies. There are about 15 members of the Sacred Six in New York City; the Three Garridebs of Westchester, NY have four people just as officers, and there are more Napoleons in the Six Napoleons than busts in a typical issue of Playboy. The Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, however, have never quite equalled the full strength of that illustrious regiment.

Some groups start with a chance meeting, two people discovering a common interest in Holmes. A teacher's question to an elementary school class led to the founding of The Shadows of the Elms. The Sound of the Baskervilles (Seattle) was founded on a ferry ride Sometimes it begins with an ad in a newspaper or magazine. The Scowrers began in Anthony Boucher's column. The June 27, 1943 issue of the Akron Beacon Journal contained the following: "If Sherlock Holmes needed friends in Akron today how many would he find. The mystery is bothering Clifton Andrew of 400 Water Street." Thus began the Scandalous Bohemians of Akron, the first society to admit women.

(At this point I think we should offer a word of thanks to certain cultural ecologists, all those unsung men who are sacrificing intellect, character (and good company), in a valiant attempt to preserve that endangered species, the all-male scion, for future sociological study. Hugo's Drunken Companions actually went to the length of replacing all their officers when a woman passed their tests and became a member for several hours.)

In the vault of a furniture warehouse

Once founded, Sherlockian groups need a place to meet. Many meet in homes of members. The Five Orange Pips began this way, before moving on to restaurants (black tie required). The Priory Scholars (NYC) meet in the Olde Garden restaurant, seen in the opening credits of "The Equalizer". They deny responsibility, however, for Edward Woodward's portrayal of Holmes in a certain TV movie. The Mycroft Holmes Society (Syracuse) sometimes meets in the basement of a church, one member being the wife of the clergyman. The Epilogues of Sherlock Holmes (NJ) meet in an historic Quaker meeting house, changing Shaw's paradigm by dispensing with the bottle. And The Giant Rats of Massillon (OH) meet at Roy Preece's Village Bookshelf bookstore.

There are even scions who meet in cyberspace: The Wigmore Street Post Office and The Hounds of the Internet, among others.

Doing business with an alias

[Norwegian Explorers logo] Only in the naming of officers have Sherlockians shown more imagination than in the naming of their societies. Some are named geographically. The Bootmakers are from Toronto, where Sir Henry Baskerville's boots were made. The Norwegian Explorers reflect the large Scandinavian American population in Minnesota. The Sound of the Baskervilles came about because of Seattle's Puget Sound. Then there is the group which Bill Rabe said had the "second most dangerous name in relation to location."

Imagine the reaction in McCarthy era Washington to a group calling itself The Red Circle. In some cases a lot of thought goes into the naming of the group, as in the following note on the Students in Scarlet in Bill Rabe's Who's Who: "We spent a great deal of time thinking over what we should call ourselves. Our Murray Hill locale suggested Murray's Dancing Men, but this infringes on Providence. Architecture and the arts made us consider the Norwood Builders and the Retired Colourmen; we rejected these as smacking a bit too much of trade. We lacked a quorum to be the Three Garridebs. We should not like to be thought of, despite our model villages, as Cardboard Boxers. One of us is indeed red headed, but not the other; so we could not be the Red Headed League; and, not being of that sex, we could not be the Copper Beeches."

It took the Hounds of the Baskerville(sic) [that sic is a part of the name, by the way] many months to decide on a name. You don't want to know what the rejected ones were. The Scion of Four (WV) worked a pun on their original number.(And, yes, I think they did end up with more than four members.) The James Phillimore Society (Holmes and Magic) takes its name from the untold story of the vanishing umbrellist (having first rejected the Creditless Conjurors as making it too difficult to rent space for meetings.) Professional groups often work from the appearance of a colleague in the Canon. Dermatologists formed The Sir James Saunders Society from the specialist in The Blanched Soldier.

Some groups do use the traditional titles for officers -- gasogene, tantalus, commissionaire. Others are more radical and call them presidents, treasurers, etc. But the best are very inventive. Being founded on a ferry, The Sound of the Baskervilles call their officers The Bay, The Bight (nice pun, that), etc. The Trained Cormorants were headed by The Politician until the title was retired. The Unknown Worms of the Cumberlands had a Vermogene, and the Musgrave Ritualists a Keeper of the Crown. The Sons of the Copper Beeches acknowledge a Headmastiff and Colonel Manley Wade Wellman headed the Wisteria Lodge Confederates. But the best of all titles, now known to have been invented by Edgar W. Smith, is found in The Speckled Band of Boston. What better title for a treasurer than The Cheetah?

Human nature Is a strange mixture

It is a peculiar characteristic of Sherlockians that they are almost never monomaniacs; they are almost always interested in a couple three other things as well as Holmes. Morley's club-forming fervor has not left any group unorganized. There are scions for geologists (limited, but practical), librarians (sub), dermatologists (Sir James Saunders Soc.), magicians (James Phillimore Soc.). Stimson and Company has two levels: Stimsons for actual undertakers, and Companies for those not actively engaged in burying other peoples mistakes. If you are particularly good at taking IQ tests, there is a group within Mensa. There is another group of tobacco lovers; and groups for fans of Wodehouse or Gilbert and Sullivan. There is even Mary Morstan's Companions (with the horrendous motto: "Better Homes Without Holmes") formed for spouses whose husbands are always running away to follow Holmes. Similarly there is the sub-scion of the Copper Beeches(all male) called The Copper Bitches ("we aren't Copper Beeches, we only sleep with them"). And a word should be said for those New Englanders of a less discriminating nature who founded The Friends of Irene Adler as an alternative to the male only Speckled Band.

Full of whimsical happenings

What happens at meetings? There are of course, the usual papers, quizzes, and general debates on Holmesian matters. But a remarkable number of other things are done.

The American Firm, headed by the appropriately named Ed Smith, raises funds to distribute Large Print editions of the Canon to hospitals and nursing homes. The Shadows of the Elms write, direct, and act in Sherlockian videos of impeccable canonicity, for which they themselves make the costumes, sets and props. Beryl Kolafa and Judy Lyen of the Sound of the Baskervilles sacrificed themselves on the altar of the con committee to insure a strong Sherlockian program at the 1994 Bouchercon in Seattle. The Priory School began with a group at Fordham University making Sherlockian radio plays. Live radio plays, historic and original, are still performed at meetings.

Those of us (not) in A Case of Identifiers (A Nonexistent Scion) spend our time identifying the early Sherlockians in the annual dinner pictures and other photographs. (The slander that we can now only identify two dimensional people may, or may not, be refuted by our ability to recognize our accusers.)

And things happen at scion meetings which are unheard of elsewhere. The Five Pips managed to convince the London Times to print a missing persons ad for Lady Frances Carfax. It was at the Sons of the Copper Beeches that Thomas L. Stix, Sr. became the first (and as far as we know, only) Sherlockian ever to fall asleep while reading his own paper. The original members of the Six Napoleons had the privilege of explaining, to certain incredulous colleagues of Lestrade, exactly why they climbed over the cemetery fence to stand beside the grave of Edgar Allan Poe at midnight.

The Amateur Mendicants (Detroit) have also had their police problems. One year they assembled, Canonically, in a furniture warehouse. Costume as prince or beggar was mandatory for that year's dinner, and most opted for full formal dress. One resident of the rather run-down neighborhood decided they looked altogether too reputable for the area, and called the cops.

Even the most respectable of meeting places can cause inadvertent ironies. The Mycroft Holmes Society reports the curious incident of the choir rehearsal upstairs being overpowered by a rendition of Aunt Clara from below. To balance things out, the Priory Scholars ended a recent meeting with the wedding of Lynn Tobin and Bill Nadel (BSI), performed with full federal authority by Judge Andrew Peck (also BSI).

The irregulars are sometimes useful

Some Sherlockian groups have asked for the status of officially recognized scions of the BSI. Others choose to remain completely independent. (Then there's the group the writers of this essay (don't) belong to -- which has been certified, by the heads of the BSI and ASH, to be non-existent.) No one much cares which is which -- except maybe the IRS now that they have officially noticed the rather obvious fact that the BSI is a (very) not-for-profit organization.

These disparate groups are all united by a love of the stories of John H. Watson and a fascination with the figure and methods of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, formerly of Baker Street; an emotion they share with the BSI itself. But what exactly is the relationship between the scions and the 'parent" organization? The Oxford English Dictionary defines "scion" as a "twig," usually one grafted on to a larger plant; as a "descendent;" and as an "heir." Do any of these definitions fit the current case?

The first definition, "twig," can be made to fit. Several groups in England have described themselves as "branches" of the Sherlock Holmes Society. And most of the early scion societies were outgrowths, as it were, of the main body in New York. But the metaphor breaks down if we push it too far. A graft or twig is totally dependant on the main tree for its life and survival. Sherlockian societies do not need the BSI; you might almost make the case for the opposite.

How about "descendent?" It seems at first glance to be better. The BSI was there first, the other societies followed. The missionaries of the Sherlockian cult spread out from New York and soon made converts around the country. It makes a pretty picture, but again theory runs aground on fact. Sherlockian societies have sprung up with no contact whatsoever with the BSI. Many people received their first invitation to the annual dinner in recognition of the work they had done in scion groups.

"Heir" is the definition I think works best. Our small groups still preserve the spirit of scholarly fun -- and funny scholarship -- of the early Irregulars. And all of us, 'official' groups and independent ones, Solitary Cyclists, Rats, Garridebs, Shadows, Hounds and Sounds, Stimsons (and Companys), even non-existent Identifiers, are all the inheritors, the scions if you will, of Briggs, Starrett, Morley, Keddie, Andrew, and all the rest. Our inheritance is the great game they started over 60 years ago. We have indeed been very fortunate in our choice of ancestors.

Written by Bill Vande Water ( with the help of his fellow non-members of A Case of Identifiers (A Nonexistent Scion), particularly Bill Nadel, Hugh Harrington, from whom I have cribbed shamelessly, and Bruce Southworth.
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