The Engineer’s Thumb – Hounds Summary

Ralph Edwards – Fri, 4 Nov 1994

  • Did Watson bring Holmes any later case?
  • What other visits of Holmes to Watson’s home are recorded?
  • What painful and lingering disease might Watson have cured?
  • How did Watson manage without a waiting-room? What is a library chair?
  • Could Hatherley have survived bleeding for such a length of time?
  • Were the dangers of a tourniquet well-publicized in those days?
  • (Baring-Gould edition page 210): Does a person who is blushing hotly have bloodless cheeks?
  • What may be deduced from the description of the plugs and dottles?
  • How did Hatherley differ from businessmen as we know them?
  • Are “Colonel” and a German accent consistent?
  • Did the clerk serve other tenants?
  • What is a chinchilla beard?
  • What happened to the press installers?
  • Where did Stark obtain Hatherley’s biographical data?
  • How could Hatherley have safeguarded himself before the journey?
  • Was monomania a popular concept at that time?
  • Was the press size appropriate for coining?
  • Would the press afford room to lie down?
  • Having earlier conversed in (probably) German, why did Colonel Stark and Elsie, in a state of excitement during Hatherley’s escape, start speaking English to each other?
  • Why did Hatherley go to London rather than Reading?
  • Why was the press kept on the fourth (English third) floor?
  • Would a whitewashed building have stone floors?
  • Would the floor of a fourth story be made of stone?
  • Did the roses have thorns?
  • What happened to the carriage?
  • Was Hayling’s body ever found?
  • What source of energy was used to power the press?
  • What happened to the mercury (needed for amalgamation, very heavy, and poisonous in vapor form)?
  • How long did it take the house to burn?
  • Why did Watson publish this story?
  • Is there any other adventure in which Watson’s name is never mentioned?

Chris Redmond – Fri, 9 Feb 1996

Engineers were fewer in the 1890’s than they are today, although they were more romantic figures, associated with daring bridges and gigantic ships. Is the picture of Victor Hatherley at work in this story realistic to any degree?

Sonia Fetherston – Mon, 5 May 1997

  • Are Stark and Elsie just counterfeiters who happen to be German, or are they German agents who are flooding Britain with bogus money? Exactly what is the nature of their “clever gang?”
  • After speaking German with Stark, a.k.a. Fritz, why — in the heat of the moment, no less — does Elsie suddenly switch to English? “‘Fritz! Fritz!’ she cried in English, ‘remember your promise after the last time.'”
  • Who drove the coach? Elsie? Mr. Ferguson? Some other cohort?
  • About that thumb: Victor wasn’t hanging by his thumbs, he says he was hanging by his hands, which, as Paget illustrates, means he was holding onto the sill with his fingers. His thumbs were below the top of the sill, angling away from the palm. It would be easier for Stark to chop the fingers, rather than reaching out and below the sill to chop the thumb. The thumb would need to be placed on the sill after it was chopped off, where the firemen found it, because it couldn’t have been up on the sill during the attack.
  • About that same Paget illustration: The weapon Stark is holding is the Mother of All Meat Cleavers. More of a halberd than a kitchen utensil. If somebody came at me with one of those, I’d be in the next county in an instant. Sorry, Victor, but only a dummy would just hang there.
  • The next Paget illustration shows, from left to right: a partially-obscured man in an overcoat and top hat, Holmes, Inspector Bradstreet, Watson, and the station master. Is the partially-obscured man supposed to be Victor, or is he the plainclothes officer who accompanied Bradstreet? If he’s Victor, he went home and changed clothes. Would a plainclothes officer wear a top hat? And how come Bradstreet is in uniform? I can’t recall Lestrade being in uniform in other stories.

Steve Clarkson – Fri, 17 Jul 1998

A young hydraulic engineer, Jeremiah Hayling, waits in his office for clients to call, but there isn’t much business for him. In two years, his earnings from three consultations and one small job amount to a meager £27 10s. Then one afternoon he has a visitor, an exceedingly thin man with a trace of a German accent. The visitor makes Hayling a proposition: there is a hydraulic press at the visitor’s residence which is in need of repair. The visitor offers to pay a fee of 50 guineas for the engineer’s assistance on location. Fifty guineas! Almost double the amount the engineer has earned in the preceding two years! Naturally, Hayling is deeply interested.

But there are conditions: Hayling’s visit must be at night because the press he is to examine is used in connection with the processing of a rare and valuable mineral found on the visitor’s farm property. He must be sworn to secrecy regarding all aspects of his visit. The visitor asks some sinister questions: Is his understanding that Hayling is an orphan and a bachelor correct? Does Hayling live alone in London? But despite his misgivings, the engineer agrees to visit the farm that very night. Little did he know that the very next morning would find him, semi-hysterical and fainting from loss of blood, in Dr. Watson’s office. His thumb had been hacked off at the roots in the course of his harrowing night-time visit.

In a few minutes, the Mâitre de Chasse will summon the Hounds to pursue the sinister German, as well as the German’s English secretary, and the beautiful young woman who accompanied them. The trail they leave is cold; only the tracks of a heavily-loaded cart show where they passed in their flight. This promises to be a long hunt, indeed.

Fuller’s-earth is a highly absorbent claylike substance used to remove grease from woolen cloth while cleaning, or “fulling,” such cloth. It is also used to purify certain grades of oil. It is not particularly precious — not nearly as dear as gold — and its use in counterfeiting is dubious at best. Can we state, then, that the story about fuller’s-earth was a chimera, was used to satisfy Hatherley’s curiosity? If so, how did Colonel Stark know that Hatherley would be ignorant of the true uses and worth of fuller’s-earth?

Speaking of counterfeiting, I think we may safely assume that Stark & Co. were making metal coinage. Surely, they would not have needed a hydraulic press to print paper money. But it probably was not gold coinage, because they would not have needed a press nearly so huge as the one in the story to strike gold coins; even a gold alloy would have been soft enough to strike coins without the need for a great amount of pressure. Well, then, silver? The largest denomination of silver coin in Victorian England was the sovereign. Would it be worthwhile to counterfeit a coin of such comparative low (10s.) value?

Watson mentions that when Hatherley appeared in his office, he was wearing “a soft cloth hat.” Yet, in telling Holmes and Watson about his experiences, he provides the following dialogue:

[Colonel Stark] “Mr. Ferguson and I will take you up to see the machine.”
[Hatherley] “I had better put my hat on, I suppose.”
[Stark] “Oh no, it is in the house.”

And off go Hatherley, Stark, and “Mr. Ferguson” to see the hydraulic press. Hatherley never returns to the room where he left his hat, having jumped from a second-floor window to make his getaway. Yet he is wearing his hat, or at least a hat, when he enters Watson’s office after a night unconscious in the bushes and an early morning train ride to London. Where did he get the hat?

In previous discussions, there has been much comment about the placement of Hatherley’s hands when he was hanging from the window. A study of the text reveals that he “was hanging with [his] fingers in the window slot and [his] hands across the sill.” His fingers, therefore, were not hooked over the inside edge of the window sill but rather in the shallow slot in which the window rests when closed. His thumbs, then, must have been very close to or beyond the outer edge of the sill. Yet only was “Fritz” able to sever one of his thumbs, but the amputated member then remained on the sill, where it was found by firemen the next day. Can the Hounds explain (a) how the thumb came to land on the sill; and (b) how the firemen managed to find it, still on the sill, in a house in which “the roof had fallen in, and the whole place reduced…to absolute ruin?”

And lastly, we come to the hydraulic press. Hatherley says it was “huge.” It must have weighed a great deal, and yet it was installed on the second floor of the house. How did the counterfeiters manage to get the press into the house without the neighbors noticing, and why did they put it on the second floor?

Discover more about The Engineer’s Thumb and read the canon.