The Camberwell Poisoning Case

by Stillman Drake


At the beginning of The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips, Watson tells us that the year 1887 furnished a long series of cases to the Master. Among these was the Camberwell Poisoning Case. This affair must have occurred near the end of the year, as the chronicler ushers it in with the words "and finally." His precise words concerning the affair, according to the accepted canonical text, are these:

In the latter [case], as may be remembered, Sherlock Holmes was able, by winding up the dead man's watch, to prove that it had been wound up two hours before, and that therefore the deceased had gone to bed within that time--a deduction which was of the greatest importance in clearing up the case. All these [cases named] I may sketch out at some future date, but none of them presented such singular features as the strange train of circumstances which I have now taken up my pen to describe. (Canon, p. 218)

The final clause referred, of course, to the Five Orange Pips. In discussing the Camberwell poisoning case I shall first point out a very striking circumstance which alone should give it paramount importance in the estimation of every true Holmesian. Next, I shall reconstruct the logical skeleton of the case, and finally I shall identify the victim, the murderer, and the motive.

Accordingly let me begin by stating that it is to the Camberwell affair that we owe the publication, or at any rate the commencement of publication, of the entire Canon. This is a point which appears to have been overlooked by eminent scholars; yet it is not difficult to establish. First published was A Study in Scarlet, which recounted a series of events that began on 4 March 1881. Yet the narrative did not see the light of day until more than six years later--in December of 1887, to be exact. Now, why this long delay? Obviously because as long as Holmes could enjoy a relative obscurity he derived considerable professional advantages from it, and so long as he could, he preferred to become known only to his clients, a few police officials, and his ill-starred criminal adversaries. In this he was at first abetted by the newspapers, for they played down his role. We know that the Echo treated him shabbily at the conclusion of the Jefferson Hope affair, and also that Watson later complained about the credit which the public print assigned to Athelney Jones in the unraveling of the mystery of The Sign of Four. But a day came when the newspapers recognized Holmes's importance and placed him prominently in the public eye. Only then did Watson partly lift the veil and begin to chronicle for the world such cases from his notebooks as could safely be divulged.

Now, when writing of the essential clue in the Camberwell case, Watson distinctly says "as may be remembered, Holmes was able" to decipher it. How could this be remembered by Watson's readers if he himself had never mentioned it? Newspapers do not carry old stories, but Watson expects his readers already to know not only the case, but the role of Holmes in clearing it up. Clearly, that could have been reasonably expected only if journals at the time had published rather detailed accounts, and only if the case had been a rather celebrated one at the time. As I have said, these events were news late in the year 1887. No later case is recorded for that year. It was in December 1887 that Watson at last decided to give to the world his first account of an exploit of Sherlock Holmes. I think nothing could be clearer than that it was the Camberwell affair, and no other, which removed the last valid reason for silence on Watson's part.

But the interest of the case does not end there; rather, this momentous fact merely whets our appetite. If it had not been the Camberwell business that unsealed Watson's lips, it would have been some other. We are right in pausing to salute it as the distinguished event that began Watson's deathless stories, but we must press on with all the more gusto to find the details of the case itself. We may be exasperated by Watson's failure to tell us more, since the documents have unfortunately now been lost; all the facts at our disposal are contained in the two meager sentences already cited.

Or not quite all, though substantially so. It may at first appear impossible to reconstruct the entire crime from such scant material. Yet let us recall that Holmes himself had written:

From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without ever having heard of one or the other. (op. cit., p. 23)

True, mere knowledge of the possibility of an Atlantic is less satisfying than the sight of one, and all we can be sure of is that from this water-drop of a partly run-down watch a logician could infer some mighty possibilities. Yet we do not have to assume that that is all that can be done with the available material. We have indeed not only a right, but a sacred duty, to examine this droplet of evidence and infer from it whatever possibilities we can. And who knows? In so doing we may find that we are able to eliminate many possibilities which have but a specious appearance of existence. We may find that what we have left, however improbable, not only includes but actually reveals the truth.

To this task let us now turn our attention.


It is the logician, the Master said, whose role it is to infer the possibilities. Let us therefore cease to look upon Watson's scanty words with the eye of a frustrated reader, and bend to the task of scrutinizing it with the eye of a logician. Amazingly, we see this seemingly barren earth immediately transformed into a rich mine of deduction. Carelessly read, Watson's brief remark seems to contain but a single fact and two inferences from it, which do appear to be things that might have been used in some straightforward way to clear up a question of murder. Logical analysis, however, throws a very different light on the matter.

Holmes wound up the dead man's watch, and that is the irreducible minimum of fact which we are bound to accept. The word up in the phrase wound up, however, invites us to infer at once that he continued to wind the watch until the tension of its mainspring prevented further winding. I think no one will object against this inference. But now consider what we are told next: that Holmes was able to prove this watch to have been wound up two hours before. Clearly any proof of this must have involved some additional fact that has been adroitly concealed by Watson. For there is no conceivable way in which one could tell, simply by winding up a watch, that it had ever been wound up before in the sense of its being wound until the spring was quite tight. One could indeed tell that the watch had undergone some winding within the past two hours. But whether it had been partly wound a few minutes earlier, after having nearly run down, or had been completely wound two hours before, or had been fiddled with to some undetermined extent with the last two hours--this could not have been revealed even to Holmes by the simple act of a rewinding. Hence he must have had some additional evidence for his deductions and his proofs. And thus we already see, from a logician's viewpoint, that Watson has not been entirely frank with us. In the Camberwell case some circumstance must have prevented anyone from touching the watch for two hours before Holmes wound it up.

Next we are informed that Holmes proceeded to prove that the deceased had gone to bed within that period of two hours. Again it is apparent that some other fact or facts must have been involved in that proof. Under ordinary circumstances, we would be unable to make sure who had last wound a given watch, let alone whether he had wound it before or after going to bed--or, to be strictly logical, before or after the owner of the watch had gone to bed. In brief, logic makes it abundantly clear that Holmes, in reaching his conclusions, made use of at least one or two facts over and above those which Watson chose to give us, though he has artfully contrived to make things appear otherwise by his free use of words like "therefore," a strictly logical term.

To the logician the most astonishing thing of all is in fact the sudden appearance of the word "deduction" right after something said to have been proved. When you have proved anything, it is no longer a deduction; it has become a fact. What, then, was this "--deduction that was of the greatest importance in clearing up the case"? Watson slyly leads us to believe it to have been the determination of the period during which the victim must have retired. But if that were really so --if the word "deduction" here referred to the immediately preceding clause--then it should have been set off by a comma, and not by this insidious dash. The textual dash was Watson's crafty concession to literal honesty while he was paltering with us. It indicates an omission in this instance, not a logical linkage. The important deduction was not in fact what we are tricked by Watson's slippery syntax into thinking it was. Yet we should not be too harsh with him. If he did not reveal what it was, that is because he did not wish to spoil a story which, as he promised, he might sketch out some day. Nevertheless we, as logicians, must proceed to inquire whether Watson has entirely succeeded in concealing from us what this deduction must in fact have been, and what concealed fact was used in making it. For if he did not succeed (and I think he could not have done so in the circumstances) then we ourselves may be able to reconstruct the logical pattern of the case and its solution.

Let us return to that bare minimum of certainty which may be derived from Watson's sentence. We may be sure that conditions existed in this case under which the victim might have wound up his watch at any time before going to bed, but could not have wound it at any time after going to bed. For instance, if Holmes arrived at 2 a.m., the victim could not have retired at 10 p.m. and then wound his watch at midnight. We are sure of this because it is the minimum logical link between the two things that Hoson's having placed the word "therefore" between those two propositions, regardless of what other facts may have been present. And we are bound by logic above all, for this must have been one of those cases "founded on that absolute logical proof which was so dear to Holmes," to use Watson's own words with regard to the activities of the year 1887.

There is of course nothing unusual in situations which would permit a man to wind his watch at any time before retiring. On the other hand, the requirement that he be unable to wind it after going to bed is an arresting one. Men usually carried watches in their clothing then but did not leave them there at night, removing them to some such convenient location as on a bedside table. It is not uncommon to forget to wind one's watch until one has lain in bed for some time. In the Camberwell case we are obliged to eliminate this latter possibility, and in order to do so we must suppose that the victim, upon going to bed, lost either the use of his hands or the custody of his watch. The first alternative is certainly so bizarre that we cannot adopt it without our thus contradicting Watson's unfavorable contrast between the singularities of this case and those of the Five Orange Pips. Hence we may discard it and conclude that the victim had lost access to his watch around the time he went to bed.

Next, custody of his watch might have passed from him in either of two ways: as a customary procedure, or as an unusual event on the night of the tragedy. If it had been the result of some habitual procedure--say that the man was in the habit of giving his watch at bedtime to a servant or other member of the household, with instructions not to wind it or permit it to be wound--then the value of the clue which Holmes actually used would have been questionable, to say the least. In such a case, the time of the victim's retirement on this night could have been established by interrogating the recipient of the watch, and a rewinding of it would be neither easier nor more reliable. For the recipient would have been able to adjust the winding of the watch to fit his lie if the victim had actually retired earlier, and that was the only thing in question. Hence we may conclude that the man lost custody of his watch about the time of his retirement, and in some unusual manner.

Supposing the watch to have departed from its owner's custody, two possibilities again confront us: at the time of its later discovery it was either in the possession of someone else, or it was not in anyone's possession. The latter would be the case if, for example, the owner had dropped it into some place not easily accessible and left its recovery to a more convenient time. It might have fallen from a window as the owner was preparing for bed, and there are other possibilities, but valid objections to all hypotheses of this kind are too numerous to make them worthy of serious consideration. For one thing, most of the conceivable accidents that might befall a watch to make it inaccessible would also have damaged it sufficiently to render highly unreliable any indications that could be gained by later rewinding, if indeed it could still be rewound. For another, the chances would be slender that the watch would be even missed (let alone rediscovered) by another before it had completely run down. Discovery not based on knowledge of the accident would, moreover, necessarily depend upon lucky chance such as occurs only in the works of inept fabricators of mysteries, not in such real-life occurrences as concern us here.

It is evident, then, that the watch when found was in the possession, or at least among the effects, of some person other than its owner. It might have been given to this person, or lent to him, or entrusted to him for safekeeping or delivery to someone else; or he might have stolen the watch. In examining the possibilities, we must remember that this watch figured in an important case involving the death of its owner. Moreover, since Watson definitely states that the case was cleared up, Holmes knew who the murderer was. Now if the new possessor of the watch was not the murderer, his testimony concerning the time at which the watch was turned over to him was available to Holmes, and would have established the time of the owner's retirement. Only if the testimony of the person possessing the watch were known to be worthless would it be put aside in favor of logical deduction. And since Watson tells us that rewinding of the watch was involved in establishing the time of the victim's retirement, we can only conclude that the person who had ultimately gained possession of the watch was in fact the murderer.

Now surely the night you intend to murder a man is a very poor time to borrow his watch, or to accept it for safekeeping or any other reason, or indeed to have it about you at all--except for some special purpose. And no matter what this purpose might be, on such an occasion you would be at some pains to obtain the watch without bringing the fact of your doing so to the notice of any other person, especially that of the intended victim--if for no other reason, because he might blurt out something about you or the event in the incoherencies of his death agonies. Ergo the murderer stole the watch for a purpose that is now becoming only too evident. Naturally, he waited until the owner had gone to bed, since watches carried on the person are notoriously difficult to obtain undetected, except by dexterous pickpockets, and that is a possibility too bizarre to detain us here.

When we now turn to examine the special purpose that must have motivated the poisoner to steal the victim's watch, our drop of water at once yields up the possible Atlantic which we have been seeking--the veritable Niagara of essential facts in the case. The man at Camberwell was poisoned, at a convivial snack near bedtime, by someone who was dwelling in the same house at the time. The murderer knew precisely how long his potion would take to act. The victim having retired, the poisoner crept under cover of darkness into his bedroom and purloined the watch. In its place he left the vial of poison to create the illusion of a suicide. His purpose in taking the watch was to rewind it early in the morning and replace it by the corpse. When the body was found, he himself would call attention to the almost fully-wound watch if no one else had done so before it ran down. Meanwhile he absented himself, to foster the illusion that the poison had been taken long after his last meal with the victim and after he had left the house. Secreting the watch in his own room lest accident befall it, he left the premises for the pre-arranged rendezvous that would provide him with a secure alibi.

The crafty plan miscarried because of the unforeseen and untimely discovery of the dead or dying man, a matter to be discussed presently. Because Watson speaks only of the clearing up of the case, and not the apprehension of the malefactor, we may conclude that the murderer never did return to the house. No doubt he was warned off by lights and commotion in a house that should have been dark and quiet. Holmes was already there. The deduction which was of the greatest importance in clearing up the case was indeed a masterly one. It was this: That the victim's watch had been stolen by the murderer for a purpose connected with the crime. All this crystallized in the mind of Holmes as his keen glance swept the room and informed him not only of what was present but of what was missing. By the time the watch was found, the Master had already divined the exact purpose of its theft, and the moment it came to his hands he employed it to turn the murderer's own ingenious idea against him. Thus Holmes at once determined the maximum head-start that the quarry could have in the race that must have ensued. If the game, once afoot, made good its escape to Australia or America or another common refuge of the British criminal class, we may chalk up the blame against the inept officialdom that took to the field in pursuit, not against the Master of the Hunt.

The stealth with which Watson told the truth while he was withholding nearly every significant point about the Camberwell case does more credit to his craftiness than to his candor. Let us review his words again, now that we have arrived at the truth.

Sherlock Holmes was able, by winding up the dead man's watch, to prove that it had been wound up two hours before ...

Precisely, if we are willing to overlook that second "wound up." But it was the absence of the watch that yielded the peerless deduction; the finding, and not the winding of the watch had yielded the essential proof--two facts of which Watson gave us not the slightest hint. Moreover, the crucial deduction by Holmes concerned not the whereabouts or activities of the victim two hours earlier, but those of his murderer.

... and that therefore the deceased had gone to bed within that time--...

Ah, Watson, wherefore this "therefore"? That the deceased had gone to bed within a certain period was inferred from the fact that the watch had been stolen after he retired, rather than merely from the watch's being to a certain degree unwound.

[--] a deduction which was of the greatest importance in clearing up the case.
The dash of course, as we have said, indicates not a linkage but an omission. A mathematician (that is, a certain kind of logician) would have had the grace to add "the deduction will be left to the reader."

But in the end Watson's cunning has availed him nothing; our inquiry has been a rewarding one, for this was indeed one of those cases permitting the "absolute logical proof which was so dear to Holmes." That is how we solved it, and the fact that it was merely cleared up, while the murderer was not apprehended, adds to the elegance of solution. The Master's solution was by pure logical deduction, unsoiled by the squabbles of lawyers and courts; unsullied by abject confession and the hangman's noose. No witnesses; no cringing criminal; merely a stiffening body in one room, his watch ticking away in another, and the unseasonable absence of the tenant, all of these silently uniting in that "one great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it." (op. cit., p. 23)


But we need not be content merely to discern the nature of this chain; we may see the material of which the chain itself was forged. As logicians, we might be satisfied with the skeleton of the Camberwell case; but as devotees of crime and mystery we must remain discontent until we can attach to the actors in the drama their very names and can thus discern their motives.

It would be of course easy to invent conjectures about the participants in the actions we have uncovered. A scapegrace nephew, for example, living with a wealthy old uncle, might resort to a poisoning dressed to look like suicide in order to inherit a fortune. Such a man could easily arrange a midnight rendezvous which, however discreditable in itself, would supply the alibi needed for his scheme. But this and every other mere speculation is rendered unnecessary by a single striking fact that Watson did provide, a fact that leads us inexorably to the correct identification of the dramatis personae and the setting of the stage.

Holmes was on the scene within two hours of the victim's retirement; perhaps he arrived only moments after the death, or even during the final agonies. There can be no doubt of this, for when he rewound the watch he found it to have been wound two hours before. Indeed, the first edition of the narrative departs somewhat from the accepted text of the Canon, reading "two hours ago." That effectively eliminates any possibility of error. One might otherwise think of those cases in which a watch is stopped at the moment of the crime and is only later employed to fix a definite time. But in this case there is no question that Holmes was in Camberwell late on the fatal night. He was either in a nearly deserted house or close enough to it to hear the groans of a dying man, with good reason to suspect foul play.

Camberwell lies far to the south of Baker Street. Even if a summons had been sent to Holmes there, it would be hard to bring him to the place within the allowable time. And who would have summoned him that night? He was, as we have said, not well known before the Camberwell case. No ordinary person would have suspected a crime at the beginning, other than that of suicide; at most, the police might have been called in. They would in turn have to discover good reasons to doubt suicide, and even then they would not have aroused Holmes in the middle of the night. And who discovered the dead or dying victim? The very crime had depended on no untimely discovery. Had there been servants or relatives in the house, the well-informed murderer expected them not to be in the way (and there were none, as will be seen.) Everything points to a deserted house quite distant from 221b Baker Street.

Someone might assume that Holmes happened to be a guest in that house at the time of the murder, but that is preposterous. Apart from the fact that Holmes was not given to accepting social invitations in London, even the hardiest villain would hardly deliberately choose for his crime a night when any detective, let alone the greatest of all, was on the premises.

Nor was it mere chance that brought Holmes to Camberwell, and to the vicinity of the particular house, on that night. We need only recall who it was that lived in Camberwell in 1887, and the solution of the entire puzzle is in our hands. No Scowrer can be ignorant of the answer--or at any rate, half the answer. It was Porlock; Porlock the nom-de-plume, Porlock, the weakest link in the chain that led to Moriarty. Porlock the traitor, who had attempted to warn Holmes in January 1887 about the danger that was stalking Birdy Edwards, alias John Douglas of Birlstone. If we cannot ascertain the actual name of the victim in the Camberwell poisoning case, that is because Porlock had defied even Holmes himself to ascertain his identity, and Holmes refrained from attempting to penetrate his disguise. Whatever his true name, the victim was known to the Canon only as Porlock. The motive for his murder was twofold: punishment for disloyalty, and the necessity of sealing the lips of a man who knew too much.

That Porlock lived in Camberwell at this time was clearly stated more than once in The Valley of Fear. What was not stated but was clearly implied is that the infamous Professor Moriarty himself lived there, and Porlock lived with him. Let us attend to the words Porlock wrote when sending the Birlstone cipher to Holmes without the key, alluding to the Professor:

He suspects me. I can see that he suspects me. He came to me quite unexpectedly after I had actually addressed the envelope. ... I was able to cover it up.

...Please burn the cipher message. ...(op. cit., p. 771)

Clearly Porlock must have been in Moriarty's house when he wrote the cipher and the letter, for you cannot come upon a man quite unexpectedly in his own house, in such a way as to see what he has just been writing. And, needless to say, if there had been any other place than Moriarty's house available to Porlock for writing his dangerous message to Holmes, he would have used it. Ergo, Porlock was then living with the evil Professor.

I need not weary you with details. As early as January 1887 Holmes had discovered Porlock to constitute the weakest link in Moriarty's chain. Can anyone believe that the year would close with Moriarty still ignorant of this? Surely not. And when Moriarty did discover the fact, Porlock was doomed to die. The infamous professor, absenting himself on one of his frequent excursions to the Continent, left his instructions with his most trusted lieutenant; Porlock was to appear a suicide before his return.

Knowing Moriarty to have left England, Holmes went under cover of night to reconnoiter. That is what accounts for his presence in Camberwell late at night, beside a dead or dying man, poisoned no doubt by Colonel Sebastian Moran. The crime would otherwise doubtless have gone unrecorded, a murder made to appear as a suicide. Moriarty and his second-in-command had got off scot-free for the second time in 1887, as Watson began setting forth the exploits of their eventual Nemesis.

  San Francisco, ca. January 1960

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