“Holmes was certainly not a difficult man to live with. He was quiet in his ways, and his habits were regular. It was rare for him to be up after ten at night, and he had invariably breakfasted and gone out before I rose in the morning. Sometimes he spent his day at the chemical laboratory, sometimes in the dissecting-rooms, and occasionally in long walks, which appeared to take him into the lowest portions of the City.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
Today marks the traditional date that most (but not all) folks of a Sherlockian bent celebrate as the birthday of the world’s greatest consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. The rationale, or deduction of this date as that of Holmes birth comes from a close reading of the adventures in which Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night is the most quoted by Holmes (and thus January 6, Epiphany, as the date). This argument was made by the late William S. Baring-Gould, who also posited that Holmes acted professionally as a youth and toured with a repertory company that specialized in Shakespeare’s work. If the name Baring-Gould sounds familiar it is because William was the grandson of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, writer of the hymns “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Now the Day is Over.” However, the younger Baring-Gould’s arguments on Twelfth Night and that it was Holmes’ favorite have been challenged by later Sherlockians, notably Marvin Kaye who stated that Holmes quoted from Henry IV or Henry V at least twice, and possibly three times. “There is also a case for Hamlet,” Kaye continues, “which may have been alluded to three times as well.” Sherlockians love a good argument and so another source for the January 6th date comes into view with the late Christopher Morley, editor for The Saturday Review of Literature and founder of the literary society devoted to Holmes, the Baker Street Irregulars. Students of the stories point to sources found in notes for an article in the Baker Street Miscellanea implicating Morley in which he “was quoted as having chosen the January 6 date, variously, because an astrological reading had indicated it as Holmes birthday; because it coincided with the publishing date of the first issue of The Saturday Review for 1934, for which he was writing a column; and because it was the birthday of one of Mr. Morley’s brothers.” So, however the date came to be fixed, we have a general agreement by most people that Holmes was born on this date.
The year of Holmes birth is another matter and opens up another field for debate. I’ll let Wikipedia summarize the issue:
An estimate of Holmes's age in the story "His Last Bow" places his birth in 1854; the story is set in August 1914 and he is described as being 60 years of age….However, an argument for a later birth date is posited by author Laurie R. King, based on two of Conan Doyle's stories: A Study in Scarlet and "The Gloria Scott" Adventure. Certain details in "The Gloria Scott" Adventure indicate Holmes finished his second and final year at university in either 1880 or 1885. Watson's own account of his wounding in the Second Afghan War and subsequent return to England in A Study in Scarlet place his moving in with Holmes in either early 1881 or 1882. Together, these suggest Holmes left university in 1880; if he began university at the age of 17, his birth year would likely be 1861.Isn’t this fun? Add to this another fiction that fans of the detective engage in, namely that Holmes (and Watson) were real people and that Holmes is still alive, retired to the Sussex Downs and keeping bees (they don’t say anything about Watson). This would make Holmes either 151 or 158 years of age. Their arguments for such a state of being are two: that an obituary has never been published in the newspaper of record (The Times) and that an earlier edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (I think it was the 14th edition) lists Holmes in the index as a real person. What better authorities than The Times or Britannica? Quite remarkable!
With Morley’s founding of the Baker Street Irregulars in 1934 Holmes birthday became the focus for an annual gathering in New York. These early gatherings of the Irregulars took place at a hotel in midtown Manhattan or at a speakeasy known to Morley and his cronies. The evening was full of eating and drinking, the presentation of a paper or two on some aspect of the tales, and perhaps some musical numbers. These dinners started small, about thirty or forty gathering for the evening, and have now expanded to a couple hundred souls. Next week the Irregulars will once again gather in New York. I am not an Irregular, but have been invited to many of their dinners as a guest. This year I’m taking a pass on the festivities but hope to rejoin them in a year or two.
Happy Birthday Mr. Holmes!