How the Original Sherlock Holmes Survived the Reichenbach Fall

  • Originally published on the site on Wednesday, 1st January 2014

Fans around the world are eagerly awaiting Episode 1 of the third season of Sherlock, in which the mystery of how the consulting detective faked his own death will be revealed …

After a dramatic rooftop confrontation with his nemesis, Jim Moriarty – during which Moriarty apparently killed himself – Sherlock seemingly plummeted to his destruction in order to save his friends from assassination at the hands of Moriarty’s snipers.

Although it’s clear that he did not actually die, the puzzle of how Sherlock faked his suicide has been the subject of intense and wide-ranging speculation. In 1893, though, for readers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, the question was not so much “how?” as “why” Doyle would kill off his most popular character during his confrontation with Moriarty at the brink of the Reichenbach waterfall, as recorded by Dr. Watson:

A few words may suffice to tell the little that remains. An examination by experts leaves little doubt that a personal contest between the two men ended, as it could hardly fail to end in such a situation, in their reeling over, locked in each other’s arms. Any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless, and there, deep down in that dreadful caldron of swirling water and seething foam, will lie for all time the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law of their generation.

The prosaic reality is that Doyle was simply tired of writing about Sherlock Holmes and wanted to engage with more personally interesting subjects, which he did for the best part of the following decade. However, the public pressure (and financial incentives) to revive the Holmes character continued to mount and in 1903 Doyle capitulated, resurrecting Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House.

As Holmes himself explained to the considerably startled Dr. Watson:

Well, then, about that chasm. I had no serious difficulty in getting out of it, for the very simple reason that I never was in it.”

“You never were in it?”

“No, Watson, I never was in it. My note to you was absolutely genuine. I had little doubt that I had come to the end of my career when I perceived the somewhat sinister figure of the late Professor Moriarty standing upon the narrow pathway which led to safety. I read an inexorable purpose in his gray eyes. I exchanged some remarks with him, therefore, and obtained his courteous permission to write the short note which you afterwards received. I left it with my cigarette-box and my stick, and I walked along the pathway, Moriarty still at my heels. When I reached the end I stood at bay. He drew no weapon, but he rushed at me and threw his long arms around me. He knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds, and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went. With my face over the brink, I saw him fall for a long way. Then he struck a rock, bounded off, and splashed into the water.

“Baritsu” was Doyle’s idiosyncratic spelling of Bartitsu, the eccentric and eclectic self defence art that had, in fact, been introduced to London in 1899 by Edward Barton-Wright. Many theories have been advanced as to why he misspelled the word; perhaps the most plausible is that he simply copied it verbatim from a London Times report on a Bartitsu exhibition, which included the same misspelling and was sub-headed Japanese Wrestling at the Tivoli (Theatre).

Thus, Conan Doyle’s hero saved his own life, and then faked his own death, via the deus ex machina device of an obscure Anglo-Swiss-Japanese martial art, the details of which were largely forgotten over the course of the 20th century until, almost exactly one hundred years later, curiosity over his “baritsu” reference spurred a revival of Bartitsu …

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