Save for the occasional use of cocaine, he had no vices... — “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”

Introduction

Sherlock Holmes, the most famous consulting detective in literature, used occasionally cocaine and morphine to escape, as he said, from “the dull routine of existence.” This was nothing unusual in Victorian times because sale of opium, laudanum, cocaine and morphine was legal. Victorian users took these dangerous drugs as self-medication and as recreation.

Holmes's recreational use of drugs can be explained in two ways. Firstly, he believed that he needed stimulation for his 'overactive' brain in periods when he did not have interesting cases to solve, and secondly, he did not understand, like most Victorians, the side effects of drug use. Apart from drugs, Holmes was also a compulsive smoker and an avid drinker of good alcohols, but never in excess.

Sherlock Holmes as a cocaine user

The first wave of cocaine use occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century (1860-1905). A great number of cocaine enthusiasts, including scientists and medical practitioners, wrote letters, pamphlets and essays about the miraculous properties of the 'divine drug' which excited human imagination and seemed to be a panacea for many ailments, from toothache to hysteria, labour pains, hay fever, and melancholy. One of the most famous late-nineteenth-century cocaine enthusiasts was the young Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud, who recommended cocaine therapy for various ailments including anemia, asthma, syphilis, typhus, and even for treatment of alcohol and morphine habits (Gootenberg 24). Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar, the authors of the book about cocaine and its social evolution, write:

The most famous, after Freud, of all the Victorian intellectuals who used cocaine was the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his creator, was a physician who practiced for a while as an ophthalmologist. He must have been intimately acquainted with the properties of the drug and may have used it himself as a stimulant. Dr. Watson, Doyle's narrator, first mentions cocaine in The Sign of the Four, published in 1890. At that time Holmes was injecting a 7 percent solution intravenously three times a day — apparently a rather large dose. Since Watson reports asking, when he saw Holmes with the needle, whether it was morphine or cocaine, Holmes seems to have had more than one drug habit. But we hear no more of morphine from Watson. In the spirit of mock scholarship with which Sherlock Holmes studies are conducted, we might guess that Holmes was one of those addicts who used cocaine to withdraw from morphine and simply replaced one drug with another. Holmes admitted that cocaine was bad for him physically but found it “transcendentally stimulating and clarifying to the mind.” However, he did not use it when working on a case, but only to dispel boredom when he had nothing to do. In connection with a later case, “The Yellow Face,” Watson again mentions the occasional use of cocaine as Holmes' only vice. After a while he began to see it as more than a casual indulgence. In “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter,” which ostensibly took place in about 1897, he refers to a “drug mania” that had threatened Holmes' career. Watson claims to have cured him of it, but says, “The fiend was not dead but sleeping.” In later life, Holmes' only drug habit, like Freud's, was tobacco. [36-37]

In A Study in Scarlet (1887), the novel, which introduced the famous 'consulting detective', Dr Watson, his friend, assistant, and flatmate, is quite concerned about Holmes's use of drugs.

Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him: but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting- room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion. [The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. I, 13]

For Dr Watson Holmes is not a compulsive drug addict because he only occasionally injects cocaine, and such occasional use was common practice in Victorian England. Holmes claims that these drugs stimulate his mind in periods of idleness. The great detective's cocaine habit is also described in the second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four (1890), which begins with the scene when he injects himself a seven-percent solution of cocaine.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction. [The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. I, 99]

Holmes's preferred method of taking the drug is direct injection. It seems that he was not interested in taking cocaine lozenges or drinking Vin Mariani, which contained cocaine. Holmes disregarded the negative physical side effects of cocaine, although he was probably aware of them.

I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendentally stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment. [The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. I, 99]

Dr Watson, who knows more about cocaine side effects, deplores Holmes's intravenous drug use and warns him that abuse of any drug may be jeopardise his excellent career and ruin his health.

“But consider!” I said earnestly. “Count the cost! Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process, which involves increased tissue change, and may at least leave a permanent weakness. You know, too, what a black reaction comes upon you. Surely the game is hardly worth the candle. Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed? Remember that I speak not only as one comrade to another, but as a medical man to one for whose constitution he is to some extent answerable.” [The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. I, 99-100]

Holmes replies that his pharmacodependency results from his 'overactive' brain which constantly needs stimulation, an interesting case to solve, or a psychotropic drug to dull his senses. Today Sherlock Holmes would be probably diagnosed as having either ADHD, Asperger syndrome, or both.

My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. [The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. I, 100]

Holmes's astute logical reasoning did not help him in his social skills. Unlike Dr Watson, Holmes was antisocial and asexual. He preferred logic to emotions. He was a misogynist and lacked empathy with people. In “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter” (1904), Watson tells how he gradually dissuaded Holmes from the drug habit. Eventually, Watson persuaded Holmes to quit taking drugs.

For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping. [The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. II, 174]

Opium

In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Dr Watson stumbles accidentally on Sherlock Holmes, disguised as an old man sitting in an East London opium den. However, he assures Watson that he does not indulge in opium-smoking, but he has bought some opium because he is conducting an undercover investigation. Other stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon do not suggest that he was addicted to opiates.

Sherlock Holmes as a compulsive smoker

In Victorian England tobacco smoking, if not in excess, was regarded not only as a pleasurable habit but also as a therapeutic pastime. In the late Victorian period, smoking a pipe or a cigar was usually a male habit. The British became fond of cigarettes after the Crimean War, and by the end of the 19th century they had become a smoking nation. Cigarette production began on a mass scale in the late 1880s, and cigarettes were recommended not only for recreational use, but also for immediate relief of asthma, bronchial trouble and other respiratory problems.

Sherlock Holmes was very fond of smoking for its alleged mind-refreshing effect. He smoked cigars, cigarettes, and most preferably pipes. Occasionally, he snuffed tobacco from a jewel snuff-box. He kept his cigars in a scuttle or a slipper besides the fireplace in his apartment at 221B Baker Street. Dr Watson also enjoyed smoking a pipe and occasionally he smoked a cigar, but he never smoked cigarettes. Holmes smoked a pipe when he was in a contemplative mood. However, when he was agitated, he smoked cigarettes and paced the drawing room. He smoked a cigar (most preferably Cuban) usually after a meal in a restaurant, or when drinking brandy.

Sherlock Holmes had three pipes made from clay, briar-wood and cherry-wood. The clay pipe was probably his most favourite one. The first mention of Holmes's smoking a pipe is in A Study in Scarlet. Holmes, who in many ways anticipates Crime Scene Investigators (CSI), was also interested in various brands of tobacco for its use in using tobacco as evidence. In The Sign of Four, he speaks about his scientific interest in tobacco ashes.

Yes, I have been guilty of several monographs. They are all upon technical subjects. Here, for example, is one 'Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos.' In it I enumerate a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash. It is a point which is continually turning up in criminal trials, and which is sometimes of supreme importance as a clue. If you can say definitely, for example, that some murder had been done by a man who was smoking an Indian lunkah, it obviously narrows your field of search. To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of bird's-eye as there is between a cabbage and a potato. [The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. I, 101]

Alcohol

Sherlock Holmes, a connoisseur of French wines, was fond of good alcohol, but he never indulged in it. His favourites were burgundies, especially Montrachet and Meursault. In The Sign of Four, he drinks red burgundy for lunch, and in “The Gloria Scott” he drinks port after dinner. In “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” Holmes refreshes himself with a glass of claret. In His Last Bow, he tries a bottle of Imperial Tokay. Holmes, who was also fond of whisky and soda, had a gasogene in his sitting room for making soda water. He drank brandy for medicinal purposes. Occasionally, he drank a glass of beer. An expert on wines, spirits, and beer, Holmes used his knowledge of the habits of imbibers to solve some of his most difficult cases.

Conclusion

In recent scholarship Sherlock Holmes appears more than merely a 'master detective'. His personality, behaviour, and addictions have become an interesting area of psychological and psychiatric research. Whether he was or not a drug addict is of little relevance today. However, Sherlock Holmes has become an epitome of a certain strand of masculine culture of late-Victorian England, which is characterised by physical power and hegemonic masculinity, male friendship (comradeship), as well as occasional strident misogyny.

Related Material

References and Further Reading

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Volumes I and II. Introduction and Notes by Kyle Freeman. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.

Foxcroft, Louise. The Making of Addiction: The 'Use and Abuse' of Opium in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007.

Gootenberg, Paul. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Grinspoon, Lester and James B. Bakalar. Cocaine: A Drug and Its Social Evolution. New York: Basic Books. Place, 1985.

Guy, Partricia. Bacchus at Baker Street. Sherlock Holmes & Victorian Drinking Lore Lincoln: iUniverse, 2007.

Pearce, D.H. “Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle and Cocaine,” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences: Basic and Clinical Perspectives, 3(4), 1994, 227-232.

Shreffler, Philip A., ed. Sherlock Holmes by Gas-lamp: Highlights from the First Four Decades of the Baker Street Journal. New York: Fordham University Press, 1989.


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Last modified 13 December 2013