He was an expert
with singlestick and foil, a fine boxer, equally accomplished with rifle and
small arms and had a knowing eye for horseflesh
He was a man who
almost never took exercise for exercise's sake. He looked upon aimless bodily
exertion as a waste of energy, and he seldom bestirred himself unless there was
some professional object to be gained.
He held that a
concentrated atmosphere was an aid to concentrated thought, and he consequently
smoked incessantly and indiscriminately—cigarettes, cigars (which he kept in
the coal scuttle) and pipefuls of shag tobacco (which he kept in the toe end of
a Persian slipper)—until the air of his sitting room was blue with smoke. He
also used snuff occasionally.
He was partial to
something a little choice in wines with his meals, he liked to conclude his
luncheon or dinner with a liqueur or two and there is no evidence that he ever
stinted himself when it came to stronger spirits: a tantalus of whisky, a
decanter of brandy and that old-fashioned manufacturer of carbonated water, the
gasogene, stood always ready to hand on his sideboard.
And there is
worse to come. For many years, during the fits of black depression that settled
upon him so frequently, he would seek solace in the crystalline alkaloids,
morphine and cocaine—the latter in a 7% solution taken intravenously three
times a day. As the addicts say, "main line."
He seems to have
had only two healthful habits: his diet was usually of the sparsest, and it was
rare indeed for him to be out of bed after 10 o'clock at night. He invariably
rose and breakfasted at a correspondingly early hour in the morning.
Even his closest
friend and greatest admirer—a doctor—expressed himself astonished that the man
"should have kept himself in training under such circumstances." Yet he
was always in training. Few men were capable of greater muscular effort. He was
"exceptionally strong in the fingers" and gripped his friend the
doctor's hand on their first meeting "with a strength for which I should
hardly have given him credit." Two years later, with his bare hands, he
straightened a heavy steel poker that had been bent into a curve by his
formidable antagonist, Dr. Grimesby Roylott. "I am not quite so bulky,"
he said at the time, "but if he had remained I might have shown him that my
grip was not much more feeble than his own."
And he was
absolutely indefatigable. In the spring of the year 1887, on an investigation
that extended over two months, he never worked less than 15 hours a day. Only
twice, in a career that spanned 26 years of the most exacting work, did his
health ever fail, and then under none but the most remarkable circumstances.
This iron man, this self-admitted self-poisoner by tobacco and cocaine, was of
course Mr. Sherlock Holmes of No. 221 Baker Street, London—the greatest
detective of all time and one of the ablest all-round athletes and keenest
sportsmen the world has ever known.
In the early days
of his partnership with Sherlock Holmes, John H. Watson, the doctor, as yet
unaware that his companion was a detective but nonetheless intrigued by his
personality, habits and manner of living, attempted an analysis of the man
which he headed: "Sherlock Holmes—his limits." Item 11 on that list,
which fortunately has been preserved to us, reads: "Is an expert
singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman."
Later Watson was
to write that Holmes "was undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of his
weight that I have ever seen." And this was no idle compliment: Watson
himself was an ardent sporting man who certainly had many occasions to see a
boxing match and took full advantage of them. He knew a good boxer when he saw
one, as did McMurdo, the professional boxer who guarded the door at Pondicherry
Lodge, scene of murder in The Sign of the Four. It will be remembered that
McMurdo, who had once gone three rounds with Holmes in Alison's rooms, refused
entrance to the detective until the light of his lantern fell full upon
Holmes's face. Then: