In early January , the year’s major gathering of Sherlock Holmes admirers and fans takes place in New York City, headquartered at the Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The gathering is sponsored by the Baker Street Irregulars, the prestigious parent organization of all scion societies great and small, including McMurdo’s Camp (which is small). Many events are held, some by invitation only, but most open to all Sherlockians and wannabe’s. It is held at this time of year is to honour Holmes on his birthday, which is believed to be January 6, 1854.
How do we know the date? Good question. In His Last Bow, the last Holmes story, Holmes had come out of retirement and was operating as a British spy in North America, using the name Altamont. He is described as a “man of sixty”. Since the event clearly occured on the eve of the war (WWI) we learn Holmes was born in 1854 depending upon the actual date. (Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, in response to a German ultimatum regarding passage through Belgium on August 2nd.)
Now, the tricky question. Once the year was known, how was the actual date of Holmes’ birthday determined? Not as simple as you might think. Nowhere in The Canon is it mentioned, either directly or indirectly. All we can be sure of is that Holmes had a birthday. We don’t know if he admired birthdays or disdained them, or if he celebrated them at all. We know nothing about any contemporaries recognizing his birthday or anyone else’s.
Someone had to engage in some real detective work and apply a little imagination to the question. (More imagination than anything, in our opinion.) The culprit was Christopher Morley, an American writer and intellectual, who was a devoted fan of Holmes and founder of the Baker Street Irregulars. He also wrote the preface to The Complete Sherlock Holmes, the standard collection of the 56 stories and 4 novels that make up The Canon.
Morley noted that Holmes often quoted or paraphrased Shakespeare in his conversation, and that of all Shakespeare’s works, only one, Twelfth Night, was quoted twice. He concluded, based on this, that Twelfth Night was Holmes’ favorite. Why would this be, he thought? Simple. Because it had to be Holmes’ birthday. (In much of western Christianity, January 6th is Epiphany, or the twelfth night of Christmas. It also represents the visit of the three wise men who, after visiting the Christ child, left town without reporting to King Herod as they had been instructed to do.)
So Morley believed Holmes birthday was January 6, 1854. Since Morley was one of the most prestigious Sherlockians of his time, and he felt very strongly that his conclusion was correct and important, the date became generally accepted. Back-up evidence of this is given as an incident in the opening of The Valley of Fear, which took place on a January 7th. Holmes seemed unusually testy in his morning conversation with Watson. This is taken as indicative of Holmes not feeling up to snuff; perhaps a little hung over from a celebration the night before. What could he have been celebrating? Why, his birthday, of course!
And there you have it. January 6 seems as good as any other possible date, and has been accepted for years. If you would like to celebrate Holmes’ birthday and want to do it on some other day, feel free to do so. But you will be out of synch with the rest of the world.
And now that you know all this, you should probably do your best to forget it!