The second last day of July 1880 witnessed another unbearably hot summer afternoon for the city of London. At the southern complex of shophouses situated along Tottenham Court Road, blazing sunlight radiated off three golden spheres, the universal symbol of the pawnbroking institution. In an era where pledging valuables in exchange for capital had become an integral part of life for the working classes, these establishments were in fine health, thriving upon practically every street throughout the city.
But this one in particular did not have any customers. The shop itself seemed to be in the process of winding up, with its sliding steel shutters closed but not locked, and few items remained in the window displays. The side door which once provided a measure of discretion to its more sensitive patrons had been boarded up.
An abrupt clanging of the shop’s steel roller shutters seemed to resonate throughout the street. It only lasted a moment then all was quiet again.
The pawnbroker emerged from inside the storeroom, shuffling to the front with weary sounding footsteps. Slightly over middle-age, he was also thin, of average height and well-dressed without any ostentation. He opened the door, then peered between the steel shutters, covering his eyes with his hand in order to block out the glare. There was no one there. Thirty yards away, five boys were kicking a tin can around in the shade and some workmen were carrying a wooden table out of a furniture shop.
Those boys again, he thought.
As he turned to go back inside, he was startled to realize that someone had walked up around the corner and was now approaching him rapidly. The stranger was tall, lean and wore a dark ulster made of thin fabric, as befitting the weather. Steady grey eyes and a hawk-like face met the pawnbroker’s gaze.
“Are you open for business?” asked the stranger.
“Good afternoon sir, I am Harold Spielman, the proprietor here. Please come in,” said the pawnbroker hesitantly. “We are no longer accepting pledges but I still have some objects for sale. As you can see, we are in the process of closing down.”
“Very well,” said the stranger, and followed him in. There was no one else inside except for the two of them. They walked past display counters holding some apparel and ornate jewelled boxes, but most were empty. A violin lay in an open case on the main counter.
“That is a Stradivarius,” remarked the stranger. “The signature purfling, build and dimensions are unmistakeable.”
“Indeed, it is. Worth at least five hundred guineas. One with such a keen eye and knowledge of this fine instrument must be a capable violinist. But this.…this is not for sale. It belongs to my wife. I have been restoring it for her. She…she dropped it by accident,” said the pawnbroker as he touched the neck of the violin, where a new joint was visible under a fresh coat of varnish. His already small build seemed to shrink further into his coat, perhaps a sign of sadness as well as recent loss of weight.
“I had to fit extra wood into the mortice to fix the angle of the neck where it broke,” he continued. “But you already observed that, did you not, Mr Holmes.”
Sherlock Holmes laid his still warm hat on the counter and offered the pawnbroker a cigarette. He lit one for himself. “You recognized me the moment we met; your eyes did not hide it. When you invited me in, I was certain, as it is obvious you are facing extreme stress and doing business is the last thing on your mind.”
“You…you are right in every aspect.”
“I saw the violin as I was walking by and wanted to enquire about the possibility of purchasing it. However, if you have a professional request to make of me, pray continue.”
“Dear God, Mr. Holmes. Then please be seated. Is it really possible that such a coincidence has brought you to me? I have wanted to engage your services for so long. But such a breach of trust! I cannot…” The pawnbroker trailed off then composed himself as he sat down. “It’s my wife Sadie, she has not been herself these past few months. She has been so cold to me and her actions have become more and more bizarre.”
“Please start from the very beginning, Mr Spielman.”
“Very well. My wife wants for nothing that I cannot buy her, except perhaps my time. A few years after we were married, I even convinced her that she no longer had to work. You see, I am relatively wealthy, and I am not ashamed to say that I built this business up from nothing. It is an honest business, Mr Holmes! But because of its nature, society is prejudiced against us. Many of Sadie’s friends were my clients as well. It should not have affected their relationship but it did. Maybe the shame or embarrassment was too much for them to bear, I do not know. Whoever came in my shop and whatever they pledged was my private knowledge and I held this in the utmost confidentiality. Even Sadie herself did not know.”
“But she sensed that my business changed the way people viewed us, and must have hated it, even though she was always supportive and never said a bad word about it. She always had her violin, her music. All these years I have done everything I can to make her happy.”
Harold Spielman swallowed hard before he could go on.
“This is the hardest part to confess. We have been happily married for more than twenty-five years. Or so I thought. But around six months ago, she started avoiding me. At first, she started communicating with me through the servants, little things like giving me messages and handing them my lunch to take to work. She used to personally see me off every morning. I asked the servants what was going on but they denied anything was amiss. Frequently when I arrived home she would be back to her old self and behave as though nothing had happened.”
“That is interesting,” remarked Holmes. “Were you privy to your wife’s daily routines in your absence?”
“Her maid Hilde told me that Sadie would either spend all day in her room or insist on going on long walks alone, sometimes for hours, taking only the dog. They could not tell me her whereabouts or what she did during her walks. I did not press them further.”
“And during the Sabbath?”
“Saturdays are when the town folk come to redeem their pledges, Mr. Holmes. I have to be here practically seven days a week. My servants have been a good and loyal bunch, and I felt it wrong to threaten to sack them or have them spy on Sadie. That is why I entertained for so long the thought of hiring a private detective.”
Sherlock Holmes was not that kind of detective, but he did not interject.
“Then gradually she started to play her violin less and less. One day I arrived home and found some scraps of her writing that had been dropped out the window. It was a note asking for help.”
“Do you have it on you?” asked Holmes.
Harold Spielman reached into his inside breast pocket and withdrew a small scrap of yellow paper, handing it over. It unfurled to read “God please help me…” and then the writing degenerated into a frenzied angry scar across the sheet.
“And this is your wife’s handwriting?” Holmes examined the paper carefully and gave it a sniff.
“Yes, I’m sure. In any case, she did not deny writing it, even if she refused to give me any explanation for it. The very next day she broke this violin. By accident, she claimed. It was everything to her, and by extension, to me as well. In the end I decided to retire and try to mend things with Sadie. We don’t have any children, you see Mr. Holmes. But even if we did, I would not wish this horrible legacy on them; my devotion to my work has cost me everything.”
“Mr Spielman, do you suspect your wife of having an affair?” Holmes said as he closed his eyes in contemplation.
“I don’t know what to think. It is a thought that I’m ashamed to even entertain. We are not young anymore…,” Spielman shook his head as if trying to clear his internal conflict. “But Sadie is the kindest and most loving person I know. Will you help me find answers Mr Holmes? Will you take my case?”
“I will not,” said Holmes.
“I see,” said Spielman, his voice on the verge of breaking down.
“It was not my intention to mislead you,” said Holmes. “I believe I already know what is happening to your wife.”
“What?! Come come, Mr. Holmes! How is that possible?” the pawnbroker half rose in his chair.
“You mentioned earlier that your wife was working when you married her. Was she in the textile industry?”
Harold Spielman fell back into his chair, his wrinkled features might have been rendered permanently incredulous. “Yes, she worked in a garment factory, mainly on cutting and dyeing dresses. Please tell me what all of this means Mr. Holmes.”
“Your wife is not having an affair, Mr. Spielman,” said Holmes, his demeanour more sombre now. “She has what is called ‘the shaking palsy’, an obscure disease first observed and recorded by Dr James Parkinson. It affects women a little differently than men. They may suffer more pronounced facial tremors and rigidity of the limbs and the upper torso, especially in the mornings. I believe that explains why she did not want you to see her in the mornings, not the other way around. It also explains the handwriting, long walks and her accident with the violin. As she kept it from you, she was trying to will herself to overcome the disease.”
“And her past work?”
“The root cause of the disease is speculated to be partly hereditary and partly environmental. Most patients diagnosed in the past have suffered head trauma or worked with harsh chemicals. For men, mainly work in coal mines. For women, well, it was not difficult to deduce that fashion is the industry most likely to cause exposure to chemical materials.”
“That is amazing, Mr. Holmes,” said Spielman, visibly brightening. “So, this Dr. Parkinson will be able to cure Sadie?”
“He made notable contributions to the field of medical autopsy, once even proving cause of death from a ruptured appendix, but I’m afraid he will currently be of no use to you. Dr. Parkinson has been dead for over fifty years. You must consult Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot and his associate Dr. Arthur Noel who currently operate the finest clinic in Europe. If anyone can aid your wife, it is them,” proclaimed Holmes.
The pawnbroker seemed to physically brighten and return in stature, months of weariness and grief slowly shedding like an old cloak. “I am relieved! Is it wrong to feel this way, knowing my poor Sadie is ill!” he cried. “I will seek them out immediately. The rumours of your abilities were understated, Mr Holmes. I owe you a debt of gratitude.”
Sherlock Holmes stood up in his chair and put on his hat. “Farewell, Mr. Spielman. I wish you and your wife the best. You are an honourable representative for those in your profession. As a last word, I must add that though the public perception of taking one’s own life has changed over time, it does not mean it should be an option. There is always a better way. Harder, perhaps. But better.”
He walked to the door, leaving the astonished pawnbroker gaping in his wake, who finally collected himself enough to say,”Wait, Mr Holmes!”
Harold Spielman reached below his counter and brought out another violin case, a complete identical to the one on his counter. “This one, also a Stradivari. I acquired it as a reserve for Sadie a long time ago. Please take it as a token of my appreciation.”
And among the few rare occasions in his life, it was the great detective’s turn to be astonished.
The magnificent instrument having changed hands, Holmes walked out from the pawnshop carrying it by his side. The sun’s strong blare, though still present, had started to quell. The masses had just about finished toiling at their jobs for the day hence the streets were starting to fill up.
A few minutes later one of the street urchins who had been outside the pawnshop earlier with his four comrades emerged from the alleyway behind it and ran after Holmes. He caught up with the detective a half mile away, en route back to Montague Street, trotting in order to meet Holmes’s lengthy stride.
“He’s taken down the hang rope, guv’nor. ”
“He will be fine now, thanks to your excellent work, Wiggins.” Sherlock Holmes looked down and brushed the head of the raggedy boy beside him.
“When I tasked the Irregulars to aid me in obtaining a Stradivari, I did not anticipate that you would locate the one pawnbroker in all of London requiring a suicide intervention. Although unlikely he would have done the deed just now, it was nevertheless quick thinking of you to contact me while creating a diversion to keep him occupied.
“I ‘ad to climb five rotten crates round the back to see inside his storeroom. Almost broke me leg getting down,” said Wiggins. “What happened to ‘im?”
“His wife was ill, Wiggins. The details are not interesting, but it was important none the less. Life is often characterized by suffering, but that is what it means to live, we play the hand we are dealt,” said Holmes. “Qui vivra verra,” he further mused, to no one in particular.
Then he handed the Wiggins twenty shillings, a shilling each for four days of work, and another twenty-five shillings, an additional reward of five shillings each. A total of forty-five shillings split amongst the five irregulars.
“Happy to be of service, sir. Just give the word,” said Wiggins before tearing off into the crowd.
The word would come no more than six months later.
Author’s Notes & Research
I suspect this story may be utterly dull to anyone who is not a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories 😊 there’s no villain, nor actual crime being committed.
Basically the story of how Holmes gets his famous violin, it takes place about half a year before the first meeting between Watson and Holmes (A Study in Scarlet, 1 Jan 1881) and also seeks to fill some backstory in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of The Cardboard Box (TAOTCB).
In TAOTCB, where having already solved the case in his mind, Holmes has lunch with Watson and proceeds to tell him about how he purchased his Stradivarius from a Jewish pawnbroker’s shop in Tottenham Court Road. According to Holmes, it was worth at least 500 guineas (10,500 shillings) but he acquired it for only 45 shillings (0.43% of its true value).
Some questions raised here:
1. How did he get such a bargain? Some violin experts have postulated that it could have been a fake as it was common for these to pass through pawnshops.
*Victorian Era Forged Stradivari
That, to me is unacceptable for someone like Sherlock Holmes. It would be like James Bond wearing a fake Rolex (in the Ian Fleming books mind you).
2. Why would the story of his violin come up suddenly during the course of TAOTCB? I tried to portray that it was significant because of the similarities in both stories – a hot summer day in London, a case involving marital problems and a more subtle connection – in the names of the characters. Sadie is the Jewish version of Sarah (the main offscreen character in TAOTCB).
Spielman is not connected but was a Jewish German name meaning ‘minstrel’ which I felt was apt.
*Origin of the names Spielman & Sadie
My story raises the issue of why Watson would distort or diminish what really happened, assuming Holmes told him the full details? For one thing there was no actual crime committed and it was not interesting enough to warrant its own story. Also, the details were irrelevant to TAOTCB so it didn’t really matter.
In the course of writing this I did some specific historical research on pawnbroking and Tottenham Court Road. I found that pawnbroking was very important to the working classes and a highly regulated industry in the Victorian era. As for Tottenham Court Road, it used to be famous for furniture shops.
*History of Pawnbroking in UK
Some characters that I wrote in and their achievements were real, like Dr. James Parkinson, who discovered the disease, and subsequently, the man who coined the name ‘Parkinson’s Disease’, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (regarded as the Father of Neurology). Interestingly, Dr. Charcot’s numerous accounts of treating Jewish patients may have fuelled some future misunderstandings of anti-semitism.
Of course, Holmes could not have made the deduction about the genetic and environmental causes for Parkinsons as they did not have this understanding back then.
*Parkinson’s Disease and Parkinson’s In Women
*Father of Modern Neurology
As for Dr. Arthur Noel, I made up the bogus name. Arthur is an obvious tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dr. A. Noel spelled backwards is ‘Leonard’. Just couldn’t resist ego tripping here LOL.
Before Baker Street, Holmes lived on Montague, just behind the British Museum. This address is actually a ten-minute walk from Tottenham Court Road, which explains how he arrived so quickly when summoned by the irregulars. Check it out on Google Maps!
Here are the rest of the links I used in my research for this project:
*Victorian Era attitudes towards suicide
*A History of Suicide in the UK
*Recognizing Suicidal Behavior
*Sherlock Holmes’s Violin & Musical Tastes
*Sherlock Holmes’s Fashion Sense
Finally, thanks for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed this! Your comments and criticisms are welcome at email@example.com