A mental patient claims to be Sherlock Holmes.
| HOLMES AGAIN
by Terrell Manasco
The tale I have to tell is a strange one, but nevertheless one that bears repeating due to its rather stunning impact on the writer. At the least, I think, it is an entertaining one; at the most, a true and accurate account of what happened to a man who was once one of the most famous, and perhaps infamous, men who ever breathed air upon this earth. The reader will no doubt think me mad, or at the very least, delusional, however I will state that I am indeed completely and utterly in full possession of my mental faculties at present, and that the events I am about to describe occurred exactly as I will describe them.
My tale begins one morning several years ago. The year, as best I can recall was 1926. I was beginning what was to be a promising career in medicine, or more specifically, the field of psychiatry. During the span of my practice I treated many remarkable patients with a variety of maladies and psychoses, yet none could match the notoriety of the one of whom I am about to tell you.
My practice was at that time located in New York City. I arrived at my office one morning and soon began my daily routine of seeing patients, many of whom had little or no money, and it was not uncommon to receive as compensation for my services, chickens, livestock, and various spirits and liquors. ( the latter of which I usually gave to my fellow physicians, as I rarely imbibed in those days.) I had been asked the previous day by an acquaintance and colleague to pay a visit to a patient at a local mental ward. This was also a common practice, and at the time I gave no further thought to the matter.
I arrived at the ward and was greeted by a short, robust-looking man with wild red hair, puffy lips, and bifocals who I soon learned was named Jonathan Rigby. Mr. Rigby led me down a hallway that reeked of the smell of bodily fluids and the faint smell of disinfectant, into a stark white room with pale green and white checked floor tiles and a single window covered in rusty iron bars. In the center of the room was a rectangular wooden table that appeared to be a bit weather-beaten, and two wooden chairs. He asked me to wait there and promptly left to fetch the patient. I removed my hat and hung it on a nearby nail in the wall. The name given to me was a Joseph Bell of 157 Broad Street, New York. His chart stated that he suffered from dementia, acute schizophrenia, and a total withdrawal from reality.
In five minutes or so, Rigby returned, accompanied by a tall and rather frail-looking man with wispy white hair, a beak nose, and what could have once passed for piercing eyes. It appeared that his face had not seen a razor in several days. His clothes were the standard issue white linen pajamas, which hung loosely on his frame like a potato sack on a scarecrow. Nevertheless, I imagined him to once have been a professor or physician, as he had a definite air of intelligence about him. Mr. Bell nodded a hello and sat down in a wooden straight-back chair. “Thank you, Mr. Rigby, that will be all,” I said and he disappeared, leaving me alone with Mr. Bell. Initially he stared at the floor, avoiding any eye contact. I decided to break the ice.
“Well, good morning, Mr. Bell,” I said.
He nodded. “Good morning,” he said. His voice was soft, yet I detected a faint British accent “My name is Dr. Daniel Frye. I am here to help you.”
“Yes. I know.”
I took a seat and began flipping through the chart. “So, why are you here, Mr. Bell?” I said.
“I am certain you already know the answer to that question,” he said, revealing more of his accent. I decided that based on his speech, he was a highly educated man.
“Perhaps I don’t. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Please do not insult my intelligence, Dr. Frye. You know as well as I do why I am here.” His eyes pierced me to my soul, I must confess. Though he appeared to be a tired old man, there was, at that moment, the hint of a fire in them that must have once been a brilliant flame.
“Tell me anyway,” I said. “Humor me.”
He looked directly at me, one corner of his mouth twisted upwards in a sort of grin.
“Obviously I am here, good Doctor, because these men believe me to be insane,” he said.
“And why do you think they believe that?” I said.
“Why, because of whom I claim to be, dear fellow.”
“And whom do you claim to be?”
“Please, Doctor, spare me your endless psychiatric babble. I was once well acquainted with another doctor, though his degree was in general medicine. Tell me, is it a learned trait amongst all of those of your profession, or are you simply born with it?”
“What trait would that be, Mr. Bell?”
“The constant chatter, the endless mind-numbing prattle. I daresay I have on more than one occasion entertained the thought of fetching a pistol and blowing my own brains out.” He looked away for a moment, staring at the barred window. “Forgive me doctor, but the medicine I am forced to ingest often produces undesirable side effects such as this. I meant you no offense.”
“None taken, Mr. Bell. Now tell me, who is it you claim to be?” I said.
“Very well, sir, if you insist on prodding me with such questions, I suppose I can oblige. My real name, good Doctor, is Sherlock Holmes.”
“I see. And how did you come to be here, in this…hospital?” I said.
“Come now, Doctor Frye. We’re both grown men, aren’t we? You may dispense with the euphemisms, please. I am no more in a hospital than you are sitting on the English throne. This is an asylum.” His face grew taut and reddened for a moment, and I sensed that he was becoming agitated. Soon after, to his credit, he recovered his composure and his manner became docile again. “Again, my apologies. The cursed drugs these chaps force me to swallow tend to bite like an adder. What I meant to say, Doctor, is that this is a mental ward, a place reserved for the insane, the deranged dregs of society of which I, unfortunately, have been so unfairly classified.”
I continued writing my notes, nodding in a noncommittal manner, and resumed my questions. “So how did you come to be here?”
“You mean did I attempt to harm someone or myself?” He stared hard at me, his brows knitted close together, mouth tight as a bow. The morning sun was now streaming brightly through the window, casting a shadow of the iron bars on the floor.
“I mean how did you come to be here? Surely you are aware that the real Sherlock Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland thirty-five years ago?”
“There is but a grain of truth in that tale. It is true that I was at Reichenbach Falls in 1891, and I did meet Professor Moriarty there, but I assure you, dear fellow, that I did not perish there, and that I am indeed very much alive.” He folded his frail-looking arms and leaned back in his chair with what appeared to be a great deal of self-satisfaction. “Dr. Watson did publish several accounts of my so-called return, but the vast majority of those were cases that occurred before the infamous Reichenbach Falls meeting. The rest were, I suspect, simply fictional accounts concocted by my old friend out of sheer grief as a way of ‘resurrecting’ me.”
“So you claim to be the one, the true, Sherlock Holmes?” I said, still writing, but rapidly becoming intrigued by this man.
“My good fellow, I do not claim to be anyone nor anything other than what I am. I assure you that I indeed am one and the same Holmes of which you speak.” I must admit I was also becoming amused by his claim but he spoke with such clarity of thought and such an authoritative manner that I found myself facing my own doubts.
“Mr….Holmes,” I said, attempting to humor him, "why should I believe you are who you say you are? Have you any solid evidence of your identity?”
He sighed and shook his head slowly. “I am afraid all my identification, my passport, everything, has been lost.”
“Lost, you say?”
“Yes. I had the misfortune of running into a band of gypsies in Florence in 1916, and whilst trying to assist them with directions, they accosted me and relieved me of my purse, which naturally was where I carried most of my money and all my identification. A miserable lot, they were. After that I found myself at the mercy of my own wits and indebted to a kindly old Italian couple who, fortunately for me, happened to be passing through the same vicinity and were gracious enough to provide me a fortnight’s lodging at no charge until I could manage to wire my brother Mycroft.”
“Why didn’t you contact your friend Dr. Watson?” I said.
A faint smile crossed his face and he averted his eyes for a few moments, gazing out the barred window, his worn face bathed in the bright morning sunlight. “Ah yes, Watson, my Boswell, my dear old friend. Alas, Doctor, I must confess that the reasons I neglected to contact him are perhaps unexpected. Watson, a dear old fellow, was also a rather frail chap who suffered from a nervous condition. Quite simply, I did not wish to compound the situation by ‘returning from the dead’, if you will. Had I indeed appeared to him after he had mourned my passing, it would have, no doubt, scared the poor doctor out of his wits. No, doctor, even I would not do such a callous thing and brand myself a cad.”
I crossed one leg over the other and chewed on my pencil, studying him with great interest. “And did you ever contact Dr. Watson after that?”
He shook his head, causing a strand of white hair to fall across his nearly bare forehead. “I am afraid my last communication with him was the letter I left behind there which he later found.” His words were spoken with such confidence and his tone and delivery were so lucid that more than once I forgot I was listening to the words of a madman in a mental ward. I resumed my interview hoping to spot a flaw in what I considered his drug-induced logic.
“So Dr. Watson never learned how you escaped from Professor Moriarty at the falls?”
“Watson tended to exaggerate his accounts, thus heightening the dramatic effect. His tales often were a careful blend of truth and an active imagination. When he wrote that I was partial to taking a seven-percent solution of cocaine, and that I even became addicted at one point, that was true. However I am afraid that many things he wrote were fabrications.”
“Take the great Professor Moriarty, for example. While I considered him to be no great friend, he was most certainly not my enemy. We had our disagreements but these were minor, I assure you.”
“So you and Moriarty were not fighting at Reichenbach Falls?”
“Most certainly not,” he said. “Might you have a bit of shag tobacco on you, Doctor? I fancy a good smoke now and I seem to have left my own stash in my room.”
“I am sorry, but I don’t smoke.”
“Ah well then, no harm done.” He sat upright and clasped his palms together in front of his mouth for a moment. “You asked about Moriarty. I will say this, Dr. Frye. We were not the best of friends, but we had developed a mutual respect for each other. Had I, or he, had the grave misfortune of plunging over the falls, I have every confidence that the other would have gone out of his way to lend a hand and save the other’s life. No, we had agreed to meet there at that precise moment for reasons I cannot reveal at this time, but it was not to wrestle each other to the death. Watson, the dear chap, loved to embellish a bit and I suspect much of what you have read is mostly a fictional account of what truly happened.”
Nodding slowly, still writing, still entranced by this man I went on. “What exactly put you here, Mr. Holmes?”
The stare he gave me was icy enough to rival the glaciers of Antarctica. “Not what, Dr.” I shook my head, not understanding his meaning. “Who?” he said in a voice that gave me chills down my spine. “His name was Mr. Culverton Smith. You will recall him from Watson’s account, which he called The Dying Detective. Through a great deal of subterfuge and a bit of acting, I tricked him into believing that I was at death’s door, upon which he confessed to murdering Victor Savage. I will spare you the details, Dr. Frye, but suffice it to say Mr. Culverton Smith was bent on revenge. It was he, and not some psychotic episode, that put me in this dreadful place.”
“I see. So you are here because this man,” I paused to consult my notes, “this Culverton Smith, was anxious to seek revenge on you for tricking him into confessing the crime of murder which resulted in his imprisonment, and he somehow orchestrated a plan to prove you insane?”
“Precisely, Dr. Frye. And sadly enough for me, his plan actually worked, which proves what a brilliant and diabolical mind he has. Unfortunately my mental faculties at that time were not at full capacity. I’m afraid the drug is a cruel taskmaster. ” He did not speak again for a long time. Finally he shook his head slowly and continued, speaking in a lower voice. “Had my head been clearer, I am sure I could have foreseen his evil manipulations. But it is of no consequence now. I will spend the rest of my days here, rotting away in this wretched stinking hole.”
I confess at this point I did not know what to say to him, for what he said about spending the rest of his life here was probably true. Sometimes the human mind can be an amazing thing. My intent was to tell him he was right, but what I actually said was, "Suppose I did believe you, Mr.Bell, Holmes, whatever your real name is. Suppose I determined you were telling the truth. Do you know what it would require for you to be released from here?"
Without missing a beat he said, "The signature of no less than two licensed physicians who would state that I am mentally competent and of reasonable sound mind to function in society." His lips widened in a sad little smile, as though he knew it was a futile request. He stood up slowly, brushing his snowy hair away from his forehead. "You must excuse me, Doctor, but I think I will go to my room and fetch my pipe. I require a good smoke now." He walked over and rapped on the door twice. Rigby entered and escorted him down the hall to his room. In less than two minutes Rigby returned, and sat down in the same chair where Bell/Holmes had been sitting moments ago.
“Well,” he said finally, “he’s a rather odd one, isn’t he?”
“How long has he been here?” I said, ignoring his remark.
“Three years, give or take a month. Why?”
“He’s rather an intelligent man.”
“Well, yes, I suppose he is. The crazy ones often are rather bright.” His smile annoyed me for reasons I could not determine. He licked his lips and suddenly I wanted to punch him.
“Mr. Rigby,” I began.
“Doctor,” he corrected me.
“Yes, Doctor Rigby, I would very much prefer it if you and your staff here would not use that type of language in my presence, nor in the presence of my patients. The word, sir, is insane or psychotic or deranged, and I am not convinced he is any of those.”
Rigby looked at me sideways, his bifocals resting on the end of his nose. “Not convinced? You must be joking, Dr. Frye. The man is…insane.” He chuckled.
“And what do you base this judgment on? Because he is eccentric? Dr. Rigby, some of the most brilliant minds of our time were once considered to be eccentric. Plato, Socrates, Mozart and Beethoven? Their contemporaries thought these men were absolutely daft, man.”
“He claims to be Sherlock Holmes, for goodness sake. A man who we know was killed over thirty-five years ago on another continent? Come now, Doctor, you’re not telling me you actually believe his fantastic tales?”
I pursed my lips and shoved my hands into the pockets of my coat to prevent myself from boxing his ears. “No. I am not telling you anything of the kind. What I am telling you, as a doctor of psychology and psychiatry, is I have not seen enough evidence yet to determine whether this gentleman is sane or not. I have seen no proof that he is anything otherwise. Consequently I will need to subject him to some tests before I can make that decision.” He opened his mouth to say something but I continued. “Please have the patient ready tomorrow morning at nine o’clock sharp. Make sure he has a good breakfast. And no medications, please.” I briskly placed my hat on my head and left him sitting there with his mouth open.
The next morning I arrived at the ward at a quarter of nine. The cloudy New York skies had given birth to a cold autumn rain and I shivered as I removed my raincoat inside the door. Rigby greeted me as he had the previous day, though he appeared rather quiet and less cordial. It occurred to me that he was most likely miffed at me for my curt manner from the day before. In truth, I could not have cared less.
Mr. Bell was escorted to the same room I had used the day before by a rather tanned-skin man whose starched white uniform and polished black shoes told me he was a former military man. He deposited Bell in his chair, nodded curtly at me, and disappeared. I turned to Mr. Bell and said good morning. He nodded politely and repeated my greeting.
“So how are you feeling today, Mr. Bell…excuse me….Mr. Holmes?”
“Excellent, Doctor. And how are you this morning?” he said. His tone was very polite and he appeared to be in excellent spirits.
“Wonderful. As you may have been told, I have some tests I’d like you to take.”
“Yes, Dr. Rigby told me. To ascertain my mental state, I presume. You wish to see if I am as mad as they say I am. Very well, Dr. Frye.” He ran a weathered hand through his snowy white hair and smoothed it down then placed his hands in his lap. “I am ready to begin.”
For the next two hours he worked diligently, checking answers carefully, taking his time. He stopped once or twice and I watched him sit motionless, his eyes almost glassy under hooded lids, mouth tight, and I wondered if perhaps Rigby had ignored my request to give him no drugs. Then he would return to his task and continue for several more minutes before repeating the cycle. At last he laid his pencil down, took a deep breath, and handed me his work. I thanked him and told him I would see him in a few days and let him know how he scored. He thanked me politely, still the perfect gentleman, and we parted company.
I spent the next day visiting my usual patients but the day after that I sat down during my lunch hour and began looking over his test answers. After I finished grading them, I put them in my satchel and went back to work.
The next morning I arrived at my office a few minutes earlier and spent the better part of an hour making telephone calls. In those days most people did not even own a telephone, but thankfully I was one of the few whose salary afforded such a luxury, otherwise it would have taken me much longer to accomplish my task. When at last I was done, I hung up and went about the day’s business as usual.
Finally it was time to visit the ward again and follow up on Mr. Bell. I arrived on a sunny Friday morning and immediately asked Dr. Rigby to join me, and Mr. Bell, in the room. Rigby sat across from me, his thick lips pursed, squinting through his bifocals. Mr. Bell sat on his left, arms folded, his once piercing eyes focused on me, one hand cupping his chin, his long slender forefinger resting along the side of his hawklike nose. I opted to remain standing and placed my satchel on the old wooden table, addressing them both as I withdrew his test papers.
“Well gentlemen, as you know, I asked Mr. Bell here to undergo some psychological testing a few days ago. I have carefully checked his answers and evaluated them,"I began.
Nodding, Dr. Rigby said, “Yes, yes, Dr. Frye. We are aware of that.”
Ignoring his comments, I said, “I think you will find the results rather interesting.” Mr. Bell arched an eyebrow and looked at Rigby, then me, but said nothing. I paused, waiting for another comment and was not disappointed.
“Well? Are you going to tell us or shall we have someone fetch us a lunch?” Rigby said.
“Patience, Dr. Rigby, I am going to tell you.” Mr. Bell’s face was one of complete and utter calm, as calm as a man who knows his nightmare is finally over. I smiled at him, looked back at Rigby, and went on.
“Mr. Bell’s score is unlike any I have ever seen before. In short, he exhibits an ability, a range of intelligence that most of us will never hope to attain. Mr. Bell, you are what modern society would consider a genius.”
Mr. Bell smiled a sad little smile and Rigby looked like he had swallowed a fly. "It is my opinion as a psychiatrist that this man is indeed, mentally competent to function in our society and therefore should be released immediately." I reached into my satchel and took out a small stack of papers, handing them to Dr. Rigby. "You will note these are the release forms for Mr. Bell, and you will also note my signature there at the bottom of each. Now, Dr. Rigby, if you will, your signature is also required."
"I will sign no such thing," he said, drawing his rather large lips tight as a knot.
"And why not?" I said.
“Because I do not agree with your opinion.”
“You do not concur with me that this gentleman is sane?”
“That is correct. And I will not sign that document.”
“Very well,” I said. “That is your prerogative.” I turned and walked around the table to the door and rapped three times on it. “You may come in now,” I said, beckoning with my hand.
I stepped back and an elderly gentleman dressed in a gray tweed jacket and tie hobbled into the room. His hair was grayish-white underneath a bowler hat and he sported a neatly waxed mustache. As he made his way past me, I saw him glance at Mr. Bell several times. He removed his hat and set it on the table, then took a seat across from Mr. Bell, who appeared to be equally interested in him. I am sure I saw a certain twinkle in his eye when the elderly visitor sat down.
“"You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” he said.
The old gentleman stared wide-eyed at him, his mouth open, and he laid his palm across his chest.
“Holmes?” he said, leaning forward, gaping at him with eyes widened. “No, no, it can’t be Holmes. He died, let me see, yes, back in ’91, as I recall. Yes, yes, ’91 I believe it was.” His accent was similar to Mr. Bell’s, though there was a slight raspiness in his voice which I attributed to his age.
“No, dear Watson, I assure you I am very much alive and well.”
“Alive? Why..I-I am speechless. Absolutely speechless. Can it really be you, dear Holmes? After- after all these long years?” He struggled to rise from his chair and I took his arm to help him stand.
“Good to see you again, Watson,” the man calling himself Bell said, offering his hand. The old gentleman grabbed it and shook it with a vigor that belied his age.
“Holmes, my old friend! I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you after all these years,” he said. I looked at Dr. Rigby, who wrinkled his nose and looked as if he would burst a vein in a minute.
“Ah, dear fellow, the feeling is very mutual. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to see such a friendly face in this dreadful rat-infested place.”
“Gentlemen, I would appreciate it if we could get on with this,” Rigby said.
“Of course. Dr. Rigby, allow me to introduce to you a colleague of mine, actually you might say he is my mentor. This is Dr. John Watson, M.D., retired. Dr. Watson, may I present to you Dr. Jonathan Rigby?” Dr. Watson leaned across the table, grasped Rigby’s hand, pumped it twice, and resumed his sitting posture.
“Pleasure to meet you,” he said.
“Likewise,” Rigby said, as one eyebrow arched skyward.
“Now, Dr. Watson, if you would be so kind, sir, as to sign here, stating this patient is of sound mental capacity, we can expedite his release.”
“Now just a minute,” Rigby said.
“Yes, Dr, Rigby?” I said.
“Nothing,” he said, and folded his arms like a red-haired Buddha.
“Very well. Right here, Dr. Watson,” I said, and the old gentleman carefully scribbled his name on the line I indicated. Mr. Bell watched in silence as the old doctor wrote, peering down his long hawk nose at the now-feeble hand signing his emancipation document. “There,” I said, “that should do it. Thank you Doctor.”
“You are most welcome,” Dr. Watson said.
“Well, Mr. Bell, are you ready to go home?” I said.
Mr. Bell looked at me, looked over at Rigby, then at Dr. Watson. “I can say with all certainty, Dr. Frye, that I am ready.” He smiled an old man’s smile, his eyes now becoming moist with tears, twinkling like the stars of Andromeda, his lower lip quivering slightly. “Thank you, Doctor.” I nodded. “And thank you, Doctor,” he said, turning to my old mentor, who was nodding and trying to swallow the lump in his own throat.
“It is…my pleasure,” he said finally. “Truly it is.” He yanked a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket and dabbed at his eyes.
“Well if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I have some work to do,” Rigby said and promptly left the room. Dr. Watson gave me a quizzical look.
“Rather cheeky fellow, isn’t he?” he said.
“To put it mildly,” I said.
“Tell me, Holmes, what is this business of calling yourself Joseph Bell?”
The man I had been calling Bell simply shrugged. “Culverton Smith somehow cunningly convinced the doctors here that I was mad, that I was this Bell fellow, apparently some Scottish physician. He told them I had delusions that I was the great detective Sherlock Holmes. When my attempts to persuade them otherwise failed, I grew weary of the whole matter and allowed them to think what they wished until I could devise a plan to change their minds. Unfortunately they kept my brain addled and my thoughts incoherent by administering multiple doses of some drug which I suspect may have been cocaine, the same drug I was once addicted to, except I was forced to ingest much larger doses, resulting in exacerbating my condition. As you can deduce, my brain was in no condition to reason anything and I found myself seemingly doomed to repeat the same cycle over and over, much like a hamster on his wheel. Then the good doctor here came along and, well Watson, you know the rest.”
“Well, I suppose you gentlemen are free to go,” I said.
Holmes looked at my old mentor. “Well don’t just stand there man, let’s leave before he changes his mind,” he said.
A half hour later I stood outside that same room, watching two old men amble down the hall, each carrying a small suitcase. They seemed to be lost in their own world for a few moments, talking and chuckling amongst themselves. As they came near where I was standing, along with Rigby, they stopped beside me. The taller one looked at me, his wet eyes shining like twin diamonds, lips tight together. He held out a weathered old hand. I took it and was rather surprised at his firm grip.
“Thank you again,” he said. “Thank you for everything, Dr. Frye.”
“Yes, thank you,” Dr. Watson said, offering his hand as well.
“You are most welcome,” I said. He nodded and started walking away.
“Mr. Holmes,” I said.
He stopped and turned around slowly. “Yes?”
“I always knew.”
“Yes,” he said. “I deduced it the moment I met you.” He smiled and turned around. Dr. Watson clapped a hand on his shoulder and they walked down the hall, toward the door, closing another chapter in his life, a chapter he wished had never been written. I stood watching them, the two old and dear companions, once inseparable but torn asunder by a ruthless man bent on revenge, now reunited once again, free to live their final days together again, as it was truly meant to be. I confess I had to use my own handkerchief, for my vision was rapidly becoming obscured, coupled with a tightness in my throat that I could not seem to relieve.
“He really was…?” Rigby said, sounding a bit like a ten-year-old boy who suddenly discovers there is no Santa Claus.
“Yes. He is,” I said.
“All the time he’s been here….and I didn’t know who he really was…”
“There are none so blind as those who will not see,” I said.
He nodded. “Where will they go now?”
I watched as the two old friends reached the end of the hall, opened the door, and with one final look back, and a small wave of the hand, stepped out into the world again, disappearing from mine. One chapter was closed, its pages now dry as bone, but a new one was beginning, the page now turning, and fresh wet ink beginning to appear.
“Who can say, Dr. Rigby?” I said, replacing the handkerchief in my breast pocket. “The game is afoot.”
Author’s Note: The name ‘Joseph Bell’ is something of an inside joke. True fans of Sherlock Holmes stories will recognize the tongue-in-cheek reference, but for the benefit of those who missed it, here it is. Arthur Conan Doyle actually based the character of Sherlock Holmes on Dr. Joseph Bell, a real Scottish physician that he knew who often amazed his patients with details about themselves which he deduced by observation and logic. When struggling for a name for the patient in this story, I couldn’t resist using it as a sly reference.