This week in the Houdini and Doyle episode Bedlam, Doyle found himself confronted by his past as well as his decision to kill off Sherlock Holmes. Grab some tea and settle in for some facts about poison and Sherlockian drama.
Now if you’ve seen the episode you will know that Doyle got ergot poisoning from drinking a cup of tea, but do you know what ergot is? It’s a fungus that grows on grains, primarily rye. The reason it is so dangerous is because it produces alkaloids that are toxic to humans and other mammals who happen to eat contaminated grain. There are two different forms of ergotism, convulsive and gangrenous. The symptoms connected to each version are hinted at by their names. Convulsive ergotism causes muscle spasms, convulsions, and is the type of reaction that the characters in Houdini and Doyle showed. Gangrenous ergotism involves actual body parts falling off of you, which is horrifying. Ergot was actually considered one of the causes of the Salem Witch Trials. This theory doesn’t exactly pan out, but it was believed that the girls who thought they saw witches might have been eating rye bread made from contaminated flour.
Houdini and Doyle also showed us Doyle suffering from writer’s block after the death of Sherlock Holmes. Now what many people might not know is that there were fans of the fictional detective who thought that he was a real person. We did get to see a man in Bedlam who insisted that he was the real Sherlock, but really there were people who thought Sherlock was actually hanging out at 221B Baker Street, smoking his pipe, and casually solving crimes. In The Final Problem Doyle planned to stop writing any more Holmes stories, but the public would not have it. They wrote him what today we would call hate mail and The Strand, which published the stories, lost thousands of subscribers. Doyle brought his character back to life and in 1901 began publishing The Hound of the Baskervilles in The Strand. He though did not officially explain the return of Sherlock Holmes in this story. The Empty House, published in 1903, explained what happened to the detective and how he faked his death.
Personally my favorite Sherlock story is The Hound of the Baskervilles, but I think that’s more due to the Wishbone adaptation I saw as a little kid. What’s not to love about a furry little sleuthing hound, just so darn cute.
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