National News

It’s Elementary: Sherlockians Take Manhattan

Posted January 14, 2018 6:25 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Even with his superlative sleuthing skills, Sherlock Holmes may not have recognized a costume ball held in his honor the other night.

The costumes — from a pink Easter bunny to an ironic butterfly — carried obscure references to stories written about the fictional private detective by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The winner was an English teacher from Germany dressed as the Scottish moor, a setting from the Doyle classic “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” A crew from the reality show “Cake Boss” brought in a cake shaped like a bust of Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes, meet 21st-century Manhattan.

The ball, held by a female group of Holmes devotees called the Baker Street Babes, was part of an annual Sherlock Holmes celebration organized largely by the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only society of devoted Sherlockians founded in 1934.

Since then, fans of Sherlock Holmes — Irregulars and other smaller Holmesian societies from across the country — have been convening in Manhattan every January to celebrate his presumed birthday: Jan. 6, 1854. They host lectures, cocktail parties, brunches, lunches, dinners, costume galas and presentations of scholarly papers.

The Irregulars’ annual banquet has become the centerpiece of five days of celebration in Manhattan attended by several hundred Sherlockians from around the world.

There also was the 16th annual Christopher Morley Walk through Manhattan to McSorley’s Ale House in the East Village, and an Indian-themed Holmes group, the Pondicherry Lodgers, met for their annual dinner in Midtown. And there was the annual meeting of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, founded decades ago by female college students protesting the Irregulars’ male-only policy, which lasted until the early 1990s.

Weekend attendees discuss the latest books, films and television shows related to the sacred canon of Holmes’ adventures: Doyle’s 60 stories published between 1887 and 1927. Many wear Victorian dress, including Holmes’ preferred deerstalker cap and Inverness cape.

Nontraditional dress is a staple of the Baker Street Babes, who host a popular podcast and call themselves a bridge between older Sherlockians and young, tech-savvy enthusiasts.

“We might be a bit wilder because we like to have a good time, but we’re as knowledgeable as anyone about Sherlock Holmes,” said Lyndsay Faye, 37, a Babes member from Ridgewood, Queens. She said the Babes provide a sorely needed infusion of young female energy into Holmes circles.

She recently became a member of the Irregulars, whose history and membership is much more bookish. The Irregulars were founded by Christopher Morley and other literary figures, who began a modest annual dinner and named themselves after the group of street urchins Holmes relied upon for information on the London underworld.

The group now has roughly 300 members, about half of whom typically attend the annual dinner, a traditional black-tie affair with a secret society mystique. It was held on Friday at the Yale Club and was open only to members and invited guests, including 10 who were inducted that night.

Membership has long been shrouded in mystery. It can be bestowed only by the group’s leader, who bears the title Wiggins. The current Wiggins is Michael Whelan, 79, the fifth leader in the group’s history. Whelan, a retired executive from Indianapolis who has held the post for 21 years, called the decision about selecting new members entirely his.

“It’s a total dictatorship,” Whelan said. Regarding his criteria for choosing the right candidates, he divulged, “They have to love Holmes and be a good fit.”

After dinner, new members receive a certificate of investiture and, by club tradition, a British shilling. Also bestowed is a nickname derived from some element in a Holmes story.

And so on Thursday, Black Peter (“The Adventure of Black Peter”) sat across from Dr. Ainstree (“The Dying Detective”) at a long-standing luncheon of Holmes fans. This would be Peter E. Blau, 85, of Bethesda, Maryland, who joined the Irregulars in 1958, and Dr. Robert Katz, a retired pathologist from Morristown, New Jersey, who became a member in 1983.

They were seated at a table at the Society of Illustrators on East 63rd Street. The group was mostly male and over age 60, and they meet every year, to honor Frederic Dorr Steele, the first great American illustrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, said its organizer, Burt Wolder, a marketing man from New Jersey.

One tradition of Holmes fans is to treat the legendary detective and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, as if they were real people. Doyle was simply their literary agent who got the books published, they insist.

Blau said, “We call it the Grand Game, the idea that Sherlock Holmes actually lived, and still lives today.”

As with any club, there has been dissension in the ranks.

Jon Lellenberg, 71, a former historian for the Irregulars, became estranged from the group after accusing club leadership of admitting less scholarly members.

Lellenberg, a former policy strategy analyst for the Department of Defense, still attends the events in Manhattan, but not the Irregulars’ dinner.

Neither does Philip Shreffler, a former editor of The Baker Street Journal, a quarterly published by the Irregulars. In his view, the group has become “too 21st century” and betrayed the sprit of Christopher Morley.

Whelan called their critiques nonsense.

“These guys are kind of anachronistic — they wanted to take the group back to the 1930s,” Whelan said.

Current membership includes “doctors and lawyers, and also blue-collar types,” he said. The club’s female contingent has grown to nearly 30 percent, thanks partly to recent films and television adaptations. “They write well and they bring a lot of energy to the group,” Whelan said.

This influx pleases Susan Rice, a member of the Adventuresses who gathered in a Midtown pub for dinner. Rice sat next to Evelyn Herzog and Linda Patterson, both 70, who helped picket the Irregulars outside their dinner in the 1960s for keeping women out.

“You have an old, gray association suddenly taken over by all these young women with all this spunk,” Rice said of the Babes.

As for that teacher who dressed as the Scottish moor at the Babes’ costume ball, Maria Fleischhack, 34, she received her shilling at the Friday dinner and became a Baker Street Irregular.

As Faye concluded, “All Holmes is good Holmes.”