On May 1, 1891, a weather-beaten human tongue washed ashore at the base of Reichenbach Falls. What was noteworthy about this incident is that the tongue was forked. You may recall that Sherlock Holmes described James Moriarty as having a face which acted in a curiously reptilian fashion. It may be that the tongue was his and was ejected from the mouth of Moriarty during his confrontation with Holmes at Reichenbach.

This paper seeks to confirm that view and traces the route it took from Moriarty’s lips to Meiringen.

By Joseph
J. Fink, BSI

First, let us begin with the fact that the odds of being born with a forked tongue are approximately one in a million. It is particularly valued by musicians who play reed instruments because it enables them to achieve a dynamic vibrato. If Moriarty was a woodwind musician, it would lend credence to the assertion that the organ was his.

The first confirmation of Moriarty’s musical virtuosity appears in the Sherlock Holmes film Pursuit to Algiers. In it Holmes discloses to Watson that “Moriarty was a virtuoso on the contra-bassoon.” Holmes, of course, was a skilled violinist.


It is well known in musical circles that players of wind instruments and string instruments have particular disdain for each other. The thought occurred to me that the two rivals might have crossed swords in a musical battlefield that set the tone for their animosity. I consulted the Canon to confirm that Moriarty was a bassoonist and a contra one to boot. Curiously, there was no direct reference to his playing the instrument.

However, in The Final Problem, Holmes stated to Watson, “My horror at his [Moriarty’s] crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.” Could playing the contra-bassoon be the skill that Holmes so admired? It would not be the first time Holmes had expressed admiration for musical criminals. Parker, the garrotter, a member of Moriarty’s gang, was said by Holmes to be a harmless fellow and a “remarkable performer on the Jew’s harp”. Why would Moriarty hire a harmless henchman to be in his gang? The answer immediately occurred to me:

Moriarty, the contra-bassoonist, was assembling a musical band.

Now, you may ask, how did Holmes know that Parker was a remarkable performer? Clearly, he must have seen Parker perform. Similarly, he must have seen Moriarty perform. This would be consistent with Holmes’ statement in FINA that he was familiar with Moriarty’s appearance and admired his skill.


The bassoon and Jew’s harp share common oral experiences. Both require sharply trained tongues, having great muscular development and wiggling ca­pability. A pair of disciplined lips is also needed. The bassoon is a wooden double reed instrument with a range of three octaves. The contra-bassoon is an octave below the bassoon. No doubt Parker revealed his remarkable tongue thrust capability to Moriarty, who modified it for use with his instrument. For maximum effectiveness using the double


reed bassoon, the musician should possess a split or forked tongue. The noted bassoonist Leroy “Lizard Lips” Levine suggests that a bassoonist, if he was not born with one, might have had surgery to split the tongue in order to produce a superior vibrato. It would also enable him to attempt to reach a quadruple vibrato climax when using both sides of the split tongue. This is what has become known as the “tongue sandwich maneuver”.

Levine’s book (entitled Great Bassoonists of Great Britain and the Women Who Loved Them) omits Moriarty’s name, but this is to be expected since Moriarty was a contra-bassoonist.

This leads us to another criminal musician admired by Holmes, Charles “Fourfingers” Peace. Why did Holmes call this murderer his “old friend” (ILLU)? Once again, there was a musical connection.

Peace, as a young man, appeared on stage as “the modern Paganini” playing the violin using only one string. He was an outstanding showman, inventor, and master of disguises. It is more than likely that Peace was Fred Porlock, the assumed name of Moriarty’s gang member who served as an informer to Holmes. Peace


was Moriarty’s type of guy: a celebrated murderer, burglar, actor, and inventor. Tragically, Peace lost the forefinger of his left hand, making it easy for the police to identify him.