EXIT JAMES MORIARTY—ENTER THE TELEPHONE COMPANY
by ROBERT E. ROBINSON
(By kind permission of The Baker Street Irregulars and The Baker Street Journal March 1982)
THE following paragraphs reveal the true identity of that evil genius known to the world as Professor James Moriarty; they dispel forever the myth of his demise at Reichenbach; they expose for the first time the fact of his close relationship with A. Conan Doyle; they shed light on the nature of the influence that the unwholesome pair brought to bear on John H. Watson; yet they begin with one of the most innocuous and least momentous of all questions:
Why did Sherlock Holmes avoid the telephone?
Take for example the Irene Adler affair (SCAN). Having ascertained the hiding place of the much sought-after photograph, did the Master consider telephoning the luxurious Laugham Hotel, to pass the word along to the King of Bohemia? No, he trudged off into the night for the nearest post office, whence he sent a telegram. Was there no telephone nearby? Indeed there was. That a telephone was located just across the street (perhaps in Camden House) had been pointed out but a few months before by Athelney Jones (SIGN), in connection with the investigation of the Sholto case.
In spite of this and many other such instances, there is no indication that Holmes actually permitted the use of the telephone by himself or Watson any earlier than the 1899 investigation of the events surrounding the simultaneous disappearance of Joseph Amberley’s wife, doctor, and money (RETI). This was more than a decade after the Adler and Sholto cases. During that period, Scotland Yard with all its ineptness had been using the telephone routinely. Holmes used the telephone in pursuing the Garrideb investigation (3GAR) and in preventing the marriage of Violet de Merville to the evil Baron Adelbert Gruner (ILLU). These events occurred after the turn of the century. There is no indication that the telephone figured in any other Canonical writings.
Was Sherlock Holmes, like James Thurber’s aunt,1 the victim of an unreasoning fear of telephone-style electrocution? Was he secretly hard-of-hearing? Did he have reason to hate the Telephone Company because of unrecorded frustrations of the sort that cause people today to hate the Telephone Company? A careful examination of these and some two dozen other possible explanations revealed serious flaws in all save one — and that one was, in fact, obvious from the beginning—namely, Holmes was concerned about eavesdropping by some representative of the criminal element.
That someone could only be James Moriarty. Average men, men of normal ability and perceptiveness, e.g., Lestrade or Watson, could devotedly listen to Holmes’s every word all day long, yet fathom his innermost thoughts only to the extent that he wished them to. To pose a real threat, the wiretapper must be a criminal whose intelligence approached Holmes’s own. Only with the evil professor himself could Holmes engage in such a conversation as “All that I have to say has already crossed your mind.” “Then perhaps my answer has crossed yours.” “You stand fast?” “Absolutely”
Consider Holmes’s own description of Moriarty (FINA): He is the Napoleon of crime—the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city…. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.” These words describe much more than an everyday criminal who sometimes stoops to wiretapping— they clearly define a master criminal whose vast organisation is the Telephone Company.
How had Moriarty been able to achieve such a position? Only by somehow wresting control of his invention from Alexander Graham Bell himself. This would have been no small feat. The well-established Western Union organisation once tried to do the same thing, only to be bested by Bell in the courts. That well-publicised event dramatised the schism between the Telephone arid Telegraph Companies. Knowing that Moriarty’s affiliation was only with the former, Holmes never hesitated to send messages by means of the latter.
Moriarty and Bell must then have known each other, probably in the early days of Bell’s life, before he left his native Edinburgh to live and work in America. The number of evil genii to be found in Scotland at that time could not have been too great, hence it should be possible to spot Moriarty among the characters populating Bell’s biographies.2
1The lady in question always took the receiver off the hook during a thunderstorm so that no loose electricity could flow into the room (from The Thurber Album).
2 Principal source of Alexander Bell biographical data was Bell by Robert V. Bruce (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973)