WHAT RAT WAS THAT?
by Marilynne McKay, ASH
(This presentation originated at Autumn in Baker Street
1998—the final version was read at the Sir James Saunders Society meeting of
the American Academy of Dermatology in 2000).
My story begins with The
Sussex Vampire. The note to Holmes read in part:
“SIR: Our client, Mr. Robert Ferguson ...has made inquiry…
we have recommended call upon you...We have not forgotten your successful
action in the case of Matilda Briggs.”
“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said
Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the
giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”
Well, today WE are
prepared — so let us ask the obvious questions:
What did the Matilda Briggs have to do with Sumatra?
not so obvious) What was the “professional service” that
Sherlock Holmes did for Sir James Saunders?
Well, as it happens, all
three references to Sumatra in the Canon surely refer to the same nasty
business. The most spectacular aspect was detailed by Watson in The Dying
Detective. (You no doubt recall the physical signs of Holmes’ feigned
illness — the crusted beeswax on the lips, for instance? The topic of moulages
or wax models of afflictions is of particular historical interest to
dermatologists. The famous Musée de Moulages at the Hôpital St Louis
in Paris is entirely devoted to dermatologic diseases.) In The Dying
Detective we encountered Mr. Culverton Smith, a well-known resident of Sumatra.
When his nephew Victor Savage died of a deadly Sumatran “coolie disease,”
Holmes suspected Culverton Smith of foul play, narrowly averting the
death-dealing little prick himself.
Victor, however, was but
a small cog in the monstrous Sumatran machine. As Watson notes in the
introduction to The Reigate Squires, Baron Maupertuis and the
Netherland Sumatra Company were intimately concerned with both politics and
finance. You recall that the solution of this case left Holmes exhausted in
Lyons even while Europe rang with his name and his room was “ankle-deep with
Naturally, smuggling had been involved — Pinkerton agents
found contraband in numerous ships on several oceans. It was on the Matilda
Briggs, however, that the mysterious parcel was discovered — a small
wooden chest containing only coil upon identical coil of long glossy auburn
hair. The entire box was taken apart and searched, and the contents were
examined and analyzed. The hair appeared to be human and, despite its color,
of Asian origin.
In due time, the box of
hair was brought to Holmes, who was masterminding the unraveling of the
Sumatran case. A report from Scotland Yard includes this note:
Holmes gave the hair a cursory examination, then turned
abruptly and strode to the mantle where he filled his pipe with tobacco
from a Persian slipper. He puffed thoughtfully as he turned to regard the
“I smell a rat,” said Holmes.
Whatever did he mean?
Rat: definition 2. A round and tapering mass of hair, or
similar material, used by women to support the puffs and rolls of their
In the late 19th century,
ladies wore their hair high on the back of the head, often with hanging
curls. A chignon of false hair was frequently added. By the turn of the
century, the pompadour reached its height (so to say). Puffed above the
forehead and close at the sides of the head, there was a large knot at the
back of the neck. The hair was combed up over a “rat” made of a roll of hair
around the head.