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? (And perhaps

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 congratulatory telegrams.”

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 open box.

“I smell a rat,” said Holmes.
Whatever did he mean?


If we consult a dictionary contemporary with the source, say, Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary of 1913, we find:


Rat: definition 2. A round and tapering mass of hair, or similar material, used by women to support the puffs and rolls of their natural hair.

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.


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