The Truth About Sherlock Holmes: He’s Actually Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau Sherlock Holmes
Thoreau and actor Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Who is literature’s most beloved bachelor? Its most revered mind? If you’re into 1850s New England, you might have answered Henry David Thoreau. If you’re of a more mysterious bent, you might have answered Sherlock Holmes. And for good reason. According to John J. McAleer, they’re the same person. Yes, we know that one is fictional and one was a real person. But let’s not let details like that ruin the fun, shall we?

In a 1982 article, McAleer builds up a wall of evidence in favor of your new favorite literary fan theory, finding Holmes anecdotes that point to Thoreau and Thoreau anecdotes that point back to Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes and Henry David Thoreau were both keen observers of human nature and nature nature.

The most obvious connection between the two men can be found in “The Adventures of the Noble Bachelor,” a Sherlock Holmes story with a very Thoreau-like title. While pontificating to Watson on circumstantial evidence, Holmes quotes Thoreau—and since the Thoreau anecdote hadn’t yet been published in the United States, the two men are obviously just the same person.

Take Walden. You may have thought that Thoreau was busy eating his mom’s pies and hanging out in a cabin, but you were wrong. The poet was actually busy being a world-famous detective, as evidenced by the fact that someone stole his copy of Pope’s Homer, which was also stolen in “The Reigate Puzzle”! Coincidence? McAleer thinks not.

There’s other evidence. Both men apparently had hawk-like noses. They were both keen observers of human nature and nature nature. They were both musicians (Holmes played violin and Thoreau the flute, but whatever, they were clearly the same person). They were both touch-averse, marriage-averse, and slightly social skills-averse. Elementary, my dear Emerson.

“Even if you grant it as proven that Holmes knew Thoreau’s works, and looked like him, thought like him, felt like him, and behaved like him,” writes McAleer, who clearly grants it as proven, “you may still wonder if anything in Thoreau’s behavior forecast his subsequent career as the world’s foremost detective.” No worries. McAleer points out instances of footprint-matching, crime-stopping, and disguises galore.

More convincingly, other scholars have pointed out the connection between the two men. Robert J. Galvin figured out just how Holmes learned about the Thoreau anecdote before it was officially published in England. Lonnie Wills finds an “uncanny resemblance” between the two men.

If you haven’t yet realized that Baker Street and Walden Pond are basically the same place, you are forgiven. And isn’t Holmes synonymous with his deerstalker hat? As Thomas L. Altherr points out, Thoreau was an occasional, if ambivalent, hunter. Wake up, sheeple. Your favorite detective is also your favorite Transcendentalist, and the evidence has always been right there beneath your nose.


JSTOR Citations

Henry David Thoreau Alias Sherlock Holmes

By: John J. McAleer

The Concord Saunterer , Vol. 16, No. 2 (WINTER 1982), pp. 1-6

The Thoreau Society, Inc.

"Elementary My Dear Channing!": Sherlock Holmes and Henry David Thoreau

By: Robert J. Galvin

The Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 226 (Winter 1999), p. 7

The Thoreau Society, Inc.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU AND THE HARD BOILED DICK

By: Lonnie Willis

The Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 170 (WINTER 1985), pp. 1-3

The Thoreau Society, Inc.

"Chaplain to the Hunters": Henry David Thoreau's Ambivalence Toward Hunting

By: Thomas L. Altherr

American Literature, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Oct., 1984), pp. 345-361

Duke University Press

Erin Blakemore

Erin Blakemore is a Boulder, Colorado-based author and historian. Her debut book, The Heroine's Bookshelf (Harper), won a Colorado Book Award for Nonfiction and has been translated into Italian, Korean and Portuguese. Erin has written about history and culture and other topics for Smithsonian.com, The Washington Post, TIME, mental_floss, NPR's This I Believe, The Onion, Popular Science, Modern Farmer and other journals. You can find more of her work at erinblakemore.com.

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