I’ll fake my own death! That’s a way to get away from my problems. Yup. It will work, flawlessly. There won’t be any problems at all. Everything will go off without a hitch. That’s rarely how it turns out. Am I right? Of course I am.
This story is set somewhat in the future, well, not our future; it’s just a jump ahead as compared to some of the other stories. John has quit being a doctor and lives with Sherlock again at Baker Street. John does not say why this is. Sherlock is lamenting the fact that there isn’t any good crime anymore since Moriarty is gone. Everything is boring now. Boring. Boring. Boring. Sherlock even arranges for a distant relative of his to buy John’s practice so John can stay at Baker Street full-time to entertain Sherlock.
Sherlock is complaining about how boring everything is when a man suddenly rushes into Baker Street. He says his name is John Hector McFarlane, but Sherlock has no idea who he is, even with his Rolodex of people. He asks John Hector to explain himself. John Hector says that Sherlock needs to hear his story otherwise he’s going to be arrested for murder, the murder of Jonas Oldacre, a builder from Norwood. John Hector is a solicitor, which is kind of like being a lawyer; he handles a lot of legal paperwork.
John Hector has brought the newspaper with him. The newspaper has an article about the murder of Jonas Oldacre. Jonas was well-known in the community. At his house was found the walking stick belonging to John Hector McFarlane, some blood on the wall, an open French window, a hole in the hedge where someone was dragged through, and some charred organic remains in a wood pile. The housekeeper didn’t hear anything weird going on, but came out of her room at an alarm of fire. It is assumed that John Hector McFarlane murdered Jonas because his walking stick was at the scene of the crime. Indeed, there is a warrant out for John Hector’s arrest.
Sherlock asks John Hector why he hasn’t been arrested yet. John Hector says it’s because he actually lived in Blackheath with his parents and only went to Norwood at the request of Jonas.
Lestrade shows up, ready to arrest John Hector, but Sherlock says thirty minutes one way or the other won’t matter to Lestrade and John Hector should be able to finish his side of the story. John Hector says that Jonas Oldacre was somewhat familiar to him as he had some association with his family, but was not a close friend. Oldacre had asked that John Hector prepare his will for him. He asked that John Hector come to his house in Norwood. John Hector agreed to all of this and showed up at Norwood. There he found Jonas quite alive. He handed John Hector his will, which happened to be quite sloppily written, and John Hector began to copy it. He discovered that Jonas had left everything to him. Jonas asked John Hector not to breathe a word of this to his parents. He wanted it to be a surprise. Jonas said he had always admired John Hector and he didn’t have anyone else to leave his earthly holdings to. He says there is much more, even some land and such.
John Hector works for some time, but leaves. He remembers that he has laid his walking stick down somewhere, but Jonas tells him not to worry and that he will get the walking stick back to John Hector. The next morning, before he has time to do anything, John Hector hears about the murder of Jonas and knows he will be blamed because he was the last one who saw Jonas alive. The housekeeper had already gone to bed. John Hector immediately went to Sherlock to state his case.
Unfortunately, Lestrade has to take John Hector away because there is no evidence to the contrary. Sherlock sets out immediately to Blackheath and not Norwood. At Blackheath Sherlock speaks to John Hector’s parents. It turns out they hate Jonas Oldacre, especially John Hector’s mother. Jonas had been an old suitor of Mrs. McFarlane. She decided she didn’t want to marry him because he was a jerk. She said her son is innocent, but Sherlock sees that her dislike is more than enough motivation for a son to murder someone. Sherlock then goes to Norwood, where the housekeeper is quite tight-lipped. She knows something. The only odd thing he finds is that Jonas Oldacre wrote a considerable amount of checks to a man who seems not to exist and that there are actually no deeds of any property in the safe belonging to Jonas.
Sherlock goes back to Baker Street somewhat defeated. He knows there is more evidence, but he hasn’t come upon it. He fears that he may not be able to get John Hector off the murder charge. Lestrade shows up a bit later and says there has been new evidence. He says they’ve found a fingerprint of John Hector’s with blood on it at the crime scene. Sherlock goes to have a look. There is a fingerprint there. Sherlock knows that no two thumbprints are alike, and the thumbprints do match up, but the thumbprint is in a place where a person would expect there to be a thumbprint and the thumbprint could have very easily been obtained from sealing wax. Sherlock declares the Lestrade that the thumbprint had not been there the day before. He says he examined everything very carefully. Sherlock then looks over the entire house.
He then says that he needs buckets, some straw, and some loud men. Lestrade caters to Sherlock’s fancy and they are soon standing in a hallway with bales of straw. Sherlock instructs John to light the bales of straw. He does so. Sherlock then tells Lestrade’s loud men to yell fire. They do. They yell fire a couple of times and a strange man comes running. He comes out of a door that didn’t seem to be there earlier. The man is none other than Jonas Oldacre. The fire is put out. Jonas says this was all a prank.
Sherlock says that it was not a prank. Jonas had considerable debts and was trying to get away from them. What better way to do so than to fake his own death and then blame it on the only child of a former lover? The checks he wrote would have been to himself. He was planning on assuming another identity. He planted the thumb print on the wall himself from an impression made upon some sealing wax in all the financial papers. John Hector is able to go free and Oldacre goes to jail.
You will notice that the forensics got a little more sophisticated in this story. We hadn’t really seen any forensics before this point, well, we have, but they haven’t been anywhere near as complicated. This story is really the first usage of modern-day forensic methods we have encountered in the Sherlock stories. Sure, Sherlock was able to figure out that a man was hit on the back of the head, but he had never before used thumbprints.
Fingerprinting, or looking for fingerprints, is called dactyloscopy. For years, we’re talking over a thousand years, people have used fingerprints as a signature. Ancient potters would put their thumb print on their pots as their signature. Illiterate people were allowed to use a thumb print instead of a signature. In some cases finger prints have been collected when people were arrested, but no one knew that fingerprints were unique until some time later.
It wasn’t until the 1700s and 1800s that people started to learn that fingerprints were unique. It wasn’t until Bertillon, remember him, that it was suggested that fingerprinting be a standard of catching criminals. Bertillon published his work in 1879. The first man who devised a standard for collecting fingerprints in relation to crime was Juan Vucetich from Argentina; he was a chief of police. This was just a few years before this story supposedly takes place and Arthur had probably just recently heard of it. Arthur knew about Bertillon and his methods because he mentioned him in a previous Sherlock story. Bertillon is basically the father of modern criminal catching, or rather, criminal identifying.
Here’s the thing about this story–we know fingerprints are unique, but the method used in this story isn’t exactly precise. This method of forensics was very new to the police world. It hadn’t really had a lot of time to have been put into practice and for there to be experts. Your detectives today don’t just look at a fingerprint and say, “Yep, looks like it matches;” It’s more complicated than that. Finger print matching, accurate finger print matching, requires either a computer program or an expert. Sherlock and Lestrade were not experts. There are only really four types of finger print, the arch, the whorl, the loop, and the tented arch. An expert has to have the ability to differentiate one person’s arch pattern from another person’s arch pattern. In the time period in which this story took place, there weren’t any experts. Identifying this fingerprint was really a best guess.
Arthur heard about this development, but again, he didn’t really think about it that hard. He just thought, “Oh that sounds cool. I love Bertillon. Let me put this in my Sherlock story.”
Blackheath and Norwood are both real regions of the London area. Here’s an interesting thing about Blackheath–it has an urban legend for how it got its name; it’s not true, but it’s still fun. Supposedly, Blackheath was so named because it was used as a mass burial-place for those who died of the black death. Sounds interesting and gory, but, in reality, Blackheath is a more modernized English word which means “dark-colored heathland,” basically, the soil is really rich.
Faking your own death rarely works. You would have to be very, very good in order to pull it off. This guy was also a jerk. He tried to get back at a woman who spurned him a long time ago. I have two things I have to say to Mr. Jonas Oldacre. One–you’re an idiot if you think faking your own death can fix your problems; maybe you shouldn’t have made those problems in the first place. Two–grow up; she’s not into you; you might as well just get over it; that was a long time ago; go find yourself a new woman.
We want the easy fix. I just want all my problems to go away. Maybe if I win the lottery, get my stomach stapled, or fake my own death, everything will be better. Ok, it’s true that winning the lottery or getting your stomach stapled may help your current problems, but it’s still up to you to manage the effects of those solutions. You could fake your own death, but you have to anticipate the consequences of that action. You’re going to have to be prepared to make the harsh decisions that are going to come with following your plan through. You’re going to have to leave. You can’t stay in your same darn house after faking your own death. Some stupid story about how you’re so-and-so’s long-lost twin brother isn’t going to cut it. You have to leave the country, right away.
Oldacre just wasn’t prepared to follow through with his plan. You can’t just half-do faking your own death. You have to go all the way. It’s just like you can’t be a little pregnant; you’re either pregnant or you’re not. Oldacre needs to be dead or he needs to be alive.
This guy also has a problem with rejection. Yes, in life, some people are going to reject you. You need to learn to move on after this happens. It’s their tough cookie if they’ve lost you in their life. That’s how you have to look at it and then let it go. Move on with your life. So what if Jonny football star rejected you at the high school prom? You’re thirty now, be an adult. Get a new boyfriend. Move on with your life.
Jonas Oldacre was really holding onto this thing. Mrs. McFarlane told him he was a sack of crap a long, long time ago, but he let the thought stew in his head and he just held onto it and held onto it. I can guarantee you, that you’re not naturally a type of person that would let another person go to jail over something they didn’t commit if you could help it. If you’re a psychopath, then I’m sorry; you probably would do that. Jonas probably wouldn’t have framed someone else for murder in his younger years, but he let the thought of being rejected simmer in his brain for years. In the end, he just got to such a state that he thought he could let another person go to prison for something he did. What a loser. He wasted all these years of his life being miserable over something that happened a long time ago. I kind of feel bad for him actually.
I know it sucks, but in real life, you need to look your problems in the face and take them down. You can’t run away from everything. You’ll still feel bad about your old problems and then have a bunch of new problems that came about because you ran away.
bertillon, blackheath, faking death, faking own death, fingerprinting, john watson, mcfarlane, norwood, sherlock, sherlock holmes, sir arthur conan doyle, The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, The Adventure of the Norwood Builder sherlock holmes, The Adventure of the Norwood Builder sir arthur conan doyle
Doyle-Sir Arthur Conan, Sherlock Holmes