Arthur Conan Doyle – The Sign of Four

Body in the Library. The Great Detectives 1841- 1941

The second Sherlock Holmes novel, and one of the most well-known stories now, The Sign of Four was still only moderately successful in its day, the more well-known short stories yet to be written, but it still holds an important place in Holmes folklore as it introduces Dr Watson’s wife and frames his later, more distant relationship to Holmes.

I’m not a huge fan of The Sign Of Four – for me it’s the weakest Sherlock Holmes novel. Firstly as it has a plot which may have been original at the time, but which now consists of little more than a series of mystery story cliches. This is probably not Conan Doyle’s fault, but what absolutely is his fault is the fairly shocking racism in the descriptions of a man from the Andaman Islands – he is depicted as nothing more than a hideous non-human savage. Interestingly this is not mentioned at all on the page’s wikipedia entry, while the page on A Study In Scarlet has an entire section on its controversial “Depiction of Mormonism.” The only conclusion I can draw from this is that we haven’t changed since 1890, or at least not as much as we would like to think.

The Sign of Four
The Sign of Four (free text)
The Sign of Four (audiobook read by Derek Jacobi)
The Sign of Four (free audiobook at librivox)

Elsewhere in 1890


At Wounded Knee, the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment massacres 153 Lakota Sioux. Elsewhere, Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull is killed by police on Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Vincent van Gogh moves to Auvers-sur-Oise on the edge of Paris in the care of Dr Paul Gachet where he will produce around seventy paintings in as many days before shooting himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver.

In the UK, the Forth Bridge is opened to rail traffic and first deep level London Underground Railway, the City and South London Railway, opens.

The first ever official English County Championship cricket match begins in Bristol; Yorkshire beats Gloucestershire by 8 wickets. In London, Canadian-born boxer George Dixon defeats the British bantamweight champion, giving him claim to be the first black world champion in any sport.

Kaiser Wilhelm II dismisses Otto von Bismarck.

Portugal and the United Kingdom define the borders of the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola.

In Washington, D.C., the Daughters of the American Revolution is founded.

Francis Galton announces a statistical demonstration of the uniqueness and classifiability of individual human fingerprints.


Agatha Christie, English writer (d. 1976)
Michael Collins, Irish patriot (d. 1922)
Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. general and 34th President of the United States (d. 1969)
Robert Franklin Stroud, Birdman of Alcatraz (d. 1963)
Carlos Gardel, Argentine tango singer (d. 1935)
Charles de Gaulle, President of France (d. 1970)
A. P. Herbert, English humorist, novelist, playwright and law reform activist (d. 1971)
Ho Chi Minh, Prime minister/President of North Vietnam (d. 1969)
Stanley Holloway, English actor (d. 1982)
Jacques Ibert, French composer (d. 1962)
Fritz Lang, German-Austrian filmmaker, screenwriter, and actor (d. 1976)
Stan Laurel, English-born actor (d. 1965)
H. P. Lovecraft, American writer (d. 1937)
Victor Lustig, Bohemian-born con artist (d. 1947)
Groucho Marx, American comedian (d. 1977)
Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet politician (d. 1986)
Jelly Roll Morton, American jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader (d. 1941)
Boris Pasternak, Russian writer (Doctor Zhivago), Nobel Prize laureate (declined) (d. 1960)
Robert Ripley, American collector of odd facts (d. 1949)
Colonel Sanders, Founder of KFC (d. 1980)
Paul Whiteman, American bandleader (d. 1967)


King Amadeus I of Spain (b. 1845)
John Jacob Astor III, American businessman (b. 1822)
Carlo Collodi, Italian writer (The Adventures of Pinocchio) (b. 1826)
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch painter (b. 1853)
Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man), English oddity (b. 1862)
Henri Nestlé, Swiss confectioner and the founder of Nestlé (b. 1814)
John Boyle O’Reilly, Irish-born poet, journalist and fiction writer (b. 1844)
Sitting Bull, Native American chief (b. c. 1831)
King William III of the Netherlands (b. 1817)


Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound

1890 big

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We’re a bit stuck in between ages here. The experiments are now fading into the background, phonographs are being introduced into the world, but the nascent music business still hasn’t really taken off. 1890 sees our last recordings from Edison’s British agent, Colonel Gouraud, and the first attempts, in Russia, to capture performances from classical musicians. What we don’t have that much of so far is the popular music of the time, though that was soon to change.


1. P.T. Barnum – Personal Speech To The Future
2. U.S. Marine Band – Washington Post March
3. Florence Nightingale – The Voice Of
4. Consolidated Quartet – My Old New Hampshire Home
5. Trumpeter Landfrey – Charge Of The Light Brigade At Balaklava
6. Alfred Lord Tennyson – The Charge Of The Light Brigade
7. Madamoiselle Nikita And Pyotr Schurovsky – At The Fountain
8. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky And Anton Rubinstein – 4-10 January 1890, Moscow
9. Ben Davies – To Mary
10. Miss Ferguson & Graham Hope – Big Ben Clock Tower Of Westminster
11. U.S. Marine Band – The Thunderer
12. Emile Berliner – Whist The Bogie Man
13. Karl Bernhardt – Wacht Am Rhein
14. Edwin Booth – Most Potent, Grave… (From Othello)
15. Vasily Samus – Dargomizhsky – I Am In Love, My Maiden, My Beauty

Our mix starts with a speech from P.T. Barnum directed at us, listening to him in the distant future. He is most famous these days for his circus and freak-show, but was a progressive activist and anti-slavery campaigner too. Next we have the first recording from the biggest star of the day, John Philip Sousa, though of course he is not playing here (Sousa dismissively called the phonograph “canned music” and refused to appear on recordings.) As leader of the US Marine Band, Sousa’s marches inspired local bands across America, and the “stomp” of these two-minute hits will perhaps surprisingly provide our first pointer in the direction of the Jazz explosion 27 years in the future. We also have The Consolodated Quartet giving an example of the vocal harmonies which would eventually morph into the Ragtime-era “barbershop” singing troupes of the early 1900s.

The second section of the mix is made up of three recordings made by General Gouraud in aid of the pension fund for the survivors of the charge of the light brigade. First Florence Nightingale, who seems to have known better than anyone else how to project her voice into a phonograph horn, then trumpeter Martin Leonard Lanfried sounding the charge on the same trumpet that was used on the day, and finally Alfred Lord Tennyson himself, reading the poem which made the charge so famous. A good blog post on the history behind these recordings can be found here.

Next we have the first of what will be quite a few selections from the collection of Julius Block, a Russian businessman who managed to get a prototype phonograph from Edison and bring it back to Russia. A keen music fan, Block counted some of the most important musicians of late 19th century Russia among his friends, and he was able to hold regular “phonographic salons” where they would come to be recorded. Block’s extensive collection was believed lost in the second world war, and has only been recovered within the last decade. Our first selection from these recordings features Mademoiselle Nikita, a singer from Kentucky who was at the time hugely popular in Russia. Then we have a clip of Tchaikovsky, unfortunately doing nothing more than clowning around in front of the machine. At the end of the mix we have Tenor Vasily Samus with a piece from mid-19th-century composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky.

Also in the mix; Ben Davies sings a surprisingly rare 1890 example of the sentimental ballads I will find myself wading neck-deep through by the end of the decade; Gouraud’s assistants’ recording of Big Ben’s chimes; another test disc from Emile Berliner – this time singing (in a sort of lugubriouly sinister fashion) one of the hit songs of the era; another uptempo number from Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band; a hearty rendition of the famous patriotic German anthem “Die Wacht am Rhein”, and a excerpt from Othello performed by Edwin Booth – then America’s most famous actor, but now better remembered as the brother of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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