`Eventually, in the year 1869, the movement rather suddenly collapsed, although there have been sporadic outbreaks of the same sort since that date.’
If only that were true. As Holmes learns the hard way, the Ku Klux Klan is every bit as powerful in 1887 as it was after its supposed collapse, not nearly as sporadic as his case file would suggest. Sadly, it’s still powerful in our supposedly modern and more civilly enlightened world. That it’s a legally recognized institution with real political power is just beyond the pale.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. “The Five Orange Pips” is a story with a great deal to offer, the whole of which marks it as one of the stories that resonates within the whole of the canon. And it hits close to home, making it as personal an entry for me as it is for Holmes. As Watson states up front, this particular train of events didn’t end where anyone could have suspected. Holmes points out that he has failed four times, once against a woman. Once more unnamed, Irene Adler again becomes the herald of doom, this time for something more sinister.
John Openshaw comes to Holmes with a tale, seeking advice and help. His uncle, Elias Openshaw, had returned to England in 1869 after years in the United States, where he was a planter in Florida, formerly a colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He settled an estate at Horsham West Sussex, allowing his nephew to stay under the proviso that John could go anywhere in the house save for a locked room containing his uncle’s trunks. So up front, we already know there’s some dark history locked inside those trunks that will come into play. In March 1883, Elias receives a letter postmarked from India inscribed only with the letters “KKK,” and containing five orange pips.
Papers from the aforementioned trunks are burned, and Elias had a will drawn up leaving the estate to his brother, which John would doubtless inherit. He outright tells John that if trouble comes, leave the estate to an enemy and walk away. From there, he spends his time either locked in a room, drinking, or going around drunk with a pistol in his hand. On May 2 of that year, he’s found dead, face down in a shallow garden pool.
Elias’ brother Joseph, John’s father, received a similar letter in January 1885 with instructions to leave “the papers” on the sundial. Joseph refused to call the police, and he was found dead three days later in a chalk pit. John provides Holmes with a page from his uncle’s diary marked March 1869, wherein it describes three men having been sent orange pips. Two have fled, and the third “visited.” Ominous, no?
Holmes’ advice: leave the diary page on the sundial with a note explaining that the Colonel’s papers were burned. You know, because every radical hate group out there is amenable to letters of rational explanation. Not your finest hour, Mr. Holmes. Once Openshaw leaves, Holmes considers, given the time that has passed between the letters, that the sender is on a sailing ship. He knows of the KKK, deducing that their “collapse” in March 1869 was due to the Colonel taking their papers with him to England.
The next day, the newspaper runs a story proclaiming the body of John Openshaw found in the River Thames, cause of death believed to be an accident. Holmes cross-references the sailing records and passenger lists of ships from the two ports of origin of the letters and recognizes a vessel from Georgia, The Lone Star, was docked in London a week earlier. Holmes sends five orange pips to the captain of the ship — a personal warning designed to inspire equal fear — then telegrams the police in Savannah, Georgia, with the claim that the captain and his mates are wanted for murder. And this would have been a truly impressive coup for Holmes. But because the threat in real life still persists, so too must it persist in these pages. The ship never arrives, having met its end in a storm.
There is an unnamed connection drawn between the ship’s name — The Lone Star — and one of the states in the Union. And this is where it gets personal. I’m from Texas… the Lone Star State. The state was part of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and it has quite the sordid history accordingly, as every state in the Old South does, to say nothing of its colorful history as part of the Old West. Having grown up in the rural areas outside Waco — once known as Six Gun Junction, “where the Old South meets the Old West” — I got to know a great deal of the lore. Before my family moved to that specific area of Texas, I was introduced to Sherlock Holmes, and this story is where I first learned of the KKK. Not from a history book, not at school… from this story. It became real for me in getting to know the history of the streets and lonely backroads I traveled everyday.
In the original draft of this review, I went completely off the rails, discussing the origins of the Confederate battle flag, of Scottish Rite Masonry in the US, of the Klan, and how these things went hand-in-hand from a common source. I discussed how Lincoln’s assassination led to a very different version of Reconstruction that opened the field up to such hate on both sides that something like the Klan was perhaps inevitable. I discussed how it ramped up in modern times to the legacy of open and highly politicized hate we have now. While I believe such things need to be known, especially where history connects the dots for us… I don’t know that it’s fully appropriate to hijack this review for those purposes. And so I dialed it back. This should be about Holmes, not his adversary. Even so, those emotions, fueled by understanding the history, inform my reading of this story.
“That hurts my pride, Watson,” he said at last. “It is a petty feeling, no doubt, but it hurts my pride. It becomes a personal matter with me now, and, if God sends me health, I shall set my hand upon this gang. That he should come to me for help, and that I should send him away to his death–!” He sprang from his chair and paced about the room in uncontrollable agitation, with a flush upon his sallow cheeks and a nervous clasping and unclasping of his long thin hands.
It’s always good to see someone stand up to hate, even if it’s a fictional character that has to make the example. Sometimes that has greater impact than one might imagine. I applaud Conan Doyle for helping to set this example into motion, and I wish more readers (and non-readers, for that matter) were familiar with this story. It seems to be one that slips under the radar. It really makes me wonder how many of the historical connections the author knew for himself at the time this was written, and if maybe this was his way of making a statement. It’s most likely that it was for him simply a case of a fanatical group makes a sensational story, much as it was for him in A Study in Scarlet. I have no problems with the Klan taking out one of its own. Maybe I should on a higher moral level, but I don’t. The concept of evil of that magnitude consuming itself from the inside out is one I can get behind. That the murders extended past the first victim, that’s where this gets into more traditional territory. So far as it goes, Holmes was protecting an otherwise innocent man whose only crime was being related to someone in that circle. To know that his endeavor to save a life from this organization ultimately failed is harsh, for both Holmes and readers of this story. But it’s a powerful tale accordingly. And it certainly provides a springboard to learning about the very real events of the world for those who care to learn.
The one thing I’ll fault with this story is that it takes the ability to deal with an organization like this out of human hands and puts it more in the path of fate. It requires human effort to stop the cycle. Holmes tried. Had Holmes been successful, this might have opened the way for him to deal with them on a more grand scale in a sequel. But it might also have opened the way for some very real trouble. As it is, I’m surprised that didn’t happen anyway. To my knowledge, the Klan doesn’t give Conan Doyle’s estate nearly the grief the Mormon church does. Kind of puts that into perspective, doesn’t it?