I’ve said at several turns that the primary reason I keep coming back to these stories has more to do with the characters of Holmes and Watson than with the cases themselves, a point that established itself from the beginning with A Study in Scarlet. As such, insight into either one of them is always appreciated, be it mannerism, interests, or backstories. With this tale, we get a rare account of Holmes’ time before he met Watson via an even more rare circumstance where Holmes volunteers such information about himself. In this instance, Holmes offers up the details of his very first case, wherein he turned professional.
To no one’s surprise, it seems that Holmes was a homebody and loner in his university days. Even the solitary seem to find one another in such settings, and so it was that he met and befriended fellow loner Victor Trevor. At some point in their friendship, Holmes spent a month at the estate of Trevor’s father in Norfolk. Victor’s father, a Justice of the Peace and wealthy landowner, once made his fortunes in the goldfields of Australia. Given the rough and tumble nature of such endeavors, you know there’s a seedy backstory there waiting to get out, though as it turns out, it’s not about the mines. Holmes impresses the man with his deductions, uncovering a sore spot in the process relating to someone with the initials J. A. The elder Trevor dismisses it by way of explanation of a former lover. Having made his host uncomfortable, Holmes decides to take his leave. That very evening before he can do so, another old man arrives, prompting Trevor to grab a shot of brandy before formally greeting him. The new arrival was a shipmate of Mr. Trevor some 30 years before. After Holmes and the younger Trevor find his father drunk soon after, Holmes takes his leave and spends seven weeks immersed in chemistry experiments. A telegram from his friend begs for his return.
Upon arrival at the station, Holmes is informed the elder Trevor is dying, the result of a stroke after receiving a letter. Reaching the estate, the two friends learn the father had died while the son was meeting Holmes. In the seven weeks, the old man who’d come looking for work, Hudson, turned the estate upside down with his presence, having made unreasonable demands — including a promotion to butler — which were all granted. He was often drunk and took liberties that would have gotten anyone else fired. Victor didn’t like him, the staff didn’t like him, but still he got away with everything. And then out of the blue, Hudson announced he was leaving, tired of Norfolk. He’d be joining another shipmate in Hampshire.
Just when it seemed the trouble was over, a cryptic letter arrives that, Holmes deduces can be understood by reading every third word: “The game is up. Hudson has told all. Fly for your life.” The game, Holmes says, is blackmail, presumably over some guilty secret where by Hudson held power over Mr. Trevor. His dying words to his doctor reveal some papers in a Japanese cabinet, a confession. According to the document, Mr. Trevor had once been James Armitage (initials J. A.), a former criminal embezzler who was caught and sentenced to transportation (i.e., a penal colony, such as Australia’s Botany Bay). Note: the sentence of penal transportation ended in Britain in 1857, with the last convicts arriving in Western Australia in 1868.
The penal ship, the Gloria Scott, was ready for crew / prisoner takeover thanks to a fake clergyman who armed the prisoners and mutineers. The ship’s doctor discovered a pistol too early while treating a prisoner, forcing the coup ahead early lest the element of surprise be lost. A dispute over what to do with loyal crewmen who were captured ended in a request for a small boat from Armitage and others who would not stand for murder. Shortly after departing in the boat, the Gloria Scott exploded when the gunpowder stores ignited in the fighting. The small boat returned and rescued one survivor: Hudson. That adrift crew was rescued by the Hotspur the next day. They passed themselves off as survivors from a passenger ship. Armitage changed his name to Trevor, and his confederate Evans became Beddoes. Both returned to England wealthy from their exploits in the goldmines. Everything had gone well until Hudson returned. No scandal surfaced, and neither were heard from again. The police believed Hudson killed Evans, while Holmes figured it to be the other way around, which Evans grabbing as much money as he could before making a run for it.
Since the devil’s in the details, let’s talk about a couple of things that don’t add up.
First, the confession from the elder Trevor contained a scribbled footnote in his dying breaths that contradicts the notion that he never regained consciousness to reveal anything in the first place.
The bigger issue for me is figuring out when the story takes place. According to the confession, the ship left Falmouth “thirty years ago”… in 1855. That places the events of the story as 1885, which is most certainly not his university years. Another line from Trevor says “For more than twenty years we have led peaceful and useful lives.” If this is true, the date is 1875, which would better fit Holmes’ college years. Keep in mind, I know his birthday to be January 6, 1854 according to multiple agreed sources of non-canonical lore, meaning smarter people than I have gone to these stories and figured such things out long before I ever got there. Either way, if this holds true, we can safely assume 1875-1880 is a good estimate for this story to have taken place.
One other point of order: according to my annotated hardcopy, this is one of only two stories where a protagonist is haunted by someone from their past. The other, of course, is “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” which also had an Australian connection. So it seems Conan Doyle had a thing for the storytelling potential of Australia and sailors.