A Sherlockian History of St. Louis
by Peter Eckrich
For over a hundred and thirty years St. Louis has had a connection to Holmes and his faithful companion Watson. Who could forget that Jefferson Hope from A Study In Scarlet was from St. Louis? And 1890’s The Sign of Four included the phrase “the parallel cases of St. Louis and Riga.”
Some might wonder why St. Louis would be mentioned in the Canon. The city was started by French fur trappers who traveled up the mighty Mississippi river from the port of New Orleans and down from the vastness of the Canadian wilderness. This French influence can still be seen today as we honor Laclede and Chouteau with street names and the ever beautiful River Des Peres. St. Louis soon expanded with the ever popular fur trading and was soon sold to the still new United States from the French government. Napoleon was broke and Jefferson obviously knew a great deal when one appeared. Jefferson soon sent Lewis and Clark to explore the west and the duo of course stopped in St. Louis for supplies as would anyone following in their footsteps.
St. Louis soon became the stop on those heading west. Some would leave St. Louis and head to Independence, Missouri, while others would make a last stop at Kansas City, but St. Louis was the place. Its location along a major river made it lucrative for the steam industry and eventually it is that industry that would stifle its growth. See St. Louis had a chance to expand and be a major player in the railroad industry. Instead it opted to stay with the steam boats and Chicago would expand with the railroad instead. Don’t worry, all was not lost with this great city. We would go on to host the 1904 World’s Fair and have a baseball team that rivals even the Yankees in World Series wins.
Conan Doyle and Watson both would have known the importance of St. Louis in the late 1800’s. It is no wonder that Holmes would be aware of crimes committed in the Metropolis and connect them to events in Europe. Remember that Holmes kept records and notes on criminals and crime, and being the gifted detective he was, he would certainly keep tabs on crimes committed across the pond. The Holmes connection does not end with a few simple sentences in a couple of printed books. St. Louis would keep up with the study of the detective and honor his memory for many years to come.
As a child growing up in the 1980’s (born in 1979), I attended numerous Sherlock Holmes meetings. My father, Joe Eckrich, would take my brother and me along on his adventures to the Occupants of the Empty House and also to the Harpooners of the Sea Unicorn. It was an interesting time to say the least. There was so much history and knowledge packed into one room. This was the time before the internet and you didn’t know what books and information were out there unless someone shared it with you. This to me was the golden age of Sherlockiana in St. Louis. It was the time where one could attend multiple meetings in the same month. So let’s travel back in time and trace the Sherlockian Scion Societies of St. Louis.
When Edgar Smith was in charge of the Baker Street Irregulars, he was surprised to learn that St. Louis did not have its own scion society. I mean we were the home to the famous Sherlockian Dr. Gray Chandler Briggs. Briggs had a standing letter exchange with the Chicago Bookman and literary Newspaper Man, Vincent Starrett. Chandler Briggs also traveled to London and did his own research into Holmes. Chandler Briggs was one of the earliest BSI members. Besides Chandler Briggs we also had another doctor, John Crotty, who was known for his collection of Paget illustrations. Even with these heavy hitters, it would not be until years later that a scion society would be created.
The Watsonians of St. Louis was the first scion society in the mid 1960’s started by Country Day School teachers Robert H. Ashby and Ralph Grimes. The group did not last very long and St. Louis was once again without a local scion. That changed in 1968 when Philip Shreffler and Paul Kannapell started the Noble Bachelors of St. Louis. There were several women involved and a prominent Sherlockian suggested changing the name to The Noble Bachelors and their Concubines. The name did not stick around for long. But the group does continue to the present day and even had a woman, Mary Schroeder, leading it at one point. Talk about Sherlockian irony!
Philip Shreffler later changed his BSI investiture to Jefferson Hope and branched off from the Noble Bachelors to form The Jefferson Hopes of Saint Louis with Karen Johnson in March of 1982. The Hopes still meet today after being resurrected in 2012. Membership is by invitation only, and limited to a maximum of 17 members, to correspond with the 17 steps, and to allow meetings to be held in members’ homes. Early members included Barry Hapner, Art and Mary Schroeder, Chuck Lavazzi, and Eric Otten. In the beginning, membership was restricted to those who already had a paper published, such as in the Baker Street Journal, or who submitted an original paper to the group’s Gasogene who would determine if the writer showed adequate skill as a serious Sherlockian. There was also a strict dress code for meetings. The rules have since been somewhat relaxed but the Hopes are still serious students of The Grand Game. The Hopes are currently run by Christopher Robertson and Michael Waxenberg.
Joseph Eckrich, another past president of the Noble Bachelors would branch off as well and start the Parallel Case of St. Louis. His idea was to have a smaller setting than the Noble Bachelor banquets in which individual stories could be discussed. The Hopes were also doing the same thing, but had a paper requirement. Everyone that knows my father, knows he does not write papers. The Parallel Case does not have much in the way of requirements. Mostly it is to show up when you can and enjoy talking about Sherlock Holmes. One of the first members of the Parallel Case was Dr. Bart Simms, who was also an early member of the Noble Bachelors as well as the Hopes. The Parallel Case is currently headed by Rob Nunn. When life allows it, I try to attend the meetings. Throw in a lunch beforehand and this will be the closest I will ever get to the Three Hour Lunch Club that Morley so famously started and enjoyed.
Other local Sherlockian groups include The Harpooners of The Sea Unicorn in St. Charles, another Missouri city with a rich history. If you consider Southern Illinois to be close at hand, then we must acknowledge the Occupants of The Empty House started by Bill Cochran and Michael Bragg, before Bragg would go on to start the Harpooners. A prominent member of the Occupants was Gordon Speck.
Another Illinois group was the Chester Baskerville Society. I would attend these meetings as well. This stands out in my mind for two reasons. A positive reason was that I met Eve Titus there and she signed my Basil of Baker Street books. The negative one is we were hit head on by a drunk driver coming home from a meeting. No fault to the Chester group, but it did make me nervous for many years crossing the river.
A second golden age seems to be emerging. More people are finding Sherlock Holmes in the Greater St. Louis Area. One might wonder why so many groups are needed in one city. The answer lies in that each group offers a different way to celebrate and study the famed detective. St. Louis might not have had one of the first scion societies, but it makes up for it in interesting people and Midwest hospitality that welcomes newcomers to the study of Sherlock Holmes.
A special thanks to Randy Getz, Christopher Robinson, Michael Waxenberg, and Joe Eckrich.