Yesterday, I presented “The Game” to my Sherlock Holmes Humanities class. Some of the students were really intrigued by it. I could see the wheels turning in their heads, and when I explained how Sherlockians had deduced Holmes’s January 6 birthday I got more than a few chuckles. Of course, one or two faces looked a bit dull and tired, but it doesn’t take a master detective to know that with sorority bid day on Monday and fraternity bid day on Friday, some young people are not as attuned to class as they should be!
In the afternoon, I was working on the project that has, unfortunately, derailed the third novel in the Shadows series for the moment. (But I’m getting back to it, I promise!) I’ve begun a project of looking at South Carolina’s women during the Civil War. I’ve been reading lots of letters and diaries as part of my research, and after class I had one of those ‘wow’ moments where being a Sherlockian and a ‘Game’ player helped me be a better historian.
In the antebellum American South, slavery was the ‘peculiar institution.’ What Southerners meant by this phrase is that it was ‘their’ institution and they considered it essential to their way of life. Despite the fact that a vast majority of white southerners did not own slaves, they generally supported the status quo and believed in the system.
One thing that is particularly striking is the way that southerners of the nineteenth century wrote
about their slaves. It is not at all unusual to read a letter where the writer refers to his ‘black family’ and makes humane inquiries about their health or offers a friendly ‘howdy.’ But in the very next sentence, the same writer may refer to a slave in a manner that makes it clear he considers the slave a piece of property, no different to a carriage or a barn or even an animal.
While reading a set of Civil War letters from a Charleston man to his mother and sisters, I stumbled upon an essential question: was Hagar, who was frequently mentioned in the missives, a slave woman or a horse? Even to type these words makes my heart ache---how could anyone have ever treated another human being like a possession? Yet it is a historical fact that people behaved in this way, and if I wanted to use these letters for the purpose of learning more about this family, I needed to figure out if Hagar was human.
It was then that my experience in playing the game melded with my training as a historian. There were no footnotes or annotations to help me. I ploughed into the letters---the ‘canon,’ in this case---and looked for clues. In one place, the author mentioned that he wanted to sell Hagar, and the comment came in the same line that dealt with the sale of some property. In another spot, he wrote that Hagar would bring more money if ‘her ankles were rested.’ That sounded, to me, like a comment about an animal more than a human, especially if it was a horse---and this man prized his horses and gave them names. But in another letter he proposed that Hagar would fetch $2000---definitely more than any ordinary horse was worth at the time, but in line with slave prices. Detaching myself emotionally from these passages was tough, but I remembered Watson’s lines about how Holmes got results by not getting emotionally involved with a case.
More clues followed, including offhand references to Hagar with the family’s children and whether the family would need to hire a slave if Hagar was sold. I had deduced and was fairly certain that Hagar was a woman when, finally, a definitive line popped up about Hagar’s duties. It was now clear---she was a person, even though her master wrote about her in a very callous manner
Every day in my work, I find that the Sherlock Holmes stories are good exercises that help ‘train the brain.’ Even if I can’t actually resolve every puzzle that Holmes does, just having his example can help me. And working to solve little mysteries within the ‘Scared Writings’ gives me a mental boost, as well as confidence to tackle the mysteries in my American history research
So thanks, Dr. Watson, for not making things too easy for us, for forcing us into ‘The Game’.
And thank you, Hagar, for your silent dignity in the face of a brutal and inhumane institution. I hope that one day I will help people remember you.