Thursday, October 20, 2022

A surprise deep in the ground

 Stanley - Thursday

Twenty-five metres (eighty feet) underground on the University of Minnesota's West Bank is the largest collection of Sherlock Holmes material in the world. 

Sherlock Holmes collection librarian, Tim Johnson in the stacks

Why it is in Minneapolis and not in Edinburgh, where Arthur Conan Doyle was born, is not a mystery. However, it is an interesting story.

The Baker Street Irregulars is a literary society dedicated to all things related to Sherlock Holmes. The name comes from the group of people Holmes used to gather intelligence and convey messages. It was founded in 1934 by American journalist Christopher Morley and continues to thrive today.

The Minnesota branch of the BSI was started in 1948 by a former University of Minnesota librarian, E. W. McDiarmid, and several faculty members. 

The first small collection of Holmes material was purchased in 1974, including some early periodicals as well as first editions.

It was an offshoot of Minnesota BSI group that persuaded the widow of Dr Philip Hench (the discoverer of cortisone) of the Mayo Clinic to donate her husband's amazing Holmes collection to the university in 1978. Although relatively small, it had some exceedingly rare material, such as four of the extant 34 copies of  Beeton’s Christmas Annual that contained A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock’s first adventure.

It was Dr Hench who persuaded the Swiss government to install a plaque near Reichenbach Falls, where the evil Professor Moriarty had disposed of Holmes in 1893’s The Final Problem, himself dying in the process. (After a public outcry at his demise, Holmes managed to rescue himself to appear in future ventures.)

Reichenbach Falls

The biggest acquisition came in the 1990s, when the university persuaded a collector in Santa Fe, New Mexico, John Bennett Shaw, to part with his massive, all-encompassing collection, including such diverse objects as rare posters, license plates, and street signs. With that, material started to flood in.

Shaw encouraged  ex-librarian McDiarmid and local newscaster and Homes enthusiast, Don Shelby, to talk to Edith Meiser, who had written all of the Holmes  radio dramas of the 1930s and 1940s. After quizzing them about their knowledge of the Holmes works, she agreed to part with her unique collection of vinyl recordings.

Today, the collection has over 60,000 items, from which a new touring exhibition, Sherlock Holmes: The Exhibition, has been curated, which will open this month at the Minnesota History Center.

I hope I have a chance to see it before I head to warmer climes.

(My thanks to Steve Marsh of the Mpls.St.Paul Magazine whose article Minnesota Has the World's Largest Sherlock Holmes Collection of 10/16/2022 inspired this blog.)

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