Why Does Sherlock Holmes Smoke a Curved Pipe?

by Barb, arriving back in Maine today

Why does he wear a deerstalker hat? Why does he say, “Elementary, my dear Watson?” None of these things appear in the canon.

The answer is these now familiar traits either originated or were popularized by American actor, writer, and stage manager William Gillette (1853-1937). I recently toured his home, Gillette Castle, in East Haddam, Connecticut.

Gillette grew up in the Nook Farm section of Hartford, Connecticut, where his neighbors included Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. His father was a US Senator and his mother a descendant of the Puritan founder of Hartford. One of his much older brothers went off to California where he died, another was killed in the Civil War, but William’s path was different. After a short apprenticeship in New Orleans as an actor, Gillette was recommended by Twain to appear in The Gilded Age in Boston. Twain also encouraged him to write and create his own material.

Gillette did write plays and act. In his role as a stage manager he received a patent on an invention that made the sound when the horses’ hooves go clippity-clop. But he found his greatest role as Holmes. With Conan Doyle’s blessing and support, he adapted the stories for the stage and performed as the detective over 1300 times. He gave Holmes his curved pipe. The deerstalker hat had appeared in an illustration in the Strand Magazine, but Gillette popularized it. He added the phrases, “Elementary, my dear fellow,” and “my dear Watson,” separately to his scripts, but never used them together. That came later.

As his success climbed, he lived permanently aboard his yacht, the Aunt Polly, traveling to gigs up and down the east coast. A tour of England, playing Holmes, netted him $100,000, (over two million in today’s money). Those are the funds he used to build the home where he spent his retirement. (Like many good actors, he retired multiple times.)

Gillette Castle

He never called his home a castle, though everyone else did. Inside it’s a sort of craftsman style with built-ins and a dining table and desk that move on gliders. You can tell the owner lived on a ship for many years. Everything has its place. He entertained many people there, including a very young Betty Davis and her mother.

The Great Hall

In retirement, Gillette continued to tinker. He built a three-mile railroad track around his property, complete with station, bridges and a tunnel and gave train rides to his guests. Down the hill from the castle, he designed an elegant small home for Yukitaki Ozaki, his longtime dresser, valet and friend. (Except when Izaki’s wealthy family, descended from Japanese nobility, came to America. Because Izaki feared they’d never understand why their son worked as a servant, Gillette worked as his butler’s butler during their visit.)

The green bedroom. Gillette was a cat lover who always had 15 to 20 around the estate.

Gillette made a silent movie of one of his Holmes performances in 1916 that was thought lost for decades until it was rediscovered in 2014 at the at the Cinematheque Francaise, a film archive in Paris.

In the library, one of the guides, acting as Gillette, acting as Holmes.

Gillette used the mirrors over the transoms in the Great Hall to check from his bedroom who was at the front door, and to see which of his guests was hanging around the bar, which could only be opened by him.

The ferry from Chester to Hadlyme which docks right below the estate.

Families enjoying Memorial Day weekend picnics on the grounds.

I very much enjoyed touring Gillette’s home and picnicking on the grounds of his estate. I felt that unbroken line from Gillette to Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett and onward to Robert Downey, Jr, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller, in that most enduring of detective roles.

Visit if you get a chance. Check the website for opening and tour times. http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2716&q=325204&deepNav_GID=1650%20








About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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14 Responses to Why Does Sherlock Holmes Smoke a Curved Pipe?

  1. Fascinating! I had never heard of him. I don’t think I’d want to be in that house alone after dark, though. Maybe a great setting for a mystery…..

  2. John R. Clark says:

    Fascinating, Barb. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. This is fascinating! Thank you!

  4. Wonderful column. I feel like taking the tour today!!!

    • Barb Ross says:

      Go for it! My son and daughter-in-law lived in East Haddam for years, and I only just got around to going there now that they’re in the midst of moving.

  5. Edith Maxwell says:

    Fabulous! It is on an island, thus the ferry?

  6. Karla says:

    I can’t decide which is the best part.
    That he received a patent on an invention that made the clippity-clop horse sound (damn I wish I had done that), or that he worked as his butler’s butler, or that he had 15 to 20 cats. Although spying on guests is a little over the top. Thanks for giving us a future field trip.

  7. Ang Pompano says:

    Thanks for this Barb. I especially love Gillette Castle at Christmas when they decorate it Victorian style. As you mentioned, he grew up next to Mark Twain, so he knew him well. There is no known recording of Twain’s voice, but there is a recording of Gillette imitating him, which is said to be very close to the real thing. If you are interested, it is on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqHPN4lW6tI

    • Barb Ross says:

      I was interested when they said Gillette’s Holmes accent was upper class English with an American slant–very like Katharine Hepburn (another person born in Hartford) in the African Queen.

  8. Sandra Neily says:

    ohhhhh…I hope the castle and Holmes crop up in a forthcoming mystery!

  9. Bill says:

    I smell a story brewing!!!

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