It was a bright and cheerful Monday morning and I decided to depart my Baker Street lodgings early to walk to my practice. My fellow lodger, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, was out most of the previous night on one of his cases and was not likely to be awake for several more hours. His current case had him racing about London for three straight nights and Mrs. Hudson claimed he did not sleep during the day. Instead, he was brooding around the apartment in deep thought or playing melancholy music on his violin. When he was on a case, Holmes would do without food and sleep for such extended periods of time that I feared for his health. Therefore, I did not wish to disturb his slumber so I quietly crept down the stairs and closed the door to our lodgings. I let out a gasp as I turned to take the last steps down to the street. To my surprise, I bumped into a sergeant, who, in his excitement to gain entrance to my residence, had hardly provided me enough room to turn around.
"I'm sorry. You're Dr. Watson, I presume. Is Mr. Sherlock Holmes in?"
"Yes, but I'm afraid he is not available right now. Is it important?"
"Yes, there was a murder last night in Limehouse. It is quite an unusual case, quite confounding actually, and I was hoping to consult Mr. Holmes for his advice."
"Sounds like something that Holmes would be most interested in. I'm sure he'll accommodate you. Please follow me." Resigning myself to take a cab to my office instead of my early walk, we went back the way I had just come. I left the sergeant in our sitting room and went to rouse Holmes.
Soon we were all seated around the unlit fireplace
and the sergeant began his story.
"Last night at seven o'clock on Commercial Road, a murder was committed in front of three eyewitnesses. Yet, upon questioning, all three witnesses tell very different stories of the murder. All three agree on the following. It was around dusk. A man, whom we later identified as Mr. O'Shea, was walking down the street near Britannia Bridge when out of the dark alley across from The Colt Street the murderer attacked him and stabbed Mr. O'Shea with a knife three times. It was a surprise attack, required because O'Shea was a large man while the attacker was small. The attacker then ran back into the alley screaming something. All three witnesses were about a short block away and saw all or part of the attack from different angles. They all ran to help the victim and all arrived about the same time, but by then, the murderer was long gone, lost into the alleys of Limehouse. By the time I was called to the scene, it was already dark and I was unable to identify any footprints as the murderer's. However, I was able to interview all three of the witnesses separately. After hearing their divergent stories, I questioned them again. Unfortunately, their stories did not converge, and in fact, each was even more certain about their stories. Although I spoke to each one at great length, I was unable to get many details about the incident, so I can briefly and concisely summarize all the relevant eye witness accounts.
"The first witness is Mr. Thomas Burns, a pious gentleman of about fifty returning from a day of charity work. He was walking on the northern side of Commercial Road, going west, the same direction as O'Shea. He didn't notice anything until he heard a grunt from the victim during the first stab. He saw the murderer stab O'Shea two more times and clearly remembers seeing the glint on the knife. Like the other two witnesses, the gentleman did not get an unobstructed view of the assailant. The assailant chose his alley well, for there were crates on Commercial Street and in the alley that hid everything from the waist down. Our first witness though, was shocked to notice that the small dark-haired assailant was wearing the dark robe and white collar of a clergyman. Furthermore, the gentleman heard the clergyman yell 'Hallelujah!' as he ran down the alley.
"The second witness, Mr. Brandon Tillet, is a labourer at Regents Canal Dock. Incidentally, O'Shea was also an unskilled docker, who worked for a six penny hourly wage at the West India Docks. They didn't know each other. Tillet was walking towards O'Shea on Commercial Road, just beyond the bridge and saw the whole incident. The sudden movement of a figure darting out of the alley caught Tillet's attention. He said the murderer was a fine-boned woman with her dark hair braided behind and wearing a black dress. The woman had a six inch seaman's knife. She held the knife in her right hand and stabbed O'Shea beneath the ribcage using an underhand motion. This caused O'Shea to bend forward, with his arms covering his wound and bellowing in pain. The woman struck again quickly, this time stabbing into the heart. I suspect that this wound was nearly instantaneously fatal. O'Shea's knees buckled. The woman made one more slashing motion, cutting O'Shea's neck as he fell forward. The woman, whose back was facing Tillet the whole time, noticed Mr. Burns, who had let out a yell, and she ran into the alley. When running away, Tillet heard her yell 'He's the one - Yah!' in a thick Swedish accent.
"The final witness, Mr. Antonio, was located across the street from Thomas Burns, our first gentleman. Although employed at a delicatessen near the East India docks, he is a shady character whose motive for being in the area I suspect has to do with the opium dens. He swears that the murderer was a young boy of around ten, probably a street Arab. He had the worst view of the incident, with the small body of the murderer being blocked by the large body of O'Shea. He only had a glimpse of the boy during the last slash at O'Shea. Mr. Antonio was unable to decipher what the boy yelled and called it 'gibberish.'
"O'Shea was a large man, about six foot two, sixteen stone about twenty-five years old. He was an English-born Irishman, who grew up as a street Arab in the streets of London. When he was eighteen, he went to sea for five years. When he returned, he stood by in the port, hoping for some hourly employment. He was popular among the other dockers, often telling stories of adventure on the high seas on the ship Umbria. He had a tattoo of this ship on his upper arm. He was not a troublemaker. Although he would drink with the others, he did not drink or gamble away his earnings like many of them. I have been unable to identify anybody who had a serious grudge against him.
"So, there you have it. Three eye witnesses, three conflicting stories. What do you make of it?"
Holmes, though, was already deep within his own thoughts, evaluating the information. The sergeant then looked questioningly at me.
"I cannot see why a man of the cloth would murder a dock worker. It does not make any sense." I said.
Holmes retorted, "Do any of the witnesses wear glasses viewing at a distance?"
The sergeant replied, "Only Mr. Burns wore glasses, but I wouldn't swear at the clarity of Mr. Antonio's vision."
"What other important facts have you left out?"
The sergeant felt the bite of my friend's reprimand, and thought carefully before answering. "I took the liberty of writing down the work and home addresses of O'Shea and each of the witnesses for you. I don't have any additional information about O'Shea other than his address right now. I was planning to return to the scene today and do more investigation. Other than that, I believe I have told you everything of importance. I came here first thing this morning. I've heard about how you can solve puzzles such as this."
Again, Holmes fell silent. Eventually, I continued my musings. "Tillet seems the most reliable witness. Possibly, a crime of passion? They do seem in vogue these days, with so many of the women getting off Scott-free! Possibly she's a widower, and that is why she wore the black dress. Was it O'Shea's own knife that she used? Maybe the knife belonged to her husband or lover. On the other hand, O'Shea used to be a street Arab and Mr. Antonio thought the murderer was a street Arab too. Maybe there could be some connection? Hah! Sounds as if you need to find a ten-year old Swedish Nun!"
My comments fell upon deaf ears. Holmes spoke. "Your problem has its points of interest, but I suspect it is not a difficult one. Please continue your investigation today and keep me informed of any developments. I will be out most of today concluding one of my own cases. I expect to be done by six tonight. Please return to this room tonight at half past six with Mr. Burns, Mr. Tillet, and Mr. Antonio. I would like to talk to them all personally. I'm sure Watson will take the opportunity to refine his theories if I am late. Watson, it looks as if you are too late to walk to your practice this morning and you'll need to hire a hansom to make your first appointment. Would you be so kind as to show the Sergeant out?"
I returned to Baker street at six and was not surprised to find that my companion was still out. His case may not have gone as smoothly as he had hoped. However, I expected him to arrive soon as Mrs. Hudson said that she had received no messages of any kind during the day. For this reason, I also suspected that the Sergeant had made little progress and told Mrs. Hudson to expect visitors in a half hour. In fact, it was almost seven o'clock when they had arrived, but they had still arrived before Holmes. The sergeant had made no progress whatsoever, but he had accurately portrayed the three witnesses to the crime. Mr. Burns was well-dressed and looked the philanthropist that he was. Mr. Tillet was still dirty from a hard day of work at the port. Mr. Antonio looked half asleep and spoke with a well-accented slur. Soon after the visitors were seated, Mrs. Hudson arrived with tea and cakes. The sergeant, Mr. Burns and I had a polite conversation while we sipped our tea. Tillet gulped down the tea and cakes as if he had not eaten for years. He then consumed Mr. Antonio's servings as he had not touched them and claimed not to be in need of any refreshments.
Suddenly, the door of the sitting room was slammed open. At the doorway, a small figure stood. Due to the brighter lighting from the hallway, the details of the figure were hard to make out. However, I noticed an expression of surprise upon the intruder's face. The intruder quickly grabbed the door and slammed it shut again as he exited. As I heard the intruder run down the stairs, I heard him yell something like "eeee yaah whan yaah." The whole incident took a split second. Everybody in the room was stunned and took a moment to absorb what had occurred. The three witnesses looked at each other and almost simultaneously yelled "That was him!" About the same time, I realized that I had seen a small Chinese boy of around twelve with a short pony-tail, as is their style, and a black outfit as you may find them wearing at a laundry. Instantly, the sergeant and I were on our feet and ran for the door, knocking over our tea cups on the way.
The sergeant burst open the door and ran right into the arms of Holmes. I stopped dead in my tracks and Tillet almost bowled me over. Seeing the smirk on his face, I knew Holmes had been standing right outside the door of our sitting room, expecting us to take up the chase. I have known Holmes to take a full foot off his frame in some of the disguises he has assumed over the years. The thought that this may have been another of Holmes's performances briefly crossed my mind and I must have spoken my thoughts out loud, for Holmes chuckled and said, "No, Watson, not even I can transform myself into someone half my size. Let us all be seated. He is now long gone."
It took a minute or two for everybody to settle down. Mr. Antonio had woken up and mumbled almost continuously in Italian. Tillet silently fumed. Burns chattered away about his not being able to take any more excitement like this. Holmes raised his voice above all and immediately received everybody's undivided attention.
"You must excuse my flair for dramatics, but I believe I have made my point. From your reactions, it is clear that you all feel certain that you have seen the murderer?"
Mr. Burns and Mr. Antonio nodded their heads, but Tillet could hold back no longer and yelled "Yes and we should be after the coolie before it's too late!"
Holmes remained calm. "You no longer feel that the murderer was a young Swedish woman?"
"No, that was him, I tell you!"
"But I assure you it was not. The boy who entered this room was nowhere near Limehouse yesterday. He is just a boy I selected from many Chinese boys as one of the appropriate size and dress. I paid him a shilling for his efforts."
"You paid a coolie murderer!"
"No, with the dark shadows and the foreign features, you would be unable to distinguish a boy from China from a boy from Japan! This boy is innocent. Yesterday, you swore the murderer was a woman!"
Mr. Burns spoke excitedly, "But he said the same words as the murderer!"
"Yesterday you said the murderer yelled 'hallelujah!'"
"I was mistaken."
"Do you all agree that the boy said the same words as the murderer?" Our visitors all agreed vehemently. Holmes then said, "The boy yelled 'a tooth for a tooth' in Mandarin Chinese."
"A tooth for a tooth? As in 'an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth'?" the sergeant questioned.
"But O'Shea didn't kill anybody!"
"You may be mistaken. A year ago, a young Chinese girl was raped and killed in Limehouse by a drunken sailor with a tattoo of a ship on his arm. The police made a half-hearted investigation, but did not identify the sailor, stating that it was impossible to identify the murderer from the large number of sailors in the area with ship tattoos. They dropped the case on the presumption that the sailor was probably out to sea again."
The sergeant took a defensive position. "That seems entirely possible."
"Yet, someone believes that he has identified the murderer. That person saw the murderer of the Chinese girl in person. That witness was the girl's thirteen year old brother."
Mr. Burns stated bluntly, "I hope the boy did a better job at identifying the murderer of his sister than we did of him."
Tillet spoke angrily. "Well, now we know who murdered O'Shea! Let's get him!"
The sergeant replied "This is a job for the official police. We'll handle it from here."
With Tillet forcing the action, our room was soon empty and an atmosphere of calm returned. I summarized the proceedings to Mrs. Hudson as she cleaned up the spilled tea and cake. "My, my!" she said with awe, "Mr. Holmes, when did you realize who the murderer was?"
"Within five minutes of Watson's departure this morning. Of course, I realized that the person we were looking for was Chinese before then. The Chinese district is close to the West Indian Dock. The murderer was small, yet was quick and proficient with a knife. I therefore thought it likely that the culprit was a young male. Mr. Antonio confirmed this with his quick glimpse. Tillet had the best view of the murderer and distinctly saw a pony-tail. All three stated they heard different words yelled as the boy ran down the alley. Clearly, the most logical explanation was that the boy was yelling in a foreign language. From the clothing descriptions, we could only conclude the boy was wearing a black long-sleeved top, as is common among the Chinese. To summarize, we have a young, dark-haired boy with a pony-tail, wearing a black outfit, and who spoke a foreign language not clearly recognizable to any of the witnesses. Surely the inference is now clear. After Watson left, I looked through my book of references of incidence near or around the Chinese district and found the murder of the young girl. On the way back from the successful conclusion of my case today, I searched for a candidate for my successful demonstration this afternoon. The boy played his part admirably. From a ten minute discussion with the boy's father, I was able to determine what the murderer had probably yelled."
"But each of the witnesses remembered everything so differently."
"It was clear from their accounts that they
all focused on the murder weapon, which is a natural reaction.
Then they filled in the details with their imagination. Memory
is a funny thing. If a suggestion is made to you enough times
that a certain event happened, you will eventually begin to believe
that it is a fact. These witnesses had just witnessed a shocking
event and were particularly susceptible to suggestions. Each interwove
some of their thoughts before the incident with the incident itself.
Mr. Burns was thinking about his work for the Church, Mr. Tillet
of women, and Mr. Antonio of the poor condition of the neighbourhood.
It is amazing to me how much weight the account of a witness carries
in a court of law. Juries have let murderers go free if a single
witness disagrees with all the scientific facts that I can muster.
Yet, it is obvious to me that my scientific facts are far more
reliable than the memory of a witness. If only the juries were
ruled by logic instead of emotions, a lot more guilty criminals
would be off the streets and some innocent prisoners would be
The Chinese boy was never located by the police.
Collectively, the Chinese community seemed to forget the boy's
existence and the boy simply disappeared.
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