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The Detective in Montana

Bruce A. Trinque

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A June, 1982, Baker Street Journal article, "There Was Not a Finer Lad in the Regiment" by John W. Ely, Jr., argued persuasively that Dr. John Watson served as a young man in the United States Army and was, in fact, a veteran of the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn, popularly known as "Custer's Last Stand". Mr. Ely ably demonstrated that the good (and future) doctor had enlisted in the famed Seventh Cavalry Regiment as "James Watson". Mr. Ely also hinted that one of Watson's comrades during that fatal battle, a "young Scotsman" known as Private Peter Thompson, might actually be someone familiar to all of us, a man with whom Dr. Watson would later share many thrilling adventures.

A brief recounting of the events of the battle and the part played by Watson and Peter Thompson may be in order. On June 25, 1876, the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, led by Lieutenant-Colonel George Armstrong Custer, advanced into the valley of the Little Big Horn River in Montana Territory. Their mission was to locate and destroy a large village of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. In pursuit of this objective Custer divided his regiment into three columns, commanded by Major Marcus Reno, Captain Frederick Benteen, and himself, plus the mule pack train bringing up the rear. As Custer led the five companies in his own column north along the bluffs above the Little Big Horn, Privates Peter Thompson and "James" Watson fell behind, their mounts giving out in the summer heat. According to Thompson's dramatic account of his adventures, he saved the life of Watson by killing an Indian warrior and then leading his comrade back to safety with the reunited forces of Reno and Benteen. These soldiers successfully withstood a two-day siege of their position on "Reno Hill" while Custer and his men disappeared to the north to find death and everlasting fame.

Despite the undoubted conclusiveness of his arguments for the true identity of "James Watson", I must question Mr. Ely's hints concerning that of Watson's companion on the bluffs. Anyone who has ever read Thompson's own account of his adventures, available in Daniel Magnussen's Peter Thompson's Narrative, must strongly doubt that the "young Scotsman" with Watson ever got within a hundred miles of Baker Street. To merely call this chronicle Colorful and improbable would show admirable restraint. Furthermore, Thompson's post-Little Big Horn career as a miner and rancher is well-documented, leaving no room for amateur detecting activities.

Having said this, however, I should like to call attention to the case of the nobleman in the celebrated Grey Horse Troop of the Seventh Cavalry. I refer to Private John S. Hiley of Company E, killed in the battle. His story can be pieced together from various sources: a brief biography of Hiley given by Custer authority John S. Carroll in They Rode With Custer, a letter from Carroll published in the March, 1987, Little Big Horn Associates Newsletter, and also an interview with Lieutenant Charles DeRudio of the Seventh Cavalry printed in Kenneth Hammer's Custer in '76. "Hiley" was actually John Stuart Forbes, born in 1849 (or perhaps 1848) in Rugby, England, grandson of Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitelgo and Monymusk, Scotland. The state of affairs which led to Forbes's departure from his homeland and enlistment in the U.S. Army in 1872 under a false name is unknown, although it is interesting to note that a letter from his mother said, "You can return home now, as the trouble causing your departure has been settled." Who or what made this trouble for Forbes and how it was settled has been lost to history. It may be suggestive, however, that gambling equipment was found by Lieutenant DeRudio among his personal effects after the battle.

Now, the undeniably romantic circumstance of an incognito Scots nobleman, living (and dying) under an assumed identity in the Seventh Cavalry leads inevitably to a conclusion that there are yet-to-be explored aspects to this business. I mean, who ever heard of a Victorian aristocrat hiding in a remote and exotic land under an assumed name without a private detective dogging his footsteps (especially if there were a gambling scandal or perhaps a wronged young woman in the background)? I think we may safely take it as a given that there was indeed such a detective, otherwise we should be flouting an immuTable law of the Universe. With that settled, I shall move on to the question of who this detective was ...

To begin with, we must establish the detective's alias (if a nobleman is incognito, then surely the detective also is). It is immediately apparent that any Victorian detective worthy of the name (or the alias) would not do this thing halfway. When tracking an errant aristocrat hiding under a false name in a frontier army regiment, certainly the detective would likewise take the same course. After an intensive, detailed, and exhaustive search through uncounted volumes of records, I have identified an overwhelmingly convincing candidate: Private William H. Chapman of Company E -- Hiley's company! -- who enlisted on March 13, 1876, in Boston at the age of 24.

Now, I call attention to the following items: First, consider that "Chapman" claimed he was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Need I remind the reader that "Glastonbury" is also the name of a famous English town? And that Connecticut is in New England? This speaks for itself, I think. Next, note the choice of "Chapman" as an alias. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a chapman is "an itinerant dealer who travels about from place to place selling or buying." I submit that this would be an excellent description of a private detective on a quest to a foreign land, a man for hire, selling himself, seeking clues to lead him to his quarry, bribing where necessary, buying information. The records indicate that the new recruit claimed previous employment as a farmer. What better choice could have been made than this simple background which would demand no demonstration of skills or expertise such as might be expected from a mechanic or even a former clerk? A detective -- an English detective -- would be prudent to profess the most dull and ordinary of personal histories so that any lapse of knowledge or American manner could be put down to his simple rural origins. Why, one might ask, would the detective conceal his nationality? While it is tempting to ascribe this to mere over-elaboration on a young detective's part, surely it is more probable that this was all to avoid suspicion by the object of his inquiries. I think we can safely neglect to pay overmuch attention to the trivial details of "Chapman's" physical appearance as recorded in his enlistment papers: grey eyes, dark hair, ruddy complexion, and 5' 9-1/4". Any master of disguise -- and what good Victorian detective would not be a master of disguise? -- could readily deal with such superficialities as hair Color, complexion, and even a few inches of height. The fact that "Chapman" was also known as "William H. Smith" and "William H. Dutton" can be considered as nearly conclusive proof. No detective would have but one alias. (And would it not be interesting to discover what the middle initial "H" in all those names stood for?)

The single circumstance beyond all others which points unerringly at "Chapman" as the detective is the extraordinary fact that although "Chapman" had been initially assigned to Company B of the Seventh Cavalry, he managed to secure on June 1, 1876, a transfer in the field to Company E, per Special Order No 49 from regimental headquarters. Who ever heard of such a thing before? Can there be any reasonable doubt that this was a detective closing in on his man? I must further point to the inferences to be drawn from the subsequent desertion of "Chapman" on October 15, 1876. His task completed, his man found, albeit now dead - and was there ever a Victorian sin or crime not punished by infallible fate? -- the detective departed when circumstances made it possible to do so.

When we come to the larger question of the detective's true identity, we must first look to Christopher Morley's conclusion that Sherlock Holmes journeyed to the American West in 1876. I have to observe that "Chapman's" reputed age of 24 in that year is in excellent agreement with the consensus among Holmesian scholars that the Great Detective was born between 1852 and 1854. Of significance is "Chapman's" eye Color, that aspect of appearance most difficult to disguise in those distant days before cosmetic contact lenses. Holmes, so Dr. Watson recorded, had grey eyes, the same as our cavalry recruit.

But this is not all!! The records show that "Chapman" surrendered to U.S. military authorities on July 7, 1886, and was officially discharged from the Army on July 30, 1886, at Fort Meade, Dakota Territory. I point out that the eminent Sherlockian William S. Baring-Gould has identified a conspicuous gap of several months in the recorded cases of Holmes which only ended in October of 1886 -- several weeks after "Chapman's" discharge and more than sufficient time to travel back to London -- and I feel bound to add that Baring-Gould was convinced that, coincidentally or not, Watson spent most of this same period in the United States of America(!!!). Now, I think it is entirely evident that a man of Sherlock Holmes's integrity would have felt compelled to set right in some manner that old blemish upon his conscience cast by his desertion from the U.S. Army after the close of the Case of the Scottish Nobleman. His role as a soldier had inevitably grown from the requirements of the case as surely as his later courtship and false proposal of marriage to Charles Augustus Milverton's housemaid but, still, it involved an unfulfilled oath. Undoubtedly by 1886 Holmes had established an American reputation (including his involvement in the dreadful business of the Abernetty family of Baltimore and also the case of Vanderbilt and the yeggman) which ensured that he would be accorded a degree of consideration and discretion when he returned to settle the old debt of honor. Given all this evidence, I think I may safely state that "Chapman's" true identity has now been proved beyond any reasonable doubt.

Just how Holmes escaped the destruction of Company E at the Battle of the Little Big Horn is unknown. Perhaps Chapman/Holmes was by chance assigned to the pack train detail. Or maybe his steed, like those of Watson and Thompson, by good fortune gave out on the march, leaving the young Englishman (masquerading as a Connecticut Yankee) to join the rest of the regiment on Reno Hill. Or did the perceptive Holmes recognize the overwhelming danger they faced -- a danger which a junior private soldier could do nothing to mitigate - and choose, reluctantly perhaps, to save his own life while Hiley/Forbes and the other men of E Troop, mounted on their distinctive grey horses, continued onwards to their doom? [It is true that recently a claim has been made that "Chapman" was temporarily assigned for duty at a base camp hundreds of miles away while the Seventh Cavalry went in search of the Indians, but field records of that period are notoriously unreliable. Besides, what self-respecting Victorian detective would allow himself to be left behind while his quarry rode off into the sunset? The suggestion is too ridiculous to contemplate.]

Did Holmes know Watson during their mutual service in the Seventh Cavalry? Or, ironically in light of their later association, did those two young temporary emigrants from the British Empire pass those months in ignorance of each other's existence? If so, when (if ever) did they finally realize their unsuspected connection? Did Holmes, a paragon of observation, indeed recognize this face from the past on that fateful day of their meeting at Bart's Hospital? Did he tell Watson? Or, constrained by his own secret, did he mutely acquiesce in Watson's little fabrications about the good doctor's military experiences?

These matters must await further elucidation on some other occasion. Until then, the curious incident of the detective in Montana will retain its mysteries, as do so many other aspects of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Lest the reader be skeptical of the facts related above, I should point out that all the sources and information cited are genuine, part of the vast amount of material available to students of the battle. My fellow members of the Little Big Horn Associates and of the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association are entirely familiar with the names mentioned and the works referenced. Few, however, are aware of the remarkable link between that remote Montana river and London's bustling Baker Street.

Sherlock Holmes - Vine#1

Bruce Trinque is an engineer by profession and historian by obsession. Upon occasion, he has even contributed to the literature of the subjects of the American West and the Civil War. You can email Bruce with your comments or questions. Anyone interested in learning more about the Battle of the Little Big Horn should visit the Little Big Horn Associates Home Page at This work is copyrighted © 1997-2003 by Bruce Trinque. My deep thanks to Bruce for allowing me to post this work on Yoxley Old Place.

Note: This work first appeared on the web here at 'Yoxley Old Place'


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