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IT’S ONLY rarely that I offer first-hand knowledge of a Sherlockian locale as described by his friend and colleague, Dr. John H. Watson. True, occasionally travels have taken me to key places in the Canon: Meiringen, Switzerland (www.wp.me/p2ETap-c8) and, of course, London (www.wp.me/p2ETap-1fs).
This time, however, the locale is important in one of the adventures—though never actually visited by Holmes—and it’s part of my own family history.
I speak of the anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, as chronicled in Watson’s describing “The Valley of Fear.”
Wisely wishing to avoid calumny, Watson sets key events in what he calls the Vermissa Valley, which eminent Sherlockian William S. Baring-Gould identifies as “Watsonese for the Shenandoah Valley.”
And, in fact, my mother and father both hail from precisely the borough of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. (See www.wp.me/p2ETap-3T.)
“The Valley of Fear,” serialized in The Strand in 1914 and 1915, is the last of Watson’s full-length novelistic chronicles, the other three being “A Study in Scarlet,” 1887; “The Sign of Four,” 1890; and “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” serialized in The Strand, 1901 and 1902.
In “The Valley of Fear,” an American living in Sussex is found horribly murdered. Holmes, battling the evil Professor Moriarty at the time, sees “a great brain back in London and a dead man in Sussex.”
The murder weapon is a “sawn gun,” what we Yanks would call a sawed-off shotgun. The victim has a curious branded triangle inside a circle on his forearm—and there’s an inscription, “V.V. 341,” on a piece of cardboard left at the scene of the crime.
I won’t spoil the fun, except to note that Holmes deduces this is the work of the Scowrers, Watsonese for the Molly Maguires, a notorious secret society in the Vermissa Valley/Shenandoah Valley.
What about the real “Mollies”?
Some say they were merely Irish-American coal miners associated with the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Others say they were a bunch of gangsters specializing in murder, arson, kidnapping and other mayhem.
The gangster argument is suggested by well-documented trials in 1876 and 1878 and the investigative work of Pinkerton detective James McPharlan (who appears as Birdy Evans in Watsonese).
However, times in the coal region were anything but easy. There were mining disasters, low pay, long hours, conniving company stores, prepubescent miners and, all the while, the owner in that big fancy house up on the hill.
And what about anthracite coal?
Anthracite or hard coal makes up about 1 percent of the world’s coal reserves, the rest being bituminous or soft coal. Anthracite has a higher carbon content, fewer impurities and a higher calorific content.
Mineralogically, bituminous coal transforms into anthracite, then graphite and, rarely, diamonds. Northeastern Pennsylvania’s first recorded anthracite was in 1790 in Pottsville (Watson’s Vermissa). Today, China has the largest reserves, followed by Russia, Ukraine, North Korea, Viet Nam, the U.K., Australia and the U.S.
The relative cleanliness of anthracite makes it the coal of choice in power plants; this, despite its costing two to three times that of bituminous. High Grade and Ultra High Grade anthracites are reserved for metallurgical applications.
Listeners of SiriusXM “Radio Classics” may recall vintage ads for “Blue Coal,” a blue-dyed variant marketed in the 1940s and 1950s by the Glen Alden Coal Company. Wartime needs for bituminous coal gave anthracite a boost in home-heating demand.
Fortunately, by then, the Scowrers/Molly Maguires weren’t involved. Maybe they’d gone underground. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013