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THERE’S A LOT OF scholarship, some of it contradictory, regarding the war wound of Dr. John H. Watson, chronicler of the world’s greatest consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Exactly where was Watson wounded?
In Maiwand, Afghanistan, is the glib response. But you know what I mean: What particular portion of Watson’s anatomy required doctoring?
When we first meet Watson in A Study in Scarlet, he recounts his duties in Afghanistan as Assistant Surgeon, initially with the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers: “I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires [formally Princess Charlotte of Wales’s Regiment], with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray my orderly….”
To summarize: Maiwand is in south central Afghanistan, 50 miles northwest of Kandahar. The Jezail is a large heavy rifle with an iron forked rest, perhaps the word derived from the Arabic word for “big,” jazil. The subclavian arteries are in the upper chest below the collarbone.
But confusion arises later in The Sign of Four when Watson says he is “nursing my wounded leg. I had had a jezail bullet through it some time before.”
Gad zooks. This is as puzzling as when the doctor’s wife refers to him as “James” in his chronicle of “The Man With The Twisted Lip.” Mystery writer/Sherlockian Dorothy Sayers passes off this oddity by noting the H. in John H. Watson evidently stood for Hamish, the Scottish James.
Well, okay. But what about where that bullet hit?
Some say Watson was wounded twice. However, I admire the other conjectures, at least in part because of their richness of imagination. (“If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly.”)
As noted in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, if Watson had been bent over, say while he was attending a patient, a single bullet could have caused the two wounds. A second conjecture is that the bullet may have ricocheted off the collarbone, grazed the artery, left the body at an acute angle and then entered the leg.
Occam’s Razor, seeking the simplest solution, suggests a third possibility: The good doctor could have been shot from below while he was squatting over a cliff to answer a call of nature. Ouch.
The most bizarre hypothesis suggests that Watson was killed, not wounded, at Maiwand. His orderly Murray took his identity, with a subsequent “guilt for this masquerade … explaining all the errors of dates, places, and names rampant throughout the Canon, including his absentmindedness about his own wound.”
Holmes said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” You’re telling me…. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017