Simanaitis Says

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DR. JOHN H. Watson tantalized us in “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” wherein he quoted Sherlock Holmes citing “the dreadful business of the Abernetty family.” Like the possibly better known dog that did nothing in the night, Watson chose to chronicle nothing more about the Abernetty matter, except for Holmes’ extraordinary claim that it “was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk in the butter on a hot day.”

But what about this deduction? Indeed, did this sinking phenomenon actually occur? Or was Holmes merely pulling Watson’s leg (the one with the Jezail bullet wound?).

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories (2 Vol. Set), edited, with notes by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2005.

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes mentions the melting butter and allegedly descending parsley. A footnote cites several Sherlockian sources, including William Hyder’s “Parsley and Butter: The Abernetty Business” (which concludes “without foundation,” writes Klinger, “that no less than murder was involved”). Klinger adds, “A number of scholars consider whether and how fast parsley will sink into butter. Not surprisingly, they do not agree.”

Hmm…. This evidently calls for getting my own oar in the water. Er… parsley in the butter.

I devised the following experiment, aided by a southern California summer that I’m confident is much warmer than any in late Victorian England. Indeed, high temperatures in my Orange County location during this experiment were in the 80s Fahrenheit, as confirmed by my Oregon Scientific Thermo Clock mini weather station.

Briefly, the butter tested was Fond O’Foods Certified NON GMO German Butter of the Erst Qualität. My local grocery store had no English butter.

The parsley, which that old joke alleges no one ever eats, was fresh and ordinary Petroselinum crispum. And crisp it was. By the way, the Petroselinum comes from a Latinization of the Greek, πετροσέλινον, rock celery, related to πέτρα, rock, related to petroleum, rock oil.

For the experiment, a 1 1/4-in. sprig of parsley was placed atop a 1 3/8-in cube of butter in a small bowl, each previously refrigerated at 44 degrees Fahrenheit.

The bowl was placed in open shade near our front door, with the Oregon Scientific Thermo Clock next to it for monitoring temperature and time. Every 15 minutes, I planned to come out and get photographic documentation. The neighbors knew me by now, and didn’t ask.

Here are the results, starting with placing the parsley-butter bowl outside at 2:38 p.m. into an ambience of 84.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

2:38 p.m., 84.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

2:53 p.m., 86.0 degrees Fahrenheit. I sure don’t see any change in the parsley.

3:08 p.m., 86.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Forget the 15-minute increments; let’s go for 30.

3:38 p.m., 86.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Do you notice any difference in the parsley? See you at 4:08.

4:08 p.m., 85.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat of the day has passed.… See you later.

4:41 p.m., 84.2 degrees Fahrenheit. A little more than two hours into the experiment. Do you suppose the Abernettys kept their butter next to the stove or what?

Removing the parsley, one could perceive the slightest of irregularities atop the butter cube. But “sunk into the butter”??

As with any good experiment, I next attempted to replicate results through a slightly different, if equally valid, methodology. In this case, I used an appliance unavailable to Sherlock Holmes: a microwave oven.

I put another fresh sprig atop another butter cube in a small bowl and microwaved them with sequential 10-second blasts and photo documentation. Here’s what I found.


10 seconds.

Another 10.

Yet another 10. Eureka! Parsley doesn’t sink; it floats!

Next time I would put the parsley and butter in a baking dish half full of diced potatoes and a little milk, maybe with a bit of cheese on top; 40 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit should do it. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. phil ford
    August 9, 2017

    I admire your patience. Thanks for the edifying essay!

    • simanaitissays
      August 9, 2017

      Thank you, Phil. Fact is, it would have been more exciting if the parsley had sunk and I could have measured a rate of sinkage.

  2. Skip
    August 14, 2017

    The preceding sentence to the one quoted reads, ““The affair seems absurdly trifling, and yet I dare call nothing trivial when I reflect that some of my most classic cases have had the least promising commencement.” Which begs the question, why was the observation of the sinking butter so revealing? And if it was the beginning of one of Holmes’ most classic cases, why is there no other mention of the Abernetty family’s dreadful business? Is Holmes toying with us after all?

    • simanaitissays
      August 14, 2017

      Yes, as I noted, perhaps he was pulling Watson’s leg. (The one that took a Jazail bullet? Or was that his shoulder?) All in good Sherlockian fun.

    • simanaitissays
      September 26, 2017

      I am pleased that the SoASHS findings and mine agree. Science in action. Now if we could only find a decent recipe for softened butter and parsley….

      • jack
        September 26, 2017

        Thanks for your research. I didn’t find it until after our own experiment.

        You can put it on popcorn.

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This entry was posted on August 9, 2017 by in The Game is Afoot and tagged , .
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