There are many mentions of Masonry in the Canon but Sherlock Holmes's membership in the fraternity has never been authenticated. An examination of the facts will illustrate that Sherlock Holmes was indeed a Freemason.
It is a well-known fact that Watson's Literary Agent was a Freemason. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was made a Mason at the age of 27 in 1887 (the same year that the Master made his appearance in Beeton's Christmas Annual). He was initiated as an Entered Apprentice on January 26; passed to the degree of Fellowcraft on February 23; and Raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason on March 23, 1887 in Phoenix Lodge #257, Portsmouth, England.1 He resigned the lodge in 1889, rejoined in 1902, and left again permanently in 1911.2 Although we know the Literary Agent's lodge and dates of membership, we are not provided with the same for Holmes. (Incidentally, Conan Doyle thought so little of his time in the Craft that he did not mention it in his autobiography3.)
To explore Holmes's Masonic membership, it is important to begin with a definition of "Masonry" and examine the beginnings of this Ancient Order. The true origins of Masonry have been lost forever, but we do know that Masonry originated in the Ancient World when operative masons formed fraternal organizations and developed modes of recognition amongst themselves. These were the earliest craft guilds, or as we would consider them today, labor unions. The "secrets" of Masonry passed through Egypt and to the Israelites, who used them in the construction of King Solomon's Temple (see I Kings: V, 26-32; VI, 1-13). 4 (A substantial portion of the Fellowcraft Degree Masonic ritual is based on the building of the Temple.)
Modern Freemasonry dates to the year 1717, when the four lodges in London formed a United Grand Lodge of England and standardized the ritual on the three symbolic degrees (Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason). Masonry is a fraternal organization that preaches brotherly love, relief, and truth. The only requirements for Masonic membership are sound mind and body and belief in a Supreme Being.
Holmes's membership in the Order will be obvious after we examine the Masonic references in the Canon. A number of references are disputed, but we will discuss all of them.
A Study in Scarlet
"We have it all here,...Gold ring, with masonic device."
These words were spoken by Tobias Gregson to Holmes and Watson while detailing the contents of Enoch Drebber's pockets. In his intriguing article,5 Donald A. Redmond discusses the significance of Drebber's ring, claiming that he belonged to a clandestine (not legally constituted) lodge. Thus the first appearance of the Master coincides with the first Canonical Masonic reference, although Holmes appears to have no significant reaction to Gregson's mention of the Masonic ring. Is it possible he knew that Drebber was a clandestine Mason? In any event, Drebber was dead, and Holmes could have no Masonic discourse with him.
A Scandal in Bohemia
The Masonic reference in this story is somewhat oblique, but it is provided by the Master himself. "There is a wonderful sympathy and freemasonry (italics mine) among horsy men. Be one of them, and you will know all that there is to know." Of course, Holmes was explaining his disguise as a groom to Watson, but the implication is clear -- Holmes was in the company of other Masons. Watson is directly quoting Holmes, yet this phrase does not make sense. The educated class (of which Holmes was a member) would not use such a phrase. However, if we understand that Masonry is designed to place all men “on the level” without regard to class, occupation, religion, income, etc., then this phrase makes complete sense. Holmes was a member of the Craft and therefore was accepted in the stables as one of them, regardless of his societal standing. The fact that he was disguised as a groom helped him gain their trust, but once he had revealed his Masonic affiliation, that would have been sufficient.
The Red-Headed League
Jabez Wilson is visiting Holmes at 221B Baker Street. "Beyond the obvious facts...that he is a Freemason..." states Holmes, causing Wilson to inquire how Holmes knew that. Holmes replies, "I won't insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc-and-compass breastpin."
Note that Holmes says "YOUR order" (emphasis mine) but this is easily explained. Cecil A. Ryder, in his article A Study of Masonry, claims that Holmes was a member of the Craft (as Masons refer to the Order) and would not have recognized Wilson as a member because Holmes was a perfectionist.6 Masonry in Victorian times frowned on the wearing of Masonic insignia. The United Grand Lodge of England today does not permit its members to display Masonic emblems of any kind, although this practice is common in the U.S.7 Holmes was simply obeying the rules of his Grand Lodge by not publicly (outside of lodge) announcing his Masonic membership, particularly in Watson's presence; we have no corresponding evidence that Watson ever joined the Craft.
What is interesting about Holmes’s statement to Wilson is the fact that he recognized the symbol as a Masonic one. In A Study in Scarlet, Watson writes of Holmes’s beliefs – “He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him.” Since it has never been demonstrated that Holmes needed knowledge of Freemasonry to solve crimes, Holmes must have known of Freemasonry and its tenets because he was a long-time member of the fraternity.
The Musgrave Ritual
Although there is not a direct Masonic reference in this story, the Musgrave Ritual itself has been considered by some to be a Masonic construct.8 Reginald Musgrave refers to it as "...this ritual of ours." Holmes says it is "...the strange catechism to which each Musgrave had to submit...". According to Macoy,9 "Freemasonry...exists...in a variety of methods or forms, which are called rites."
It is my belief that this early exposure to a form of Masonic ritual influenced Holmes's decision in later years to become a Mason.
The Adventure of the Norwood Builder
Sherlock Holmes says to John Hector McFarlane, "...beyond the obvious facts that you are a...Freemason..." and Watson commented on McFarlane's (Masonic) watch-charm. Unfortunately, though we are certain that "the unhappy John Hector McFarlane" is a Mason, Watson records no other reaction by Holmes.
The Valley of Fear
Perhaps the most Masonic information is provided in this story. There are numerous examples -- McMurdo tells Scanlon that he belongs to the "Eminent Order of Freemen" (read Free & Accepted Masons) which has lodges in every town; a hand-grip10 passed between the two; they exchanged a ritual greeting; they identify the "Bodymasters" (Worshipful Masters) of the lodges. It is very obvious that the "Eminent Order of Freemen" is loosely-based on the Masonic Order. In fact, the "unusual mark -- a branded triangle inside a circle" is the symbol of Royal Arch Masonry, a division of the Masonic Order known as the York Rite. Unfortunately, the historical background related by Watson takes place in America, not England. So we really learn nothing here about Holmes's Masonic connection.
The Adventure of the Retired Colourman
"A stern-looking, impassive man sat beside him, a dark man with gray-tinted glasses and a large Masonic pin projecting from his tie." Thus Watson described Mr. Barker, Holmes's friend and rival. We have no further information about Barker, other than he is from Surrey. He is not mentioned in any other story. How did Holmes know a rival detective from Surrey? Why had he never mentioned Barker to Watson? Simple -- Holmes knew Barker from their Masonic affiliation. If Barker were truly a rival, Watson would have known his name, even if they had never met.
Although it is difficult to equate Holmes's actions with Masonic principles of brotherhood, many authors have tried. Barrett G. Potter, in his Baker Street Miscellanea article, mentions The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge, The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, The Boscombe Valley Mystery, A Case of Identity, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, and The Man with the Twisted Lip, all stories that he claims highlight Masonic attributes.11 However, in his discussion of Victorian principles and Masonry, he also cites the 1970's book and movie, Murder by Decree, decidedly non-Canonical. William R. Cochran12 believes there are Masonic references in The Yellow Face, but he connects this theory to the supposed involvement of Freemasons in the Jack the Ripper murders -- again, the fantastic (and wholly uncorroborated) story told in Murder by Decree. And again, non-Canonical! Raymond L. Holly finds many Masonic references in The Stock-Broker's Clerk13, but as Robert T. Runciman points out in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Freemasonry14, too much is being read into this story by an admitted non-Mason.
There is no better argument for Holmes's Masonic membership than his own actions. As previously mentioned, the tenets of Masonry are brotherly love, relief, and truth. Holmes continually demonstrates that he has taken the values of Masonry to heart. For example:
Brotherly Love -- What better example of Brotherly Love exists than the scene in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs when Watson is wounded? Holmes cries out, "You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!" Watson is extremely moved by Holmes's concern for his welfare. Holmes tells Killer Evans that if he had killed Watson he would not have left the room alive.
Relief -- We can cite numerous references where Holmes has provided relief to his clients, both individuals and governments. In The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Holmes saves Violet Smith from a terrible fate. In The Adventure of the Speckled Band, he saves Helen Stoner from certain death at the hands of her stepfather. He assists the government in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, The Naval Treaty, and His Last Bow. In fact, his entire career is based on relieving the problems of his clients.
Truth -- Holmes's professional life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth. Although there is the occasional decision not to reveal every fact about a case, he is a zealous advocate in pursuing truth for his clients.
We learn in The Adventure of the Second Stain, The Adventure of the Lion's Mane, and His Last Bow that Holmes has retired to raise bees on the Sussex Downs. This is more than mere coincidence. The beehive has relevance to the Master Mason ritual in some jurisdictions -- most notably in England -- "The beehive is an emblem of industry, and recommends the practice of that virtue to all created beings…it teaches us that as we came into the world rational and intelligent beings, so we should ever be industrious ones; never sitting down contented while our fellow-creatures around us are in want, when it is in our power to relieve them without inconvenience to ourselves."15 Holmes had remembered the lecture of the beehive from his Masonic degrees and dedicated his life to the virtue of industry.
Did Sherlock Holmes belong to the Masonic Order? It is my belief that he did. Unfortunately, Watson did not detail Holmes's Masonic connections, in keeping with the secretive nature of Freemasonry. But there are enough Canonical references to indicate that Holmes was indeed a member of this secretive Order. How else would he have recognized McFarlane and Barker as brethren if he had not been a member also?
1.Voorhis, Harold V.B., "Sherlock Holmes was a Mason" in The Royal Arch Mason, Vol. VIII, No. 8, Winter 1965, p. 248. All three degrees must be completed to become a full voting member of the Masonic Order, with privileges to visit other lodges. A man becomes a Mason in a duly constituted lodge of Masons under the auspices of a recognized ("regular") Grand Lodge. In the United States, there are 51 Grand Lodges -- one for each state and the District of Columbia.
2.Runciman, Robert T., "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Freemasonry", The Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, Vol. 104, 1992, pp. 178-187, reprinted by The Franco-Midland Hardware Company as Company Bond Number 002, Hampshire, England, Lee Press, August 1993.
3.Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, Memories and Adventures. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1924.
4.Macoy, Robert, "General History of Freemasonry" in A Dictionary of Freemasonry. New York: Bell Publishing Co., 1989 edition, pp. 7-33.
5.Redmond, Donald A., "The Masons and the Mormons" in Baker Street Journal, Vol. 18, December 1968, pp. 229-231.
6.Ryder, Cecil A., "A Study in Masonry" in Sherlock Holmes Journal, Volume 11, No. 3, 1973, p. 86.
7.Depending on jurisdiction, there are up to twelve officers in a Masonic Lodge: Worshipful Master, Sr. and Jr. Wardens, Sr. and Jr. Deacons, Sr. and Jr. Stewards, Marshal, Secretary, Treasurer, Sr. and Jr. Masters of Ceremonies. The Worshipful Master is the supreme authority in the lodge during his term of office (typically one year). Once a Master leaves office, he is known as a Past Master and may use the appellation "Worshipful Brother". He also uses the arc and compasses as a symbol as opposed to the ordinary Mason ("Brother") who uses the universal square and compasses. Redmond, Op. cit., p. 229.
8.Potter, Barrett G., "Sherlock Holmes and the Masonic Connection" in Baker Street Miscellanea, Vol. 45, Spring 1986, pp. 28-32 and p. 57.
9.Macoy, Robert, A Dictionary of Freemasonry. New York: Bell Publishing Co., 1989 edition, p. 326.
10.Ibid., p. 528.
11.Potter, Op. cit.
12.Cochran, William R., "Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle and The Yellow Face...The Cryptic Holmes" in Beeman's Christmas Annual, 1986, p. 11.
13.Holly, Raymond L., "Hiram Abiff and Hall Pycroft: Freemasonry in The Stock-Broker's Clerk" in Wheelwrightings, Vol. 10, 1987.