Sherlock Holmes in Minnesota

I’ve become very interested in Minnesota history, and by interested I mean annoyed in many cases. The first thing white Minnesotans did was to exploit the Indians. The second thing they did was to throw the Indians out, move them to reservations, kill them, and otherwise treat them very poorly. Meanwhile, they got going on the process of cutting down 90 percent of the trees in the state. Even New York State, where I grew up, did not have such wanton destruction of the forests, and Whitie had two hundred more years to do it there. They also killed off most of the wolves. Oh, and both wolves and Indians had actual monetary bounties on them. Both Indians and Wolves were killed for bounty in times recent enough that the average old Minnesotan white person may have had a parent or grandparent involved in that business.

I’m also very interested in Sherlock Holmes. My interest is partly because they are fun stories, but it goes deeper than that. I’m interested in semiotics, and the Holmes stories have been investigated and discussed in that context. I’m interested in race and racism, and the Holmes stories are a window int the inter-ethnic attitudes of colonial period England. I’m interested in South Africa, and these stories overlap in time with major events related to the British and South Africa, including the largest and most intense war ever fought by Britain to date. And so on.

So, how do these things relate? Well …

Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon (Sherlock Holmes Mysteries (Penguin)) is one of those post-Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories, which I also enjoy becasue I like to see how people succeed (or fail) to bring the key elements of the Holmes literature forward into some other context. This particular story was, as usual, written by Dr. John Watson, as all but a couple of the Holmes stories were (Holmes himself had a hand at it as well). The manuscript was found in a vault in a Saint Paul mansion, and subsequently has been examined and turned to print by editor Larry Millett.

This previously unknown case was centered in Minnesota. Holmes and Watson were brought to the North Star State to investigate threats against a major railroad magnate and his interests. The story plays out against the backdrop of the afore mentioned wanton destruction of the forests by Minnesota lumberjacks. In those days, not only was clear cut the rule, but leaving debris from lumbering operations behind and not properly tended was also the usual practice. This resulted in the creation of an unlit campfire of tinder and small logs that ran hundreds of miles in every direction broken only by swamps and streams. Along the eastern tracts of lumbering, where there are fewer swamps, this was especially dangerous, and one day resulted in the breaking out of one of the worst forest fires ever.

This case is actually a chronicle of one of Holmes’s greatest failure, considering that in the end he was unable to stop the Great Hinkley Fire, which burned over 400 square miles of land and killed about the same number of people (the death toll remains uncertain to this day).

The chronicle of events recorded by the judicious and thoughtful James Watson integrate a description of the Holmsean method of inference with the dynamic frontier history playing out in Minnesota at the time. No one interested in the history of crime or of the settlement of the Northwest Territories and early Minnesota, or the story of Victorian Man against Mother Nature, or of railroad history or any form of pyromania should fail to read this book.

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14 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes in Minnesota

  1. It’s also worth noting that Millet put together some of the best architectural histories of the Twin Cities. Gorgeous books, though I’m not sure which of them are still available.

    Let me know when you’re ready for the next book.

  2. Meanwhile, they got going on the process of cutting down 90 percent of the trees in the state. Even New York State, where I grew up, did not have such wanton destruction of the forests, and Whitie had two hundred more years to do it there.

    How much of those forests in New York were secondary growth? Here in New Hampshire, much farmland was abandoned after eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death (AKA the year without a summer), and you can see traces of the former land use in the form of stone walls in the middle of a forest (said walls marked property boundaries; there are at least two examples within walking distance of my house, and I’m not in a rural area). Before that happened, white people had cut down close to 90 percent of our forests, too. I assume that similar numbers apply to much of upstate New York (though they may not have bothered with mountainous areas like the Adirondacks). There weren’t many white people in Minnesota in 1816, so the smaller fraction of remaining forests may just reflect the fact that so much of Minnesota is still farmland.

  3. Eric, good question, and the answer is, a lot, but there were forest preserves and areas that were not logged out before becoming parkland in NY. In Minnesota, which is a very large state, there is only Itasca, the boundary waters (which is mostly water) and a single 40 acre patch north of Grand Rapids for pine and a few spots around the twin cities for hardwoods. Everything else was logged, with only the occassional tree left behind. It would be interesting to make the comparison with real numbers, though.

  4. Eric, I can’t answer your question about New York, but I can point out that it was the lumber industry, not farming, that drove settlement of Minnesota. Farming did come along afterward, but the difference in cutting patterns for hilly and wet areas is important in figuring out how much was cut.

  5. Stephanie, I’m not sure if I’m ready for another book yet, but I can return this one.

    Regarding MN settlement, that’s true except in the southern prairies where the sodbusters went right from driving off the Indians to planting stuff, ultimately to switch to a single crop mainly sold to a single company (corn/Cargill)

  6. This post left me intrigued and confused. I’m intrigued to learn that there’s a Holmes mystery set in Minnesota around the Hinckley Fire tragedy.

    But I can’t follow your paragraph regarding the development of this book. You talk like Holmes and Watson are nonfictional and authored this? And Millet who is a real human is the editor? (The Amazon reviews also treat this as a Watson-authored story, wha?) I guess you’re playing along with the conceit of the book and Millet (really) is the author and everything in the story is fictional including the discovery of a lost manuscript. Are the Holmes and Watson characters in the public domain and any author can derive a novel about them?

  7. An unbeliever!!!!! Get him!!!!!

    Yes, I think the public domain thing must be true. There are more stories written by authors other than Doyle than by Doyle, though I’m not sure of the exact count. If one includes non-literary adaptaitons, it is a very large number. If one includes only short stories, it is not that high, but novels abound. (Inverse the canon.)

  8. I will have to give this a look.

    I have come across some very good and some very bad Holmes fan fiction.

    My Mum loved the Mary Russell stories with Holmes but I found them a little too simplistic.

    This one sounds a gem though.

  9. If it makes you feel any better, MI has a very similar history. Though in MI is was all about the lumber – lumber and mining. Farming came close on the heels in northern central MI, while northern MI and the U.P. were replanted and ultimately left to grow.

    Of course we also managed a relatively unique feat, polluting rivers in extremely rural parts of northern MI. Copper mining had a profound impact on several waterways in the U.P., while paper mills decimated the rivers in south central MI, where I live. The paper mills decidedly won the pollution war, as we still have superfund sites. There is a portion of the Kalamazoo river that is still cordoned off, more than twenty years after paper production ended there.

    On the other hand, we did go to war with Ohio.

  10. at least MN was honest about it’s history when it comes to the State eagles with wide spread wings or lady’s in long dresses holding up the states bounty.rather it shows a farmer at his horse plow watching an Indian riding off into the sunset…..

  11. DuWayne, Michigan and Minnesota shared some of this history quite literally, as the governor of Michigan was in charge of Minnesota (in certain respects) for awhile, and eventually became either the BIA head or equivilant, and took on the job of both discovering the source of the Mississippi (which he fucked up, but still named the lake after himself) and driving out many of the Indians, having invented the strategy of getting some guy drunk, claim he is the chief, the put his X on some bogus document. Well, if not invented, perfected, lying to the president the whole time that he was not bilking anyone.

    Second point: The copper industry in Norther Michigan, which actually was originally a native enterprise for a few thousand years (yes, folks, the North American natives had a metal industry, and there was even a written language), was developed by none other than the son of the famous Louis Agassiz, the almost as famous Alexander Agazziz. This copper money was used by Alexander to fund piles of research, mostly oceanic, which led the groundwork for much of modern oceanography.

    See this:

  12. yes, folks, the North American natives had a metal industry…

    Ahh yes, but the native Americans didn’t mine as destructively as the mighty white European Americans.

    I find it very amusing, in a sad sort of way, that you have to give that disclaimer. I mean for fucks sake, many native American nations and tribes had access to metals. Do people think that metal just magically appeared in artifact form?

    Your statement reminded me of a great book I read as a kid – for kids, sort of. I cannot for the life of me remember what it was called, but it described in great detail what the average villages of several native nations looked like. I recall being rather surprised (I was six or seven, give me a break) that there were smithies in many of these villages, including some that were nomadic. I spent several hours over several days, trying to figure out how the hell they would have moved their anvils and forges. No internet to help and encyclopedias were useless for that one as well. I finally had to pin down one of the children’s librarians to help me tackle a very not so childern’s book to find out.

    Even at six or seven, I felt rather stupid when I found out.

  13. Ahh yes, but the native Americans didn’t mine as destructively as the mighty white European Americans.

    Almost no mining at all. Just picking up “native copper” or very shallow pits.

    I’m guessing they didn’t move that heavy stuff … they used lighter weight equipment, and didn’t move that either, but had a few locations they would revisit.

    Many nomads (as I’ sure you know, but for those looking in) spend, over their lives, more time in fewer places than sedentary people.

    The average Pygmy will sleep 80 percent of the time in a total if five or six locations, but move between locations an average of every two to three weeks. The nearby villagers may move from one village to another (often the whole village moves, or else, they move on marriage or for some reason) less than every ten years. So a villager who reaches an old age may well have more places they’ve lived (or roughly the same)

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