( A version of this article appeared in the spring 2015 edition of “Canadian Holmes”
The Man Who Ignored Sherlock
Holmes: An Untold Tale
By E.J. Wagner
Sherlockians revel in speculating about the untold tales tantalizingly mentioned en passant in the Canon — ‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra’ ‘The Politician, the Light House and the Trained Cormorant,’ ‘The Trepoff Murder in Odessa’ and ‘The Notorious Canary Trainer’ have all received literary attention.
But there is, sadly, one untold tale which is grossly neglected: ‘The Story of the Man Who Ignored Sherlock Holmes.’
In 1893, the very year in which the British population was devastated by news of Sherlock Holmes’s untimely tumble over Reichenbach Falls, Hans Gustav Adolf Gross, an examining jurist as yet little known outside of Austria, published a book.
The massive 900-page tome was lumbered with the unprepossessing title of Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (in English: Handbook for Examining Magistrates as a System of Criminology).
And although there is no hard evidence that its author was familiar with the Holmes stories in 1893 (and indeed in that year Mr. Holmes had not yet made his debut in the German language), the philosophy of the Handbuch reads as though it sprang directly from the brain of the Great
Gross wrote extensively about the collection and study of dust and soil, the importance of footprints and the use of disguises. He also emphasized the importance of careful preservation and objective interpretation of evidence found at crime scenes.
“The trace of a crime discovered and turned to good account, a correct sketch
be it ever so simple, a microscopic slide, a deciphered correspondence, a
photograph of a person or object, a tattooing, a restored piece of burnt paper, a
careful survey, a thousand more material things are all examples of
incorruptible, disinterested, and enduring testimony from which mistaken,
inaccurate, and biased perceptions, as well as evil intention, perjury, and
unlawful co-operation, are excluded…….” he wrote.
He explained in detail the importance of understanding chemistry,
fingerprinting, medicine and anatomy in the solution of criminous puzzles. He
delved into ballistics and developed myriad methods of detecting malingering.
These concepts were new and startling in 19th-century Austria. Police work at
that time and place was largely undertaken by former military men, whose
physical ability to quell suspects was unrestrained by any education in a
scientific approach to criminal investigation.
It therefore became the responsibility of the examining justices to direct the
police in the discovery of culpable parties and of appropriate evidence.
Examining justices, as a rule, possessed legal training, but little scientific
knowledge, and were usually appointed to their positions for political reasons.
Convictions were the result of whim and emotion rather than reason.
Gross was formally in possession of a law degree and was also gifted
with an unusually broad curiosity and an intensely analytical mind. He was
convinced that research into both criminal psychology and physical sciences
were needed to bring order to a chaotic system. Receiving an appointment as an examining magistrate, he proceeded to apply his experience as a judge to the creation of a new approach to criminal justice.
His handbook surpassed anything that had been previously written on police
investigation and by 1908 had been translated into many languages, including English. He lectured widely, in Vienna as well as his birthplace, Graz. One of his students was Franz Kafka, who clearly benefited from exposure to the labyrinthine legal world.
Gross was appointed professor of criminology at Graz University and in 1912
founded the Hans Gross Museum of Criminology in that city.
He was every inch a scholar, using his pen and his influence to promote the
same theories and ideals that Conan Doyle expressed through the fictional
medium of Sherlock Holmes.
It is clear that Doyle was aware of Gross’s work. ‘The Problem of Thor
Bridge,’ published in The Strand Magazine in 1922, replicates a case of Gross in which a suicide is disguised as murder. Holmes solves the case,investigating it just as Gross had presented it.
But no evidence has yet come to light that Gross, in turn, ever mentioned his
The question is why? The Holmes stories had become world famous. It is hard to believe that none of Gross’s contemporaries had ever mentioned the Great Detective to the famous jurist.
As a rule, Gross was most generous in praising his contemporaries in criminal investigation. He held Georg Popp, the specialist in microscopic trace evidence, in high esteem, and said so frequently. He admired as well Cesare Lombroso, the anthropologist, and quoted him often.
Gross wrote with delighted approval of the investigators in Vienna who
solved the asphyxia murder of a prostitute using an early form of profiling.
In his chapter on criminal psychology, Gross explained admiringly that the
police used their knowledge that a local man habitually brought two chickens
with him when he visited ladies of the evening. The poultry bearing client would strangle the birds at the climactic moment.
(He was known,unsurprisingly, as ‘The Chicken Man’). Faced with a dead prostitute whose purse was untouched, police surmised that the Chicken Man’s sadistic tendencies had escalated to focus on humans. Questioned, the Chicken Man confessed.
To Gross, this was evidence of the important role of psychology in police
work, and he was happy to applaud the detectives.
He frequently mentioned his admiration for Edmund Locard, the physician/
lawyer who founded the first police laboratory in France.
Locard’s admiration for Holmes was well known. Indeed, he famously
advised his students to read the Holmes stories as part of their scientific
But Hans Gross remained remarkably reticent on the subject of Holmes. Like
that of the dog that did nothing in the nighttime, his silence piques the
I suggest that the reason for this obvious omission was Gross’s son, Otto.
Otto, born in 1877, inherited his father’s intelligence but not his discipline and diligence. Achieving a medical degree, he did not begin a practice but set out at once for South America, where he acquired, among other things, a passion for drugs. Cocaine became a particular favourite.
His addiction grew serious enough for him to travel to Zurich, and attempt a
cure through the good offices of C.G. Jung. Jung analyzed Otto; Otto, by now
fascinated by the unconscious, in turn analyzed Jung. Jung retaliated by
referring Otto to Freud. Freud, uneasy with Otto’s interest in attaching politics to analysis, withdrew, clutching a cigar.
Otto embraced political anarchy, sexual freedom, the Dada art movement,
more drugs, psychoanalysis and a number of ladies, two of whom committed suicide.
Otto’s more or less romantic relationships produced four children. Two of the
progeny were named Peter. (Fortunately, the two had different mothers, thus limiting confusion at family gatherings )
Hans Gross took legal measures to have his son institutionalized for treatment.
Otto sued his father for his release. The legal situation grew increasingly
complex and, well, Kafkaesque.
Gross considered men like his son degenerate, and believed that if they would not or could not be treated, they should be deported. Africa, he considered, might be an appropriate destination.
Considering the anguish Otto’s addictions must have caused his disciplined
papa, Holmes’s own cocaine addiction, even by a louche fictional character,
must have been painful for Gross to appreciate. Perhaps this accounts for his neglect of Holmes.
If you visit Graz today, you can spend an intriguing day wandering through
the Hans Gross Museum of Criminology at Universitatsplatz.
Memorabilia of hundreds of grim crimes and criminals await you there — a
monument to the contributions Hans Gross made as father of criminology.
If, after awhile, you feel the need of something lighter — the Arnold
Schawrzenegger Museum is just a short distance away.
EJ Wagner, as always