Archive for the ‘Black Dogs’ Category

“Science of Sherlock Holmes”new updated edition!

February 21, 2017

Fall River Press  has published a new,updated edition with new chapter  of “The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases… by E.J. Wagner
Average rating 4.5

B&N Cover.jpg

available at Barnes and Noble

This new, updated edition of the Edgar® Award-winning The Science of Sherlock Holmes is as fascinating and eye-opening as any Holmes mystery.  

“Fascinating.” –The Christian Science Monitor
“A double triumph…masterful.” –The Toronto Star
“Utterly compelling.”–Otto Penzler
Take a wild ride by hansom cab along the road paved by Sherlock Holmes—a ride that leads you through medicine, law, pathology, toxicology, anatomy, blood chemistry, and the emergence of forensic science during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Author E.J. Wagner delves into gripping real-life mysteries such as:

How Jack the Ripper’s brutal 1888 murders could have been solved, if detectives had followed the example of the Holmes mystery A Study in Scarlet, published the year before.

How a clever detective proved the butler did it.

Dr. Watson - registered as Wagners' The Game's Afoot - photo by W.R.Wagner

Dr. Watson – registered as Wagners’ The Game’s Afoot – photo by W.R.Wagner

How early forensic science failed in the Lizzie Borden Case

How  Black Dog  ghost tales   are linked to haunting murder case
In examining the Great Detective’s remarkable adventures—along with gripping real-life mysteries such as the disappearance of Dr. George Parkman, wife-killer Kenneth Barlow, Jack the Ripper, and Lizzie Borden—Wagner gives readers a new perspective on both Holmes and modern-day forensic detection.

Fall River Press
Publication date:

Meet the Author

E.J. Wagner is a crime historian, lecturer, teller of suspense stories for adults, and moderator of the annual Forensic Forum at Stony Brook University’s Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences. Her work has been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the New York Times,  the Lancet, Smithsonian, among others. E.J’s website is

London On My Mind: The City of Sherlock Holmes

July 31, 2011

This article first appeared in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 27, No. 2, Spring 2011, London Mysteries II issue, published by Mystery Readers International. Issues are available for purchase individually or by subscription.

It’s a typical day for a storyteller and crime historian like me. The setting is an animal preserve on the north shore of Long Island. It is late afternoon in spring. Fifty people, sitting on folding chairs, face me.

I’m perched precariously on a rock to regale them with tales of crime involving the furred and feathered. I’m hoping not to be drowned out by the roar of a caged cougar, or the shrieks of the nearby peacocks, who are evidently in a state of erotic hysteria.

As the sun dips, I describe the mysterious disappearance of the famous bloodhounds, Burgo and Barnaby, while tracking Jack the Ripper through fogbound Victorian London. Inevitably, even in an animal preserve on Long Island, London is part of my story.

London has always been on my mind.

Even before I made the acquaintance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes in my home territory of the Bronx, even before I read about the Dickensian miseries of workhouses and orphans, my fascinated immersion in the original, acerbic “Mary Poppins” had implanted the city in my very active imagination. London, from the fecund pigeons of Trafalgar Square to the idyllic stretches of Hampstead Heath was in many ways more real to me than the New York in which I lived.

In this fantasy I was aided and abetted by our family housekeeper, who had arrived in the U. S. from Poland by way of London. She made it clear that a napkin was properly called a “serviette,” a diaper a “nappy,” and that the early supper I was fed as a child was actually my “tea.”

In college, my anglophilia grew apace and kept company with my interest in atmospheric homicide. As a theater arts major, I studied dramatic works of Jacobean revenge, Elizabethan hauntings, and Victorian suspense. I was cast as Bella in “Angel Street” (a play set in 1890 London, of course) and played both Ophelia and Lady Macbeth (roles written by a very well-known London-based playwright).

This necessitated long discussions with my pathologist cousin as to the details of death, which led in turn to quite a bit of time in autopsy rooms and crime laboratories. Blood and guts and dramatic literature have a long conjoined history.

Off stage, in between muddling through turgid tomes on the influence of the English monarchy on Globe Theater productions, I delved into crime novels featuring sensitive London detectives with complicated, bittersweet romantic lives. I read accounts of true crimes solved by science, and grew familiar with an entire panoply of Victorian poisoning trials, not to mention the odd bludgeoning and occasional stabbing. I studied the memoirs and biographies of long dead pathologists. I immersed myself in Sherlock Holmes adventures and grew increasingly riveted by the inherent dramatic tension between English understatement, sardonic humor and bloody murder.

Which is most likely why, decades later, weaving these divergent threads together, I found myself in the odd business of writing and performing one‑person presentations about the history and folklore of crime and forensic science—and why my beloved London was always part of the show. I could offer detailed descriptions of Regent’s Park, The Strand, Waterloo Bridge, Whitechapel, and explain exactly how a villain could walk through them, hide in them, live in them. I could conjure up the fog, the sound of footsteps, the splatter of rain on ancient cobblestones.

But this was only an actor’s license—because I had never seen these things for myself.

It was not from want of trying. It was due to a truly rotten sense of timing. It seemed every time my husband, Bill, and I tried to plan a trip to London, a family illness or a crisis at his job or mine interfered.

And I must admit—in the interests of full disclosure—on a few occasions, I managed to sabotage things myself, with my weakness for acquiring black Labrador puppies who needed immediate training during what was supposed to be vacation time. (This wasn’t without advantages—honoring the adage that nothing in a writer’s life should go to waste—I sold an article about such an abortive London trip to the New York Times; “Labrador Love” the editor headed it. The piece was illustrated with a drawing of a Lab pup enthusiastically chewing a picture of the London skyline.)

The worm turned in 1993 just when we were busily planning the imminent wedding of our younger daughter. I was made an offer it would hurt to refuse. It involved a trip to England, first class on the Queen Elizabeth 2, for my husband and me. The work was minimal—I had only to give two lectures on crime during the crossing to Southampton. Bill and I considered, with anguish, the dicey timing. There were invitations to send, dresses to be fitted, flowers to be ordered, seating plans to be decided on. What sort of parents could leave at such a time?

Evidently, our sort. We packed, dumped the wedding arrangements in our two daughters’ willing hands, advised our Resident Labradors, Dickens and Poppins, to be gentle with the house sitter, and headed for the ship. We were armed with a reservation at a Hampstead bed and breakfast, and, courtesy of a pal at the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory a contact number at the Scotland Yard Forensic Science Laboratory, as well as a comprehensive London A to Z.

We arrived in London with an odd sense of home-coming. The city seemed to resonate with echoes of the old crimes whose details I knew so well. The reminders were constant.

The B and B in which we stayed at Frognal and Finchley had been the last address of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the eminent if controversial pathologist. Sir Bernard had given testimony with fatal results to the accused in over 250 cases, and as Richard Gordon, the physician/author acutely noted, if Spilsbury had been mistaken in only 8 of these, he had been responsible for the loss of more innocent life than Jack the Ripper.

The neighborhood of Hampstead whispered murder to me. Finchley Road, for instance, was the scene of the dispatching of Stanley Setty in 1949. He was done in by one Brian Donald Hume, who finished the job by dismembering his victim and wrapping him in parcels, which he then dropped into the sea by plane. The remains were discovered, a trial ensued, but Hume got off—enabling him to kill another chap in Switzerland some time later.

Not far away is the Magdala Tavern, in front of which blonde Ruth Ellis shot and killed her racing car lover David Blakely. She was executed in 1955, the last woman hanged in England. Her post mortem report stated that her body showed “no sign of disease” but betrayed “an odor of brandy.”

Visiting the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) Forensic Laboratory in Lambeth, we were taken to lunch by the Deputy Director, and made the interesting discovery that the Met had it’s very own wine label, a nicety not given to NYPD. Walking through the  Lambeth area, I inevitably thought of Dr. Thomas Cream, the physician/serial killer who haunted the neighborhood in 1891, plying unsuspecting ladies of the evening with “pills for their complexion.”

Every part of London reminded me of old cases—Florence Bravo and the fatal glass of Burgundy her husband drank in 1876, Ada Bartlett, and her husband’s mysterious death from chloroform . . . and of course this led us to an afternoon at the Old Bailey where these cases were famously tried, as well as to the pub across the street, to watch the barristers and solicitors lifting lunchtime liquids.

Since that trip, Bill and I have returned to the UK a number of times. When an editor at John Wiley & Sons asked me to write a book on the history of forensic science, to be called The Science of Sherlock Holmes, my first thought was that it gave us a great excuse for another trip.

London was on my mind again.

Dartmoor Ghosts and Sherlock Holmes’ Dissecting Room

September 26, 2010

September 29 2010, I’ll be at Mt Anthony Country Club in Bennington Vermont at 7 PM to tell adult haunting tales from Dartmoor and from Sherlock Holmes Dissecting Room.

It’s free, cash bar, book signing to follow (my very own The Science of Sherlock Holmes).  If you have a copy, bring it and I’ll sign it – if not, there will be a few copies  available for sale

The talk is sponsored by the Bennington Chamber of Commerce as  part of the Season of Mystery series.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Birthday, and Black Dogs

October 26, 2009

An Appreciation

One hundred and fifty years ago, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most loved and best known detective figure of all time, was born in a suburb of Edinburgh Scotland. In excited celebration of this event, gatherings of all kinds—dinners, symposiums, exhibitions, re-enactments and entertainments—have taken place throughout 2009. In the UK, Conan Doyle’s innovative science fiction novel The Lost World has been part of the 2009 Great Reading Adventure, sponsored by Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. Special editions have been published, including a children’s version. Everyone in the UK was urged to read Conan Doyle in 2009.

Last July, the University of Hull, in Britain, sponsored a conference on Doyle and Holmes. In India, a film featuring the character of Holmes is being shot—the role played by a British diplomat. In the US, Harvard’s Houghton Library hosted a symposium to honor the author, coinciding with the opening of a major exhibition at Houghton: “Ever Westward: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in American Culture.”

In Scotland, the ancient and dying sycamore tree under which Conan Doyle played as a child was chosen for a special honor. Its wood was used to make a violin styled after the one played by Sherlock Holmes, and the tree’s stump carved into a Holmes memorial.

It is true that in the course of writing fifty-six stories and four novels about the Great Detective, Conan Doyle developed a weary resentment towards his obsessively observant hero, referring to him at one point as “a monstrous growth.”  But the public was enamored, and Conan Doyle’s effort to annihilate Holmes by fictionally flinging him and his nemesis, the arch-criminal Moriarty, to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls, met with such resistance that the author resurrected the pair. Conan Doyle, the physician turned author, is eternally caught in the web of his own magic.

Although numerous works on a variety of subjects flowed from his pen—science fiction, travel, memoir, passionate spiritualism—Sherlock Holmes is the figure on which Conan Doyle’s enduring fame overwhelmingly rests. The author’s ability to weave together folklore and science, logic and superstition—to distract the reader for instance, in The Hound of the Baskervilles with a haunting tale of a ghostly Black Dog while leading to a believable realistic ending—set the standard for great mystery writing.

The acerbic, logical Holmes, his affable companion, Watson, and the rooms in Baker Street, form an indelible part of our culture. From school kids reading the tales late at night when they are supposed to be asleep, to mature Sherlockians revisiting the adventures for the hundredth time, we all treasure the literary hearth ACD bequeathed us.


Dr. Watson - registered as Wagners' The Game's Afoot - photo by W.R.Wagner

Note: Most likely it was Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles that started my long fascination with black dogs. In some folk traditions they are considered to bring good fortune, in others they are believed to be harbingers of disaster and death. I avidly collect these tales. (For more about mythical Black Dogs, such as Old Shuck and the Galleytrot, as well as the 1945 Black Dog Murder in Lower Quinton, see chapter 2 of The Science of Sherlock Holmes.)  My family and I happily share our lives with black dogs, our current Resident Labrador Retriever being ”Dr. Watson.”  But years before he arrived, there were others. . . .

When Life Begins – or – Midlife Puppy

October 26, 2009

A version of this article was first printed in the New York Times, in 1989 (without photographs).

On a bitter February night, my husband Bill and I came home from our veterinarian’s office, wet-eyed, holding an empty red dog collar and lead. Dickens, our big male Labrador, met us at the door and nuzzled us inquiringly. There was no way to tell him that his beloved companion, Bonnie, would never come home again.


Bonnie - photo by E. J. Wagner

We had lived under Bonnie’s benign despotism for most of her sixteen years. She had roused us when our children were ill in the night.  She had guarded their play. Her stentorian bark warned us of strangers, and welcomed our friends. She and I had grown our first grey hairs together. Our family was bereaved.

Friends proffered comfort. Bernie dropped by with prune Danish and advice. He reminded us that in her last years, Bonnie’s needs had been considerable, and boarding her unthinkable. Dickens, easy-going, and in the prime of life, presented no such problem. This would be an ideal time for us to make the trip to London that we had always talked about. After all, our two daughters were grown and didn’t need us—Sonia working in the city, and Dahlia away at college. Bernie strongly recommended a trip. Then he told us a joke—about three clergymen who discuss the question of when life begins. The first claims it’s at conception, the second opts for the quickening, but the third insists “Life begins when the children leave home and the dog dies. . . .”

A neighbor told us she knew just how we felt—her own little dog having “passed away” ten years before. She would never go through that again. That sort of emotional tie was for young people. She lent us some travel folders, and shared a joke with us. It seems there were three women arguing about when life begins. . . .

We put away Bonnie’s food dish, placed our favorite photo of her grizzled, Labrador face up on the mantel. We read travel articles and talked about London. Dickens watched us. His appetite, like ours, was slight. He sighed heavily and often. Three white hairs appeared among the midnight black of his fur. Disconsolate, he roamed through the house and around the garden, peering behind trees and under the bushes that marked Bonnie’s favorite places. Sometimes he whimpered as he searched, our canine Orpheus, desperately seeking, in the chill Long Island spring, his dear lost Eurydice.

In May, we decided to face the problem and deal with it like mature, sensible people. We requisitioned our daughters’ company and drove to an address in the North Fork. When we returned, the girls held between them an eight-week-old female Labrador puppy—thirteen pounds of warm black velvet wrapped around a feisty spirit, edged with a petunia-pink tongue and white, needle-sharp teeth. She was redolent of that wonderful new-puppy aroma, somewhere between roasted nuts and new-cut hay. We named her Poppins.

We put her to bed in a puppy-crate in Bonnie’s old spot in the kitchen, and took Dickens upstairs with us.

At three that morning I was aroused by an unearthly cry—a keening—a shrieking—a howling—that chilled the blood and nearly stopped the heart. “WHAT IS IT? WHAT IS IT?” I yelled.

“It’s Poppins—she needs us . . . ,” cried my husband, valiantly leaping out of bed and struggling into a bathrobe.

“But why does it sound like she’s right in the room with us?”

“Because,” he replied in a tone of smug self-congratulation, “I thought to turn on the intercom,” and then he was racing down the stairs, Dickens at his heels.

The intercom! That instrument of torture, that I had blissfully forgotten in the years since my children were small. I felt for it behind the bedroom mirror, noticed that it was turned to “high,” switched it off, and went downstairs.

The kitchen was empty except for Dickens. Through the sliding glass doors, I could see that it was storming savagely. Lightning cracked the sky, trees writhed in the wind. Dickens and I peered out into the darkness. It was a long time before Bill appeared, like Neptune from the depths. Water streamed from his hair, flowed from his beard. His robe was sodden, his sneakered feet squelched mud. He held a red leash in his hand. At the end of it sat our tiny Baskerville Hound, looking up at him with an expression of ecstatic adoration. “She did everything,” Bill announced, flushed with success. “Everything, right where I asked her to.”


Dickens meets Poppins - photo by E. J. Wagner

Clearly Poppins was a quick study. Clearly we were going to lose a lot of sleep. We learned to rise at four and eat breakfast at five, kicking a tennis ball back and forth as we chewed to keep the puppy occupied. When I was busy writing, it was Dickens’ turn to distract her—which he did with amazing gentleness and tolerance. He would hold out his favorite rubber ring, allow her to grasp a side, and then engage her in a benign tug of war, pulling just hard enough to give her a game, but never lifting her off her feet, as he could easily have done. He always let her win. They chased each other up and down the stairs, through the living room, around the garden. Often Bill and I ran with them, ducking to avoid low branches, leaping over logs. When the dogs grew tired, they curled up together on Bonnie’s old bed and sang to each other—their voices rising and falling in an engagingly dissonant, haunting duet for bass and soprano Labrador.

On weekends Bill taught Poppins to swim. Afraid of the pool at first, she paddled frantically with her front paws, and needed Bill to support her rear end—but she caught on quickly and soon was swimming laps, using her tiny tail to steer. She glided like an otter—like a sleek black seal—an Esther Williams in fur. I waded into the pool and took pictures. Our social life was limited to the good company of people who liked to swim with dogs.

Poppins learned to come when called (mostly), to sit, lie down, and retrieve objects when requested—often when not requested. Unexpected items removed from her mouth included a twenty-dollar bill, a four-foot tree branch, part of the dining room rug, half of a garden slug, and a mercifully comatose earwig.


Dickens and Poppins - photo by E. J. Wagner

Our puppy sleeps until six now. She is half grown and weighs fifty-two pounds. Bill and Dickens and I are a lot slimmer than we were before she arrived, and much more supple. We may be tired and a bit grey, but there’s a spring to our step.

It will be full autumn soon, and the leaves will color and fall in great drifts, and Dickens will teach his young friend what exhilarating fun it is to burrow through them.

When winter comes, we’ll throw snowballs (Labradors love snowballs), and then we’ll sit before a fire, and Bill and I will sip hot spiced cider, and admire the two gleaming black dogs at our feet, and scratch their ears. And perhaps we’ll talk a bit about going to London.