Holmes society more than just elementary

Thriving literary group sponsors an essay contest and will appear at Howard libraries


When Paul Churchill started reading Sherlock Holmes stories in the 1970s, he decided that he wanted to start a literary society, but his decision was put on hold for about a dozen years because his wife became ill.

She died in 1989, and shortly thereafter he took a trip to London, where he met Jeremy Brett, an actor who portrayed Holmes on a PBS series, as well as Edward Hardwicke, who played Holmes' companion John H. Watson.

He learned all sorts of things about the characters and left England with the idea of a group dancing in his head.

Upon his return, Churchill, 60, a semiretired Latin teacher at Centennial High School, joined forces with two other diehard Holmes fans to start Watson's Tin Box Sherlock Holmes Literary Society.

"I feel like a midwife," said Churchill, who lives in Eldersburg. "I helped get it started, but then it took on a life of its own."

Since its inception, the group has more than doubled its membership, is sponsoring an essay contest and will appear at several branches of the Howard County Public Library throughout the summer.

The society is one of hundreds across the nation and its members include educators, authors, health care professionals, business people and retirees from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington. The group focuses on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.

They meet monthly at the Rocky Run restaurant, just off Dobbin Road in Columbia.

At the meetings, the group discusses a story and a member will typically present a scholarly paper. Churchill has an evidence box for all 60 of the Holmes stories that he brings to the meetings.

When he first started the group, Churchill compiled a list of several hundred obscure Holmes-related items that he wanted to acquire, such as a Rudge-Whitworth oilcan, a Calabash pipe, a deerstalker hat and a Remington typewriter from the 1890s.

Over time, he found all the items on the list. As he obtained them through online auctions and other private sources, he amassed evidence boxes that include weapons, artifacts, telegrams, notes and certificates from the stories.

He also acquired some unusual pieces, such as a dark lantern.

"A dark lantern is the precursor to the flashlight," Churchill said. "It was lit with whale oil and then closed so the light didn't flash through it."

What he couldn't find, he created.

"I learned to forge items when they weren't available for purchase," Churchill said.

"They weren't designed to deceive; they were made to delight."

Churchill was recently invited to join the Baker Street Irregulars, a group based in New York with members from all over the world.

"You don't just join this group; it just happens," Churchill said. "It's a great honor to be a part of the group."

There are other members of the local group in the Baker Street Irregulars, as well, but John Sherwood, 55, of West Grove, Pa., is still waiting for his chance. He said joining the local group has been enough to whet his appetite for Holmes.

Sherwood portrays Holmes at library and group functions and has made a name for himself at the Victorian Villa Inn in Union City, Mich. He began portraying Holmes there in 1987, but his work is known nationwide.

He'll return to Michigan for some mystery dinner performances later this month, and then he'll take his act on the road locally, portraying Holmes at several of the Howard library performances.

The public library is planning a program called "Solving Mysteries," and fellow Holmes society member Jacquelynn Morris, an employee in the library's purchasing department, said Sherwood will be a perfect addition to the program.

"He's just wonderful in the part, and we think he will really be well-received by the children who participate," Morris said.

Sherwood said that although he's donating his time to the program, he gives the same show for everyone.

"I bring with me several items that Holmes may have carried with him, such as a pocket knife, a fake revolver and a snuff box," Sherwood said.

Sherwood said his main purpose for impersonating Holmes is to educate people about the character he believes is misinterpreted.

For example, Sherwood explained that Holmes was known as having a bad attitude about women. He was once quoted as saying, "Women should never be trusted," Sherwood said.

"He wasn't trying to say women can't be trusted; he was trying to say that just because someone is a woman is no reason not to suspect them of wrongdoing."

In addition to the personal appearances, the local group is sponsoring an essay contest for the second year in a row. The program is open to seventh-graders attending public, private or home schools.

Each student is asked to read the story "The Adventures of the Speckled Band" and write a five-paragraph analytical paper. Essays are due May 5, and prizes will be awarded.

"We all enjoy this group," Morris said. "Whether we are building interest for Arthur Conan Doyle's work or just playing the game, we always have a good time. I think the reason that John is so popular is that he speaks of Sherlock Holmes as a living person and actually becomes him when he performs. And that's the goofiness of the Sherlock Holmes societies around the world."

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