In the explorations of the Canon that I’ve posted here, I sometimes find myself criticizing the tales related by Dr. John H. Watson, friend and biographer of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. Occasionally Holmes makes the most outrageous blunders—the milk-drinking snake of The Speckled Band and the criminally negligent abandonment of John Openshaw in The Five Orange Pips—that are hard to reconcile with Watson’s portrayal of the detective as the ideal reasoner.
WARNING: If you’ve never read Thor Bridge, be warned there are spoilers below. Also, this story is the topic for this month’s meeting of the Outpatients Group of Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients, my local scion society. I am unable to attend the meeting due to illness.
Many of us attribute these blunders to Watson deliberately or mistakenly representing the facts. We find ourselves spinning fantastic theories to explain away these errors. But The Problem of Thor Bridge poses no such errors and is in fact, in my opinion, a prime example of Holmes looking at a few clues and deducing the solution. Admittedly those of us familiar with the story or versed in modern forensic science may think obvious either the solution or at least the vindication of the suspect in the story. Even Holmes admits he should have tumbled to the solution earlier.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here are the facts: The wife of the former American senator and gold magnate Neil Gibson was found shot to death on his estate, Thor Place, in Hampshire. Specifically she was found late at night on Thor Bridge, which spans a small reedy lake on the estate. She was shot in the head at close quarters and in her clutched hand was found a note indicating she had an appointment at 9 p.m. with Grace Dunbar, the governess of the Gibson children. Miss Dunbar admits to the meeting and in the bottom of her wardrobe was found a revolver matching the caliber of the bullet that killed Mrs. Gibson.
Naturally there is suspicion that Mr. Gibson had formed an attachment to the beautiful, young governess. This suspicion is strengthened when Holmes is visited by Gibson’s estate manager, ahead of Gibson’s own visit to Holmes. The estate manager says Mrs. Gibson, a fiery Brazilian whose beauty had faded, was well liked by all the estate workers, while Mr. Gibson was equally disliked for his harsh treatment of his wife. Then Gibson arrives and attempts to hire Holmes to prove Miss Dunbar innocent, but he storms out when Holmes asks the nature of the relationship between Gibson and the governess.
Gibson eventually returns, however, and Holmes agrees to help, although he’s pessimistic how much he can help he can be. They travel to Gibson’s home and meet with the constable in charge of the case, who’s happy to have the help of the famous detective. Holmes inspects the bridge and learns that the body was found near the mouth of the bridge. He also spots a chip in the stonework on the underside of the stone balustrade about fifteen feet from where the body was found. He notes that great force was required to chip the stone and tries to reproduce the damage by striking at the balustrade with his cane but is unable to. He also notes the fact that Mrs. Gibson still clutched the note that simply said: “I will be at Thor Bridge at nine o’clock—G. Dunbar.”
Then he asks about the pistol found in Miss Dunbar’s wardrobe and learns it is part of a matched set owned by Gibson and that it’s mate cannot be found. The next day, he interviews Miss Dunbar, who is being held in jail at Winchester. She confirms that she met on the bridge with Mrs. Gibson, who poured forth like a madwoman her hatred of the governess. She also denies knowledge of the weapon found in the wardrobe and also denies she was having an affair with Gibson. She does admit she was wrong in remaining in Gibson’s employ, but she had hoped she could influence Gibson, a notorious businessman, for good.
SPOILER: Holmes and Watson believe her story and as he concludes his interrogation, it is obvious that Holmes has realized the significance of the mark on the stonework. He rushes back to Thor Place and uses Watson’s revolver to help solve the mystery. Back on the bridge, he ties a string to Watson’s gun and attaches the other end to a heavy stone. He dangles the stone over the edge of the balustrade, near the chip, and walks back with gun in hand to where the body was found. Releasing the gun, the stone whips the gun over the edge of the bridge and makes a near identical chip in the balustrade. The conclusion is obvious: Mrs. Gibson killed herself with the intent of implicating Miss Dunbar.
As I mentioned before, I think this is an excellent example of Holmes looking at the evidence and following where it led. I am only surprised it took him so long to come to his conclusion, and he admits his own failing: “I have been sluggish in mind and wanting in that mixture of imagination and reality, which is the basis of my art. I confess that the chip in the stonework was a sufficient clue to suggest the true solution, and that I blame myself for not having attained it sooner.” Of course, I have the advantage of Holmes in that I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t know the solution before he did.
What’s really quite notable in this story is that it’s largely empty of those outré elements common to the Canon, with a bare minimum of players and suspects. It is in many ways the exact opposite of a locked room mystery: the body is found outside and instead of a murder being made to look like suicide, it’s the other way round.
Now, although I can’t come up with any serious objections to the reasoning or clues or details of Thor Bridge, there are points of interest. I am puzzled that Holmes either didn’t insist on examining the body or at least questioning the doctor who had examined the body. It would have been enlightening to know whether Mrs. Gibson had defensive wounds (you would expect the fiery Brazilian to put up a struggle) and perhaps Watson might have observed the gun was in contact with or within inches of the head. Mrs. Gibson’s trigger finger might also have shown marks of the gun being torn from her grasp at the moment of death.
Modern-day forensics might also have cleared Miss Dunbar of the crime. A test for gunshot residue would show she hadn’t fired a weapon, but even the unreliable paraffin test wasn’t available to Holmes. A ballistics test would also show that the gun found in Miss Dunbar’s wardrobe did not match the bullet that killed Mrs. Gibson, assuming the bullet was found. Interestingly, in 1898 a murderer was convicted based on micro-photographic comparisons of bullets, according to The Science of Sherlock Holmes by E.J. Wagner. That Holmes did not suggest making such a comparison, leads me to believe the bullet was not found.
Presumably the correctness of Holmes’ theory was proved when the weapon Mrs. Gibson’s used was retrieved from the lake, although curiously that is not confirmed in the tale. However Steven Doyle (author of The Dummy’s Guide to Sherlock Holmes) showed on video the plausibility of Holmes’ theory. I still, however, have some reservations because I wonder whether the postmortem spasm that caused Mrs. Gibson to so tightly clutch Miss Dunbar’s note might have also caused the gun to remain in her hand, despite the weight of the attached stone.
Other treasures of Thor Bridge: The story has two elements that have contributed significantly to the Canon: Watson first mentions the vaults of Cox and Co. Bank where can be found his battered tin dispatch box, which contains the notes of his adventures with Holmes. And then there’s Holmes great quote: “My professional charges are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether.” This statement, of course, flies in the face of the varied fees Holmes charges, but it’s a wonderful comeback when Gibson desperately tries to hire Holmes’ aid at any price.
Another aspect of this tale that flies in the face of reality come when Holmes’ reassures the local constable that he won’t take credit for solving the crime: “I need not appear in the matter at all. If I can clear it up I don’t ask to have my name mentioned.” This is really quite disingenuous, considering that Holmes travels with his own biographer.
References to unpublished stories: The list of unpublished stories includes the “remarkable worm, said to be unknown to science,” the disappearance of the cutter Alicia and the disappearance of Mr. James Phillimore, “who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.” There is also a clue that Watson may someday resort to telling some of Holmes’ adventures in third person, which may explain the curious perspective of His Last Bow and The Mazarin Stone.
In all, there is so much to enjoy in Thor Bridge. I can’t help but imagine how Agatha Christie might have milked the story for all she could, with a raft of suspects and a high body count, but I much prefer Watson’s efficiency. There’s also a nice whiff of Jane Eyre in the deranged wife, although Gibson suffers in comparison to Edward Rochester. And for the Janeite in me, I appreciate the mentions of Hampshire and Winchester. In short, I have no problem with Thor Bridge.
NOTE: I believe Thor Bridge remains one of the few stories where the public domain status remains in doubt, so I cannot direct you to an online source.