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Devotion to Sherlock Holmes found inside Watson's Tin Box

Devotion to Sherlock Holmes found inside Watson's Tin Box
Albert Armstrong, left, of Ellicott City, Pat Villacrusis, of Charles Village, and Evelyn Herzog, right, of Federal Hill, look at a collection of props during a Watson's Tin Box meeting at Houlihan's in Columbia on Sept. 27. This year will mark the Howard County-based Sherlockian society's 25th anniversary. (Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Every meeting begins with a toast. Since this dinner gathering at Houlihan's' in Columbia is devoted to the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, the first toast honors Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, Irene Adler.

"To Sherlock Holmes she was always the woman," Doyle wrote.

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With that in mind, Jacquelynn Morris started the September meeting of Watson's Tin Box with a toast to the woman.

"She may just be a character who annoys all of us," said the Laurel resident.

More toasts follow, this time focused on Dr. Watson's forbearance.

"Watson says, 'I think…' and Sherlock says, 'It's about time,'" said Beth Austin, of Gaithersburg, who then added, "I'd have popped him in the nose."

Karen Wilson, the group's gasogene, or leader, noted how Holmes constantly criticized Watson's writing. "To Watson, for putting up with that," she said.

Sherlock Holmes fans from Pennsylvania to Virginia have found their way to the monthly dinner meetings for 25 years. A small group, Watson's Tin Box has nearly doubled in size as younger fans and more women have joined.

These fans of Sherlock Holmes will have to toast themselves in October. At a formal dinner, rather than the casual meetings, they will celebrate "25 years of playing the game."

"Toasts are a big thing in Sherlockian circles," said Wilson, of Hyattsville.

"It could be anything that has anything to do with the story no matter how remote," Austin said.

"Or ridiculous," said Morris.

Most Sherlockian fan clubs meet quarterly, to discuss Doyle's classic tales of the famous detective, to revel in the characters, the settings, the minutiae of the world of Baker Street.

This group meets every month. Occasionally members will arrive in deerstalker hats or bring mementos that reflect Sherlockian times.

Meetings are literary — with conversation, a short talk and even a quiz about the story everyone has read before the meeting. They are convivial — as members catch up with friends, greet newcomers and everybody shares a hearty meal.

Debbie Clark, of Frederick, always brings an evidence box related to the story. Inside are antiques that reflect something of the 56 short stories and four novels recounting Holmes' cases.

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"Somehow two hours have flown by," Wilson said.

More women, younger members

Membership in Watson's Tin Box has grown with the recent popular interest in all things Sherlock, from TV shows such as CBS's "Elementary," the BBC's "Sherlock" and Robert Downey Jr.'s recent big screen portrayals, according to Wilson. "That really caught on with young fans and female fans," she said.

That's what hooked Liz Corson. "I was like, 'I've got to read the books,'" she said.

"They're very hungry for the source," said Morris, of Laurel. She fell for Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by the BBC's Jeremy Brett and started looking for fellow Sherlockians. Clark invited her to her first Tin Box meeting in 1998.

Membership has risen to 40 from the 25 of a few years ago, with slightly more women then men and ranging in age from 20 to 80.

Doyle's stories — called the "canon" by his fans — are central to Sherlockian society meetings. Non-canonical stories or fan fiction — called "pastiches" by those in the know — are tolerated by some, loved by others.

"We're all big fans and we all have the same interests," Morris said.

Wilson said she became interested in the famous detective with the 1974 publication of "The Seven Percent Solution" by Nicholas Meyer, a "new" Sherlock Holmes story. "That was what drew me to the society," she said.

Austin was looking for a Jane Austin group when she discovered a Sherlockian society in Easton and then Watson's Tin Box.

"That was how I became a Sherlockian," she said. Austin also has created and edits "Irene's Cabinet," the group's annual literary magazine.

Andrew Solberg, a Columbia resident, wasn't impressed when he read the Sherlock Holmes stories as a kid — but after rereading them as an adult, he got hooked.

"I've been rereading them ever since," he said. "We have a good mix of seasoned Sherlockians and people reading the stories for the first time."

A new scion society

Sherlock fandom has been around since early readers protested in the street when Doyle killed off the savvy detective. In the United States, the oldest group, Baker Street Irregulars, first met in New York in 1934, according to Wilson.

Watson's Tin Box began in Ellicott City in 1989 and is considered a scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars. Its named recalls the box where Watson collected his reports of Sherlock's investigations. Its founders, Howard County high school teachers Paul Churchill and Ron McCaslin, were Sherlock fans who were brought together by a student. The student's stepfather, Steve Clarkson, was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars.

Churchill put together the original collection of artifact boxes, one for each story, that recall details of the story.

Some items are antiques, period pieces that reflect Sherlock's times: period checks, blank telegram forms or hotel bills. Other things are "genuine faux originals." If he couldn't find a letter or a ticket, he'd create it.

"Paul had a knack — an almost supernatural knack for attracting things, real artifacts," said Solberg, who occasionally accompanied Churchill on his antique shopping trips.

When Churchill died in 2008, the boxes were bequeathed to Watson's Tin Box and Clark has taken care of them ever since. She always brings the box associated with the story discussed at the meetings.

The boxes are not a regular component to Sherlockian societies, according to Clark. In fact, she knows of only one other. It belongs to a Tin Box member, Denny Dobry, of Reading, Pa.

The scratched black tin box for "His Last Bow" contains World War I cigarette cards, a cruise ship's passenger list, a chloroform bottle and an ashtray from Claridge's Hotel in London.

"It makes the story come to life," Clark said.

Spreading the word

Watson's Tin Box members are ardent — even evangelical in their fervor for Holmes.

Besides their meetings, they organize readings and conventions, and for Howard County students, an essay contest.

All seventh-graders are welcome write an essay for the contest, whether they go to public or private school or are home-schooled. This year's contest focuses on "The Adventure of the Speckled Band." For information, go to .

"Over the past 11 years, we've reached over 3,000 students," said Solberg, who organizes the contest.

"It's been a very nice partnership with Watson's Tin Box," said Christie Lassen, spokeswoman for the Howard County Library System. The library helps promote the contest and the East Columbia branch hosts the awards ceremony in June.

There are other evangelists as well. Group member Frank Mentzel teaches a short course for the Community College of Baltimore County on Sherlock twice a year at Pikesville Middle School. Mentzel, who lives in the Medfield section of Baltimore City, said the class has been offered 47 times — with one student retaking the class for 20 years.

Mentzel also has noticed more younger and more female students. "Sherlock Holmes has a whole new group of fans," said Mentzel who has taught the class for six years.

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Mentzel discovered the detective in middle school and recalls spending his first  paycheck at age 16 on the two-volume Doubleday edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Solberg, who is also a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, has just finished editing his third book in a series that compare Doyle's handwritten stories with published versions. He discovered he liked the work after being asked by Bake Street Irregulars members to work on the first book. "It turned out to be great fun," he said.

Morris has organized a gathering of Sherlockian societies since 2008. The most recent Scintitillation of Scions, held in June, drew 100 people from as far as Hawaii. "It's really quite an accomplishment for Jacquelynn," said Solberg.

"I couldn't do it without the Tin Box," she said.

Corson, one of the group's youngest members, tweets about Sherlock, takes part in meet-ups in Washington, D.C., and helped organize Gridlock, a fan convention held in Alexandria, Va., in August that drew 200 people. Corson said they relied on 21st-century means to publicize the event: social media. "It couldn't have gotten anywhere without Twitter and Tumblr."

For more information on Watson's Tin Box, contact Karen Wilson at gasogene@outlook.com, or go to watsonstinbox.org.

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