The Baker Street Irregulars

Sherlock Holmes

On January 6, 1934 author and Doubleday editor Christopher Morley, who was a big Sherlock Holmes fan, created a group that he called The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI).  It was named after a group of London street urchins who occasionally assisted the great Sherlock Holmes.  Being unwashed ragamuffins, no one would possibly suspect them of spying.  As the great detective said, they can, “go everywhere, see everything, overhear everyone.”  I think the word “Irregulars” is quite appropriate for the members of this club, too.

The BSI currently consists of approximately 300 invited members who meet on January 6th (and for a few days thereafter) each year in New York City to have a good time, and to celebrate the supposed birthday of Holmes.  I use the word “supposed” because Arthur Conan Doyle never indicated the date of Holmes’ birth.  But Morley somehow determined that it was January 6th, and so that date is accepted by all.  The members are allowed to invite guests to the gathering, and there are also guest speakers who discuss various aspects of the sleuth’s world – which they believe to be real – and to theorize about all matters Sherlockian.  For instance, at one meeting it was noted that no one knows what happened to Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s smarter brother.  Is it possible that Mycroft became the head of British Intelligence who is known simply as M – M for Mycroft?  Don’t you find that a strange coincidence?

There are people who have read the Holmes stories carefully and have found faults in the chronology and, indeed, in some of the facts that are presented.  How did these mistakes occur?  Many believe that we can blame the faulty memory of Dr. John Watson and his editor Arthur Conan Doyle.  That leads the members of the BSI into numerous attempts to determine the actual truth in Watson’s muddled accounts.

On Conan Doyle

In his book On Conan Doyle: or, The Whole Art of Storytelling author and Washington Post book reviewer  Michael Dirda discusses the BSI, and relates how he got involved in the group and eventually became an invested member.  Like all invested members of the BSI, Dirda was given a name that comes out of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  He was given the name “Langsdale Pike.”  In the stories Pike is presented as a London gossip columnist to whom Holmes turns when he needs information that may not be found anywhere else.  In “The Three Gables,” Watson refers to Pike as Holmes’ “human book of reference upon all matters of social scandal.”  “If ever, far down in the turbid depths of London life,” Watson continues, “there was some strange swirl or eddy, it was marked with automatic exactness by this human dial upon the surface.”

After his investiture, Dirda gave a talk at a University of Minnesota conference concerning his theories about the background and arcane life of his namesake.  He began by reading an obituary of Pike that appeared in a book that is now so rare that one may hardly be able to find it.  We learn that Pike was born in Ohio, graduated from Harvard “with distinction,” and first appeared in England as the secretary and manager of the enchanting actress Lillie Langtry.  For a time he was engaged to Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill.  There’s even a hint that Pike, not Randolph Churchill, might have been Winston’s father!  There’s much more, but I’ll leave it to you to read Dirda’s book for the details of Langsdale Pike’s life.

It is obvious from the BSI’s constitution, which is printed in full below, that the members enjoyed refreshments.  Note the document’s “Buy Laws.”  The Saturday Review (The Saturday Review of Literature to be exact) which is referenced in the constitution is a magazine founded by Morley.

CONSTITUTION OF THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS

ARTICLE I

The name of this society shall be the Baker Street Irregulars.

ARTICLE II

Its purpose shall be the study of the Sacred Writings.

ARTICLE III

All persons shall be eligible for membership who pass an examination in the Sacred Writings set by officers of the society, and who are considered otherwise suitable.

ARTICLE IV

The offices shall be: a Gasogene, a Tantalus, and a Commissionaire.

The duties of the Gasogene shall be those commonly performed by a President.

The duties of the Tantalus shall be those commonly performed by a Secretary.

The duties of the Commissionaire shall be to telephone down for ice, White Rock, and whatever else may be required and available; to conduct all negotiations with waiters; and to assess the members pro rata for the cost of same.

BUY LAWS

(1)  An annual meeting shall be held on January 6th, at which those toasts shall be drunk which were published in the Saturday Review of January 27th, 1934; after which the members shall drink at will.

(2)  The current round shall be bought by any member who fails to identify, by title of story and context, any quotation from the Sacred Writings submitted by any other member.

Qualification A.—If two or more members fail so to identify, a round shall be bought by each of those so failing.

Qualification B.—If the submitter of the quotation, upon challenge, fails to identify it correctly, he shall buy the round.

(3)  Special meetings may be called at any time or any place by any one of three members, two of whom shall constitute a quorum.

Qualification A.—If said two are of opposite sexes, they shall use care in selecting the place of meeting, to avoid misinterpretation (or  interpretation, either, for that matter).

Qualification B.—If such two persons of opposite sexes be clients of the Personal Column of the Saturday Review, the foregoing does not apply; such persons being presumed to let their consciences be their guides.

(4)  All other business shall be left for the monthly meeting.

(5)  There shall be no monthly meeting

There is much more information available on the web concerning the Baker Street Irregulars.  You might begin with a New York Sun article from 2005 by writer, book store owner, and BSI member Otto Penzler.  Concerning our love for the Sherlock Holmes canon, Penzler writes, “Although many have attempted to explain the enduring affection for the adventures of Holmes and his faithful friend, it is as impossible to do in a definitive way as it is to explain love.”  Other sources include The Baker Street Journal and BSI Archival History.  And Publishers Weekly has a short recap of the 2014 Annual Meeting of the BSI.

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