Jody Baker: Covert Activities At The Diogenes Club

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - by Jody Baker

Matthew Bunson, in *Encyclopedia Sherlockliana*reports that “…the Diogenes Club has been considered a possible cover for espionage or secret activities by the British  government.” Mr. Bunson’s encyclopedic work is outstanding, but falls short on details concerning the Diogenes Club.

It was during the fall of 1888 that I began taking leave of Mrs. Baynes on Tuesday evenings and joining Dr. Watson on his nocturnal ramblings to the Diogenes Club in London.

Watson, you may recall, had been introduced to the Diogenes Club in September of that year when he and Mr. Holmes had visited there with the latter's brother, Mycroft, in connection with the Greek Interpreter matter.

In the October following, Watson applied to join the Club. After he was properly vetted by "the secret committee" and when the necessary background investigation had been conducted, he was admitted into membership. The Club, as you know, was made up of "the most unsociable and unclubable men in town." While Watson, himself, does not have those characteristics, he has enjoyed a long and close association with one who does.

It had become a pastime of Watson's to go to the club and ensconce himself in one of the comfortable chairs among the latest periodicals and there to sit in silence and observe the other members. It was his pleasure to practice the fine art of observation and analysis which he was acquiring from his association with his friend and fellow lodger, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Occasionally, Watson would  invite me to join him. It was in consequence of these visits that I discovered one of the most closely guarded secrets of Her Majesty's Government. The Diogenes Club was used as a place for exchange of some of our most highly classified and important intelligence information. These exchanges of information were carried out in total silence in the Club Room without a word ever being spoken.

It is about the sources and methods of these exchanges that I now take up my pen to write. But before I disclose this to you I must extract from you a pledge of secrecy and the utmost confidentiality. The information which I am about to impart is still under the protection of The Official Secrets Act of 1889 (amended, 1911).

Mycroft Holmes was, and still is, one of the most mysterious and enigmatic officials of British government. That he is engaged in the work of foreign intelligence or domestic counter-intelligence is an accepted fact, but how he goes about his work has never before been disclosed. What he does is a closely guarded secret but whatever it is, he is handsomely paid by Her Majesty's Government for doing it.

Mycroft Holmes, because of the nature of his activities, lives in that gray twilight which was, later, referred to by James J. Angleton as "the wilderness of mirrors” where that which is true and that which is false but perceived to be true are indistinguishable."

We do know this about Mycroft Holmes. It was his custom to meet on Tuesday evenings (between 4:45 and 7:40) with a British official whose identity is known to very few and whose existence is denied by the very government for which he so ably serves. This person is Commander (later Captain and Sir) Mansfield George Smith-Cumming who had shortened his name to Cumming and was soon to become known professionally as "C."

At the time, Cumming was on his way to becoming the first chief of SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) now sometimes referred to as MI-6 (foreign intelligence) which is not to be confused with MI-5 (counter-intelligence) or with SOE (Special Operations Executive).

I have indicated that Mycroft would "meet" with Mansfield Cumming, but that word is imprecise and it ill-describes the encounters which took place between these two men. Actually, by prearrangement, the two would arrive at the Club at different times, appearing there independently and separately. For security reasons they would not enter the Club together. Once inside neither ever took notice of the other, and no words were ever spoken. They communicated by other methods.

The Diogenes Club presented the ideal setting for the transaction of their business. As Holmes had detailed the rules to Watson: "No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one," and except in a special room "no talking is under any circumstances allowed." The social mores of the Club created the perfect atmosphere for these meetings where there were exchanges of information which was so highly secret that it could neither be written on paper nor spoken by word.

To accommodate that  situation there was need for a special form of communication.

It is this method of communication that shall be here disclosed for the first time. Mycroft and "C" had devised a highly secure, closely guarded secret code for their purposes. The communication and exchange of information was accomplished through the use of unobtrusive and imperceptible facial maneuvers and mannerisms and by certain digital moves and manipulations which were in their secret code. It was the practice of these two men to sit on opposite sides of the room, facing each other, and carry out lengthy, silent and unobserved exchanges of information through the use of their remarkable coded signs and signals.

Mycroft, for instance, was very adept and versatile in wriggling his ears. He could not only wriggle them in unison, he could also wriggle either the left or the right independently of the other. This afforded him a multitude of signals from the ears alone. In addition, he enjoyed the benefit of a highly disciplined Adam's apple. He could bobble it either upward or downward, at will.

Since Mycroft Holmes could control the ears and the Adam's apple either consecutively or concurrently and because there were an almost limitless number of combinations and permutations of these, we see that Mycroft had a magnificent array of silent signals at his command.

Add to this his ability to independently raise, first one and then the other, of his eyebrows, or to raise them both simultaneously. When one considers these talents, one begins to appreciate the value of this man to any intelligence organization.

Mansfield Cumming, on the other hand, did not have a wide variety of signals in his repertoire. But he did not need many. It was his function to receive communication from Mycroft and then to express either approval or disapproval of Mycroft's proposals. If "C" approved, he would indicate this with a prearranged manual-digital sign by forming a circle with the thumb and index finger of the right hand. Holding the circle, thus formed, outward he would point the three remaining fingers of that hand upward. By this means he would signal to Mycroft that the proposal met with official approval. This sign was later to become known among some cultures as: "A-OK."

On the other hand, if it became necessary that Cumming express disapproval, a somewhat different signal was employed. In such an instance "C " would wrap the thumb and fingers of the right hand into a tight ball or fist, and then he would slowly extend the middle finger, but only the middle finger, outward and lift the hand, thus postured, in an upward direction. This was the signal for disapproval.

This sign was later to become known among some cultures as: "phooey." 

These methods formed the sophisticated system of silent signals and commands by which two high officials of our government communicated with each other, and through which they arrived at decisions of the greatest importance to the safety and security of the British Isles.

You should not expect our present intelligence establishment to verify anything that I have revealed here today. As mentioned at the outset, this is a highly classified and closely guarded secret code. Those who have been inducted into these mysteries have taken a vow to deny that this type of code exists. This is, after all, the land of the "wilderness-of-mirrors" where up is down and black is white and nothing is what it appears to be --- the land where dissimilitude is an accepted part of trade-craft. Therefore, professionals engaged in this business of espionage will usually deny that which is true and affirm that which is false.

Insp. Baynes

(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at

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