Jody Baker: A Cunning Preparation - The Hound Of The Baskervilles

Thursday, November 14, 2013 - by Jody Baker

Watson describes the ending of the Baskerville Hound upon the moor with his customary artistic talent. Several of Watson’s descriptive passages are quoted here for convenience in review:

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“A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame.”

* * * * *

“I was in time to see the beast spring upon its victim, hurl him to the ground, and worry at his throat. But the next instant Holmes had emptied five barrels of his revolver into the creature’s flank. With a last howl of agony and a vicious snap in the air, it rolled upon its back, four feet pawing furiously, and then fell limp upon its side. I stooped, panting, and pressed my pistol to the dreadful, shimmering head, but it was useless to press the trigger. The giant hound was dead.”

 * * * * * 

“ It was not a pure bloodhound and it was not a pure mastiff; but it appeared to be a combination of the two–gaunt, savage, and as large as a small lioness. Even now, in the stillness of death, the huge jaws seemed to be dripping with a bluish flame and the small, deep-set, cruel eyes were ringed with fire. I placed my hand upon the glowing muzzle, and as I held them up my own fingers smouldered and gleamed in the darkness.

 “Phosphorus,” I said.  “A cunning preparation of it,” said Holmes, sniffing at the dead animal. “There is no smell which might have interfered with his power of scent.”

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A question is often raised about the Hound of the Baskervilles --- and the gleaming or glowing appearance of that hound even after its death upon the moor. Just what was it that caused the gleaming appearance of the Hound ?

When Watson saw the glowing of the recently deceased hound, Watson exclaimed "Phosphorous!" 

Holmes responded, "A very cunning preparation of it." [Doubleday, p. 757]. 

The late Bob Burr, who was a great Sherlockian from Peoria, once pointed out with scientific accuracy that: “Phosphorus is not only extremely poisonous, it ignites spontaneously in air, burning to phosphorus pentoxide…… Had it been applied to the Hound, the pooch would have been incinerated within minutes." 

Mrs. Baynes, who is ever ready to come to the defense of Dr. Watson, has her own explanation for the events which are the subject of this scientific phorphoric question.

Mrs. Baynes (who is often in error, but never in doubt) has strong views about most things. She asserts that Watson was under extreme stress and was greatly excited when he placed his hand upon the gleaming muzzle of the hound and saw his own fingers glow in the dark… and exclaimed “Phosphorus.”

"Dr. Watson mis-spoke himself," claims Mrs. Baynes. "He really intended to say ‘phosphorescent’ –and by that, what he meant was ‘luminescent.’ "

She continued, " Phosphorescence, you see, is one form of luminescence, and  luminescence includes all those things which are bioluminescent. Bioluminescence is the emission of energy in the form of light from living organisms. It results from natural luciferin, a chemical substance found in the cells of luminescent organisms, such as fireflies. This, when acted upon by luciferase, undergoes oxidation and produces heatless light.

"This phenomenon," she continued, "is found in certain fish, jelly-fish and protozoa; but the most familiar form is in fireflies." 

"Mr. Stapleton," she speculates, "was catching moths and butterflies by day, but he spent his nights chasing around the yard for fireflies. These he kept in a jar until, when the need arose, he would take lit fireflies out of his jar and sqush them against the head and muzzle of his dog. That was the preparation which Watson observed and which Mr. Holmes referred to as cunning."

That is the theory of Mrs. Baynes on the matter. It is a theory to which I do not subscribe, but from which I do not care to publicly disagree.

But, believe me, that word "sqush" is her word -- not mine. 

Respectfully,
Inspector Baynes

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


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