Jody Baker: The Unframed Portrait Of Henry Ward Beecher [Card]

Sunday, September 1, 2013 - by Jody Baker

On a torrid day in August in 1889 Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were languishing from the heat in their quarters on Baker Street. Watson was reflecting upon his past. Holmes was intensely studying Watson and detecting his thoughts:

“Your eyes flashed across to the unframed portrait of Henry Ward Beecher which stands upon the top of your books.

****** You were recalling the incidents of Beecher’s career. I was well aware that you could not do this without thinking of the mission which he undertook on behalf of the North at the time of the Civil War, for I remember your expressing your passionate indignation at the way in which he was received by the more turbulent of our people.”

Over the years there have been questions asked about Dr. Watson's unframed portrait of Henry Ward Beecher. What was its source? Why did Watson value it?


The solution to this mystery may be found in the narratives of another writer-physician who used Arthur Conan Doyle as a literary agent.


*J.Habakuk Jephson's Statement* is an account written by Joseph H. Jephson, M.D. who, like Watson, used the narrative style and, like Watson, published through the good offices of A.C. Doyle, Literary Agent. It is to *J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement* that we look for our answers. Our research into this will lead us to the conclusion that the unframed portrait of Rev. Beecher was a gift from Dr. Jephson to Dr. Watson.


 It is most probable that Watson and Jephson met, at the instance of Doyle, in 1883 when Jephson visited England to arrange for the publication of his *Statement.* And the probability approaches certainty that Jephson and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher had a close relationship, both personal and professional, for many years prior to that.


The proofs of the proposition are these:


1. Joseph Habakuk Jephson, M.D. ( whose patients, we suspect, called him Dr. Joe) was a physician who practiced in Brooklyn. He graduated from Harvard Medical School around 1859 and thus, we see, was some 20 years senior to Watson who took his degree at the University of London in 1878.


2. The two men had remarkably parallel careers and similarity of experiences. Dr. Jephson, early in his practice of medicine joined the American Union army as a doctor (130th New York Regiment, USA, 1862) and, like Watson, was severely wounded in combat early in his military career (Battle of Antietam; Sept. 1862). He was left on the battlefield to die, but was saved and protected by a person named Murray (Dr. Jephson's Murray was a plantation owner, whose first name remains a mystery.) Dr. Jephson wrote:

            "I was severely wounded at Antietam and would

              probably have perished on the field had it not been

              for the kindness of a gentleman named Murray, who

              had me carried to his house and provided me with

              every comfort."


Watson's similar experience (attached to the Berkshires; wounded at Maiwand, June 1880) was expressed by him:    

            "I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail

       bullet.... I should have fallen into the hands of

         the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the

       devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly,

       who threw me across a pack-horse and succeeded in

       bringing me safely to the British lines."


3.  Despite the difference in their ages, Jephson and Watson had much in common. Both were medical doctors; both had been army doctors; both had seen combat; both had been mortally wounded, and miraculously saved; both were authors; both employed the narrative style; both used Doyle as a literary agent ---- and both were in England and in contact with Doyle, at Southsea, in 1883.  There is every reason to believe that Watson and Jephson became friends at that time.


Dr. Jephson's narrative recounts his bizarre experiences in 1873 on the unusual voyage of the brigantine, Marie Celeste. He tells us very clearly that it was not until ten years later (in 1883) that he took up his pen with the intention of telling all that he knew of the ill-fated voyage. He published this writing through Doyle, and we may accept that he met with Doyle in 1883.


Watson, we know, had taken quarters on Baker Street with Holmes in 1881, and he began his writing soon thereafter. It is most reasonable to believe that he, too, was in contact with Doyle in 1883.


There are other indicia of contact between Watson and Doyle in 1883. That is the year in which a fellow physician brought shame upon the medical profession with his malevolent serpentine endeavours. It was in 1883 that Dr. Grimesby Roylott, M.D., established the truth that: "When a doctor goes wrong he is the first of criminals." [SPEC].


Watson had helped Holmes work the Roylott case, and it was only natural that he call on Doyle to share with him the London "doctors-lounge" gossip of the day and also to outline the plot for a future story of the event. So it is highly probable that when Dr. Jephson met with Dr. Doyle to discuss publication, Doyle invited into their conversations Dr. John Watson, who was not only another physician-writer but was also another literary protege of Doyle.


We may safely assume that these two men - Jephson and Watson - with so much in common – were brought together through Doyle, whose kind and gentle characteristics cemented between the two a warm, fast and lasting friendship.


But what has all of this to do with Henry Ward Beecher, and Watson’s unframed portrait of him?


We seem to have built the pyramid from the top down, leaving the upper part suspended in air. It should now be a simple matter to build the base of the pyramid from the bottom up. Perhaps, we are guilty of telling the story hindmost first?


Having now satisfactorily established the relationship between Dr. John H. Watson of London and Dr. Joseph H. Jephson of Brooklyn, we turn our attention to Henry Ward Beecher whose unframed portrait stands upon the top of Watson's books in the sitting room at 221b Baker Street.[CARD]


4. Rev. Beecher (1813-1887) was pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn for 40 years (1847-1887). He was a leading abolitionist, and there is good reason to believe that he numbered among the members of his congregation Dr. Jephson, who not only attended Beecher's church but was intimately associated there with him.


Long before coming to Brooklyn, Dr. Jephson had been a strong anti-slavery activist. When he came to Brooklyn in 1859 to practice medicine, some 12 years after Beecher accepted a pulpit there, Jephson found himself within the domain of one of the nation's leading abolitionists.


Jephson tells us in *Statement*:

       “My father, William K. Jephson, was a preacher of

         the sect called Plymouth Brethen.... Like most of

         the other Puritans of New England, he was a

         determined opponent to slavery, and it was from his

         lips that I received those lessons that tinged

         every action of my life. While I was studying

         medicine at Harvard University, I had already made

         my mark as an advanced Abolitionist, and when,

         after taking my degree, I bought a third share of

         the practice of Dr. Willis, of Brooklyn, I managed,

         in spite of my professional duties, to devote a

         considerable time to the cause which I had at



There is no doubt but that when Jephson, the son of an anti-slavery Plymouth Brethren pastor, arrived in Brooklyn he gravitated to the Plymouth Congregational Church and to Rev. Beecher? It is not unreasonable to suggest that Rev. Beecher adopted young Jephson as his physician and confidant, and that Jephson adopted Beecher as his mentor.


These two men, Rev. Beecher and Dr. Jephson, had much in common and were philosophically aligned. A filial-like relationship between Beecher, the elder, and Jephson, the younger, would grow naturally from this; and a request for, and the gift of, a portrait of the one to the other would be a natural consequence of the relationship. Jephson no doubt received the portrait direct from Rev. Beecher.


5. Assuming, as we now may, that Dr. J.H. Jephson was a devoted follower of Rev. Beecher and that Dr. J.H. Watson formed a friendship with Dr. Jephson, what evidence is there to suggest that the portrait of Beecher was a gift from Jephson to Watson?


Holmes, in his analysis of Watson's facial expressions [CARD], brings us the answer to this. He informs us that Watson shared with Jephson an adulation of Beecher. In reporting upon his analysis of Watson's actions, Holmes says:

          "... You were recalling the incidents of Beecher's

         career.  I was well aware that you could not do

         this without thinking of the mission which he

         undertook on behalf of the North at the time of the

         Civil War, for I remember your expressing your

         passionate indignation at the way in which he was

         received by the more turbulent of our people."


Watson, a devotee of Rev. Beecher since Beecher’s lecture  tour of England in 1874, had the very good fortune in 1883 to meet, and become the friend of, Rev. Beecher's personal physician and confidant, Dr.Jephson.


No doubt Watson expressed to Jephson his respect for Beecher, and the friendship of the two physicians was sealed by their shared admiration of him. As an expression of this friendship and in token of their shared admiration, it is most probable that Jephson gave his portrait of Beecher to Watson. (After all, Jephson could request another on the the first Sunday following his return home.)

Thus it was, that Watson became the possessor of the portrait of Henry Ward Beecher. And so it remains, even today, unframed standing upon the top of Watson's books -- a token of yet another warm friendship and a constant reminder of Beecher's love of humanity.


Beecher-to-Jephson-to-Watson (like Tinkers-to-Evers-to Chance): a remarkable three-way pitch ending on the top of Watson's books at 221b Baker Street on that hot summer day.



Inspector Baynes.

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