Front cover of an 1892 edition of The Sign of the Four.

The Sign of the Four is a mystery novel by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is the second of four novels which Doyle wrote that are based around the characters of the brilliant consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his friend and chronicler Dr. Watson. It is the second of sixty stories which make up the Sherlock Holmes Canon.

The novel was first published in its entirety, under the title The Sign of the Four; or The Problem of the Sholtos, in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine.[1] The magazine was published in London and Philadelphia. The American edition was priced at twenty-five cents. The British edition was priced at one shilling. Surviving copies of both editions now change hands for several thousand dollars. In the months after its initial publication in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, the novel was serialized in several regional British newspapers under the title of The Sign of Four. The novel was first published in book form, again under the title The Sign of Four, in October 1890. The novel has subsequently been republished multiple times as both The Sign of Four and The Sign of the Four.

The plot of The Sign of the Four is set in motion when a young woman named Mary Morstan goes to Sherlock Holmes for advice. Miss Morstan's father, an officer in the British Army who served for several years in India, disappeared under mysterious circumstances ten years earlier. Four years after her father's disappearance, Miss Morstan received a valuable pearl in the mail. She continued to receive one pearl a year for the next five years. She has now received a letter which says that she has been wronged and asks her to come to a meeting in order to receive justice. Holmes advises Miss Morstan to go to the meeting. He and Dr. Watson accompany her for her safety. Holmes, Watson and Miss Morstan are taken first to the home of a man named Thaddeus Sholto. Thaddeus Sholto tells Miss Morstan that she is the rightful owner of half of a fortune in jewels. The treasure is being kept by his brother Bartholomew Sholto. When Thaddeus Sholto, Holmes, Watson and Miss Morstan arrive at Bartholomew Sholto's house, they find that the treasure has been stolen and Bartholomew Sholto has been murdered. Bartholomew Sholto's body is found in a room with only one door and only one window, both of which were locked from the inside.

In common with A Study in Scarlet, Doyle's previous Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four aroused little interest when it was first published. Sherlock Holmes' popularity only started to take off after Doyle's short stories about the detective began appearing in The Strand magazine, starting with "A Scandal in Bohemia" in June 1891.

The Sign of the Four has been adapted for the stage, radio, film and television.


Holmes!!... (4265771518)

Photograph taken at dusk of the statue of Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street, London.

The novel opens on a foggy afternoon in 1888[2] in the apartment at 221B Baker Street which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson share. Having no cases to work on, Sherlock Holmes lacks the mental stimulation on which he thrives. To overcome the boredom, he injects himself with a seven per-cent solution of cocaine. Watson has seen Holmes inject himself with either cocaine or morphine for several days in a row. He can no longer tolerate watching his friend harm himself and speaks out. Holmes explains that he does not take drugs while he is working but that he needs them for stimulation when he is not. He goes on to say that it was out of the need for mental stimulation that he became the "only unofficial consulting detective" which allows him to, "examine the data as an expert and pronounce a specialist's opinion." Holmes continues to speak about the praise that he has recently received from a French detective whom he helped and who has started translating his works into French. Holmes explains that he has written studies on recognizing different varieties of tobacco ash, on how to follow and preserve footprints and on how people's professions shape their hands.

Warming to the subject, Watson decides to test Holmes' powers of observation and deduction. He hands Holmes a pocket watch which has recently come into his possession and asks Holmes to tell him something about its previous owner. Holmes says that it belonged to Watson's deceased older brother, a careless and untidy man who was left a large fortune but spent it all, often lived in poverty with short intervals of prosperity and who suffered from alcoholism. Watson reacts angrily when he hears this. He thinks that Holmes is only pretending to have gathered all this accurate information from looking at the watch and has really done research into Watson's family. Holmes reassures him that his deductions were based solely on observation of the watch. The initials H.W. and a date of some fifty years ago on the watch suggest that it had originally belonged to Watson's father. Jewelry is usually inherited by the eldest son. Since the watch has recently come into Watson's possession, this indicates that he had an older brother who died. Watson's brother was obviously a careless man because there are several dents on the watch, suggesting that he put the expensive watch in a pocket which also contained keys and coins. Numbers scratched on the inside of the watch case show that it was pawned four times, indicating that Watson's brother often lived in poverty. The fact that he was able to get the watch back indicates that he experienced brief periods of prosperity. Holmes adds that it is likely that the expensive watch was part of a larger inheritance that Watson's brother probably squandered. Holmes explains that he deduced that Watson's brother had a drinking problem because of scratches around the watch's keyhole. People usually wind their watches at night. Scratches around the keyhole are never seen on the watch of a sober man but are often seen on one of a drunkard. Watson apologizes to Holmes for having doubted him.

The landlady Mrs. Hudson comes into the room and tells Holmes that a young lady wants to see him. The young lady's visiting card gives her name as Miss Mary Morstan. Before Miss Morstan enters the room, Holmes tells Watson not to go and says that he would prefer his friend to stay. Miss Morstan is 27 years-old. She is elegantly dressed, although her simple clothes suggest that she is not very wealthy. She tells Holmes that he was recommended to her by her employer Mrs. Cecil Forrester, for whom she works as a governess. Holmes remembers the name and says that Mrs. Forrester's case was a simple one. Miss Morstan says that her case is much more complicated. Intrigued, Holmes begins to listen intently. Watson says that he thinks that it would be better if he left. Miss Morstan asks him to stay.

126th Baluchistan Inf 1912

1912 illustration by Richard Simkin which depicts an officer in the British Indian Army.

Miss Mary Morstan says that her father, Captain Arthur Morstan, had served with the Thirty-fourth Bombay infantry and had been the officer in charge of a convict-guard on the Andaman Islands. Her mother died when she was young and her father sent her back to Britain to be educated. She lived in a boarding house in Edinburgh until she was seventeen years-old. That year, Captain Morstan obtained a year's leave and came back to Britain. He sent a telegram to Miss Morstan, telling her to come down to London and meet him at the Langham Hotel on December 4, 1878. When she arrived at the hotel, Miss Morstan was told that her father had gone out the night before and had not returned. Miss Morstan waited all day for him but he did not come back. The hotel manager then advised her to contact the police. Captain Morstan has not been seen since. All of his luggage was still in his hotel room. It was examined but it gave no clue as to his disappearance. Captain Morstan had one friend in London, Major Sholto who served in the same regiment in India. When he was questioned about Captain Morstan's disappearance, Major Sholto claimed not to have known that Captain Morstan was in England.

On May 4, 1882, after Miss Morstan had started working for Mrs. Cecil Forrester, an advertisement appeared in The Times asking for the address of Miss Mary Morstan, saying, "it would be to her advantage to come forward". Mrs. Forrester advised Miss Morstan to publish her address in the newspaper's advertising column. On the same day that her address was published, Miss Morstan received a cardboard box in the mail which contained a large, rare and expensive pearl. Miss Morstan has received another pearl of the same type each year since then.

On the day that she came to see Holmes, Miss Morstan received a letter which she shows to the detective. The letter says that she is, "a wronged woman and shall have justice." It asks her to be at the third pillar from the left outside the Lyceum Theatre at seven o'clock that evening. It says that she can bring two friends if she is worried about her safety but asks her not to say anything to the police. Holmes asks Miss Morstan if the handwriting on the letter is the same as that on the labels on the boxes that contained the pearls. Miss Morstan has the six labels with her and shows them to Holmes. Sherlock Holmes says that the letter and the six labels were all written by the same man. The letter is in his true handwriting. He attempted, without much success, to disguise it when he wrote the six labels. Miss Morstan says that the writing does not look anything like that of her father. Sherlock Holmes and Watson agree to accompany Miss Morstan to the Lyceum Theatre. Holmes tells her to come back to his apartment at six o'clock that evening.

After Miss Morstan has gone, Watson comments on her attractiveness. Holmes says that he did not notice and that physical appearance is not important. He says that the most beautiful woman he ever knew murdered three small children to claim on their insurance money and that the ugliest man he ever met has donated thousands of pounds to charities which support the London poor. Holmes says that he is going out and recommends that Watson reads in his absence. Watson, however, cannot stop thinking about the attractive Miss Mary Morstan.

Sherlock Holmes returns at 5:30 that evening. He says that he has found out that Major Sholto died on April 28, 1882, a week before Miss Mary Morstan received the first of her six pearls. He suggests that Sholto's heir knows that the major knew something about Captain Morstan's disappearance and is trying to compensate the captain's daughter. Watson asks why Sholto's heir did not send the letter six years ago and asks what he meant by saying that she would have justice. Holmes says that he does not know but that they may find out that evening. Holmes notices that a cab has arrived outside their building and that Miss Morstan is inside it. He and Watson go down to join her. For protection, Watson takes his heaviest walking stick and Holmes takes his revolver.

Miss Morstan shows Holmes a strange document that was found in her father's wallet. Holmes notices that the paper was made in India and that it was pinned to a board at one time. Drawn on the paper is a plan of a large building with many halls, corridors and passages. Holmes sees a small cross in red ink with "3.37 from left" written above it. Drawn in faded pencil in the left hand corner of the paper is a symbol which looks like four crosses with their arms touching. Written in rough handwriting above the symbol is, "The sign of the four - Jonathan Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan, Dost Akbar". Holmes admits that he does not know what relevance the paper has to the case but he is certain that it is important.

At the Lyceum Theatre, Holmes, Watson and Miss Morstan are met by a coachman. The coachman asks if Holmes and Watson are police officers before taking the three of them away in a carriage. After a long journey, Holmes, Watson and Miss Morstan arrive at a terraced house in a distant suburb. The door is opened by an Indian servant in a white robe with a yellow sash and a yellow turban who says, "The sahib awaits you."


1893 map of British India.

The suburban house is home to Thaddeus Sholto, a little man who, although he is only thirty years-old, has just a little red hair around the edges of his shiny bald head. He leads Miss Morstan and the two men into an exquisitely furnished room. Many of the objects in the room come from India. Thaddeus Sholto asks Miss Morstan if either of the two men accompanying her are police officers. Miss Morstan says that they are not and introduces them as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Thaddeus Sholto, a great hypochondriac, is pleased to find out that one of the men is a doctor and asks Watson to use his stethoscope to listen to his heart. Watson can tell that Sholto is very nervous but his heartbeat is otherwise normal and he tells Sholto so. Sholto says that if Miss Morstan's father had not had a strained heart, he would still be alive, thereby very bluntly telling her that her father is dead.

Thaddeus Sholto says that he and his twin brother Bartholomew were the only children of the late Major John Sholto, who made his fortune in India and retired to England eleven years ago. Major Sholto made a home for himself in Pondicherry Lodge,[3] Upper Norwood. The house was filled with valuable objects from India and staffed by Indian servants. Major Sholto also employed two former boxers as gatekeepers. One of them, Williams, is now Thaddeus Sholto's coachman. Major Sholto was obviously afraid of something. He could not stand the sight of men with wooden legs. He once shot at a wooden-legged man who turned out to be a harmless traveling salesman. Thaddeus and Bartholomew Sholto knew that their father had been a friend of Captain Morstan. They often discussed the captain's disappearance in front of him and he joined in with their speculation about it. The two brothers never suspected that their father knew the truth about the matter.

In early 1882, Major Sholto received a letter from India. Thaddeus Sholto does not know what the content of the letter was but Major Sholto fainted when he read it. Major Sholto, who had been unwell for several years, never fully recovered from the shock that he received after reading the letter. In April 1882, he knew that he was dying and told his two sons that he wanted to speak to them. He said that greed had prevented him from giving Captain Morstan's orphan her share of the Agra treasure. He could not even bear to part with a string of pearls, which he showed his sons, even though he took it out of the treasure chest with the intention of sending it to her.

Major Sholto went on to say that in India, he and Captain Morstan came into possession of a valuable treasure. Major Sholto brought the treasure to England. On the night of Captain Morstan's return to England, without telling anyone else where he was going, Morstan came over to Pondicherry Lodge to claim his share of the treasure. He and Major Sholto quarreled over how to divide it. During the argument, Captain Morstan had a heart attack. He fell, cut his head open on the side of the treasure chest and died. Lal Chowdar, Major Sholto's loyal Indian servant, entered the room. Believing that his master had killed Captain Morstan, Lal Chowdar offered to help dispose of the body. Major Sholto believed that if he could not convince his servant that he was not guilty of murder, he would never be able to convince a jury. Therefore, he decided never to reveal what he knew about Captain Morstan's disappearance and kept the captain's share of the treasure for himself.

"The Sign of the Four" in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890)

Front cover of a February 1890 issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in which The Sign of the Four was first published.

On his deathbed, Major Sholto decided that he wanted to give Miss Mary Morstan her rightful share. He was about to tell his two sons where he had hidden the treasure when he saw a "bearded hairy face, with wild cruel eyes" at the window and yelled for the man to be kept out. Thaddeus and Bartholomew Sholto ran to the window but the man had already gotten away. By the time that they got back to the bed, their father was dead. The following morning, Thaddeus and Bartholomew Sholto found that their father's bedroom window had been opened. Nothing had been taken but somebody had been through all of his possessions. A piece of paper with "The sign of the four" written on it was on the dead man's chest.

Bartholomew and Thaddeus Sholto dug up the garden in search of the treasure but found nothing. Bartholomew Sholto reluctantly allowed his brother to place an advertisement asking for Miss Mary Morstan's address and to send her one pearl a year. Thaddeus Sholto says that he and his brother quarreled over whether or not to let Miss Morstan have part of the treasure. For that reason, Thaddeus Sholto left Pondicherry Lodge, taking one Indian servant[4] and Williams with him.

Thaddeus Sholto says that his brother has now found the treasure. It was hidden in a small secret attic which had been sealed up at the top of Pondicherry Lodge. The chest contains jewels worth five hundred thousand pounds. Williams takes Thaddeus Sholto, Holmes, Watson and Miss Morstan to Pondicherry Lodge so that Miss Morstan can claim her share of the treasure. Watson congratulates Miss Morstan on her inheritance. He is saddened, however, by the idea that a wealthy heiress like Miss Morstan will never be interested in a man of modest means like him.

It is nearly eleven o'clock at night by the time that Sherlock Holmes and his companions arrive at Pondicherry Lodge. The house is a large one. It is surrounded by a high wall which is topped with broken glass. There is a heavy iron door in the wall. Thaddeus Sholto knocks on the door. It is opened by McMurdo, the other ex-boxer who was employed as a gatekeeper by the late Major Sholto. McMordo is prepared to let Thaddeus enter because he knows that Bartholomew Sholto is expecting his brother, although he comments that Bartholomew has not left his room all day. He does not want to let the other people in at first. He allows them all to come in when he recognizes Holmes as an amateur boxer who once defeated him. The gardens of Pondicherry Lodge are littered with piles of earth, left by Thaddeus and Bartholomew digging for treasure for six years. There is no light coming from Bartholomew's room. The only light coming from the house is coming from the room of the old housekeeper Mrs. Bernstone.

The sound of a woman screaming is heard. Miss Morstan and Dr. Watson instinctively hold each other's hands to comfort each other. Thaddeus says that the sound could only have been made by Mrs. Bernstone. He goes towards Mrs. Bernstone's room, leaving the others outside. Soon afterwards, the door of the house is opened. The frightened Thaddeus Sholto says that something is wrong with his brother. Holmes, Watson and Miss Morstan go into Mrs. Bernstone's room. Mrs. Bernstone says that Bartholomew Sholto has been locked in his room all day and did not answer when she called him. She recently went up to his room, looked through the keyhole and was shocked by the look she saw on Bartholomew's face.

Leaving Miss Morstan with Mrs. Bernstone, Holmes, Watson and Thaddeus Sholto go up to Bartholomew Sholto's room at the top of the house. Holmes knocks on the door of Bartholomew's room but there is no answer. He tries to force the door open but finds that it is bolted on the inside. Looking through the keyhole, Holmes and Watson see a man who looks exactly like Thaddeus Sholto. Watson is in no doubt that it is Thaddeus' twin brother Bartholomew. There is a horrible, unnatural smile on Bartholomew's face. With some difficulty, Holmes knocks the door down. He and Watson enter the room. Thaddeus stays in the doorway.

The room has been set up as a chemical laboratory and is full of scientific equipment. There are large glass bottles in wicker baskets. One bottle, containing creosote, is broken or leaking. The dark liquid is trickling from it and its smell fills the air. A ladder stands at one end of the room, surrounded by bits of wood and plaster. Above the ladder is a hole in the ceiling that is large enough for a man to climb through. A rope has been carelessly thrown at the foot of the ladder. Bartholomew is sitting at a table. He has obviously been dead for several hours. Not only is there a hideous smile on his face, his whole body is horribly twisted. A crude hammer, made of a stone tied to a stick, is beside his hand on the table. Next to it is a torn piece of notepaper on which is written, "The sign of the four". Holmes knows that Bartholomew Sholto has been murdered because a poisoned thorn is sticking out just above the man's ear. Watson carefully removes it.

Thaddeus Sholto notices that the treasure is gone. He says that he and Bartholomew took it out of the hole in the ceiling at ten o'clock the night before and that he left after helping Bartholomew take it down. Thaddeus knows that he will be suspected of killing his brother. Holmes advises him to report the murder to the police first and to promise to cooperate with them in every way. Thaddeus goes to the nearest police station.


Holmes and Watson examine the little attic. 1903 illustration by Frederic Henry Townsend.

Once Thaddeus has gone, Holmes begins examining the room. The door has not been opened since the previous night. The window has been locked from the inside. Although the window is sixty feet above the ground, is not near a drainpipe and is a long way from the roof, it is obvious that a man came in through it. There is a muddy boot print and a circular mark left by the end of a wooden leg on the windowsill. Holmes realizes that the man with the wooden leg climbed up a rope. He had an accomplice who entered the room first and let him in by means of the rope through the window. The man with the wooden leg left the room in the same way and his accomplice shut the window after him. Although he was good at climbing, the man with the wooden leg could not have been a sailor. There are bloodstains on the rope. The wooden-legged man obviously slipped fast, taking a lot of skin off the palms of his hands.

Holmes thinks that the wooden-legged man's accomplice must be like no criminal in England, although he is reminded of reports of crimes from India and West Africa. It is obvious that the accomplice did not come in through the locked door. Watson wonders if he might have come down the chimney but Holmes says that the fireplace is too small. Holmes says, "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"[5][6] Watson realizes that the accomplice came in through the hole in the roof. Holmes and Watson examine the small attic in which the treasure was hidden. Holmes finds a trapdoor which leads to the roof. He also sees the print of a bare foot that is about half the size of that of an average man. Leaving the attic, Holmes examines the room again. He finds that the bare-footed accomplice trod in some of the spilled creosote. He says that a trained dog would be able to follow his scent.

At Holmes' request, Watson feels the dead man's muscles. He says that they are much harder than would be caused by normal rigor mortis. He believes that Bartholomew Sholto died of tetanus brought on by poisoning from a strychnine-like substance. Holmes says that was the first thought that occurred to him when he saw the horrible smile on Bartholomew Sholto's face. Watson is told to examine the thorn. He agrees that the long sharp black thorn is not an English one.

Thaddeus Sholto returns with two police officers. Holmes has met one of them, Mr. Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, before and does not have a high opinion of him. In spite of having some difficulty in explaining how he could have left a room with both window and door locked from the inside, Athelney Jones thinks Thaddeus Sholto is guilty of his brother's murder and arrests him.

Sherlock Holmes says that he can tell Athelney Jones who the real murderers are. He says that one of them is a middle-aged bearded man named Jonathan Small. His right leg is missing and he has a wooden leg which is worm away on the inner side. A lot of skin is missing from the palms of his hands. On his left foot, he wears a square-toed boot with an iron band around the heel. He is a small, active and poorly educated man who was once a convict and is badly sunburned. According to Holmes, the second murderer is a, "rather curious person."

Holmes tells Watson to take Miss Morstan back home to Mrs. Cecil Forrester's house in nearby Lower Camberwell. He is told to then go to an address in Lambeth where he can borrow a dog with an excellent sense of smell named Toby. Holmes says that he will stay at Pondicherry Lodge to try to find out what he can from Mrs. Bernstone and the Indian servant who sleeps in the neighboring room. He jokingly says that he will also take the opportunity to observe Mr. Athelney Jones' detective work.

It is almost three o'clock in the morning by the time that Watson returns to Pondicherry Lodge with Toby the dog. Mr. Athelney Jones has gone. McMurdo, Mrs. Bernstone and all of the other servants have been arrested as accomplices to the murder. One police officer remains in the room in which Bartholomew's body, now covered with a sheet, still sits.

Holmes takes off his shoes and socks and hands them to Watson. He takes his handkerchief and dips it into the spilled creosote. He and Watson go back into the small attic. Holmes asks Watson the difference between the print of his bare foot and that of Jonathan Small's accomplice. Watson notices that, as well as the size difference, Holmes' toes are all cramped together and the toes on the little footprint are clearly divided. Holmes goes out of the trapdoor and onto the roof. He tells Watson to wait for him in the garden. Holmes is able to follow the path which Jonathan Small's accomplice took over the roof, eventually climbing down a drainpipe and onto the top of a water butt with a lid on it. He shows Watson that the accomplice lost something on the roof, a pouch containing more of the small poisonous darts. Holmes gets Toby to smell the handkerchief dipped in creosote. The dog goes straight to the water butt. It then leads Holmes and Watson to a broken wall, where Jonathan Small has left a bloody handprint, before leading them out onto the road.


The dog Toby follows the scent, followed by Holmes and Watson. 1903 illustration by Frederic Henry Townsend.

Watson asks Holmes how he was able to give such a detailed description of the wooden-legged man to Athelney Jones. Holmes replies that Major Sholto and Captain Morstan had both been officers in charge of a convict-guard team when they learned about a buried treasure. A map was drawn up for them by an Englishman named Jonathan Small, who signed the map on behalf of himself and his three associates with the words and the symbol of "the sign of the four". The officers got the treasure and brought it back to England, failing to fulfill some promise they had made before getting it. Jonathan Small did not get any of the treasure when it was discovered because he and his three associates were convicts at the time. Major Sholto was scared of men with wooden legs. He once shot at an English salesman with a wooden leg. Jonathan Small is the only English name among the four on the map. Therefore, it must be Jonathan Small who has a wooden leg. Jonathan Small must by now be middle-aged. He is sunburned from having long been a convict on the Andaman Islands. He must be bearded because Thaddeus Sholto said that he saw a hairy face at the window on the evening that his father died.

Holmes goes on to say that the letter which gave Major Sholto a terrible shock probably informed him that Small and the other three convicts had escaped. Small would then have returned to England, hoping to get the treasure and to take revenge on Major Sholto who wronged him. Holmes says that Jonathan Small probably had a confederate inside Pondicherry Lodge, probably Lal Rao the butler whom Mrs. Bernstone does not like. Small failed to get hold of the treasure because nobody knew where it was hidden apart from Major Sholto himself. Having found out that Major Sholto was dying, Small tried to break into the major's bedroom to get him to tell him where the treasure was hidden while he still could. He was stopped from entering by the presence of the major's two sons. He returned later that evening, entered the major's room and looked through his papers but found no clue as to where the treasure was hidden. He left the paper with "the sign of the four" written on it to show that he had been there.

Having found out from his confederate inside Pondicherry Lodge that the treasure had been discovered, Small returned to the house. He needed the help of an accomplice to get into the room at the top of Pondicherry Lodge where the treasure was. It was the accomplice who killed Bartholomew Sholto. Jonathan Small obviously did not want that because the marks he left on the floor show that he stamped angrily around the room.

By dawn, Toby has led Holmes and Watson into London. Eventually, the dog appears to get confused. It pauses for a while before leading them to a timber yard and stopping on top of a barrel full of creosote. Holmes realizes that Jonathan Small and his accomplice must have crossed paths with other people carrying creosote to the timber yard. Toby had a choice of two different trails to follow and chose to follow the wrong one. They need to go back to the place where the dog got confused and get him to follow the other trail. The dog eventually leads Holmes and Watson to a small wooden wharf on the banks of the Thames. It is obvious that Jonathan Small and his accomplice got on a boat. Toby is taken to sniff at some of the boats that are moored by the water's edge but does not react in any way.

Holmes and Watson come to a small house with a sign that says, "Mordecai Smith, Boats to hire by the hour or day". The sign also says that there is one steamboat available. Mordecai Smith is not at home but Holmes is able to engage Smith's wife in conversation. She says that her husband and her oldest son Jim have been away since yesterday morning on their fast steamboat, even though they did not take enough coal with them for a long journey. Mrs. Smith says that the boat was hired by a wooden-legged man who woke up her husband at three o'clock the previous morning. The man had called before and Mrs. Smith recognized his voice. Mordecai Smith had obviously been expecting the wooden-legged man because he had the steamboat ready. Holmes gets Mrs. Smith to give him a description of her husband's steamboat. She tells him that the boat is called the Aurora.

Before returning to Baker Street, Holmes sends a telegram to a young man named Wiggins, the leader of a gang of boys that Holmes calls the "Baker Street Irregulars". The boys have helped Holmes in the past. Later that morning, Wiggins arrives at Holmes' and Watson's apartment with some twelve boys. Holmes gives the boys a description of the Aurora and tells them to look for it and Mordecai Smith. One boy is to stay by Mordecai Smith's landing-stage at all times. The rest are to thoroughly search both banks of the Thames. All of the boys are to be paid a shilling a day for their work. The boy who finds the boat is to be given a guinea.

Great Andamanese - two men - 1875

1875 photograph of two natives of the Andaman Islands.

After Wiggins and the boys have left, Holmes says that the case should be an easy one for him to solve because wooden-legged men are not very common and Jonathan Small's companion appears to be unique. Holmes knows that Small's accomplice has tiny feet and the spaces between his toes show that he has never worn shoes. The man is highly agile, uses stone weapons and fires poisonous darts from a blowpipe. Looking at a recently published reference work, Holmes reads about the natives of the Andaman Islands. According to the book, they are probably the smallest people on Earth. Their average height is four feet and they are often shorter than that. They use stone-headed clubs and poisonous arrows. They are a fierce people who are known to have massacred survivors of shipwrecks. They are, however, known to have formed devoted friendships with some outsiders who have gained their confidence.

For several days, there is no news of the Aurora. Holmes grows tired of doing nothing. Watson is woken up early one morning by Holmes, dressed as a sailor. Holmes says that he is going out because he has an idea that is worth trying. He tells Watson to stay in Baker Street as his representative. Watson is given permission to open all letters and telegrams sent to Holmes and to act as he sees fit.

Later that morning, Watson reads a newspaper article which says that all charges against Thaddeus Sholto and Mrs. Bernstone have been dropped and they have been released. The article goes on to say that Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard expects to arrest the real culprits in the case of the murder of Bartholomew Sholto soon. Watson also sees a personal ad in the newspaper which says that Mrs. Smith is worried about her missing husband Mordecai and son Jim who left several days earlier on the steamboat Aurora. Anyone with any information is told to go to 221B Baker Street.


Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard and Holmes disguised as an old sailor. 1903 illustration by Frederic Henry Townsend.

At three o'clock in the afternoon, Athelney Jones comes over. He has received a telegram from Sherlock Holmes, telling him to come to Baker Street at once and to wait for Holmes there. Shortly afterwards, an old sailor arrives. The old sailor says that he has information for Sherlock Holmes and refuses to reveal it to either Watson or Athelney Jones. The two men force the old sailor to stay and wait for Holmes. After some time, the old sailor reveals that he is Sherlock Holmes in disguise. He says that he needed to disguise himself in order to carry out his investigation because he is well known to some criminals.

Holmes tells Athelney Jones that he can help him capture Bartholomew Sholto's murderers and that Jones can take full credit for doing so. Holmes says that he will need a fast police steamboat to be at Westminster Stairs at seven o'clock that evening and that there will need to be at least two strong police officers in the boat. He goes on to say that he wants Watson to be allowed to take the recovered jewels to Miss Mary Morstan and that he wants to interview Jonathan Small, in the presence of some police officers, in order to find out the full facts of the case. Athelney Jones agrees to Holmes' conditions but says that the treasure will need to be taken away again after Miss Morstan has seen it until after an official investigation into it has been carried out. Holmes tells Watson to take his revolver with him before they leave.

It is just after seven o'clock in the evening when Holmes, Watson and Athelney Jones arrive at Westminster Stairs. Holmes asks for the lamp which identifies the steamboat as belonging to the police to be removed and says that they are going to the Tower of London.

Holmes explains that Jonathan Small knew that his unusual companion would attract attention. It was three o'clock in the morning by the time that they arrived at Mordecai Smith's house and Small knew that it would soon be light. For that reason, Small and his accomplice did not leave on the Aurora that day. The Aurora did, however, need to be kept ready to soon take Small and his accomplice to the place where they would take a ship out of the country. Small paid Mordecai Smith to keep quiet and he and his accomplice returned to their hiding place. Small followed the investigation into Bartholomew Sholto's murder in the newspapers.

Having reasoned that Small must have taken the Aurora to a boat builder or repairer and asked for some minor alteration to be made at it, Holmes made inquiries at all such business. At Jacobson's Yard, across the Thames from the Tower of London, he found out that the Aurora was there. A wooden-legged man had brought it in and asked for the rudder to be repaired, even though there was nothing wrong with the rudder. While Holmes was at Jacobson's Yard, Mordecai Smith arrived, drunk on the money that Jonathan Small had given him. He shouted out his name and that of his steamboat and said that he wanted the boat to be ready by eight o'clock that evening. On leaving Jacobson's Yard, Holmes saw one of his "Baker Street Irregulars". He told the boy to stay by Jacobson's Yard all day and to wave his handkerchief as a signal when he saw the Aurora begin to set sail.

Watson sees the boy wave his handkerchief on the opposite bank of the Thames. The police boat starts to follow the Aurora. The Aurora is very fast but the police boat eventually catches up with it. The men on board the Aurora realize that they are being pursued. As the police boat gets closer to the Aurora, a spotlight is shone onto it and Athelney Jones shouts at its occupants to stop. A man with a wooden leg rises up from the back of the boat. He angrily shakes his fist and shouts at the police boat. A very short black man, wrapped in a coat or a blanket, is next to the wooden-legged man. Holmes says to fire at the black man if he raises his hand. The black man takes out a blowpipe and puts it to his lips. Holmes and Watson shoot at him. He falls into the river and drowns.


Jonathan Small gets his wooden leg stuck in the mud. 1903 illustration by Frederic Henry Townsend.

Trying to escape, the wooden-legged man steers the boat towards a river bank and climbs out. His wooden leg gets firmly stuck in mud and he cannot move. A rope has to be thrown over him so that he can be dragged onto the police boat. Mordecai Smith and his son give themselves up to the police without any protestation. A locked heavy iron chest without a key is found on the deck of the Aurora. Jonathan Small, who responds when Holmes calls him by that name, says that he threw the key to the bottom of the river.

On board the police boat, Mordecai Smith says that he knows nothing about the death of Bartholomew Sholto. Jonathan Small confirms this. He says that he simply hired Smith to take him to Gravesend so that he could take a ship to Brazil. Small swears on the Bible that he is not guilty of Bartholomew Sholto's murder either. He adds that, although he would have had no qualms about killing old Major Sholto, he bore no ill will towards his son. Jonathan Small had not expected Bartholomew Sholto to be in his room at the time that he and Tonga, his Andamanese companion, entered it. Small knew that Bartholomew Sholto was usually downstairs eating supper at that time of night. The murder was entirely Tonga's idea. When Small came into the room, Tonga saw that he was angry with him for having killed Bartholomew Sholto. For that reason, Tonga left quickly, leaving his stone club behind.

Watson is let off the police boat at Vauxhall Bridge. In the company of a police officer, he goes to the home of Mrs. Cecil Forrester to show Miss Mary Morstan the treasure, half of which belongs to her and half of which belongs to Thaddeus Sholto. Watson breaks the iron chest open with a poker. It is found to be completely empty. Miss Morstan does not appear to be bothered. Watson says, "Thank God." Miss Morstan asks him why he said that. Watson admits to Miss Morstan that he has fallen in love with her. He dared not speak of his love to her because he felt that, as a wealthy heiress, she was beyond his reach. Miss Morstan says that, in that case, she is glad that the treasure chest is empty too.

On returning to 221B Baker Street with the empty treasure chest, Watson finds Holmes, Athelney Jones and the handcuffed Jonathan Small there. Small says that he emptied the treasure chest into the Thames when he saw that the police boat had almost caught up with the Aurora. He chose to empty the chest rather than throw the full chest into the river because he knew that it would make it much more difficult to recover the jewels that way. He says that he would rather nobody had the treasure than that it went to the descendants of Captain Morstan and Major Sholto. Small says that those two officers did not suffer to obtain the Agra treasure like he did. Holmes asks Small to tell his full story.

Jonathan Small was born near the town of Pershore in Worcestershire. He was always the black sheep of the family. When he was eighteen years-old, he "got into a mess over a girl". To avoid further trouble, he went to India as a soldier. His military career came to an end very quickly when he went swimming in the Ganges and had his right leg bitten off below the knee by a crocodile. His former colonel found him a job as an overseer on a plantation. He lived happily there for a while, until the Indian Mutiny broke out, during which all of the other British people at the plantation were killed. Small escaped to the relative safety of Agra. In spite of his wooden leg, he was able to join a volunteer corps made up of British men who had been civilian workers in India before the outbreak of the mutiny. Along with two Sikh soldiers, Mahomet Singh and Abdullah Khan, Small was charged with guarding one of the many doors of the enormous Agra Fort.

57 (9) & 53 Sikhs (5)

1911 image by A.C. Lovett which depicts two soldiers in the British Indian Army.

One night, the two Sikhs suddenly held a knife to Small's throat and said, "You must either be with us now or be silenced forever ... Which is it to be - death or life?" They reassured Small that they were not on the side of the rebels and were not putting the fort at risk. They added that they were offering Small a chance to be rich and to have a quarter share of a great treasure. Small solemnly swore to join the two Sikhs in their enterprise.

Small was told that there was a wealthy rajah who was officially supporting the rebels. He knew, however, that the rebels could be defeated by the British. Therefore, he decided to send half of his wealth, in the form of an iron chest full of jewels, to Agra Fort and to recover it from the British authorities when India was at peace again. The Sikhs explained that the chest full of jewels was due to arrive at Agra Fort that evening. It would be carried by one of the rajah's servants, going by the name of Achmet and pretending to be a merchant, who would be accompanied by Abdullah Khan's foster brother Dost Akbar.[7] It was explained to Jonathan Small that Achmet would be killed. Small could then have a quarter of the treasure. Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan and Dost Akbar would take the rest.

Accompanied by Dost Akbar and carrying the iron chest full of jewels, Achmet arrived at Agra Fort. Jonathan Small and the three Sikhs killed Achmet. They hid his body in a room in the fort where the dirt floor had sunk in and formed a natural grave. They covered it with loose bricks from a crumbling wall. Jonathan Small and the three Sikhs examined the treasure before burying it in the same room where they buried Achmet. The following day, Jonathan Small drew up four maps showing the location of the buried treasure. He marked the bottom of each map with "the sign of the four" to symbolize the bonds of friendship that bound Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan, Dost Akbar and himself together.

Unknown to Jonathan Small and the three Sikhs, the rajah sent another servant to follow Achmet. The other servant saw Achmet go into Agra Fort and not come out again. He went into the fort the following day but could not find Achmet. He reported the man missing to the British military authorities and his body was found. Jonathan Small and the three Sikhs were found guilty of his murder. No mention of the jewels was made at their trial. By that time, the rajah had been deposed and gone into exile.

Andaman Islands

Map showing the location of the Andaman Islands.

After serving time in various prisons in India, Jonathan Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan and Dost Akbar were eventually sent to the penal colony on the Andaman Islands. Jonathan Small had his own hut there and was often left to his own devices. He became an assistant to the surgeon and gained some knowledge of medicine. In the evenings, Small watched the surgeon play cards with other people, including Major Sholto and Captain Morstan. Both Morstan and Sholto lost a lot of money gambling at cards. One morning, Small overheard Sholto telling Morstan that his gambling debts had left him financially ruined.

Seeing a possible way out of the penal colony, Small approached Sholto one morning. He said that he hoped to get his sentence shortened by reporting the location of half a million pounds worth of buried jewels. He said that he wanted to know the correct authority to which he should make the report. Sholto got Small to tell him the whole story about the treasure. When he finished, Sholto told Small to keep silent about the matter until he spoke to him again. Two nights later, Sholto returned with Captain Morstan. Jonathan Small repeated the story to him. Small offered to give the two officers a fifth share of the treasure, which they could divide between them, if they would help him, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan and Dost Akbar to escape. Major Sholto and Captain Morstan agreed. A second meeting was arranged which was also attended by the three Sikhs. Sholto and Morstan were given maps, drawn by Small, which showed where in Agra Fort the treasure was buried. The maps were marked at the bottom with the words and the symbol of "the sign of the four". It was agreed that Sholto would go to Agra Fort first to see if the treasure was there. If he found it, he would send over a yacht on which Jonathan Small and the three Sikhs could escape. Captain Morstan would then take leave and the six men would meet up and divide the treasure between them.

Sholto went to Agra Fort and found the treasure. He then left the Army and returned to England, keeping all of the treasure for himself. When Small found out about this, he thought of nothing but taking revenge on Major Sholto.

Many years later, on a day when the penal colony's surgeon was absent, a seriously ill Andamanese native named Tonga was brought to the surgery. Small nursed Tonga back to health. Tonga then came to consider Small a great friend and spent most of his time with him. Small learned some of Tonga's language from him. Tonga was a good boatman and had a large canoe. Seeing a chance to escape, Small told Tonga to fetch a supply of food and water and to take his canoe at night to a wharf that was usually left unguarded. Unusually, the wharf was guarded on the night that Small chose for his escape. Small killed the guard by taking off his wooden leg and striking the man with it. After eleven days at sea, Tonga and Small were picked up by a ship and eventually made their way to England.


Jonathan Small climbs up the rope. 1903 illustration by Frederic Henry Townsend.

In London, Small found out where Major Sholto lived. He befriended somebody inside Pondicherry Lodge. Jonathan Small does not name the person, although Holmes continues to think that it is the butler Lal Rao. Jonathan Small found out that Sholto still had the treasure, although nobody apart from Sholto himself knew where it was hidden. Small was unable to look for it because the house was always guarded by two former boxers. When he heard that Major Sholto was dying, Small did not want to miss his chance to take revenge and hoped to be able kill Sholto first. He climbed up to the major's bedroom window and saw Sholto with his two sons. He was prepared to fight all three of them but saw that Major Sholto died immediately after seeing him at the window. Later that evening, Small broke into Major Sholto's bedroom. He searched for any clue as to the location of the treasure but found nothing. He left the paper with "the sign of the four" written on it on the dead man's body as a sign that he had been there. Small scraped a living by exhibiting Tonga at fairs as the "black cannibal" until his contact inside Pondicherry Lodge told him that the treasure had been found.

Small goes on to describe the events of the night on which Bartholomew Sholto was killed, saying very little that Holmes does not already know.

After Athelney Jones has taken Jonathan Small away, Watson announces to Holmes that he and Miss Mary Morstan have become engaged.[8] Holmes says, "I really cannot congratulate you." He says that Watson and Miss Morstan are both rational people. He admires how Miss Morstan realized that, out of all of her father's papers, the plan with "the sign of the four" written on it was worth keeping. Holmes fears that the coming of love into Watson's and Miss Morstan's lives will make them lose their rationality because, "whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason."

The case having been solved, Holmes is already beginning to feel bored and drowsy. He reaches for his cocaine bottle for stimulation.


CC No 21 Three Famous Mysteries

Issue #21 of Classic Comics from July 1944 contains adaptations of The Sign of the Four, the short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe and the short story "The Flayed Hand" by Guy de Maupassant.

The Sign of the Four has been adapted as a 1913 American silent film (starring Harry Benham as Holmes), a 1923 British silent film (starring Ellie Norwood as Holmes), a 1932 British film (starring Arthur Wontner as Holmes) and a 1983 Australian animated film (starring Peter O'Toole as the voice of Holmes).

Two of the fourteen Hollywood movies starring the British actors Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are partially inspired by The Sign of the Four. The 1944 film The Spider Woman draws on plot elements from The Sign of the Four and the short stories "The Adventure of the Dying Detective", "The Final Problem", "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band". The 1946 film Terror by Night draws on plot elements from The Sign of the Four and the short stories "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone", "The Adventure of the Empty House" and "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax".

The Sign of the Four was adapted as the fifteenth episode of the BBC TV series Sherlock Holmes, starring Peter Cushing as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson, which first aired in the United Kingdom on December 16, 1968. It was adapted as the fifth episode of the French-German television series Les Grands détectives. The episode, starring the German actor Rolf Becker as Holmes, first aired on the French TV channel Antenne 2 on May 5, 1975. The novel was adapted as the hour-long seventh episode of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the second Granada TV series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. The episode was first broadcast on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on December 29, 1987. The tenth episode of the British-American animated TV series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, which first aired on Fox Kids in the United States on November 20, 1999, is an adaptation of The Sign of the Four. As "The Adventure of the Cheerful Four", the novel was adapted as the eighth and ninth episodes of the Japanese TV series Sherlock Holmes Puppet Entertainment which first aired on NHK Educational on November 30 and December 7, 2014. The novel's title is referenced in that of "The Sign of the Three", the second episode of the BBC TV series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which was first shown in the United Kingdom on January 5, 2014.

A 1983 British TV movie adaptation of The Sign of the Four starring Ian Richardson as Holmes was first shown on American television on December 7, 1983. A Canadian TV movie adaptation starring Matt Frewer as Holmes first aired on the Hallmark Channel in the United States on March 23, 2001. The two-part Russian-language TV movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Treasure of Agra, which stars Vasili Livanov as Holmes and Vitali Solomin as Watson and was first shown on television in the Soviet Union in 1983, is an adaptation of The Sign of the Four and the short story "A Scandal in Bohemia".

The American playwright Paul Giovanni adapted The Sign of the Four for the stage as The Crucifer of Blood. The play was first performed at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway on September 28, 1978. The Broadway production ran for two hundred and thirty-six performances and was nominated for four Tony Awards. The Crucifer of Blood opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London's West End on March 15, 1979 and ran for three hundred and ninety-seven performances. The play was performed at the Ahmanson Theater in the Los Angeles Music Center between December 25, 1980 and January 17, 1981. Notably, Jeremy Brett, who later became famous for playing Sherlock Holmes on British television, played Dr. Watson in the Los Angeles production of The Crucifer of Blood. A TV movie adaptation of The Crucifer of Blood, starring Charlton Heston as Holmes, was first shown on the American cable channel TNT on November 4, 1991.

The Sign of the Four was adapted as an episode of the American radio series CBS Radio Mystery Theater. The episode, which stars Kevin McCarthy as Holmes, first aired in the United States on March 9, 1977. A two-part British radio drama based on The Sign of the Four was made as part of a series of adaptations of all of the novels and short stories in the Sherlock Holmes Canon. The radio play stars Clive Merrison as Holmes, Michael Williams as Watson and Brian Blessed as Jonathan Small. The two episodes (the first of which is subtitled "Timbertoe" and the second of which is subtitled "The Great Agra Treasure") were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on December 10 and December 17, 1999.

See also


  1. Joseph M. Stoddart, the managing editor of the American publication Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, wanted to set up a British edition of the magazine with British contributors and a British editor. To that end, he traveled to Britain in 1889. On August 30, 1880, he had dinner at the Langham Hotel, London with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. He commissioned stories from both authors to appear in his magazine. Doyle's story, The Sign of the Four, appeared in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Wilde's story, The Picture of Dorian Gray, appeared in the July 1890 issue. A commemorative plaque outside the Langham Hotel now states that both novels originated out of a meeting that was held there.
  2. According to Chapter 2 of The Sign of the Four, the action takes place in July. According to Chapter 3, the action of which takes place on the evening of the same day as Chapter 2, the month is September.
  3. The house is named after the Indian city of Pondicherry. The French began colonizing Pondicherry in 1674. Apart from periods when the city was ruled by the Dutch (1693-1699) and the British (1761-1763 and 1793-1814), Pondicherry remained a French possession until its inhabitants voted to join the newly independent Republic of India in 1954.
  4. Thaddeus Sholto identifies the servant as a "khitmutgar", a variant spelling of "khitmatgar", a male servant who waits at tables.
  5. A similar quote, "It is an old maxim of mine that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth", appears in the 1892 Sherlock Holmes short story "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet".
  6. A similar quote, "When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth", appears in the 1926 Sherlock Holmes short story "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier".
  7. In The Sign of the Four, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan and Dost Akbar are said to be the names of three Sikhs. In reality, people named Akbar, Khan, Abdullah, Dost and Mahomet (an obsolete variant spelling of Muhammad) are much more likely to be Muslims than Sikhs. Singh is a very common surname among Sikhs. Some Sikhs maintain that their religion requires them to have Singh as either a surname or a middle name.
  8. As Dr. Watson's wife, Mary Morstan appears in the short stories "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" and "The Man with the Twisted Lip". Her death is briefly alluded to in the short story "The Adventure of the Empty House".

External links