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Disguising a Suicide as a Homicide: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hans Gross, and “The Problem of Thor Bridge”

Damiani, Ernesto MD

The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: June 2016 - Volume 37 - Issue 2 - p 79
doi: 10.1097/PAF.0000000000000221
Letter to the Editor

Department of Biomedical Sciences School of Medicine University of Padova Padova, Italy

The author reports no conflict of interest.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives License 4.0 (CCBY-NC-ND), where it is permissible to download and share the work provided it is properly cited. The work cannot be changed in any way or used commercially.

To the Editor:

While reviewing the scientific literature concerning the Materia Medica contained in Sherlock Holmes' adventures, I have fallen upon 2 articles published 2 decades ago in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Both articles reported a case of suicide disguised as a homicide, one in Poland1 and the other in the United States.2 Correctly, authors pointed out that the modality of the 2 suicides was patterned on that described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) in The Problem of Thor Bridge, a story published in The Strand Magazine in 1922.3

However, authors of both articles apparently missed the point, which still remains unfamiliar in the scientific literature, that Conan Doyle did not conceive the storyline of the tale, which instead was modeled on a real case described in 1893 by the Austrian criminal jurist Hans Gross4 (1847–1925), in his famous compendium of criminal cases collected for the use of magistrates, police officers, and lawyers. A grain merchant, whose business was hopelessly ruined, shot himself on a bridge with a gun tied to a stone with a rope. The moment he fired, he let go off the pistol, which was dragged over the parapet of the bridge into a rather deep stream by the weight of the stone. By killing himself, the merchant hoped to gain a life insurance for his family. Conan Doyle might have read the case in the English translation published in 1906.5 However, it cannot be excluded that Conan Doyle read the original German edition of Gross' treatise, because he had, in his own words, “a fair knowledge of conversational German.”6

It has been suggested7 that Gross might have been inspired by the stories of Sherlock Holmes in the writing of his book. Although there is no evidence whatsoever to support this argument, it is pretty sure that Gross' work influenced authors of detective stories. As a matter of fact, the entire case was quoted in the German original in a footnote in The Greene Murder Case (1928), one of the best-ever mystery novel of Philo Vance, the character of amateur detective created of S.S. Van Dine,8 pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright (1888–1939). Vance uses quotations from Gross' Handbuch to demonstrate that the culprit of the story, the mad Ada Greene, took her ideas for plotting the murders from Gross' book, exactly like Conan Doyle did.

Ernesto Damiani, MD

Department of Biomedical Sciences

School of Medicine

University of Padova

Padova, Italy

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1. Gross A, Kunz J. Suicidal shooting masked using a method described in Conan Doyle's novel. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 1995; 16: 164–167.
2. Prahlow JA, Long S, Barnard JJ. A suicide disguised as a homicide: return to Thor Bridge. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 1998; 19: 186–189.
3. Doyle AC. The problem of Thor bridge. In: Baring-Gould WS, ed. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: Clarkson N. Potter; 1967: 588–606.
4. Gross H. Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter, Polizei beamte, Gendarmen. 1st ed. Berlin, Germany: 1893: 834–836.
5. Gross H. Criminal Investigation: A Practical Handbook for Magistrates, Police Officers and Lawyers. 1st ed. Madras, OR: 1906.
6. Doyle AC. Memories and Adventures. 1st ed. London: Murray; 1924: 84.
7. Berg SO. Sherlock Holmes: father of scientific crime and detection. J Criminal Law Criminol. 1971; 61: 446–452.
8. Van Dine SS. The Greene Murder Case. 1st ed. New York: Charles Scribner's; 1928:chap 26.
© 2016 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.