Last month we lost a giant in the Sherlockian world - Michael Whelan passed away. Mike (as I knew him) had accomplished much in our hobby, and it left indelible marks upon those who knew him and those whom he affected. His list is far too long to go into here, but the one thing I can do is introduce you to a paper that he gave to me to read in his absence years ago. I have held onto it all this time, and it seems a fitting tribute given our journey here.
I give you the paper in its entirety and exactly as Mike wrote it. I have changed nothing. Enjoy.
"Watson's Wives & Chronological Mires"
By Michael Whelan
It is a brave or foolhardy writer who would simultaneously tackle an accepted Canonical commandment by invoking the quicksand of chronological inconsistencies. However, in this short but conclusive analysis, I hope to persuade this small audience of the validity of my thesis.
There has been much speculation whether Watson was married twice or even three times. What has not been generally open to question was that Mary Morstan was Watson's first wife.
It is my contention that Mary Morstan was Watson's second wife and definitive dates, not subject to multiple interpretations, will prove this analysis. First we must turn to NOBL to lay out the initial chronology of Watson's first marriage. When did this particular case take place? Most of the major chronologies place the case in early October. Most deduced the specific date to be from October 6 to October 12. Jay Peck and Les Klinger in The Date Being, at the top of each story's multiple chronologies, list the Canonical "facts" as "early October 1887." However, these eminent chronologists employ tortuous logic to push the story into 1888 so that Watson's direct quotation in NOBL of "It was a few weeks before my own marriage" would fit more neatly into meeting Mary Morstan in 1888 in SIGN.
But even that creates severe timing problems, for if we accept the chronologists' dates of SIGN occurring between July and September of 1888, and Watson's date between October 6th and 12th of that same year - stating his marriage would occur in a few weeks - doesn't that sound a bit precipitous for a presumed bachelor? I don't think it is possible for Watson and Mary Morstan to have set a wedding date one month after meeting, much less three months.
So what chronology makes the most sense? 1887 is the presumed year when Watson made his comment about the timing of his impending wedding. We know this because Holmes picked up a red peerage book which Holmes then quoted from that Lord St. Simon was born in 1846 and was 41 years of age. Ernest Zeisler dismisses 1887 as a simple error. Zeisler says "It must have meant 1847." Now I might believe that there are such things as printing errors, but in a book of peers I would wager not. The British are most meticulous about their titled aristocracy and Holmes' precise nature would hardly allow a slip of the tongue. So, early October - probably between the 6th and 12th, 1887 - was when Watson made his statement about his imminent marriage.
A "few" of something is generally considered to be not many, and a small number. When I asked people to place a value on "few", most answered "three". So we can deduce that Watson's wedding would have been scheduled in early to mid-November, 1887. How, then, could he marry someone he had yet to encounter until July to September of 1888? We can agree with this 1888 dating as most chronologists did, by referring to Mary Morstan's own words in her first meeting with Holmes and Watson when describing an advertisement which appeared in the Times asking for her address, "About six years ago - to be exact, upon the fourth of May, 1882....."
She should have been exact and accurate for she had one pearl sent to her on the May 4th date each year. As a sidebar, this would suggest that SIGN took place not between July and September, but before May 4th, for if it was that date, or later, she would have possessed a total of seven pearls.
So if Watson had not met Mary Morstan until 1888, when he referred to his upcoming wedding in 1887 - who was the first Mrs. Watson? Let's indulge in what I'd like to refer to as logical speculation. Since Canonical facts ipso facto have led to the conclusion that Mary Morstan was not Watson's first wife, who was? We cannot stray from the Canon for in doing so we will create even more speculative analysis.
We should be able to demonstrate that John H. Watson, M. D. had met his first wife well before his wedding date. The case in which Watson met the first Mrs. Watson would, of necessity, had to have occurred no later than 1886, and hopefully earlier, to avoid an unrealistically short or infeasible engagement period. NOBL is an early case so just a few fit this search: MUSG, STUD, SILV, BERY, YELL, SPEC, CHAS, CARD and HOUN.
I draw your attention to BERY. Watson is fully engaged in the case. An attractive woman plays an important part as the case unfolds. The case occurs sometime between 1882 and March of 1886, according to all but one of the major chronologists - fitting our need for a respectable engagement period. As you might have guessed, I'm referring to Mary Holder, Alexander Holder's niece, who was implicated along with the notorious Sir George Burnwell in the theft of the Beryl Coronet and who fled with him to escape prosecution.
If she fled with Burnwell how could she possibly have become Watson's first wife? I base this on two things: (1) she wrote a note to her uncle indicating remorse for her actions - she is not all bad; and (2) she later fully discovers what Holmes pointed out in the case's retrospection that Burnwell is "one of the most dangerous men in England--a ruined gambler, an absolutely desperate villain, a man without conscience" and also "a man of evil reputation among women." Obviously he was one of the many sociopaths in the Canon.
So discovering Burnwell's true nature, she left him. She did have the semblance of a conscience but she had a streak of wildness within herself.....she was not a villainess, just a wayward girl.
Imagine a chance Watson encounter with Mary Holder. Watson's gallantry and protectiveness would have been a factor in his attraction to a woman wronged who had escaped a spider's web. They married in November 1887 but the wild streak of Mary Holder remained and shortly thereafter Watson obtained an annulment in early 1888, leaving him a damaged but free man when he and Holmes met Mary Morstan sometime before early May.
So, yes, there were two Mrs. Watsons and after all these years of endless speculation as to the identity of the second Mrs. Watson, and countless toasts, we may take some comfort in learning that Mary Morstan, in fact, was the second Mrs. Watson.
So, what are we to make of Mike's theory? I have to step away from it as I am of the opinion that Watson was only married once - sometime around 1903. (If you want to know more, I am publishing my theory in The Sherlockian Chronologist Guild newsletter TIMELINE. I can tell you how to get that fine publication if you wish.)
I know many different suspects have been named when it comes to who the other mysterious wives may have been - basically every woman in The Canon. (Except Mrs. Hudson, I think.) However, it's all speculation. Sixty cases just doesn't give us all the information we need to construct any kind of a exhaustive history of these men's lives. There just isn't enough data.
Several more papers could be written just off the ideas, theories, and postulations in this one, and I'm certain that I will refer back to it many times in future posts, but for now - in the interest of space - I will leave the debating up to you and your thoughts.
I'll miss seeing Mike at Sherlockian gatherings, and I am heartbroken for his family and other friends. We have truly lost someone that was important, outstanding, and wonderful. His memory will live on, and I will keep this original piece of his safely tucked away in my files.
Thank you for indulging me and allowing me to give a small tip o' the hat to my friend. I appreciate your time. See you soon, and as always...thanks for reading.