Few cases took up as much of Sherlock Holmes’s life as the tracking of German agent Von Bork. As Holmes himself told it, “It cost me two years, Watson, but they have not been devoid of excitement. When I say that I started my pilgrimage at Chicago, graduated in an Irish secret society at Buffalo, gave serious trouble to the constabulary at Skibbereen, and so eventually caught the eye of a subordinate agent of Von Bork, who recommended me as a likely man, you will realize that the matter was complex.”
As Holmes speaks those words in August of 1914, it is not too hard a leap to say that the master detective was present in Chicago in the summer of 1912. Chicago wasn’t all that quiet at that time – the Republican National Convention was there to nominate Teddy Roosevelt for president, among other things. (And at least one questionable account has been written of a pre-Watson friendship between Sherlock Holmes and Teddy Roosevelt.) But Sherlock Holmes was not in Chicago to hang out with Teddy – he had to establish himself as a bitter Irish-American who might be useful to a German spy network.
Von Bork calls him “Altamont” when he shows up in England two years later, but we have no idea if that was the name he was using in Chicago. It could have even been a nickname, something he was called by his newfound Chicago cronies to mock where he came from. And as the most well known Altamont in Ireland is a luxurious estate, we can probably rule that out. On the other hand, if he came to Chicago from a small rural Illinois town . . . like Altamont, Illinois . . . that would have been a good nickname for the new guy.
Altamont, Illinois is over two hundred miles away from Chicago, and the sort of little town that he could probably claim to be from without running into any other ex-citizens of.
It is interesting to note that Holmes was posing as “a real bitter Irish-American” at a time when Irish-American actually were starting to have it pretty good. They had made their way well into the middle class, and Teddy Roosevelt, once elected, would be the tenth American president of Irish descent. What did “Altamont” have to be bitter about, and why did he start being bitter about it in Chicago? Probably poverty, as it’s a pretty consistent source of radical extremists, no matter what the era or land of origin.
Given his role, Sherlock Holmes probably didn’t get to indulge in such luxuries as going to a White Sox game at the new “old” Comiskey Park or trying out a new grocery item “Crisco.” His cover story at the end of his counterspy career was that of auto mechanic (then probably the equivalent of being a comuter programmer in the 1990s), and he undoubtedly eased into that cover the same way he hung about the horse stables and took odd jobs during that job he took for the King of Bohemia years before. Looking for work by hanging around garages was just a new twist on an old skill for him.
Holmes might have even had some help in starting his undercover trek – Birdy Edwards, a Pinkerton man whom Sherlock Holmes encountered on a case, started his own Irish undercover work in Chicago in an investigation of Pennsylvania mine country decades before. The Pinkertons made infiltrating labor organizations a specialty from the 1880s well on into the 1930s, and an Englishman looking to start an undercover op in America would do very well to use their resources in finding his start. (Think of it as an early predecessor to James Bond getting a little help from Felix Leiter.)
Looking into Sherlock Holmes’s time in Chicago is a field ripe for the picking, and one historical investigation that will bear more looking into.
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