by Leslie S. Klinger(1)

The Adventure of the Naval Treaty, the longest of the "Adventures," is apparently one of Sherlock Holmes's greatest successes, a triumph of reasoning, physical courage, and perseverance, in which the Master recovers a treaty "of enormous importance." Percy "Tadpole" Phelps, Watson's schoolmate, has succumbed to "brain fever" as a result of the theft of a valuable document from his office. After a thorough enquiry, Holmes concludes that the thief is the brother of Phelps's intended, one Joseph Harrison, and that all the while Percy has been laid up in bed, the treaty has been securely hidden in a compartment under his bed, placed there by Joseph upon the evening of the theft.

While it is undeniable that Holmes recaptured the treaty, there are numerous puzzling points about the case. Upon careful examination of Watson's account, the inescapable conclusion is that the version presented to the public by Dr. Watson bears only limited resemblance to the truth and that Holmes allowed its publication to further the diplomatic ends of the British Empire.

Who is Fritz von Waldbaum?

The first step toward this conclusion is consideration of Fritz von Waldbaum, whom Watson mentions in the opening paragraph of the case. Watson reports that Holmes demonstrated the "true facts of the case" to Monsieur Dubuque, of the Paris police, and to von Waldbaum, the "well-known specialist of Dantzig." At first the inclusion of this news seems to be mere "puffery" by Watson, an effort to induce the reader to see how clever Holmes was. But did either of them have some deeper involvement in the case?

It is easy to understand how Monsieur Dubuque, apparently a respectable police official, could have become involved in a case involving a treaty (in French) with international implications. Presumably the British government or even Holmes himself sought to find any Continental traces of the treaty. But why Fritz von Waldbaum? And who is this man? Is he truly an "hated rival" of a private detective? If so, he joins the elite company of only three other "competitors" mentioned by name in the Canon: Barker(2), Le Brun(3), and François Le Villard(4).

"It is curious," notes D. Martin Dakin, in his A Sherlock Holmes Commentary(5), "that no one has questioned the likelihood of a member of a noble German family joining the police force, especially since such a query has been raised about Von Herder, the blind German mechanic." And in what, one may ask, did von Waldbaum "specialise"?

Danzig (or Dantzic), von Waldbaum's town of origin, was the capital of West Prussia. The Board of Admiralty had its seat in Danzig, and it was also a naval station, with docks, magazines, and a marine depot. According to Encyclopædia Britannica (9th Ed.), "The manufacture of arms and artillery is carried on to a large extent..."(6) Prussia in the late nineteenth century was a dominant part of the German empire, controlled by Prince Bismarck, premier of Prussia and chancellor of the empire, and well-known for its role in the military arm of the Empire.

The "Triple Alliance," to which Phelps alludes, was a secret agreement between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy formed in May 1882 and renewed periodically until World War I. Germany and Austria-Hungary had been closely allied since 1879 and sought additional security against France by establishing a tie with Italy. The treaty provided that Germany and Austria-Hungary were to assist Italy if it was attacked by France; Italy would assist Germany if Germany was attacked by France. In the event of a war between Austria-Hungary and Russia, Italy promised to remain neutral. Therefore, "a treaty foreshadow[ing] the policy which this country would pursue in the event of the French fleet gaining a complete ascendency over that of Italy in the Mediterranean" would be of utmost importance to Germany, and it was clearly not just the French or Russian embassies which would have paid "an immense sum" to obtain the treaty.

On reflection, it appears more likely that von Waldbaum was an agent of the German Imperial government, perhaps "specialising" in naval matters, rather than a private detective. The former activity would not be beneath a nobleman(7), while the latter would.(8) But if von Waldbaum were a German agent, why would Holmes "demonstrate the true facts of the case" to him? Indeed, why would a German agent be involved at all in the case?

The Anomalies of the Harrisons

After Holmes apprehends Joseph Harrison as the thief, he explains to Watson that Harrison acted opportunistically. Harrison visited Phelps's office, Holmes says, solely to travel to Woking with Phelps. His eyes caught the paper on Phelps's desk, and "a glance showed him that chance had put in his way a State document of immense value." He stole it almost impulsively, if Holmes's explanation is true. Now, Thomas Stix, in an article entitled "We Ask the Questions!,"(9) wonders how Joseph so quickly recognized the naval treaty as valuable and asks of him, "Do you know the French language? Are you really apt to? Most Englishmen are not. It would take a good linguist to understand about the value of papers so quickly."

These questions highlight how little is known from Watson's account of Harrison's occupation or education. It is certainly possible that his training or employment gave him a command of the French language sufficient to recognize the treaty. His employment, whatever it was, was clearly not demanding, for he was able to stay more than ten weeks with the Phelps household without a complaint from his employer. Who might that employer have been? The critical clue to the answer lies in the supposed origin of the Harrisons.

"[Annie Harrison] and her brother are the only children of an ironmaster somewhere up Northumberland way," reports Watson dutifully, for so Percy Phelps has told him. Northumberland, writes the Encyclopædia Britannica (9th Ed.), is "the northernmost county of England.... [It] lies entirely on the easterly slope of the country. Its boundaries are the German Ocean [the North Sea], Scotland, and the counties of Cumberland and Durham.... In physique, the Northumbrian is stalwart and robust, and seldom corpulent. The people have mostly grey eyes, brown hair, and good complexions. The inhabitants of the fishing villages appear to be Scandinavian; and parts of the county probably contain some admixture of the old Brit-Celt, and a trace of the Gipsy blood of the Faas of Yetholm. The natives have fine characteristics: they are clean, thrifty, and plodding, honest and sincere, shrewd, and very independent. Their virtues lie rather in solidity than in aspiration."(10)

Could the Harrisons be less like these characteristics of the Northumbrian? Joseph is "a rather stout man...[whose] cheeks were so ruddy and his eyes so merry, that he still conveyed the impression of a plump and mischievous boy." Annie is "a striking-looking woman, a little short and thick for symmetry, but with a beautiful olive complexion, large, dark Italian eyes, and a wealth of deep black hair." Indeed, they hardly appear related to each other!

In contrast, the Encyclopædia Britannica has the following to say about the racial traits of Prussia: "The people who have established the power of Germany cannot rank in purity of Teutonic blood with the inhabitants of the central, western and southern parts of the empire. The conquest of the Slavonic regions that form so great a part of modern Prussia did not occur without a considerable intermingling of race, and Prussia may perhaps be added to the list of great nations that seem to owe their pre-eminence to the happy blending of their composite parts."(11)

Is not Prussia a more likely place of origin for the Harrisons? Joseph sounds like the very image of the happy German burgher, while Annie blends the dark Slavic elements. Perhaps they were the offspring of parents whose own racial backgrounds were "intermingled"--or perhaps they were not brother and sister at all. In any case, it appears clear that their place of origin was not the north of England.

The Harrisons' Employer

Were the Harrisons really just chance acquaintances of Phelps? It seems much more likely that they were a team of "operatives" for the German Imperial government, who accidentally came upon Phelps or perhaps deliberately sought him out. It is not hard to imagine how Annie and Joseph worked together to inveigle their way into Phelps's life. One imagines the young man, traveling alone on holiday, as a prime target for espionage--weak, lonely, ostracized by his playmates. A "chance" meeting with Annie, who, despite (or perhaps because of) her non-English appearance, is a "striking-looking woman," even if her figure is not to Watson's tastes, and soon young. Phelps is engaged to Annie. This all took place "when [Phelps was] travelling last winter, and she came down to be introduced to his people, with her brother as escort." In other words, Phelps barely knew her.

How convenient for a pair of spies interested in infiltrating the Foreign Office! When they met Phelps--whether by chance or design--they must have immediately seen the possibilities to be developed through him. Of course, the naval treaty itself was not their target, for it was as yet unthought of. Their real target was the whole panoply of the Foreign Office's secrets. It is likely that the discovery of the treaty was fortuitous for Joseph Harrison, Imperial agent (who, not surprisingly, spoke French).

But if the Harrisons were co-employees of the German government, why does Annie aid Holmes and act to keep Joseph from entering the room to retrieve the treaty? The only possible explanation is that the recovery of the treaty was unnecessary to the Imperial government. If, as Phelps states, the thief (that is, Joseph Harrison) stole the treaty at about 9:45 p.m., Harrison had plenty of time to make an eleven o'clock train. When Harrison returned to Woking, he must have said that he waited for Percy at the station and when he did not appear, he assumed Percy to be working late. When Phelps arrived home, all had to be "roused from their beds," so Harrison's explanation of a late evening of work apparently caused no alarm.

Harrison also had plenty of time to make a copy of the treaty. Although the British Foreign Office apparently had no duplicating machines(12), it is likely that the German embassy (to which a German agent would have had access) would have had such machines. "True, the photostatic process had not been invented, but the railroad duplicator was in general use in 1880. It was not a cumbersome machine. It was moderately priced and it was used to insure accuracy and speed, certainly better by far than a hand-made copy by a sleepy subordinate. The French tissue copy was also available, but took more time.... [In] 'Practice of the Art and Its Various Applications to Nature,' by Lake Price...Mr. Price mentions seven practical processes for copying such documents and two positive to positive processes."(13)

Indeed, notwithstanding Holmes's ultimate recovery of the treaty from Phelps's sickroom, there is no evidence that the treaty was in the sickroom prior to Holmes's retrieval of it, and it is possible that Annie secreted it there just before Holmes entered the room. If the treaty were in the possession of the Imperial government all along, all problems of copying the treaty would have been eliminated, and there would have been no time constraints on the ability of German intelligence to study and disseminate the contents of the treaty.

Robbery or Charade?

Why, then, did Joseph Harrison make two attempts to recover the "little cylinder" from its hiding place? To convince Sherlock Holmes and the Foreign Office that the information contained in the treaty was not known. After all, it was not the original treaty itself that was crucial--unlike, for example, the "Bruce-Partington" plans--but its existence. A copy would surely do to inform the Imperial government of the British plans.

Once the British government realized, however, that the terms of the treaty were known to its enemies (or friends), would it not seek to mend those relations, disclaim the treaty, take steps to repair the damage? Only if it appeared that the treaty had never reached the hands of England's enemies (or friends) would the British government refrain from changing its position. If the Foreign Office could be lulled into believing that contents of the treaty were not known, then the Imperial government could sow the seeds of discord with the French and the Russians (and of course forewarn its Italian allies) without the British being aware of the damage.

In other words, the Imperial government wanted Holmes to catch Joseph Harrison. The sacrifice of one agent, leaving the other--Annie Harrison--firmly in place, seemed a small price to pay to paralyze the British government. So, after Holmes "stirred the pot" with his enquiries in London, alerting the Imperial government that the true disposition of the treaty might become known, orders went out to Joseph and Annie Harrison, to stage the patently theatrical robbery attempt (complete with a spy in a black cloak!).

And what was the role of Fritz von Waldbaum? Is it too implausible that upon direction of his superiors in German intelligence, who wanted to be sure that Holmes was convinced by their little charade, he "tipped" Holmes that Joseph Harrison had contacted him about a sale of the treaty? He would of course have maintained that the German government would never stoop to buying stolen documents from amateur agents and that, in the interests of assuring England's friendship--and without even knowing what it was that Harrison was selling--the Chancellor was passing along the information that Harrison was making enquiries in the "marketplace." Holmes acted on this tip and "caught" Joseph Harrison, recovering the treaty--all as the Germans intended.

A Successful Conclusion?

Dr. Watson reported Bismarck's "fairy-tale" to his loyal English readers as the truth. Was Holmes taken in as well? For two can play at the "Great Game," and disinformation about the uncovering of the real employer of the Harrisons could serve England well. Perhaps the best test of whether Holmes was fooled is to consider whether the German government's objectives were actually achieved. What was the outcome of the events of The Naval Treaty?

Fletcher Pratt surmises, in "Holmes and the Royal Navy,"(14) that the treaty accorded Italy "a free hand in the seizure of Libya, in exchange for which Britain received a similar free hand in the Sudan and Upper Egypt, adjoining Ethiopia, then considered part of the Italian sphere of influence. We all know what the results of that free hand in the Sudan were: England was brought into direct conflict with French ambition in the same direction and the very brink of war with that nation. Is it necessary to rehearse the fact that at this time France was the second naval power of the world or that she herself had recently reached an agreement with Russia, the third naval power? That the two fleets together outnumbered that of Britain and made the Naval Defense Act [of 1888] a necessity?"

Though Pratt concludes that a sale of the treaty must have occurred, the same results would have obtained if the British government itself had gone to Russia and France and explained the contents of the treaty and its position. And, of course, the resulting alliance between Russia and France was not deleterious to the world; indeed, it may have saved the world. When, in 1914, war finally broke out generally, Bismarck was long departed from power, and Russia, France, and England stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the "Triple Alliance." Did England subtly push these allies together with its actions in connection with The Naval Treaty?

And what of Phelps? Does his subsequent career confirm or deny the Watsonian version of the Adventure? Presumably he married Annie Harrison, for surely no English gentleman would hold her brother's criminal tendencies against her. But perhaps not surprisingly, Percy Phelps passes from view, never to be heard of again in any position of importance. For the British government--and one must assume that that includes Lord Holdhurst--knew that Annie Harrison could not be trusted, and while Phelps could be kept on as a functionary, never again could he be allowed near confidential information. So, "steps" were taken about Phelps's future, and his "triumphant career" ended in obscurity.

"Will it pass?"

1. Copyright © Leslie S. Klinger 1998.

2. RETI.

3. ILLU.

4. STUD.

5. Dakin, D. Martin. A Sherlock Holmes Commentary. Newton Abbot: David & Charles (1972) [p. 129].

6. Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition. The R. S. Peale Reprint. Chicago: The Werner Company (1893) [p. VI-818].

7. Cf. Count von Bork (LAST).

8. With the exception, of course, of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose activities are recorded by Dorothy Sayers.

9. Stix, Thomas L., "We Ask the Questions!," Baker Street Journal, 17, No. 3 (Sept. 1967), 149-151 [p. 150].

10. [pp. XVII-564-67].

11. Id. [p. XX-2].

12. Otherwise, why employ Phelps to copy it by hand?

13. Stix, supra, note 9, [pp. 149-50].

14. Pratt, Fletcher, "Holmes and the Royal Navy," Second Cab. Edited by James Keddie. Boston: The Speckled Band (1947), 65-69 [p. 66].