Sherlock in Chicago

a vignette by John McDonnell
inspired by "His Last Bow" by A. Conan Doyle

from "His Last Bow" (1917) by Arthur Conan Doyle:

The Irish-American had entered the study and stretched his long limbs from the
armchair. He was a tall, gaunt man of sixty, with clear-cut features and a small
goatee beard which gave him a general resemblance to the caricatures of Uncle
Sam ...

"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 Skibbareen,
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."


Violet Jackson had been sitting on a park bench looking over some pages
of song lyrics, humming the tunes she would be singing that night. At a
nearby bandstand a crowd of white men were gathering. When their rising
voices began to distract her practicing, she gathered up her things and was
about to walk away.

But then a strident voice in an engaging Irish accent began stirring up the
crowd. Violet focused her eyes on the man who was speaking from the
bandstand. He was tall and slim and was sporting a goatee beard. His
general appearance reminded her of pictures of Uncle Sam. His message
to the crowd was that the people of Ireland were being unfairly treated by
the British government.

It reminded her of how unfairly her fellow Negroes were being treated by
public policies in America. She and her husband had recently come to
Chicago as members of a band from New Orleans. Her husband played
the banjo, and she was a singer. But the band's performances had almost
been limited to the areas of the city where Negroes lived. How sad, when
almost everyone rejoiced to hear this new kind of music that some were
calling jazz.

Violet had known how the sounds of music could at least temporarily
tame some of the rough and rude tendencies of people. She wondered
if this wild Irishman who was stirring up anger in a crowd had any place
in his heart for music. When the speech ended and the crowd began to
disperse, Violet again gathered up her things. As she walked away, she
noticed that "Uncle Sam" was approaching her. At first she was a little
frightened. But his voice addressed her in gentle tones.

"Pardon me, Ma'am. My name is Altamont. Before I began speaking to
the crowd, I heard you humming some tunes that I would like to hear
more of. If by any chance you are about to sing in one of those jazz bands
from New Orleans, I would certainly like to hear the performance!"

"Sir, my name is Violet Jackson. But how did you know that I am from
New Orleans and that I sing in a jazz band?"

"The way you—oh, it was a lucky guess! I am anxious to hear some jazz
music before I leave this city!"

Violet told Altamont the address of the place where the band was playing
that night. But she felt a duty to warn him. "Our band is not allowed in
many buildings of this city. There are some of us, including my husband,
who don't like white men coming to the only places where we can

"But if they knew that I love art for art's sake—"

"If that is true, how would anyone know it? You seem more interested in
stirring up anger in crowds than enjoying music!"

Altamont's face broke into a smile. "Good day, Mrs. Jackson!" He then
strode away, leaving Violet bewildered.

That evening the place was jumping. Everybody was having a good time.
When the hot numbers gave way to the blues, and Violet was singing, an
offstage sound of a violin began to mingle with the music. Still playing
his violin, Altamont sidled into the room. The crowd went silent,
wondering who was this and what this meant.

A drunken man bellowed out, "Look! It's Uncle Sam—and playing his
fiddle!" The room erupted with laughter. But the band continued playing,
obviously pleased by the added voice of a well-played violin.

Violet, very much surprised and impressed by Altamont's playing,
invented some lyrics to fit the occasion.

"Sometimes I think Uncle Sam don't care 'bout us.
"Sometimes I think Uncle Sam don't care 'bout us.
"But when he plays in our band, he seems like one of us."


Two weeks before Christmas, Violet's husband brought her a large
envelope that had just come in the mail. It had British stamps on it. The
only thing inside the envelope was a copy of The Strand Magazine,
dated September, 1917.

"What's this, Violet?"

"I have no idea. Perhaps there's something in it that someone thought
would be interesting to us."

As Violet flipped through the pages of the magazine her eye caught the
name Altamont, printed in an article entitled "His Last Bow". Memories
of the Altamont she had known back in 1912 prompted her to read the

A few minutes later, her husband heard Violet shrieking.

"What's going on?"

"You remember that night, oh, 'bout five years ago, when the man who
looked like Uncle Sam played his violin with the band?"

"How could I forget that?"

"That was Sherlock Holmes!"

"No way!"

"Here, read it for yourself!"

That evening there was some war news on the radio. The British army
had captured Jerusalem without firing a shot. Aeroplanes of the Royal
Flying Corps had flown over the city, protecting it from Turkish planes,
at the same time frightening the Turkish army into abandoning the city.
In the midst of the Great War, there would at least be peace on earth at
Bethlehem on Christmas Day.

When the news was over, Mr. Jackson turned the radio off and looked
at Violet. "Sherlock Holmes has solved many crimes, and from this
article I see that he has secretly helped the British war effort. But you
know, I think I like his violin playing more than anything else!"

"His goatee looked awful! I'm glad he shaved it off!"

from "His Last Bow" (1917) by Arthur Conan Doyle:

"With my hair cut and a few other superficial changes I shall no doubt reappear
at Claridge's to-morrow as I was before this American stunt—I beg your pardon,
Watson, my well of English seems to be permanently defiled—before this
American job came my way."

Back from America

by John McDonnell

tune:The Yellow Rose of Texas by J. K., sequenced by Don Carroll

I fear my well of English is lastingly defiled,
For I've lived in Chicago where normal talk runs wild.
While there, I bought this banjo because its sound beguiled.
So many tones when strumming are on each other piled.

In Buffalo I sojourned, where I would graduate
To stir up Irish anger expressed in billingsgate.
Alone, I'd play this banjo as an escape from hate.
Some tunes I learned to carry picked out at throbbing rate.

Although this twanging banjo I may still keep around,
My violin I'm hoping won't scrape a fiddle sound.
Once heard, this Yankee banjo still in one's heart will pound.
It's hard to play vibrato when feet would stomp the ground.