|"The Adventure of the Cardboard Box"|
The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is one of the 56 short Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is the second of the twelve in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in most British editions of the canon, and second of the eight stories from His Last Bow in most American versions. The story was first published in The Strand Magazine in 1892.
The tale begins when Miss Susan Cushing of Croydon receives a parcel in the post which contains two severed human ears packed in coarse salt. Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard suspects a prank by three medical students whom Miss Cushing was forced to evict because of their unruly behaviour. The parcel was sent from Belfast which is where one of the former boarders was from. Holmes, however, upon examining the parcel himself, is convinced that they are dealing with a serious crime. He reasons that a medical student with access to a dissection laboratory would likely use something other than plain salt to preserve human remains and would be able to make a neater incision than the rough hack used on these ears. Also, the address on the package itself, roughly written and with a spelling correction, suggests to Holmes a certain lack of education about the sender and a lack of familiarity with Croydon. Even the knot in the string suggests to Holmes that they are looking for someone with sailing experience.
It turns out to be an elementary case for Holmes, so much so that he asks Lestrade not to mention his name in connection with it. A few simple questions to Miss Cushing, a few observations, a cable to Liverpool, and a visit to Miss Cushing's sister Sarah (Holmes was denied admittance by the doctor because she was having a "brain fever") convince Holmes that the ears belong to Miss Cushing's other sister, Mary, and her extramarital lover. He is convinced, too, that the dead sister's husband, Jim Browner, is the murderer, and that, going by outdated information, Browner had sent the cardboard box containing the ears to the Cushing's house in Croydon (addressing it merely to "S. Cushing"), not realizing that Sarah was no longer resident there. Browner, who is an unpleasant man when drunk, had meant to horrify Sarah (rather than Susan) as he blamed Sarah for causing the trouble in his family that culminated in his murdering his wife and her lover.
Browner is indeed a sailor, and Belfast was the first port where he had the chance to post the parcel. Lestrade, acting on Holmes's information, is waiting to arrest him when his ship reaches London. He confesses everything. He is presented with considerable sympathy, a simple man so tormented by guilt at his act that he would welcome being hanged. The real villain of the story – morally if not legally – is Sarah Cushing, who tried to seduce Browner herself and, when he rejected her advances, set out to wreck his marriage with her sister Mary.
The Story's Place
"The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" was not published in the first British edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, but it was published in the first American edition, though it was quickly removed because of its controversial subject matter. The story was later published again in American editions of His Last Bow, and put into British editions of the Memoirs. Even today, most American editions of the canon include it with His Last Bow, while most British editions keep the story in its original place, within the Memoirs.
When the "Adventure of the Cardboard Box" was removed from publication, Conan Doyle moved a passage from it that showed Holmes "mind reading" Watson to "The Adventure of the Resident Patient". (The text of the moved passage runs from "Our blinds were half-drawn, and Holmes lay curled upon the sofa" to "I should not have intruded it upon your attention had you not shown some incredulity the other day.".) This passage reveals Dr Watson to be an avid admirer of Henry Ward Beecher, whose portrait he keeps at his home. The passage seems to have little to do with the mystery and seems mainly intended to let Holmes reach a new peak of his deductive powers. However, it might be considered an oblique hint, dropped by Doyle for an observant reader, since Beecher was involved in a famous adultery trial, which would have easily come to the mind of the reader at the time of publication.
The Granada TV adaptation with Jeremy Brett, televised on 11 April 1994, was generally faithful to the original, with some minor variations: in the story Browner kills his wife and her lover at sea whereas in the adaptation he kills them near a pond; and the adaptation places the action at Christmas time in the midst of a cold and snowy winter, while the original story took place in high summer ("...a blazing hot day in August. Baker Street was like an oven").
Holmes' eloquent speech at the end of the episode questions the very nature of humanity. He asks toward what end mortals pursue "this circle of misery, violence, and fear", concluding that "it must have a purpose, or else our universe has no meaning, which is unthinkable. But what purpose? That, is humanity's great problem, to which reason so far, has no answer". This was the last episode broadcast, and includes Jeremy Brett in ill health at the end of his run as the famous detective.