How Sherlock Holmes Became a Cocaine Addict

And how Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed hero is connected to Sigmund Freud

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Sherlock Holmes with Doctor Watson, from stage adaptation of 'Sherlock Holmes.'
Sherlock Holmes with Doctor Watson, from stage adaptation of 'Sherlock Holmes.'Credit: AF Fotografie / Alamy Stock Phot
Noa Manheim
Noa Manheim

Close to the end of the 19th century, Vienna was anointed the international capital of ophthalmology, as in 1884, the first eye surgery with local anesthetic was successfully performed there. Carl Koller, who developed the procedure, used a substance that was relatively unfamiliar to Western science, derived from the leaves of a plant that grows in the Andes mountains. He first became familiar with it during a visit to a patient that he made together with one of his colleagues, a young doctor named Sigmund Freud. One of the patients for whom Freud prescribed cocaine reported that using it caused his tongue to go numb and to lose feeling in his lips. When Koller heard of this strange side effect, he returned to his laboratory and drizzled a bit of coke into his eye and then poked it with a pin. He didn’t feel a thing, except, apparently, a strong sense of victory; he had discovered a local anesthetic. His development turned the city into a center of attraction for excited eye doctors, who gathered there from around the world. One of them, who came from Scotland, was Arthur Conan Doyle, who would go on to create the most famous detective in the world: Sherlock Holmes.

The use of coca leaves has been known to the West since the Spanish conquest of South America. In 1609, one of the missionaries who arrived in the wake of the conquistadores testified that “the coca protects the body from many sicknesses.” Not only the body, but also the soul thirsts for its influences, a need fulfilled by the chemist Angelo Mariani, who in 1863 produced a wine that included an extract of cocaine and went on to immortalize the celebrities of his day – from the chief rabbi of France to Pope Leo XIII and Jules Verne, from Ulysses S. Grant to Thomas Edison – imbibing it with delight.

Many competitors to Mariani arose, among them the American John Stith Pemberton, a veteran of the Confederate Army who was injured in the Civil War and became addicted to morphine. A pharmacist in civilian life, he tried many drugs on himself in an attempt to overcome his dependence, and when he discovered that Mariani’s wine helped to lessen his craving, he decided to create a beverage from coca leaves himself. Due to the temperance law enacted in 1885 in his hometown of Atlanta, he needed to create a nonalcoholic alternative to his French Wine Coca. To that end, Pemberton added a kola nut extract containing caffeine and theobromine, and thus augmented its stimulant capacities.

Pemberton, like all who marketed cocaine products in the period, believed that the substance did wonders: It soothed teething infants (according to an advertisement from 1885); helped to cure dandruff and other maladies of the scalp (according to an 1896 advertisement); and aided attainment of the original goal for which Pemberton had tried it – overcoming morphine addiction (although not in his case).

Guest Timothy Greer in his costume at the annual Sherlock Holmes celebration in New York, Jan. 11, 2018. Credit: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD / NYT

Freud began to prescribe cocaine to help a good friend who suffered from the same addiction, but also tried it himself and introduced his then-fiancée, Martha Bernays, to its beneficial influences. In a letter dated June 2, 1884, Freud wrote the woman whom he would marry in 1886, that the next time they met, he would be “a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.” He even sent her a little after she complained about various pains. In his essay “Über Coca,” which he described elsewhere as “a song of praise to this magical substance,” Freud declared that it awakens “normal” euphoria and that “this result is enjoyed without any of the unpleasant after-effects that follow exhilaration brought about by alcoholic beverages. No craving for the further use of cocaine appears after the first, or even after repeated taking of the drug.”

Never read each other

Arthur Conan Doyle knew of the “unpleasant” effects of alcohol, as his own alcoholic father had ended his life in an insane asylum. As a doctor and an ophthalmologist-in-training, he also knew the unique qualities of cocaine, but as opposed to Freud, he was very suspicious about its dangers and addictive characteristics as early as 1890 – a period in which, according to Freud biographer Peter Gay, the latter was no longer acting as a dealer to his circle of acquaintances, but was still using himself.

“Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process,” wrote Doyle. “Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed? Remember that I speak not only as one comrade to another, but as a medical man.”

This is not the British ophthalmologist writing to the Austrian psychiatrist. Arthur Conan Doyle and Sigmund Freud never met. Indeed, Anna Freud told Dr. Christopher Badcock, who underwent analysis with her in the 1980s, that her father was an enthusiastic reader of thrillers and detective stories, but there is no evidence that he read Doyle, or that Doyle read him.

The speaker of that quote is, rather, a different doctor – the good Dr. John Watson, who becomes gravely and prophetically concerned about the health of his friend, the consulting detective known as Sherlock Holmes. “[T]hree times a day for many months,” as we read in “The Sign of the Four,” Watson witnessed Holmes inject a seven-percent solution of cocaine into his “forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks.” Watson indeed asserts (in “The Yellow Face”) that, “Save for the occasional use of cocaine, [Holmes] had no vices,” but this vice disturbed him so much that he tried several times to get Holmes to overcome it.

Sherlock Holmes with Doctor Watson, from stage adaptation of 'Sherlock Holmes.'Credit: AF Fotografie / Alamy Stock Phot

Based on this anecdote, Dr. David F. Musto, a historian of drug policy, constructed a fictional hypothesis. He published it in a professional article in 1968 entitled, “A Study in Cocaine: Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud,” and based it on the premise that “the cocaine episodes in each of [Holmes’ and Freud’s] lives reflect the impact of a new psychic drug on literature and science.” Is it not possible, Musto asks, that the frequent use of cocaine awoke in the suspicious Holmes a severe paranoia that focused on the figure of a reclusive and innocent professor of mathematics, one Moriarty. Is it not possible that the years during which the detective was thought to be dead, after supposedly being pushed by that same Moriarty down the Reichenbach Falls, served as a cover story for his residence in a rehabilitation clinic? And is it not possible that the caregiver who treated him was none other than Sigmund Freud himself?

Musto’s somewhat entertaining point of departure was happily adopted by author Nicholas Meyer, himself the son of a psychoanalyst, who in 1974 turned it into a book called “The Seven Percent Solution.” In Meyer’s telling, which was soon adapted for the screen, Watson and Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, kidnap the troubled detective and drag him to Vienna to undergo hypnosis therapy with the young Freud. The treatment manages to uncover Holmes’ childhood traumas, and Holmes successfully assists Freud in solving a mystery involving a patient who has disappeared. The resemblance between Musto’s own conjecture and the starting point of Meyer’s book didn’t escape the latter’s attention, and after the eponymous film version of Meyer’s book was released, in 1976, Musto sued Meyer for literary plagiarism and copyright infringement. Musto lost the case.

It seems that the figure of Holmes has long since transcended the literary and creative realm to the point where he is no longer merely a fictional character, but practically one of flesh and blood. Numerous writers have attempted either to extend or imitate Doyle’s project. The first parody was written during Holmes’ “life,” only a mere four months after publication of the first story relating his exploits. One of many Holmes scholars, Leslie Klinger, points out that the Holmes bibliography completed in 1995 mentioned more than 2,000 sequels and pastiches of his adventures. The number of these has significantly increased since then, thanks to, among others, Guy Ritchie’s films and, most recently, the comedy “Holmes and Watson,” which features Will Farrell as the eccentric detective and John C. Reilly as his chubby and somewhat dawdling friend.

Alongside television series that seek to update his adventures to the modern era, like “Elementary” and “Sherlock,” one can also count those that relate to him indirectly as well, drawing inspiration from Doyle’s character. These range from “House” to the highly stylish “The Alienist,” based on the book by Caleb Carr. The latter takes place in New York at the turn of the 20th century, where Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a controversial psychologist, becomes obsessed with a serial killer of young male prostitutes.

Deep truths

However, the connection between Freud, whom Kreizler frequently quotes, and Holmes does not begin and end with cocaine. In her essay, “Psychoanalysis and Detective Fiction: A Tale of Freud and Criminal Storytelling,” Amy Yang argues that “Sherlock Holmes gave [Freud] the analytical model” and highlights how the parallel development of psychoanalysis and the detective novel in the early 20th century: “In several ways, their development reflected the turbulent time period: an era that saw increasing doubt over logic and reason as ways to govern the world and that questioned humanity’s ability to redeem itself through progress and knowledge.” Both the analyst and the detective follow minute, apparently unimportant hints that then lead to deep truths, as Carlo Ginzburg argues in his wide-ranging and fascinating essay “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method.”

Ginzburg discusses the connection between the latter two and the 19th-century art historian Giovanni Morelli, and describes how the method he developed and that Freud cited, helped Morelli uncover many artistic forgeries through attention to apparently insignificant details. Morelli, wrote Ginzburg, focuses on seemingly marginal details, in which almost casual expression of the true artist fingerprints are exposed, as well as the incompetence of the forger. A slip of the tongue or cigarette ash, the forgetting of names or a scratched pocket watch – for the discerning observer or the analytic listener, all these tear an opening into the soul. Though Holmes is more interested in uncovering forensic evidence than in the depths of the criminal’s mind, more in the “how” than in the “what,” he is also aware of the connection between body and soul, of the revelatory power of free association and of other building blocks of psychology that were coming together in his period.

“You know my methods,” Holmes says to Watson, “apply them.” Watson never really succeeds in doing so, but perhaps Freud did. Did he actually draw inspiration from Doyle? We don’t have a chewed cane, a torn envelope, or a dog that does not bark in the night, according to which we can perform Holmes’ famous deduction – or hysterical silence, a relentless dream or a forgotten word that we can decipher through psychoanalysis. If so, was there an acquaintance between these two people, two of the most insightful figures of the turn of the century? Maybe yes, maybe no. The evidence is only circumstantial, but the possibility exists, and “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”