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  American Philatelist
Vol. 115, No.7
(Whole No.1,206)
July, 2001, p 636-40
Copyright © Dr. William R. Hanson, 1998
reprinted with permission

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Hawaiian Treasure

as told to William R. Hanson, MD (New York) by John Watson, MD (Lond.)

Why, after a hundred years, do we still read Sherlock Holmes?

We long to hear again the clip-clop of horses hooves on cobble-stone streets, to peer at the London scene in the half-light of gas lamps through a real pea-souper of a fog, or to listen as the wind howls in the chimney, and rattles the window panes, while we warm our feet by the old sitting room fireplace.

The gales of Spring are slashing against the windows, a young man is battling the deluge to reach 221B Baker Street, and the game is afoot.

Come join us in Baker Street.

 
The equinoctial gales were blowing the rain in horizontal sheets against our windows, and the street lights had been burning all day in a vain attempt to relieve the gloom. As always on cold and damp days, the old Jezail bullet wound in my leg acted up, so I had my feet up before the fire, hoping the heat would lessen the pain. Sherlock Holmes was gazing out the window down onto Baker Street. He struck a match, lit his curved meerschaum pipe, and said, "We have a visitor, unless I miss my guess, Watson. It must be an important errand to bring someone out on a day such as this."

"What makes you think he's coming here, Holmes?"

"He has been walking on the sidewalk opposite, looking at the house numbers on this side for the last block, now he's making his way acrost between the cabs and lorries." There was the ring of the doorbell, a few muffled words, and a heavy tread on the stair.

"Beg pardon, sir," said Mrs. Hudson to Holmes questioning gaze, "there's a young gentleman to see you. Here is his card."

"Hmm, Nathan Baldwin, can't say I know the name. Mean anything to you, Watson? No?" He tossed the card onto the side table, "Oh, show him in Mrs. Hudson. It's a dull day and I haven't much else to do."

Mrs. Hudson's description, 'Young gentleman', was indeed no exaggeration, the clean-shaven youth whose streaming Ulster soon made a puddle on our entrance rug, was little more than a boy, perhaps seventeen at the most. Holmes viewed him with some bemusement, then waved him in the direction of the fireplace.

"Come over to the fire and warm yourself, Mr. Baldwin. Watson, would you please take the young man's coat and hang it in the hall to dry? I am Sherlock Holmes; besides providing shelter from the rain on a particularly nasty day, how can I help you?"

"It's about a treasure out in Hawaii, and about a lost map my uncle, Professor Jonah Baldwin, sent me from Cambridge."

"Your uncle is a professor at Cambridge University? And he sent you a treasure map?"

"No, sir, at Harvard. And he said he sent it, but I didn't get it, and—"

"Whoa, slow down a bit. Perhaps you had better start at the beginning."

"Yes, sir, I will. I am from New Hampshire in the United States, although I have lived here in England since I was five years old; Father had business dealings in London and brought me here when my mother died. All my schooling has been in England, so when Father died last year, my uncle in America suggested I continue my studies in Oxford, rather than Harvard. There is a small trust fund Father had set up for my education when I was quite young, so I am alright, but there is not a whole lot left over. Evidently my uncle felt this quite keenly, and sent me this letter packet about two months ago."

He proffered the letter to Holmes, who waved him in my direction, "Read it out loud, will you Watson? Oh, I am sorry, Mr. Baldwin, may I present my friend and colleague, Doctor John Watson?"

"Doctor Watson? Why, of course, each week we all wait at the railway station for The Strand Magazine bundle to arrive, so we can read your latest Sherlock Holmes memoir. How do you do, sir—"

"Let's hear that letter, Watson."

It was dated January 21st, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began;

"Dear Nathan;

I have been meaning to write you these past weeks, but a severe cold with pulmonary complications has made it difficult. Feeling somewhat better today, I hasten to take pen in hand, and trust you will forgive my tardiness.

As you know, my grandfather, Nathan Baldwin, for whom you are named, went out to Hawaii in the 1840s to teach Christianity to the natives. Grandfather wasn't much as a preacher, in English OR Hawaiian, but he was an outstanding man of business, and soon became advisor and partner in the mercantile trade with the Hawaiian King. Their business was highly successful and made them both fabulously wealthy. Unlike the King, who squandered most of his gold on a lavish court, gambling and hula girls, Grandfather socked most of his treasure away, and later used some of it for the good of the Hawaiian people, founding schools, hospitals, parks and others.

When my father chose to remain in America after graduating from Harvard, Grandfather said he might do as he pleased, but the Baldwin money would remain in Hawaii.

My own academic pursuits have brought me much satisfaction and garnered me many honors and titles, but precious little money, so that I have nothing but a few books and papers to leave you. In the meantime, I send you this treasure(holehere)p of my grandfather's, which is of immense value, so that you may remember fondly your namesake, and your loving uncle,

Jonah Baldwin"

"It came wrapped around this old copy of THE POLYNESIAN newspaper, Mr. Holmes. As you can see my great-grandfather had written a short letter to his father back on the farm in New Hampshire, in the blank space in the paper, and slipped it back in the mailing wrapper.

"Ha!" said Holmes, "only two cents to mail a newspaper from Hawaii to the eastern United States." He whipped out his magnifying glass and began examining the mailing wrapper, "Addressed to Amos Baldwin in Tamworth, New Hampshire in the same hand as the message, crude 2 cent postage stamp, red Honolulu postmark, no return address."

"Now, let's see what the newspaper can tell us. Christmas 1851 issue of THE POLYNESIAN, with 4 x 6 inch blank space for messages on inside page. Reverend Baldwin writes, 'My Dearest Father; Today we celebrated the birth of Our Lord with a service attended by the King and Queen and all the members of His Majesty's Court, and a number of officers from the whalers in port. I continue to conduct Sunday services, although I see that I can best serve God's Holy Purpose by influencing the Court to control the behavior of the whalers, to adopt more Christian attitudes towards their subjects, and by devoting part of what I can earn in the way of business for the relief of suffering and the betterment of the people.

"I am enclosing a draft which you will please use to purchase an organ for our Tamworth church. It is part of the tithe from the first fruits of a successful mercantile venture which I am engaged in with the King. If God continues to smile upon our venture, I should soon be able to add considerably to the gold already put by. Your son in God's Love,

Nathan Baldwin'"

"You see there, Mr. Holmes, how he writes about the gold in 1851. Back then the traditional tithe was ten percent, and most churchmen would follow that practice, even if they lived in places where tithing was not compelled by law. Even then church organs were expensive, so if only part of the tithe would pay for one, imagine how much the profits must have been?"

"What is this hole in the middle of your uncle's letter?" asked Holmes, poking his finger tip through a jagged, but roughly circular opening right in the middle of a line of text.

"From tearing open the wax seal, Mr. Holmes. When Uncle Jonah was a school boy the United States Post Office charged for each sheet of paper, and counted an envelope as another sheet of paper, so to save money everyone folded their stationary up like little packets, sealed the opening with hot wax and wrote the address on the outside. Those postal laws changed many years ago, but Uncle Jonah carried on the tradition all of his life. I have received many letters from him over the years, always the same folded lettersheets sealed with wax and his signet ring; nary an envelope."

"Now that little hole in the writing, what do you suppose it said?"

"What else could it be except, 'This treasure{ ma}p of Grandfather's, which is of immense value, etc.'?"

"So where is this map?" asked Holmes.

"I don't know, that is where I need your help."

"What else was in the packet when you received it?"

"Absolutely nothing, just my uncle's letter, and the newspaper sent to my great-grandfather."

"Can you be sure the packet was unopened?

"Yes sir, it was sealed with red wax and his signet ring impression, as always."

"And no sign of tampering?"

"None at all, sir."

"Then there are only two possibilities. Either he forgot to include the map, or somewhere in his letter, or the newspaper, is the answer. Since there are no pictures, it must be written directions to the treasure, or where to find the map. Why come to me, Mr. Baldwin? Why not write your uncle and ask for his explanation, and the missing map?"

"I did, but before my letter could reach him in America, a letter came from his solicitor, saying he'd died of pneumonia two days after he last wrote me. I wrote him back, but he said my uncle had left nothing that could shed any light on my questions."

"Very well, Mr. Baldwin, leave your documents here and I will look into your little puzzle. Perhaps the directions are in code. Where can I reach you?"

"At Keble College, Mr. Holmes, I will be taking the 6:10 back. As to your fee—"

"I will send you a cable as soon as I have some information for you. Let us see what I can do for you first, we can worry about my fee if I succeed in your treasure hunt."

The young American stammered out his thanks and rushed off into the rain.

Holmes disappeared into his bedroom, and called out through the open doorway, "Whistle for a hansom, will you Watson?"

When I got back from the street my friend was dressed in his foul weather gear, ready to go. "The cab's at the door, Holmes. Shall I go with you?"

"No need for the both of us to brave this terrible weather. I am going to spend the rest of the day in the reading room of the British Museum, boning up on Hawaii and the missionaries. I will be back in time for dinner."

While Holmes was out I attempted to apply his methods to analyzing the letter and newspaper. Careful examination failed to reveal any secret writing or pin pricks, strong light showed there was nothing hidden under either stamp and no drawings appeared, even under intense magnification.

Finally, I tried to detect a code. Logic said if there was a code, it would be in Reverend Baldwin's letter to his father, or in those parts of THE POLYNESIAN where he could precisely control the text: church announcements, advertisements for his mercantile business, or personals in the agony column. Try as I might, I could not find any place where the text seemed contrived or awkwardly worded, as one would expect if it concealed a coded message.

I had given it up as a bad job, and Mrs. Hudson was laying table for our evening meal, when Holmes returned with a stack of musty books about Hawaii. As we ate, he filled me in on his afternoon at the library, "Reading about the history of Hawaii since the 1840s is like reading a family history of the Baldwin's, Watson. They seem to have control over much of the government and the church, own most of the plantations and the best real estate in the principal towns, and have an interest in the most successful mercantile establishments; some have even married into Hawaiian nobility. Reverend Baldwin, and the money he was said to have amassed, are prominently mentioned in each of these weighty tomes," he said with a laugh and a hearty slap on the stack of books, which raised a cloud of dust, "proves out the old adage, 'The missionaries came to do good, and they did right well.'"

"How did you spend your afternoon, Watson?"

"I tried my hand at searching for a code, but had no success, and threw my notes, which were so much nonsense, into the fire."

"You were trying before you had sufficient data, my friend; one can't make bricks without straw. Reverend Baldwin might have written his message in Hawaiian, which he was fluent in. It is a very unusual language, and their words and names contain many letter combinations which we might likely consider nonsense at first glance. It is quite possible you HAD found the key to our problem, but failed to recognize it, because of the language. I have brought back a book containing highly detailed maps of each island, a Hawaiian-English dictionary and a list of all their place names. Perhaps they will make clear those things which appear strange to us."

For the next several days Sherlock Holmes and I tried every combination and theme we could think of to locate an encoded passage and translate it. After three days and nights we had failed to identify even one phrase of code. Finally Holmes pushed himself back from the table, threw down his pencil and rang for coffee, "We must be on the wrong track, there is no code here, I stake my reputation on it. Perhaps there is some new type of invisible writing. I have read there are new invisible inks, which only react to the vapors of certain chemicals, perhaps I will try them. You look done in, Watson, you'd best forget about the coffee and turn in." I nodded in agreement and made my way off to bed. Periodically my sleep was disturbed as terribly noxious fumes drifted up to my room; after one particularly acrid episode, I could stand no more, and went down to register my objections. The smells became stronger with each step I descended, and my temper worsened accordingly, so that by the time I reached the sitting room door I was in a state. My anger dissolved into laughter when I entered the room, for there hunched over his test tubes and retorts sat my friend, with a red bandana tied across his nose and mouth, just like a stage coach robber on the cover of an American dime novel."

The sound of my laughter broke in on his concentration, Holmes looked up startled, then said, "Come in Watson, I have tried every reagent I can think of with no success, and Lestrade has brought by this set of high power lenses from the Yard's laboratory, no luck there either, I fear."

"Lestrade said the Hawaiian stamp didn't look genuine to him, more like something printed on a child's toy press, and suggested I consult a postage stamp dealer of his acquaintance, one W.S. Lincoln. I visited Mr. Lincoln down in the Strand while you were asleep, who knew nothing of these stamps, but introduced me to a customer of his, a gentleman who is recognized as the world's greatest expert on postage stamps. He is here on a visit from his home in Paris, and has agreed to assist us. He should be here shortly."

"In that case I had better go up and dress."

When I reentered the room after shaving and dressing, Holmes was sitting before the fire chatting with a guest. They both rose as I entered, and I had a few seconds to form my impressions as I crossed the room: He was a small, slight man in his 40s, with pale eyes in an equally pale complexion. From the haggard expression and the vacant, far-off look in his eyes, I suspected he might be suffering from consumption or some other debilitating ailment. His clothes were rich and finely tailored, but decidedly unkept—a man who could afford the best, but gave little thought to personal appearances. "Doctor Watson, may I present Monsieur Philippe La Renotiere von Ferrary, the great collector and expert on postage stamps I was telling you about. M. Ferrary has offered to examine young Mr. Baldwin's newspaper and see if the Hawaiian Stamp differs from those he has in his own collection."

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Doctor, since I have been visiting London these last months I have enjoyed your articles about your adventures with Mr. Holmes."

I thanked him and Holmes said, "See, Watson, your writing is making you famous."

Holmes handed the Hawaiian newspaper and wrapper to his guest, and said, "This Hawaiian stamp is certainly a strange looking piece of work, so crude that maybe the key is in the design. Could those strange little pieces of decorative border hold the key? If you look closely at the parts that point towards the center, you will see each one is subtly different, could that spell out a message? Is this stamp different from those you have?"

"There is only one real difference, I have four of these stamps myself, but this is the finest used example I have ever seen. This one has been preserved by remaining on its original wrapper all these years, they are printed on very fragile paper, and when soaked off are usually quite battered. As to those oddities in the border ornaments which you questioned, Mr. Holmes, these are identical in every respect to the same elements on the stamps which I possess. If you are ever in Paris, please feel free to call upon me, or M. Pierre Mahe, my personal secretary, and I will show you my examples of this stamp."

"So there is absolutely no chance that the flaws in the ornamental border may have been done intentionally to convey a message?"

"No, Doctor, this fancy material was used for other purposes, religious tracts, decoration for advertisements, to dress up handbills and for other purposes. The variations in each element of the stamp border were caused by faulty casting of the type, and by wear, and these same wear characteristics also appear on the other printed work."

We thanked M. Ferrary and he took his leave. "Well, Watson, there goes our last thread. Unless our client can come up with some more material to work with, I don't see what more we can do."

"Let's have dinner and get some real rest, after a day or so we can look at everything again, maybe some new path will suggest itself."

Holmes seemed to resign himself to my suggestion to put his mind on other things, but far into the night I could hear his pacing back and forth. Next morning when I came down to breakfast Holmes was sitting dejectedly before the fire, still in his dressing gown and slippers, a cold cloth on his brow. I was half-way through my first cup when Mrs. Hudson showed in a commissionaire, "For Sherlock Holmes," said he.

"Take it, will you please, Watson?" When we were again alone, he asked that I read it out loud.

On the stationary of one of London's finest hotels were these few words:

"Dear Mr. Holmes;

Thank you for inviting me to your home to examine the newspaper wrapper with the two cent stamp Hawaiian 'Missionary' stamp, which belongs to Mr. Nathan Baldwin. I enjoyed meeting you and Doctor Watson.

I am prepared to make an offer on this item, but only with the following condition, your young client may wish to retain the newspaper with the letter from his grandfather for sentimental reasons, but he should leave the Hawaiian two cent stamp on the wrapper and sell it that way. You should know that this stamp is one of the rarest in the world, and in this condition worth a great deal of money, soaking it off the wrapper might result in irreparable damage.

Affectionate shake hands.

Philippe von Ferrary"

Holmes leaped from his chair and seized the note from my hand. "That's where we went wrong!" he said. "We misinterpreted the line on the professor's letter as 'this treasure map of my Grandfather's, which is of immense value', when it really said 'this treasured stamp of my Grandfather's, which is of immense value'. So there you have it, Watson, the real treasure was the Hawaiian stamp, not some mythical gold hidden somewhere out in Hawaii."

finis


On October 1, 1851 the first Hawaiian stamps, the so-called "Missionaries," were placed on sale. The stamps took on the name "Missionaries" because they were nearly always found on correspondence from American missionaries in Hawaii to their families back in California, New York, Connecticut, or Massachusetts. The new stamps were crudely made from type-set material obtained from "THE POLYNESIAN" newspaper and printed on very thin paper. There are only 16 examples of the 2-cent value that have survived, making the 2-cent "Missionary" one of the most valuable stamps in the world today.


Dr. Watson's desk, from Denny Dobry's 221B Baker Street reconstruction of the Holmes sitting room.


Closer view of Dr. Watson's desk, from Denny Dobry's 221B Baker Street reconstruction of the Holmes sitting room.


This article first appeared, in edited form,
in the July, 2001 issue of the
American Philatelist magazine.
All copyright resides with the author.