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Watson’s Medical Directory citation of the article “‘Some Freaks of Atavism’” is an early example of foreshadowing. Atavism is the presence of a characteristic found in remote ancestors but absent in more recent generations (basically, the resurfacing of a long gone trait in an individual) and, as the reader will shortly find out, the Baskerville family is said to be under a deadly curse as a result of the actions of an ancestor, Hugo. Dr. Mortimer’s problem revolves around the question of what to do when the Baskerville heir arrives, not knowing whether he will also be under danger.
The other expert that Dr. Mortimer mentions in competition with Holmes is Alphonse Bertillon. The Frenchman changed police work with his invention of the later-discredited system of anthropometry, or bertillonage, which identified criminals based primarily on physical measurements. He is also credited with bringing uniformity to taking mug shots and pictures of evidence, as well as advancing forensics, with creations such as the dynamometer (used to measure the strength of a break-in).
Sir Charles Baskerville has died three months previous, leaving a manuscript with his friend and doctor, James Mortimer. Holmes dates it at 1730; its actual date is 1742, and it was written down by a Hugo Baskerville (not the same one that committed the soon-to-be-discussed crime) from an oral family legend. He intends the paper to be a warning to those in the Baskerville line to watch their temperament and beware of the moor in the dark.
Mortimer reads it to Holmes and Watson, which tells of the fate of the wicked Hugo. When a yeoman’s daughter caught his eye and she did her best to avoid him, he and his friends carried her off to a room high up in Baskerville Hall. While Hugo and others drank, the girl climbed down the ivy on the outside wall and began making her way home across the moor (a marshy wasteland). When it was discovered that she was missing, one of the guests suggested using the hounds on her, which Hugo quickly acted on.
When the guests realized what was happening, thirteen of them rode off on their horses to stop Hugo and the hounds. Before they reach him, a frightened shepherd tells them he saw the chase, but that there was also “a hound of hell” close behind Hugo. His horse soon passes them, riderless and on its way back. Even the hounds that were in pursuit of the maiden are now just whimpering about. Three of the riders continue on, down into a clearing where they find the girl dead and a giant black hound tearing out the throat of Hugo Baskerville.
Holmes does not find the legend to be of particular interest, until Mortimer shows him a recent newspaper article. It describes Sir Charles as well liked and charitable, reflecting sadly that the recently deceased was only an inhabitant of Baskerville Hall for two years. His death was discovered when he failed to return from his nightly walk down the yew alley and his servant Barrymore (who also lives at the hall, with his wife) went out looking for him.
Sir Charles’s body was discovered at the end of the alley with no signs of violence on it, but severe facial distortion, attributed to his heart problems. Unexplained however, is why he appears (from his footprints in the damp ground) to have walked on his tiptoes from when he passed the gate that leads from the alley to the moor. The article ends with the information that Henry Baskerville was the next of kin and inheritor of the Baskerville fortune and estate, being the son of Sir Charles’s younger brother.
However, Mortimer has some additional information, which he did not disclose earlier to protect his reputation as a man of science and to ensure that a tenant could be found. First, the remoteness of the moor had created a close scientific community that included himself, Sir Charles, Mr. Frankland of Lafter Hall, and Mr. Stapleton (a naturalist). As a doctor, Mortimer had become concerned about the stress Sir Charles was under from fear of the legend and recommended, with the agreement of Mr. Stapleton, that he go away from the moor for awhile. He was to leave for London the next day. Secondly, Mortimer had noticed when he went to examine the body of his friend that there were footprints of a large hound about twenty yards away.
The “Great Rebellion” mentioned in the beginning of the manuscript is a term used for a number of conflicts including the U.S. Civil War. However, the date of 1742 indicates that it was most probably the English Civil War, which was fought in two parts from 1642 to 1648. The war pitted the Royalists in support of King Charles I against the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell. Charles I was executed, England was declared a republic, and, a few years later, Cromwell became Lord Protector. When Cromwell died and his son was unable to rule effectively, Charles II was restored to the throne.
Interestingly, the manuscript names the sons Rodger and John and there was a John Baskerville (1706-1775) who was alive at the time referred to in the book. He was a printer, known for designing typeface (one is named Baskerville after him). Furthermore, it is the writing that helps Holmes date the manuscript. Conan Doyle likely included the detail to ground the mystery a little (the information appears at the telling of the fantastical legend).
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McCauley, Kelly. "TheBestNotes on The Hound of the Baskervilles".
. 11 May 2008