Award-winning author, Liese Sherwood-Fabre, is currently developing a series on Sherlock Holmes as a young man. Her research into Victorian England described in the Sherlock Holmes tales is available in her essays on The Life and Times of Sherlock Holmes, and her essays on Sarah Cushing and scandal during Victorian times will be available as part of the collection Villains, Victims, and Violets: Agency and Feminism in the Original Sherlock Holmes Canon. Learn more about Liese and her books at her website.
A Study in Evil
When Clarice met Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Miggs, the prisoner in the cell next to Lecter, verbally and physically accosted her. That night, the inmate committed suicide by swallowing his tongue. Lecter had been observed whispering to him and making him cry. A trained psychiatrist, Lecter persuaded Miggs to kill himself—without even being able to see him. Housed side by side with a brick wall in between, with only his words, Lecter controlled another’s actions.
In Tami Cowden’s typology of villains, Lecter was identified as the quintessential “evil genius” who used his superior intellect to control situations and others. The female version was the “schemer,” a lethal plotter who played with others’ lives. Almost as dangerous as Hannibal Lecter (minus the cannibalism), was an evil sister introduced by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes story “The Cardboard Box.” Sarah Cushing committed murder without ever touching her victims.
Like Lecter, her words were enough.
After her youngest sister Mary married, Sarah visited the newlyweds in Liverpool for an extended stay. Sarah took a shine to Jim Browner, Mary’s husband, and when he spurned her advances, she took it upon herself to ruin him and his marriage. Sarah filled her sister with suspicions about Jim. As a sailor, he was gone for periods of time, and she questioned his behavior while he was away. Sarah also observed that another man, Alec, ostensibly calling to visit her, was attracted to Mary and soon was encouraging a growing affection between the two. An affair developed, thanks to a few choice words from Sarah. With all the pieces in place, Sarah left Liverpool, and six months later, Jim caught Mary and Alec together and killed them both. Knowing who was actually at the bottom of his misery and hatred, he sent an ear of each in a box of salt to Sarah.
This particular tale fascinated me. Conan Doyle described a character as evil as Moriarty—Sherlock’s mortal enemy—writ small. Moriarty operated as “a spider in the center of its web…. He does little himself. He only plans.” Similarly, Sarah, through a series of well-placed words to her sister, spun a web around Mary, Jim, and Alec that ended in tragedy.
That was why I chose this particular story and villain for my essay “Still Waters Run Deviant: The Scheming Librarian” in the soon-to-be-released collection Villains, Victims, and Violets: Agency and Feminism in the Original Sherlock Holmes Canon. Unlike Moriarty or Lecter, however, Sarah Cushing would never see herself as a great mastermind, particularly given her plans ended in her own sister’s death. The moment she realized what the cardboard box contained, she was struck with such a tremendous emotional shock, she was bedridden and unable to see anyone for some time. Thus, in the original tale, only Jim’s version was provided. In my essay, Sarah had her say as well and provided another “spin” on the events.
Sherlock pursued Moriarty to end the villain’s control of an expansive criminal network. He only investigated the Cushing sisters’ case until he identified Jim as the murderer. Once he directed Scotland Yard to the culprit, he asked his connection not be made public. He noted he only wished to be linked with those cases considered difficult to solve, and the clues the cardboard box provided as well as other information gleaned from interviews with the third sister were more than sufficient to determine who committed the crime. Perhaps, however, he also knew, that unlike Moriarty, he would never be able to prove the mastermind behind Mary and Alec’s deaths—or bring the person to justice. For this schemer, the price of her meddling was a “circle of misery, violence, and fear,” which, in Sherlock’s mind, offered no logic or reason.
Villains, Victims, and Violets: Agency and Feminism in the Original Sherlock Holmes Cannon (A studious Scarlets Society Anthology)
Villains, Victims, and Violets pulls back the curtain on the private spaces of the women in the original Sherlock Holmes tales, revealing their “proper”—and not so proper—place in a man’s world at the dusk of the 19th century. Twenty-nine authors examine Holmes’ world through the lives of the women who lived in it: the villains driven astray; the victims he rescued; and the strong, pivotal Violets from his most unforgettable cases.
 Tami Cowden, Fallen Heroes: Sixteen Master Villain Archetypes, Las Vegas: Fey Cow Productions, 2011, page 90.