Arthur Conan Doyle lost his son in World War I. This aroused his interest in spiritualism, and his later works gravitated toward spiritualistic themes. When reading these later works, I found a kindred spirit in Professor Challenger.
“A Case of Identity” was written before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became interested in spiritualism. It involves a groom who suddenly disappeared. If the story had been written in 1920, Sir Arthur would probably have sent the puzzled bride to a medium to see if her groom had died.
However, since the author was not yet interested in spiritualism when he wrote the story, Miss Mary Sutherland, the puzzled bride, came to Sherlock Homes instead.
While questioning Miss Sutherland, Sherlock Homes and Dr. Watson found out the following information. Miss Sutherland was living at home with her mother and Mr. Windibank her stepfather. Her Uncle Ned had died; and as a result of his will, she received an income of 100 pounds a year. She generously decided to give it to her parents as long as she lived in their house. She did not want to be a burden to them. Besides, she did some typing and earned enough for her humble needs. Her eyesight was poor, but she knew how to type without looking at the keys.
She did not really like it that her mother had married again, especially since Mr. Windibank was only five years older than herself. He was a good businessman. When he sold her deceased father’s business, he received more money than her father could have obtained.
Mr. Windibank never wanted her to go anywhere. So when she decided to attend the gasfitters’ ball, he tried to discourage her. In the end, she and her mother attended the ball. Mr. Windibank did not attend. He had to make a business trip to France for his firm.
At the ball, she met Mr. Hosmer Angel. He courted her on subsequent days; and they quickly became engaged. Her mother was in on the secret, but they did not tell Mr. Windibank.
When the stepfather returned from France, they decided to communicate by letter instead of personal contact. Hosmer typed his letters to Mary, but he asked Mary to write hers with her own hand. He considered it more romantic.
Mary did not know where Hosmer worked or where he lived. She addressed her letters to the Leadenball Street Post Office, to be left until called for.
Hosmer was a shy man. He preferred to walk with her in the evening instead of daylight. He had a very weak voice because of an ailment that afflicted him when he was young. He sort of whispered when he talked. His eyes were weak and he wore tinted glasses because he could not stand the glare.
When Mr. Windibank had to travel to France once more, Hosmer persuaded Miss Sutherland to marry him before her stepfather returned. Hosmer made her swear with her hand on the New Testament that she would always be true to him, no matter what happened. Her mother, who favored Hosmer from the beginning, said he was quite right to make her swear.
Mary was concerned about her stepfather. She did not think it was necessary to ask his permission to marry, since he was only five years older than herself. However, she felt odd about marrying without his knowledge. Hosmer and her mother told her not to worry about her stepfather, but he wrote him anyway. The letter was returned by the post office. Mary thought that he must have started to return to England before it reached the address where he was staying.
A quiet wedding was planned at St. Savior’s church. When Hosmer came to fetch her and her mother in a hansom, he again emphasized the importance of remaining true to him, no matter what happened. Mary and her mother rode in the hansom. Since there was not enough room, Hosmer rode in a four-wheeler.
The hansom arrived at church first; but when the four-wheeler arrived, it was empty. The cab driver said that he could not imagine what happened to Hosmer, since he had seen him get in with his own eyes.
Sherlock Holmes told Mary that she had been shamefully treated, but Mary defended Hosmer. She thought that he had met with some accident and would contact her when he was able. She thought that he had foreseen that some misfortune would overtake him, since he had urged her to be true to him, no matter what happened.
When Sherlock asked about the reactions of her mother and her stepfather, Mary said that her mother was angry and did not want to discuss the matter. In contrast, her stepfather agreed with her that some misfortune must have occurred. He thought that eventually Mary would hear from him again.
Sherlock told Mary that she would never see Hosmer again and urged her to let him vanish from her memory as he had vanished from her life.
When Mary asked what happened to Hosmer, Sherlock told her to leave that question in his hands.
At Sherlock’s request, Mary gave him four of Hosmer’s typed letters and a printed description of Hosmer. She also gave him her own address (which was also Mr. Windibank’s) and told him the name of the firm for which Mr. Windibank was working.
As Mary was about to leave, Sherlock emphasized that she would never see Hosmer again. He told her to forget the incident and not to let it affect her life. In reply, Mary said that she would be true to Hosmer. She would be waiting when he came back.
After Mary left, Sherlock Holmes drew Dr. Watson’s attention to the fact that Hosmer had typed his signature instead of writing it. He considered this a decisive factor leading to the solution of the mystery.
Sherlock Holmes wrote Mr. Windibank and received his reply. Mr. Windibank typed his letter on the typewriter at his firm, where he always did his typing. The result was an appointment at 6:00 P.M. at the residence of Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson was also present.
Sherlock showed Mr. Windibank that the letters of Hosmer and the letter that he had just received from Mr. Windibank were typed on the same typewriter. This was especially evident from the way the e and the r were worn on the typewriter used. The obvious implication was that Mr. Windibank and Hosmer were the same person.
Sherlock knew what Mr. Windibank had done and why he had done it. As Mr. Windibank listened in dismay, Sherlock stated that the motive was money. Mary’s parents were afraid that some man would soon be attracted to Mary. If she married, they would no longer enjoy the 100 pounds a year that they received from Mary’s inheritance. That is why Mr. Windibank tried to discourage Mary whenever she wanted to go anywhere.
When Mary insisted on attending the gasfitters’ ball, Mr. Windibank came up with a plan to prevent her from marrying. He decided to tie her heart to a bogus lover so that a real lover could never claim it.
With the help of his wife, Mr. Windibank disguised himself and attended the ball as Hosmer Angel. He thought that his moustache, tinted glasses, and whispering voice would fool Mary. In addition, he relied on Mary’s poor eyesight to escape detection.
Since Mr. Windibank had to make pretended trips to France whenever he posed as Hosmer, Hosmer had to capture her heart swiftly. Her mother kept singing his praises, and in a short time the girl agreed to marry the supposed lover. His final trick came on the day of the wedding. He openly got into the four-wheeler by one door and then slipped out of the other door without being detected.
Sherlock admitted that Mr. Windibank had broken no law, but he averred that no scoundrel was more worthy of punishment, and he said that he was going to administer the punishment himself. As Sherlock went to get his whip, Mr. Windibank took off like a scared rabbit. (Sherlock probably was bluffing, because he unlocked the door before fetching his whip.)
Dr. Watson asked Sherlock Holmes to explain how he came to his conclusions. Sherlock figured that the peculiar conduct of Hosmer must have been strongly motivated, and he figured that the money that her parents regularly received from Mary was the only logical motive. It was also significant that Mr. Windibank and Hosmer were never seen together. The tinted glasses, curious voice, and bushy whiskers pointed to a disguise. Also, the only possible reason for the typed signature was to prevent the recipient from recognizing his handwriting.
To verify his conclusion, he used the printed description of Hosmer to draw a picture of him. He eliminated everything that looked like a disguise from his drawing. He sent the picture to the firm and asked if they could identify the man. They replied that he was James Windibank.
The typewriter that the firm used to reply to the request of Mr. Holmes was obviously the same typewriter used by Mr. Windibank and the so-called Hosmer Angel.
He was not planning to tell Mary Sutherland what he had discovered since she would not believe him. He felt that it would be somewhat dangerous to try to disillusion her, and he quoted the Persian poet Hafiz in support of his feelings. (Note that Sherlock had not promised to reveal the solution to her. He told her to leave it in his hands and to forget about the whole incident.)
Gutenberg: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes