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Watson is looking through his records of Holmes's cases between 1882 and 1890 in search of mysteries that are (a) not already known through the press, (b) show off Holmes's great mind, and (c) have, in fact, been solved.
He finds one from 1887, which was solved only according to Holmes's logic, and has never been definitively proven.
Watson sets the scene for this case: it's a dark and stormy night in September…
Watson's wife is visiting her mom, so Watson is staying with Holmes for a few days.
The doorbell rings unexpectedly. A man comes in. He's young, maybe 22, and well-dressed. He looks anxious.
He apologizes for disturbing Holmes, and asks for advice in relation to a series of weird things that have recently happened to his family.
The young man's name is John Openshaw. His grandfather had two sons: Openshaw's uncle Elias, and the young man's father Joseph.
Joseph starts a bicycle factory in Coventry.
Elias, on the other hand, goes to the States and becomes a planter in Florida.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Elias joins the southern army and becomes a colonel. When the Confederacy surrenders, Elias goes back to his plantation in Florida.
Around 1869 or '70, Elias returns to England and settles in Sussex, a rural county in England.
He leaves the States even though he's been hugely financially successful there (says Openshaw) because he's a giant racist and can't stand that the Republican government (remember, the party of Lincoln) has given African-Americans the right to vote ("the franchise," Orange.36).
Elias is pretty much a jerk all around, in fact: he hates everybody, never goes into town, and drinks a lot.
But he does like one person: young Openshaw. Elias begs his brother Joseph to let Openshaw live with him, and is kind to him (when he's sober, which sounds a little ominous to us).
Elias lets Openshaw represent him to the servants and shopkeepers and so on. Openshaw has complete control of the house, as long as he doesn't bug Uncle Elias when he's tucked away in his room.
The one thing in the house to which Openshaw does not have access is a "lumber-room" in the attic, which is locked.
In March 1883, Openshaw's uncle gets a letter with a Pondicherry, India (now known as Puducherry) postmark, out of which falls five orange pips. The envelope is marked with three Ks. Openshaw laughs at this weirdness, but Elias is obviously totally freaked.
Elias yells, "K.K.K.! My God, my God, my sins have overtaken me!" (Orange.38). When Openshaw asks what's up, his uncle just says, "Death," and goes to his room. Openshaw has no clue what's going on.
Elias comes back down the stairs carrying an old rusty key (to that mysterious room in the attic?) and a small brass box. He tells Openshaw to send for a lawyer from the nearby town.
When Openshaw comes back with the lawyer, he finds Uncle Elias in his room with a big pile of ashes in the fireplace and the brass box open and empty next to him. On the lid is printed K.K.K.
Elias asks Openshaw to witness his will. The will is this: all of Elias's wealth will go to his brother Joseph, who will probably then leave it to Openshaw.
Elias apologizes, weirdly, for leaving Openshaw his fortune, because he isn't sure if the man will be able to enjoy the wealth.
After that meeting, Elias's behavior gets really extreme. He drinks even more. Sometimes he screams that he's not afraid and runs around with a gun in his hand. Other times, he locks his door and stays in his room, terrified.
One night, Elias runs out of his room in a drunken fit, only to wind up dead the next morning, drowned in a small pool at the foot of the garden. His death is ruled a suicide, but Openshaw doesn't think it can be, given how frightened Elias was of death after getting that letter.
This happens on May 2, 1883, seven weeks after he received the five orange pips (on March 10, 1883).
So Openshaw's father Joseph inherits 14,000 pounds – nearly $2 million in today's money.
After Elias's death, Openshaw and Joseph open up the attic room, but there's nothing there except the empty brass box and tons of papers from Elias's time in America, none of which seem significant. They mostly deal with his time fighting for the South and his anger, afterwards, at exploitative politicians from the North.
Joseph decides to stay on in Sussex at the beginning of 1884, and he and Openshaw live happily until January 4, 1885 – when Joseph gets a letter with five orange pips inside. The envelope once again has three Ks, and above them is written, "Put the papers on the sundial" (Orange.54). The postmark is Dundee, Scotland.
Openshaw realizes that the papers they're asking for must be the ones Elias had burned.
Joseph thinks it's all a practical joke and won't pay it any attention. Openshaw's kind of freaked out, though.
Three days after getting the letter, Joseph goes to visit a friend. And two days after that, Openshaw finds out that his dad has fallen into a chalk quarry and broken his skull. He dies without ever waking up. Joseph's death is ruled accidental because he was coming home in the dark and didn't know the area.
Openshaw suspects foul play, but he can't prove it: there are no signs of violence or footprints or anything.
So Openshaw's been sitting tight in Sussex for the last two years and eight months since his father's death. Finally, this September, now 1887, he's gotten his own envelope with five orange pips, the three Ks, and the thing about papers on the sundial. It's postmarked East London.
Openshaw hasn't done anything about it yet. He feels trapped. The police don't really believe him, though they have one man watching Openshaw's house.
Holmes is really angry at the stupidity of the police (a favorite topic of his) and at Openshaw for not coming at once. He asks if there's anything else Openshaw can say.
Openshaw does have one thing: a small piece of paper that he thinks may be all that's left of the burned documents. He says the writing is definitely his uncle's.
On it is written, "March 1869" and then a list of numbers and names and notes that are totally unclear.
Holmes tells Openshaw to go home, put this piece of paper in the brass box with a note that says all the others were burned by his uncle, and then leave the thing on the sundial as he's been told.
Holmes says he should do nothing else, because the murderer(s) will get theirs as soon as Holmes finishes "our web to weave" (Orange.97).
Holmes advises him to be careful, and Openshaw says he'll come back in a day or two with news. He leaves.
Holmes comments to Watson that there has been no case more bizarre than this one in all of their adventures. Watson begs to differ: The Sign of Four. Holmes is like, OK, that's equally weird, but I still think Openshaw's in more danger.
He goes off on an apparent tangent: to be a perfect reasoner, you have to be able to look at one small part of something and then imagine it whole. So, if you see a single bone, you should be able to imagine the animal.
The problem with this is that you can't imagine the whole from a part just using the power of your own brain. You need to back up reason with all kinds of knowledge. That's what encyclopedias are for.
It's impossible to know everything, but Holmes says that he's done his best to know as much as he can about the subjects that directly touch his field of interest.
Watson refers back to his description of Holmes in the first novel, A Study in Scarlet, when he wrote that Holmes knows everything about crime, sensational literature, and mud-stains… and nothing about philosophy or politics.
Holmes laughs when Watson takes a quick jibe at his cocaine use, but continues with his point. He asks Watson to bring him the "K" volume of the American Encyclopedia.
Meanwhile, Holmes figures out, from the three different postmarks on these fatal letters, that the killer has been on a ship.
The space of time between the letters arriving and the murders suggests a difference between the speed of the mailing ship that's delivered the envelopes and the sailing ship that carries the killer. But since the most recent letter is from East London, the killer is close by, and they can't count on any time before Openshaw is in deadly danger.
Holmes says that there must be more than one guy involved in these killings and that K.K.K. must be symbols of a society, rather than of an individual. (We're sure our American readers can see where this is going.)
And, indeed, the next thing Holmes mentions is the Ku Klux Klan, which Watson has never heard of. Holmes describes the K.K.K. as a band of ex-Confederate soldiers who terrorize African-American voters and who murder people opposed to their vicious, racist views (this part's fact).
This society, Holmes tells Watson, often warns its intended victims (in the form of, say, orange pips) to give them a chance to flee the country (this part's the fiction). If they don't run away, says Holmes, the group will kill them in some unexpected way.
Holmes continues: the K.K.K. operates freely, in spite of efforts to squash it by the government. Then, in 1869, the group mysteriously appears to break up (also, sadly, fiction).
Holmes points out that it seems like too much to be coincidence that the secret society breaks up around the same time that Elias leaves the States.
Holmes indicates the blue piece of paper as proof: pips were sent to A, B, and C as a warning; A and B "cleared" (in other words, left the country); and C was visited (and probably murdered, says Holmes).
The next morning, Holmes rises in preparation for a busy day of solving this darned case.
Watson opens the paper, only to find out that Holmes is too late: Openshaw has been killed.
The police have ruled it an accidental drowning in the night, but Holmes knows better.
Holmes is extremely angry with himself that he sent Openshaw away to meet his death. He vows to catch this murderous gang and to get justice for poor Openshaw. Because this time – it's personal.
Holmes goes out early and then gets back late at night, tired but successful. He's tracked down the leader of the Klan and plans to freak out this murderer using his own methods: Holmes grabs an orange, pulls out five pips, puts them in an envelope with the words "S.H. for J.O." and addresses the envelope to Captain James Calhoun (the historical Calhoun, incidentally, was the mayor of Atlanta when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived to burn the city down) on the ship Lone Star, to be delivered by boat while the Lone Star is in transit so that Calhoun will have nowhere to run.
How does Holmes know which ship? Holmes has spent the day looking over Lloyd's Registers (a real ship registry now available online). He figures out which boat Calhoun must be on because (a) he recognizes that "Lone Star" (one of the thirty-six ship names registered in Pondicherry, India in January and February of 1883) is a name given to an American state (he says he doesn't really mind which one; sorry, Texas!). And (b) the Lone Star was also in Dundee in January 1885. So – it's a sure thing.
In addition to sending the orange pips to Calhoun, Holmes has also sent a telegram to the police in Savannah, Georgia (the Lone Star's destination) saying that Calhoun (and two men traveling with him, who are the only other Americans on the ship) is wanted for murder in the U.K.
But Nature interferes with the perfect resolution of this case. Before Holmes's work can be wrapped up with some satisfying arrests, the Lone Star sinks far out at sea.