The Adventure of the Empty House

The return of Sherlock Holmes as martial artist

By William Wetherall

First posted 6 October 2006
Last updated 15 October 2006


The following discussion heavily draws from "The Adventure of the Empty House" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as edited and annotated by Leslie S. Klinger (2002).

Watson believes Holmes is dead, and when it is clear he is still alive, Watson needs an explanation (purple bold emphasis mine; note 38 from Klinger 2002).

"This is, indeed, like the old days. We shall have time for a mouthful of dinner before we need go. Well, then, about that chasm. I had no serious difficulty in getting out of it, for the very simple reason that I never was in it."

"You never were in it?"

"No, Watson, I never was in it. My note to you was absolutely genuine. I had little doubt that I had come to the end of my career when I perceived the somewhat sinister figure of the late Professor Moriarty standing upon the narrow pathway which led to safety. (36) I read an inexorable purpose in his grey eyes. (37) I exchanged some remarks with him, therefore, and obtained his courteous permission to write the short note which you afterwards received. I left it with my cigarette-box and my stick, and I walked along the pathway, Moriarty still at my heels. When I reached the end I stood at bay. He drew no weapon, but he rushed at me and threw his long arms around me. He knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu (38), or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds, and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went. With my face over the brink (39), I saw him fall for a long way. Then he struck a rock, bounded off, and splashed into the water."

I listened with amazement to this explanation, which Holmes delivered between the puffs of his cigarette.

"But the tracks!" I cried. "I saw, with my own eyes, that two went down the path and none returned."

"It came about in this way. . . ."

Note 38

38. Properly Bartitsu, the system of self-defense introduced from Japan into England by E. W. Barton-Wright, after whom the method is called, in 1899. While Moriarty's death predated the Barton-Wright system by eight years, Japanese techniques were known at the time, and publication of EMPT in 1903 followed shortly after the first notice of "Bartitsu" in Pearson's magazine for March and April 1899, resulting in Watson's commission of an anachronism in authoring the tale. In his article, "The Mystery of Baritsu: A Sidelight Upon Sherlock Holmes's Accomplishments," Ralph Judson explains his discovery that a Mr. E. W. Barton-Wright had published in Pearson's Magazine in the March and April 1899 issues, an article called "The New Art of Self-Defence." He "described therein a few of the three hundred methods of attack and counter-attack that comprise the New Art of Self-Defence, to which I have given the name of BARTITSU ..." (after Barton). "In giving the name Bartitsu to a number of selected methods of Ju-Jutsu [sic], adapted to European needs and costume, Mr. Barton-Wright followed a well-established precedent. Many of the exponents of this art in Japan founded their own schools and gave their own names to the methods they taught...[I]s it possible that [Holmes] was a pupil of Barton-Wright and his Japanese partners? It is not...'Bartitsu' did not make its bow in England till 1899.... Dr. Watson must have read Mr. Barton-Wright's article in The Pearson's Magazine in 1899, got the word 'Bartitsu' stuck in his mind, and, in describing, in 1903, the return of his friend, inadvertently written 'Baritsu'(dropping a 't' in the Bartitsu) instead of Ju-Jutsu"--the system of Japanese wrestling by which Holmes actually overcame Professor Moriarty.

"It takes roughly seven years to become proficient in this art and reach instinctive actions and reactions to every kind of attack. It is likely, therefore," argues Judson, "that Sherlock Holmes started his training at least eight years previously, that is, around 1883-1884.... 'I slipped through his grip,' [states Holmes]. In one fast and smooth movement, dropping on one knee, he [must have] gripped with one hand Moriarty's heel, which was closer to the abyss, and lifting the heel and with it the foot, diagonally, away from himself, he [must have] pushed hard, at the same time, with his other hand, into the groin of the captured leg, applying terrific leverage. This caused Moriarty to lose completely his balance and gave him no time to clutch at his opponent." (p. 12, 14-16)

However, in their fascinating work Some Knowledge of Baritsu: An Investigation of the Japanese System of Wrestling Used by Mr. Sherlock Holmes, Hirayama Yuichi and John Hall conclude that the Master was not proficient in the art. "The balance of probability must be that Holmes used jujutsu [in his combat with Moriarty, not] sumo...[or] 'bujutsu'.... It seems certain that Holmes, despite his easy defeat of Moriarty at Reichenbach, did not possess a high degree of skill in jujutsu at any time in his career. This is indicated by his inability to cope with the two assailants in the middle of his career in The Reigate Puzzle [1887), and by his defeat at the hands of Gruner's hired villains towards the end of Holmes's career in The Illustrious Client.... [E]ither Holmes learned his skills from a less than masterly teacher, or...Holmes did study with a master, but for too short a time to learn the technique properly." (p. 37-38)

Holmes continues to relate how he survived what Watson had thought was certain death.

The Baritsu Society of Japan (JSHC Scion)

The Baritsu Society is now a "Scion" of the Japan Sherlock Holmes Club (JSHC).

"Baritsu Society" derives its name from the fictional martial arts created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) in "The Adventure of the Empty House" (1903), the first story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904). In this story, Holmes turns out to be alive -- eight years after Watson, in "The Adventure of the Final Problem" (1893), the last story of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1994), reported that he had plunged into a waterfall with the villain, Professor Moriarty, and died.

In the new story, Holmes explains that he survived because he had some knowledge of "baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling" [not yet confirmed].

Doyle may have meant "bartitsu", a martial art developed by the Englishman E.W. Barton-Wright sometime during the late 1890s, when Doyle and Barton-Wright were writing for the same magazine. Apparently Barton-Wright based his method of self-defense on Japanese martial arts, the topic of his article "Ju-jitsu and judo" in Transactions of the Japan Society, Volume 5 (1902), 261-264.

There is some speculation that Doyle may have intentionally changed the spelling of Barton-Wright's term, which itself might have been inspired by Russian "borets" meaning wrestler, fighter, or boxer, as in the movie "Borets i kloun" [Wrestler and clown] (1957).

Most likely, though, Holmes meant to write "bartitsu" -- this term was most likely a hybrid of Barton-wright's name and jujitsu (after Leslie S. Klinger and others).

In any case, "baritsu" appeared only in British editions of "The Adventure of the Empty House" (Leslie S. Klinger's annotated edition, 2002). American editors replaced the term with "jiujitsu" [jujistsu].

The following observation appears in the Wikipedia article on "baritsu" (viewed 6 October 2006).

This confusion of names persisted through much of the 20th century, with Holmes enthusiasts puzzling over the identity of baritsu and mistakenly identifying it as bujutsu, sumo and judo. It was not until the 1990s that scholars including Y. Hirayama, J. Hall, Richard Bowen and James Webb were able to positively identify the martial art of Sherlock Holmes.

Meanwhile, baritsu developed a life of its own during the latter 20th century, and it was duly recorded that fictional heroes including Doc Savage and the Shadow had been initiated into its mysteries. It was also incorporated into the rules of several role-playing games set during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

The scholars are Yuichi Hirayama (a dentist) and John Hall (an historian), coauthors of "Some Knowledge of Baritsu: An investigation of the Japanese system of wrestling used by Sherlock Holmes", in The Ritual, the Review of the Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society, and Musgrave Monography No. 7, Northern Musgraves, Huddersfield, UK, 1996 [sources not yet confirmed].