Mr. Holmes in Disguise

Source: Collier’s Magazine. Illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele, 1913.

Source: Collier’s Magazine. Illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele, 1913.


“It was not that Holmes merely changed his costume.  His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor… when he became a specialist in crime”

- Dr. John H. Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia”

Mr. Holmes was able to achieve excellent results through the use of his disguises and acting.  His trained ear for accents, slang and jargon also enabled him to speak in the vernacular of local, regional and distant characters. Peculiar mannerisms, the ability to change his posture from his over six foot frame and other characteristics made it almost impossible to penetrate the many characters he portrayed. So effective was he that even in the close quarters of 221B Baker Street he was able to convince Dr. Watson and I (as portrayed in “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”) and Culverton Smith that he was suffering from a highly contagious and deadly disease contracted in Sumatra.  Later in the adventure he described how he was able to effect his appearance through 3 days abstinence from food and water, Vaseline on his forehead, belladonna in his eyes, rouge and crusts of beeswax upon his lips coupled with delirious ramblings.  He later mused that he had “the thoroughness of a true artist” and considered writing a monograph on “malingering”.

Mr. Holmes employed the use of professional actor’s makeup albeit most sparingly because he appeared in very close proximity rather than the distance of stage actors. Spirit gum, used primarily for affixing prosthetics such as wigs or false facial hair, was manufactured since at least the 1870’s. It was mentioned in the earliest known professional makeup manual: “How to Make-Up; a practical guide for Amateurs” by Haresfoot and Rouge in 1977. Spirit gum was removed with alcohol, cocoa butter or Vaseline .Vaseline itself was patented in 1872.  Stick greasepaint was invented in the 1860s. In 1873, Ludwig Leichner, a Berlin chemist who moonlighted as an opera singer, marketed a stick greasepaint that would become ubiquitous in the theatre world. By 1890 the demand for stage makeup had warranted its manufacture on a large commercial scale. Many advancements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries included nose wax or “mortician’s wax”, black tooth wax and black tooth enamel, cold cream for easy make-up removal, lipsticks, blue eyeliners and liquid colour for ladies arms and necks.    

Source: Vaseline ad 1881

Source: Vaseline ad 1881


Mr. Holmes’ “costumes” were either bespoke, hired or purchased in the second hand clothing shops that proliferated at our time.  Inexpensive, ready-to-wear items were just beginning to be available to the lower classes, so second hand shops remained popular until the turn of the 19th century.  The used clothing items brought authenticity to Mr. Holmes’ disguises.

Mr. Holmes was delighted that he was able to deceive his close friends, foes, associates and Scotland Yard detectives.  To my dismay, he kept many of his grimy and odoriferous garments in his rooms at 221B. Additionally Doctor Watson mentioned in “Black Peter” that he had at least 5 refuges or bolt holes around London where he could change his appearance and persona. These also served to provide him with accommodations if being followed.

Although Mr. Holmes usually ate very little whilst on a case, he could obtain sustenance easily because there were so many street vendors, pubs and cafes selling a myriad of tasty and inexpensive offerings. This was due to the large population of lower classes working hard into the night and whose accommodations frequently did not include a stove. I’ll discuss London street food later in more detail.

Source: “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1881.

Source: “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1881.

Some of the roles Mr. Holmes portrayed were clergymen. In “A Scandal in Bohemia” he assumed the role of an “amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman” dressed in a “broad black hat …baggy trousers … white tie” and with a “sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity.” Even a professional actress like Irene Adler was unable to penetrate his amazing transformation. His apparently harmless portrayal enabled him to gain her trust.

Source: “The Final Problem” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1883.

Source: “The Final Problem” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1883.

In “The Final Problem” Mr. Holmes assumed the persona of a venerable Italian priest who spoke very little broken English to escape Moriarty and his minions. He achieved this characterization without the use of heavy make-up, relying solely on his ability to alter his posture, facial expressions and facility with changing his voice and language. Perhaps he used a bit of extremely subtle make-up only to emphasize wrinkles. Doctor Watson describes his reaction to this disguise, “I turned in uncontrollable astonishment. The aged ecclesiastic had turned his face towards me. For an instant the wrinkles were smoothed away, the nose drew away from the chin, the lower lip ceased to protrude and the mouth to mumble, the dull eyes regained their fire, the drooping figure expanded. The next the whole frame collapsed again and Holmes had gone as quickly as he had come. ‘Good heavens!’ I cried. ‘How you startled me!” Mr. Holmes never portrayed an Anglican clergyman simply because it was against the law to impersonate one.

He also portrayed common labourers. Yet again, in “Scandal in Bohemia”, Mr. Holmes assumes another disguise – that of a drunken groom. Here he would have employed odours to distinguish his character as well. He was able to infiltrate the mews behind Irene Adler’s villa, eventually ending up as a witness to her marriage! Doctor Watson describes the impact of this particular character: “It was close upon four before the door opened, and a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes, walked into the room. Accustomed as I was to my friend’s amazing powers in the use of disguises, I had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he. With a nod he vanished into the bedroom, whence he emerged in five minutes tweed-suited and respectable, as of old. Putting his hands in his pockets, he stretched out his legs in front of the fire and laughed heartily for some minutes.”

Another manual labourer impersonated was the French unshaven ouvrier in a blue blouse who “darted out of a cabaret …with a cudgel in hand” to rescue Dr. Watson in “The Disappearance of Lady Carfax”.

Source: "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax". Illustration by Alec Ball, 1911.

Source: "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax". Illustration by Alec Ball, 1911.

Source: “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1881.

Source: “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1881.

Mr. Holmes also portrayed a “working man looking for a job” in “The Mazarin Stone”.  In “The Beryl Coronet” he assumed the character of a common loafer “with his collar turned up, his shiny, seedy coat, his red cravat, and his worn boots” which made him “a perfect example of the class”.

Of particular note is his portrayal of Escott the plumber in “Charles Augustus Milverton”. He created a distinct alias with a background story with the intent of deceiving a young working girl for several days to “gain information from her”. He even went so far as to become engaged to the young woman! Dr. Watson was aghast, “Surely you have gone too far?” To which Mr. Holmes replied that “You can’t help it my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table.”

Mr. Holmes also impersonated women!  Only one such disguise appears in Dr. Watson’s published accounts. In “The Mazarin Stone” even Billy the page admitted to be taken in. “You’ve seen me as an old lady, Watson...I was never more convincing.”

Other disguises were of old and sick characters. In the “Mazarin Stone” Mr. Holmes uses another costume – that of an “old sporting man”. In “Empty House” one of the most famous and brilliant impersonations is that of the “elderly, deformed old bibliophile “whose curved back and white side-whiskers”, together with his “strange, croaking voice” caused on their sudden disappearance Dr. Watson to faint at the incredible sight of his resurrected friend. The character is another proof of Mr. Holmes’ accuracy and endurance when a disguise required it: as he says to Dr. Watson, “it is no joke when a tall man has to take a foot off his stature for hours on end.”

Detective Athelny Jones remarked “You would have made an actor and a rare one” upon learning that Mr. Holmes had taken on the character of an old seaman in “The Sign of Four.”  The role is described by Dr. Watson as an “aged man, clad in seafaring garb, with an old pea-jacket buttoned up to his throat.  His back was bowed, his legs were shaky, and his breathing was painfully asthmatic. As he leaned open a thick oaken cudgel his shoulders heaved with the effort to draw air into his lungs.  He had a coloured scarf around his chin and I could see little of his face save a pair of keen dark eyes overhung by bushy white brows and long grey side whiskers. Altogether he gave me the impression of a respectable master mariner who had fallen into years and poverty.”  It was not until Mr. Jones and Dr. Watson returned to their cigars after the poor wretch was seated in 221B that they heard the voice of Mr. Sherlock Holmes saying, “I think you might offer me a cigar too.” And then they saw Mr. Holmes “sitting close to us with an air of quiet amusement”. Holmes later said, “You see, a good many of the criminal classes begin to know me-especially since our friend here took to publishing some of my cases: so I can only go on the war-path under some simple disguise such as this.”

In “Black Peter” Dr. Watson noted “The fact that several rough-looking men called during that time and inquired for Captain Basil made me understand that Holmes was working somewhere under one of his numerous disguises and names with which he concealed his own formidable identity.”

“The Man with the Twisted Lip” required Mr. Holmes to choose a disguise to allow him to gather important information and avoid having his throat cut and being cast into the Thames. He became a frail and harmless old wreck - a white- haired, shabby opium addict. The most effect of this disguise relied upon Mr. Holmes’ bearing and expression.

Mr. Holmes also adopted the character of foreigners. I have already discussed 2 characters – the Italian Priest and the French ouvrier, however two very important disguises are of the American Mr. Altamont of Chicago in “His Last Bow” and The Norwegian Sigerson in “The Empty House”. He maintained the character of Mr. Altamont for 2 years of his undercover mission.  It was only through Mr. Holmes’ ability to manipulate his accent, body and facial expression that he was able maintain his facade – for he knew that any elaborate disguise could not have held for such an extended period.

Mr. Sigerson, the Norwegian’s disguise, is not elaborated on in “The Empty House”. Whether he adopted this character for the duration of The Great Hiatus is not known.  There is some speculation that he grew a beard or side whiskers and wore spectacles and simply affected a Norwegian accent.

Thus, Mr. Holmes developed some fine and undetectable characters to suit his needs for remaining incognito to his close associates and foes alike.



Roasted Chestnuts & Welsh Rabbit

A splendid, warming, and quick combination!
Serves 4

Roasted Chestnuts


  • 1 lb of chestnuts


  1. Preheat oven to 400F.  

  2. Using a small sharp knife cut a cross in the center of each nut.

  3. Put in a roasting tin, cut side up, and bake until the skins are open and the insides tender, about 30 minutes.

  4. Simply peel and enjoy.


Welsh Rabbit


  • 8 oz. grated Medium or Old Cheddar, Lancashire, or Double Gloucester cheese

  • 6 tablespoons of milk or ale

  • 2 oz. butter

  • black pepper and salt

  • 2 teaspoons Keen’s prepared or Dijon mustard

  • and an optional dash of Worcestershire sauce

  • 8 slices of toasted bread (home-style white or diagonally sliced baguette are nice).


  1. While the chestnuts cool a bit, put the cheese, milk or ale into a small, heavy pan. Stir it over a low heat until the mixture quietly melts to a thick cream.  

  2. Add the butter, pepper and salt to taste, mustard, (and Worcestershire sauce if desired). Taste and adjust seasoning. Put it back over the heat, until it is very hot, but below boiling point.

  3. Put the 8 pieces of toast on to a heatproof serving dish or into individual dishes and place on an ovenproof tray, pour the cheese over them then place under a hot broiler until the cheese bubbles and becomes brown in appetizing-looking slashes. The cheese will overflow the edges of the toast.

  4. Serve immediately with chestnuts and a glass of red wine or ale.



Cornish Pasties

Makes 2 large pasties. Recipe may be doubled


For the Pastry:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • Pinch of salt

  • 3 oz. drippings or lard

  • Cold water

For the Filling:

  • ½ lb. stewing steak chopped into a small dice

  • 2 large potatoes peeled and diced

  • 1 large onion finely chopped,

  • 1 medium turnip peeled and diced

  • Salt and pepper


  1. To make the pastry, sift flour and salt into a bowl, rub in the drippings or lard with your fingers and add enough cold water to make a stiff dough.

  2. Preheat the oven to 425F.

  3. Mix the chopped vegetables together and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

  4. Roll the pastry out into two large circles. Place half the vegetables on one half of each circle and put meat on top.

  5. Dampen the edges of the pastry and fold them over crimping the edges together well.

  6. Put the pasties on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350F and bake a further hour.

Source: Great Western Winery, Brandy, 'Grand Old Invalid', 1888-1918

Source: Great Western Winery, Brandy, 'Grand Old Invalid', 1888-1918



Brandy Snaps

Makes about 15


  • 1 stick (8 oz.) unsalted softened butter

  • ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar

  • 5 teaspoons light corn syrup combined with 1 teaspoon molasses (or substitute 2 tablespoons imported English golden syrup)

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour

  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger

  • ¼ cup brandy

  • 3 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel

  • Optional: 1 ½ cups heavy cream for whipping, ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons brandy.


  1. Preheat oven to 350F.

  2. Coat a large cooking sheet with 1 tablespoon softened butter and coat the handle of a long wooden spoon with another tablespoon of butter. Set aside.

  3. In a heavy 10-12” skillet, bring 4 tablespoons of butter, ¼ cup of sugar and the syrup to a boil over moderate heat, stirring until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves.

  4. Remove pan from heat. With a large spoon gradually beat in flour, ginger, brandy and lemon peel. Beat until smooth. Drop teaspoon of batter onto the sheet, spacing 4” apart.

  5. Bake in middle of the oven 8-10 minutes, or until the cookies have spread to 3-4” rounds and have turned golden brown.

  6. Turn off oven heat and open the oven door but leave cookies in the oven to keep warm. If they cool too much they will harden and they will become difficult to shape. Working quickly, remove 1 cookie at a time with metal spatula and roll it into a tube around the wooden spoon handle.

  7. Slide cookie off handle onto a rack and repeat. Use the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter to keep the handle well coated as you proceed.

  8. Store in a tin 4-5 days.

  9. Optional: Just before serving, beat the cream in a cool bowl until it thickens slightly. Add ¼ cup of sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form. With a rubber spatula, gently but thoroughly fold in the brandy. Fill a pastry bag with the cream and pipe into brandy snaps. Serve immediately.

Find more recipes like this in "Memoirs from Mrs. Hudson's Kitchen" Amazon USABarnes and Noble USAAmazon UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository. Available now in Audio format and in ebook Kindle.