Friday, December 23, 2016
Silver Blaze #2: Myth Buster
C7773. -- A2716. Hammond, Roland. "The Attempted Mayhem of `Silver Blaze,'" BSJ [OS], 1, No. 2 (April 1946), 157-161. An investigation by Dr. Hammond, including an actual experiment duplicating the operation performed on Silver Blaze to render him lame, demonstrates that it requires more than the mere jab of a knife, as Holmes claimed, to injure the tendons of a horse's ham sufficiently to cripple him.
The previous article by S. Tupper Bigelow was concerned with chronology. The article today was from the second issue (Volume 1, number 2 Old Series) of Edgar W. Smith’s journal. In his article,
“The Attempted Mayhem of “‘Silver Blaze,’” Dr. Roland Hammond, M.D. examines the method used to cripple the sheep in the night time. You see, it was the sheep, not the dog that did nothing in the night time, that provided the essential data which allowed Holmes to solve the murder of the trainer. Holmes was correct in his assessment of the dog—he did nothing at all—regarding the solution to the problem.
However, the lame sheep were quite another matter. The good Dr. Hammond explains: On the return journey to London, following the race, Holmes reconstructed for the benefit of Colonel Ross, the train of events which led up to the death of Straker. “You must know,” said Holmes, “that it is possible to make a slight nick upon the tendons of a horse’s ham, and to do it subcutaneously, so as to leave absolutely no trace. A horse so treated would develop a slight lameness, which would be put down to a strain in exercise or a touch of rheumatism, but never to foul play.” ’
That is the key element. If one is to perfect his craft at so delicate an operation, one must practice. Why were the sheep lame?
Dr. Hammond then describes the practiced procedure and the drawbacks. “A tenotomy, or severance of this tendon, just above the heel, for various reasons, is a common procedure” for a trained surgeon. However, Straker is only a horse trainer. Whereas he may have known of the procedure, it does not mean he could perform one. I have personally seen bypass surgery on the hospital monitor, but I have no plans to attempt to preform one.
He clarifies his point by explaining that the human counterpart of the tendons of a horse is the Achilles. It is near the surface of the skin on a human, bu on a horse, they “have their origin near the stifle or knee joint, and run downward to separate attachments at the hoof.” He concludes by pointing out “because of their larger size and strength, any attempt to inflict damage to the tendons of a horse would be correspondingly more difficult than the carefully planned procedure in man.” Observe that on a man, the procedure is simplified. The narration of Watson leads one to believe that John Straker, trainer at the King’s Pyland stables, managed to learn the procedure by practicing on a few sheep in the night.
When one reads a quality writings upon the writings, one can learn a great deal about the subject. In this article he describes in detail his knowledge of the anatomy of the leg of a horse. “The horse in reality walks upon the tips of his toes, with the feet turned downward like a ballet dancer. The joint in the middle of the leg which resembles the human knee, is actually the ankle, and is called the hock joint. The ham is defined as that part of the hind leg situated behind the hock joint. The prominence behind corresponds to the tip of the human heel. From this region downwards the metatarsal or foot bones are much longer and larger than in man, until they end at the fetlock joint. This site marks the division between the foot and toe bones.” TMI? I think not. These details reveal his intimate knowledge of the anatomy of a horse and how it differs from man. Again one must ponder John Straker’s knowledge of the anatomy of Silver Blaze.”.
Dr. Hammond proceeds to do what one should expect from a great scholar. “A little learning is a dangerous thing, and Straker was misled into overconfidence following his favorable achievement on the sheep. He failed to take into account the three requisites of an operating room: 1) a quiet patient, 2) as little’ movement of the air as possible, and, 3) adequate illumination. His chances of success were practically wiped out by the sinister combination of a high-spirited animal, a rainy night and only a Vesta match for illumination of the operative field.” Under these conditions, even the most experienced surgeon would have had difficulty incapacitating the animal. Remember, according to the narrative, the horse was to look healthy, but be unable to run at full capacity. If the horse has to be withdrawn from the race, or if the injury is navigable, they will not be able to win a fortune by fixing the race.
At this point the good doctor decides to follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes. His only option was to attempt the delicate procedure after careful study and consultation with experts. His conclusion was that “The incident has great dramatic value, but the thrilling scene depicted in that memoir does not stand up to the cold light of reason and experience, Nevertheless the adventure has given the opportunity for some interesting research and the acquisition of useful knowledge.” That dear reader defines why one plays the game for the game’s own sake. The doctor was not taking up all of this time to gain a reputation in some great medical journal. His purpose, as a skilled surgeon, was to discover if the incident described in Watson’s narrative was probable. This article written so long ago predates the “myth busters” by decades, but this is precisely what he has done.