Sherlock’s Double: At William Gillette’s Castle


Writers' Houses

Photograph courtesy of the author.

Anyone can lay a funerary GIF at one of the 238 million virtual tombstones at A rose JPEG accompanied by the words “im sorry the world did not treat you well” is laid on Kafka’s grave page amidst various uploaded photos of tombstones; “Your statue was unveiled in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol today,” reads a post for Willa Cather. Someone leaves an update on Federico Fellini’s page that tonight they “will watch La Strada in your memory.” Many of these messages seem to have come after a pilgrimage to a physical site. They read like confirmations of an encounter: as though their writers, unsatisfied with what they’d found in the material realm, had taken to virtual channels to yoke a final closeness with the dead.

The playwright and actor William Gillette’s online grave is littered with notes from recent visitors to his house museum, updating him on his property: “Interesting man, a shame he did not have children to enjoy the castle and train ride,” or “when i vist [sic] i always notice something … deer in your yard, the fawn was nursing from its mother.” Another: “Went to your home today… You would be proud that it is in impeccable order.”

Gillette Castle lies up a coily road in East Haddam, Connecticut. I visit on the first hot day of May. An elaborate stone pathway leads me from the parking lot to a gray, cobbly estate that overlooks the Connecticut River. A rabbit passes the entrance sign and disappears into the forest.

I live nearby, and have developed a chronic wandering habit in my final semester at divinity school. The more direct and pursuant my inquiries of God have become, the greater my conflictual desire to roam has grown. Perhaps my proclivity to wander is a symptom of my frustration with the jigsaw splodge of academia, or of my desire for a single, quiet path of pilgrimage. It has become increasingly apparent to me that one of the key tenets of the spiritual life was imitation: of Christ, of the saints. And so, rather serendipitously, I show up to this castle made by a man whose life was defined so completely by imitation.

William Gillette looked exactly like Sherlock Holmes—a tall man with a smoking pipe and cape—or, rather, Sherlock, as we imagine him, looks like William Gillette. “The careers of the master detective, Sherlock Holmes, and the master actor-playwright, William Gillette, are inextricably combined,” writes Ruth Berman in A Case of Double Identity. Gillette is best known for adapting Sir Conan Doyle’s stories to the stage, then later playing and perfecting the part of Holmes in more than a thousand performances. “Elementary, my dear Watson” was adapted from a line of Gillette’s. The deerstalker hat was his invention. Gillette’s embodied adaptation was so successful that playbill images of Gillette became source images for subsequent book editions of Sherlock Holmes. Certain covers bear Gillette’s exact likeness. Gillette became Sherlock; Sherlock became Gillette.

Before the two became one, Gillette was a moderately popular playwright and actor from Hartford, Connecticut. An inventor as well, Gillette created a machine that perfectly emulated the sound of a horse’s hooves “approaching, departing, or passing at a gallop, trot, or any other desired gait,” as a way to heighten the realism of the stage. Much of his acclaim was thanks to two Civil War plays, Held By the Enemy (1886) and Secret Service (1895), written after his beloved wife, the actress Helen Nichols, passed away from a burst appendix at twenty-eight. Gillette withdrew to the woods. He never remarried, and spent six years away from public life.

Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes was dead. Sir Conan Doyle had killed him off in “The Final Problem,” when he falls into a gorge in Switzerland. Doyle himself wished to resurrect Holmes for the stage, but neither he nor other playwrights were able to get it right. It was Doyle’s agent who eventually recommended Gillette for the project. When the two men met in 1899, Gillette showed up dressed as his interpretation of Holmes and examined Doyle with a magnifying glass.


At the castle, which is open to the public for tours and surrounded by hiking trails, my tour group consists of eight children and three mothers, who at first regard me with enthusiasm, joking that I’ve joined a group of monsters. “Oh please, you go,” one mother insists, so I spill ahead, peering at the corners of the wooden staircase. The tour guide notes that Gillette owned fifteen cats. The children gasp. I inspect a Japanese tea set.

“Gillette was very concerned with what other people thought of him,” says the tour guide, pointing to a window that is actually a mirror, an apparatus that allowed for Gillette to see how his guests would act when he left the room. When peering into its reflection from the second-floor master bedroom, I can see what is happening downstairs at the bar—a boy in a Dartmouth sweatshirt stares into his phone while his date, dressed in velour, takes selfies. Stalin, too, had an intricate surveillance system in his home, in order to know who to kill, and though Gillette’s motives were less ideological,  this self-surveilling house appears as an uncanny reflection of a person fully curled in upon themselves. Like a dog resembles its owner, a house can begin to mirror the neuroses of its inhabitants. “It is my business to know what other people don’t know,” Holmes declared in the story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”

I pass what looks like a wooden dagger hanging from the ceiling, which I later learn is a fire-extinguishing device. In Viktor Shklovsky’s essay on “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery Story,” he stresses that Doyle never follows the dictum of Chekhov’s gun. Instead, “The gun that hangs on the wall does not fire. Another gun shoots instead.” The same logic applies to Gillette’s castle. Some of what you see becomes something else. Dead-end staircases, trick furniture, and intricate lock systems abound. Near the main entrance is a secret door that leads from his office so he could “escape unwanted guests.” The castle is thoroughly adorned with furniture pieces with double meanings, trick latches, reflections and deflections. Gillette even refused the word castle and often referred to it as “the pile of rocks.”

Gillette rarely did interviews, didn’t keep a journal, and kept most of his life secret—a pattern of behavior especially fitting for a man whose craft involved the grafting of much of his self into another man’s fiction. Walking through the great hall of the castle, made from white oak, I begin to feel that I am inhabiting an intercessory space between the man and his character; a place where a problem, puzzle, or personality was in the process of being worked out. Perhaps all houses serve this secondary function, an exercise in holding together what is meaningful; like Gillette, we sometimes prefer to obscure this process even to ourselves, in labyrinthine corridors and secret passageways.

The children at the end of the tour complain that they want to eat hot dogs, and I’m confronted with an unexpected emptiness. Perhaps I’d come to the castle expecting to glean something of Gillette, but I find him impossible to extract from the character who eclipsed him. Perhaps I’d secretly hoped for evidence that Gillette had returned to himself again, in the privacy of his own home. And maybe he had—after all, a man is not his materials. I think of the anonymous people who wander their digital way to in order to update Gillette on his estate. When they do so, do they imagine him as a man who spent his life on the stage, practicing his lines? Or do they imagine a detective in his silk robe and violin?



Nicolette Polek is the author of Bitter Water Opera and Imaginary Museums