A case of Sherlockian identity: Irregulars, feminists, and millennials

Liza Potts

Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This essay describes a study of how fans participate in memory-making activities. I call this activity participatory memory, blending theories from collective memory and participatory culture. Interestingly, while studying spaces of memory for Sherlock Holmes (the Canon) and BBC's Sherlock (2010–), I began to realize that these spaces have much to do with gender, generations, class, and cultural differences that helped regulate (and even segregate) different ways in which people were allowed to participate in the Sherlockian fandom.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; Gender; Generations; Sherlock; Sherlock Holmes

Potts, Liza. 2017. "A Case of Sherlockian Identity: Irregulars, Feminists, and Millennials." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25.

1. Introduction, or "There is nothing like first-hand evidence" (A Study in Scarlet)

[1.1] While I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since I first read the collected Adventures as a child and sat with my father as we watched the classics (here I mean Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett as our dear detective), I did not start to look for other fans until I was older. When I first started this project on fandom and memory, I thought I could chalk this up to never imagining I had somewhere (or someones) to share my love of all things Sherlock Holmes. Nothing could be further from the truth—there are many organizations, conventions, and groups available for those of us who identify as Sherlockians. Entering the fandom in two distinct ways (as a scholar fan and a fan scholar), I am now in the midst of a research project examining the complex history, hierarchy, and structure that often comes with being part of any fandom, much less one as old and established as the Sherlock Holmes community.

[1.2] This project began as a study of how fans participate in memory-making activities. I call this activity participatory memory, blending theories from collective memory and participatory culture. While doing this work, I set out to learn more about fan-led conferences and how participants tell the stories of their fandoms. I found 221B Con (, a fan-led conference, through contacts I had made in London while studying spaces of memory for Sherlock Holmes (the Canon) and BBC's Sherlock (2010–). I joined my local group, the Greek Interpreters. I listened to podcasts from the Baker Street Babes and I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere. I consulted with, an established, well-known portal with links to groups and information about the canon and community (and one I am now the caretaker of). As I began to learn more about the community and their experiences, I realized that some of the issues and concerns across groups had to do with gender, generations, class, and cultural differences that marked the different ways in which people were able and encouraged to participate.

[1.3] While the larger project to understand the Sherlockian community is still underway, I expect to find further evidence of organizational changes that are part of a much larger societal pull toward a participatory, engaged, and remixing culture. The differences in the ways in which these fans perform their fandoms is much more interesting and complicated than an outsider might expect. More recently, the ways in which these fandoms are rethinking their structures and welcoming new members is providing case studies for understanding how organizations grow and change. In that way, studying, learning, examining, and participating in these spaces has provided a wealth of learnings and materials for those of us looking specifically at fan societies and groups, as well as those of us looking at larger cultural movements.

2. On the many ways to be a fan such that "I make a point of never having any prejudices" ("The Reigate Squires")

[2.1] In this section, I discuss the more popular ways in which people can participate in this community. For nearly 100 years, community organizations on Sherlock Holmes have mirrored many societal issues, struggles, and differences. The leading organization for Sherlock Holmes is the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), named after a group of "street children" who help Holmes solve his cases. Their leader is referred to as Wiggins, a nod to the leader of the street children in Holmes's world. Other organizations, called scions, were created as offshoots of the BSI ( Some of these groups are organized by geographical location, while other groups are focused on Dr. Watson, shared professions, or other aspects of the community. Some of these organizations have only existed for a few years, while others have operated for decades. The BSI sponsors an annual dinner in New York City every January. Many other Sherlockian events have grown around the BSI dinner, leading to a long weekend of celebrations in the city.

[2.2] Up until 1991, all members of the BSI were men. And while a separate organization was created by women and for women (The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, founded in the 1960s), before 1991, the BSI was not a co-ed organization. In 1991, several members of ASH ( were inducted into the BSI, although ASH did not become fully co-ed until 2008 (McKay 2016). Both organizations provide membership on an invite-only basis, and much of the history written about the BSI points to its long tradition as a literary society.

[2.3] Scions all have their own rules about memberships and meetings, although most of them carry on a tradition of giving nicknames or "investitures" to their members. Their Web sites often list their members and their investitures, as a sign of membership and possibly status in the group. Many of these scions conduct meetings that are rich in tradition, including toasts to specific characters and historic figures, as well as a quiz of that meeting's selected story. There is also a conference called A Scintillation of Scions (, whose leaders situate it as a "Sherlockian family reunion," inviting old and encouraging new participants on its Web site. A more traditional event is the Sherlock Holmes conference, sponsored by the Norwegian Explorers scion with the Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collections at the University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Libraries. Held every other year since 1995, this conference includes long-form presentations and discussion.

[2.4] 221B Con is a fan-founded, fan-led conference that has run since 2013. The founders of this organization are all women, and the majority of their attendees are also women. Only expecting 100 or so participants the first year, the founders were surprised to have 680 Sherlockians in attendance (Noll 2016). Their numbers have increased each year, with over 1,000 in attendance during their 2015 event. Rather than a literary society, which is how the BSI and some of the scions situate themselves, the Con focuses on the many variations of Sherlock Holmes—film, television show, fan fiction/pastiche, and theater. (While I do not have much of an opinion on the fan fiction vs. pastiche discussion, there is an interesting argument made by Amy Thomas that pastiche is a subset of fan fiction (

[2.5] Meanwhile, the Internet is a space where activity can take place year-round. Fan celebrations, fan fiction, fan speculation, and more can be found on spaces such as Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and various archives. The Hounds of the Internet ( has existed as an e-mail list since 1992, spun off from an earlier mail list. Some groups use Meetup to help traditional scions reach new members. The various Tumblr spaces are very active for this fandom, with participation particularly rising out of the Sherlock television show. The Baker Street Babes have a popular podcast and Web site (, as does I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere ( More recently, some of the scions have also tried out these spaces as ways to engage millennial fandoms. Some of these transitions have meant opening up their groups to more diverse voices and reaching out to those whose inclusion may have not been as obvious to outsiders. More on that below, where I briefly discuss issues of diversity and equality in the community.

3. On equality, or not as simple as "I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix" ("The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone")

[3.1] What began as an ethnographic project, studying how fans participate in memory-making activities, evolved into an autoethnographic experience in learning how different groups within this fandom worked to sustain communities, nurture (or not) diverse leaders, and grow (or shrink). While working on this project, activities at the recent BSI dinner in January 2016 have given me pause and helped me reflect on this research. I will discuss these activities below, as they relate to different issues of equality and diversity within these fan spaces.

[3.2] Diversity of gender. On the surface, it might look as if the fandom has serious issues in terms of diversity. The majority of individual scions are co-ed, except for a few that seem to remain all-male. ASH's history is rich with discussions on gender, feminism, and equality. Their members picketed a BSI dinner in 1968, asking for them to consider adding "feminine irregulars." As one of the ASH founders, Evelyn Herzog, states, "any chat about the history of ASH or the spirit of ASH has to include the picket" while at the same time calling for the need of a reality check due to issues in the world, where war and racial tensions abounded (2010). ASH is not a scion of the BSI. While it wasn't until 1991 that the BSI leadership decided to invest women members, it took until 2008 for ASH to invest men. The gentlemen of the BSI have recognized these changes through their own acknowledgments, celebrating 25 years of women in the BSI during their 2016 event in January. There, they celebrated women members, toasting them, and singing their songs—while Betsy Rosenblatt, a member of both ASH and BSI, sang "At Last." These are significant moves for these organizations and the fandom (or literary societies) themselves, mirroring similar feminist movements during our present day. Recent debate online about the Speckled Band's membership vote to accept "non-male" members has pushed these discussions further beyond the binary of men/women, leading to celebration, accolades, and anger at the slowness of change. Many established community leaders worked to contextualize this decision within the larger history of Sherlockian scions, suggesting that support should be given to groups willing to move forward in such positive, inclusive directions.

[3.3] Generational differences. In learning about my local scion, I was told by one of the leaders that the average age was "ancient" and that they were interested in including "young people." They spoke of knowing of several scions in a similar predicament, where their group was "dying out." At the same time, 221B Con is going from strength to strength in terms of attendance numbers. Their participants are largely made up of millennials and Gen X'ers. Of course, attending a scion dinner at a country club and attending a three-day con are very different experiences. However, that might be the point. And there seems to be a place for both for now. An insightful piece in Serpentine Muse, the publication of ASH, is aptly titled "On the Care and Feeding of Millennials: Bringing a New Generation of Sherlockians in the Fold" (Holloway and Blumenberg 2015). This article makes several strong arguments for reaching out to the younger generation of Sherlockians and how scions might positively engage them. It should not go unnoticed that this piece was written by two cofounders of 221B Con, one of whom is part of the Baker Street Babes.

[3.4] Diversity. In terms of diversity, 221B Con might be the most mixed in diversity of gender, race, sexuality, and class. In order to be of service to the community, we agreed to help our local scion to upgrade their Web site. Part of this work included conducting what is known in Web design as a landscape analysis, which works to understand how competing or partnering organizations (the landscape) represent themselves online (typically through their Web sites). During that analysis, we did not notice many people of color on other scion Web sites. It will be interesting to see what audiences may engage with the wider community because of the recent publication of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Sherlockian pastiche written with Anna Waterhouse. This work is an engaging novel about a young Mycroft Holmes and his adventures untangling a slavery ring in the Caribbean. More on his visit to the BSI in 2015 can be read here:

[3.5] Membership attainment. It is said that membership in the BSI and ASH requires "toiling in the vineyards"—attending dinners, engaging with others, and supporting local scions in different ways. Membership in either group can be seen as exclusive, but both seem eager to broaden their membership. This move was evidenced by the BSI's response at the January 2016 dinner and by online discussions around the Speckled Band scion, both mentioned above. Although the attendees of 221B Con might be the most mixed in diversity of gender, race, sexuality, and class, they too have an exclusive membership through their own Diogenes Club. That said, general membership in 221B Con is as simple as paying for your weekend registration, much as it is for other fan conventions.

[3.6] Diversity of thought. In some quarters, to say you are a "fan" of Sherlock Holmes is a blasphemy. This reaction may seem dramatic, and certainly would be to those of us who consider fandoms to be spaces of imagination, participation, and community. However, some Sherlockians consider themselves guardians of a literary society, rather than fans of characters, stories, movies, and television shows. Fandom in general has had similar debates, as have Sherlockians (Faye 2012). Some of these spaces can feel more exclusive or participatory than others. Being able to code-switch in these spaces can be important, although I have found the majority of spaces I have visited to be welcoming of both kinds of thought. Again, delving into this issue requires more research, but this nuance of interest can speak to issues of high and low culture that the fandom/societies will need to work through as/if they grow.

[3.7] Welcoming behaviors. Panels at 221B Con are focused on the audience, more so than on the speakers. By which I mean, there is almost a call and response dialogue back and forth between the speakers and the attendees in the audience. Such a rhetorical move creates a space in which the community members are allowed, or even expected to participate. They hold a special session for newcomers to the fandom where free copies of the Canon are eagerly distributed by the panelists to audience members as way to welcome them and encourage them to engage with the texts. 221B Con seems to overflow with a welcoming manner in terms of accessibility and membership. The founders have even gone as far as appointing someone as a welcomer, whose job it is to seek out participants on the boundaries of the Con to encourage them to join in and feel part of the community.

4. Onward, for "it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data" ("A Scandal in Bohemia")

[4.1] From more traditional groups such as co-ed BSI and their offshoot scions to the women-founded, fan-led 221B Con, these different spaces and ways in which fans can participate are as varied as the Canon. As I continue to investigate the fandoms and the ways in which they organize themselves, celebrate the many kinds of media produced, and negotiate space and place, I have the following research questions in mind.

[4.2] How will 221B Con evolve over time? It is difficult for an organization to grow so much and so quickly. Often, this shift can mean a change of culture, expectations, and structure. With the founders still involved and in tune with their community, it will be interesting to see where they go next in terms of access, policy, and stability.

[4.3] Will the lines between the BSI, ASH, 221B Con, and local scions become more porous? How will they welcome millennials, or even Gen-Xers, into their memberships? Can they build spaces that can scale to these different generations? How will these moves change these organizations?

[4.4] A related question, but more specific to the local: Will these scions sustain themselves, long-term? And if so, how? What will scion meetings look like five, 10, 20 years into the future? Will they change in form and format?

[4.5] I am sure there are more questions I should be considering. I welcome others studying similar (or even the same!) areas of research to contact me. As ACD speaking through Holmes said in "The Adventure of Silver Blaze": "Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person."

5. Works cited

Faye, Lyndsay. 2012. "Upon the Clear Distinction between Fandom and the Baker Street Irregulars." Criminal Element, November 30.

Herzog, Evelyn. 2010. "Boys and Girls Together." Serpentine Muse 26 (4), 27(1).

Holloway, Heather, and Taylor Blumenberg. 2015. "On the Care and Feeding of Millennials: Bringing a New Generation of Sherlockians in the Fold." Serpentine Muse 32 (1).

McKay, Marilynne. 2016. Personal interview.

Noll, Crystal. 2016. Personal interviews.

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