By Clive I. Morrick
Early in 1903, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson disembarked in New York City where they had reservations at the Brevoort Hotel on lower Fifth Avenue. Det. Joseph Petrosino of the NYPD’s Italian Squad met them and took them to his office at the 11th Precinct at 205 Mulberry Street.
Petrosino was the expert in the affairs of the Black Hand, an Italian extortion gang active in the United States but also operating in London. Holmes’ client, a young woman named Magdalena Venucci, was the daughter of Pietro Venucci, murdered during the events Watson described in the “The Six Napoleons.” The influence of the Black Hand in London stood in her way. So Holmes came to New York to consult with Petrosino.
Petrosino tells them it is too risky to stay at the Brevoort – it would be public knowledge. Instead, he arranges for them to lodge at a Greenwich Village boarding house managed by Constance L’Azour, a former madam who had found religion.
No sooner had they arrived at Mme L’Azour’s house when a bullet fired through the bedroom window grazed Holmes’ arm. He and Petrosino calculated it had been fired from 200 yards away. Petrosino told them only three people could have managed the shot and two were in prison. The third, known as Lungo, had never been identified.
Watson reported that their rooms overlooked a neighborhood of bookshops, bicycle repair emporia, and a Queen Anne house where piano lessons were advertised in a ground floor window. Where might they have been?
There were bicycle shops on Hudson, Eighth and West 10th streets, Greenwich Avenue, and at 47 Washington Square South, the last owned by Angelo Zerbarini.
Most Manhattan bookstores congregated around Chambers Street and Fourth Avenue. But there were bookstores in the area, the nearest being the William Jennings bookstore at 85 Sixth Avenue, between Waverly Place and Christopher Street. This was barely a block from the Zerbarini bike shop.
In its heyday New York’s red light district was in the South Village, but brothels also operated on Bleecker Street and around Washington Square.
As for the Queen Anne house I credit Watson with recognizing the prominent roofs, gables, and windows comprising the simpler American Queen Anne style at the turn of the 20th century. There were several such houses on West Eighth Street, but I believe Watson referred to the house at 3 Washington Square North, remodeled in the Queen Anne style in 1884. This was a studio building for John H. Sherwood, a real estate magnate, who rented to artists. It would not be unusual to find piano lessons advertised. (Edward Hopper lived there from 1913 until his death on May 15, 1967.)
So it is likely that Mme L’Azour’s house was on, or very near to, Washington Square.
Holmes cut their visit short after one day’s inquiries in order to flush out his would-be assassin. Sure enough, on the second day of the voyage home a bullet just missed Dr. Watson. An East Indian princess was unmasked as the shooter. She was Lakshmi Moran, the illegitimate daughter of Colonel Sebastian Moran, right hand man of Professor Moriarty. Although an assassin for the Black Hand this was her personal vendetta to avenge her father’s death for which she held Holmes responsible. She had followed him from London to Little Italy, thence to Mme L’Azour’s abode. Indeed, she was Lungo.
This story, “The Sons of Moriarty”, is not by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Its author is Loren Estleman, a respected American mystery writer who has written a number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches with the approval of the Conan Doyle estate.
Joseph Petrosino was a real person. He was assassinated in Sicily in 1909 while on official duty, aged 48. The Black Hand was suspected. He is the only New York City police officer to die in the line of duty outside the United States.
Holmes did not know Miss Moran had followed him from London. This is surprising as he fancied himself an expert in that art, as we see in a Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”, 1897, where this dialogue occurs – Sterndale (suspect): “How do you know that?” Holmes: “I followed you.” Sterndale: “I saw no-one.” Holmes: “That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.”
There is no mention of Holmes visiting New York City in the entire canon of 56 short stories and four novels.
Estleman, L., Ed., “Sons of Moriarty and More Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, Tyrus Books, Ohio, 2014.
Baring-Gould, Wm. S., “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” Clarkson Potter, New York, 2d ed., 1977.
Anon., “A Vest-pocket Guide to Brothels in New York City in 19th Century New York.”
Trow, New York City Business Directory, 1903
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
New York City Department of Parks.
NYC Fire Insurance, Topographic and Property Maps, NYPL.