"The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in the January 1893 issue of The Strand magazine in the United Kingdom and the January 14, 1893 issue of Harper's Weekly in the United States.
In the story, the police ask the brilliant consulting detective Sherlock Holmes to help in the investigation of a strange case. A single middle-aged woman named Susan Cushing receives a cardboard box in the mail. The box is found to contain two severed human ears. The police initially believe that Miss Cushing is simply the victim of a prank played by medical students and that the ears were cut off corpses. Holmes believes that the ears are evidence of a double murder and that Susan Cushing was not the intended recipient of the cardboard box.
"The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" was not included in the first British edition of the anthology The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published by George Newnes Ltd. in December 1893. It was included in the first American edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published by Harper in February 1894, but was removed from subsequent American editions of the anthology. The reasons for the removal of the story from the anthology are not clear but it is believed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle requested that the story be removed because he considered it to be unsuitable for younger readers. "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" was included in the first American edition of the anthology His Last Bow, published in 1917. Today, it is usually included in editions of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes which are published in the United Kingdom and editions of His Last Bow which are published in the United States.
A section which originally appeared in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box", in which Holmes appears to read Watson's mind by using a technique which Watson thought was impossible when he came across it in an Edgar Allan Poe story, was transferred to "The Adventure of the Resident Patient" in the first British edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. The section does not have any bearing on the plot of either story.
"The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" has been adapted for radio and television.
On a hot day in August, Sherlock Holmes draws the attention of his friend Dr. Watson to an article in the newspaper which Watson had previously overlooked. The article is about Susan Cushing, an unmarried middle-aged woman who lives on Cross Street in Croydon, who received something extremely unpleasant in the mail. Miss Cushing received a package wrapped in brown paper and posted in Belfast. The package contained a cardboard box inside which were two severed human ears. The police believe that Susan Cushing is simply the victim of a gruesome practical joke. She had previously rented rooms to three medical students whom she had to evict. The medical students, one of whom came from Northern Ireland, may have sent her the severed ears because they continued to hold a grudge against her. Holmes tells Watson that inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard has asked him to help investigate the case. He asks Watson if he would like to accompany him to Croydon. Watson happily accepts, glad to have something to do.
Holmes and Watson arrive at Susan Cushing's house in Croydon and find that Inspector Lestrade is already there. Since she does not want to keep the severed ears in her house, Miss Cushing has moved the package to a shed. Holmes goes out to examine the parcel. He notices that it had been tied with string that had been coated in tar. Miss Cushing cut the string with scissors, leaving the distinctive well-tied knot intact. The package was addressed to "Miss S. Cushing". The handwriting on the brown paper is clearly that of a man. The sender had originally incorrectly written "Croidon" before changing it to "Croydon", indicating that he was unfamiliar with the town.
Sherlock Holmes immediately notices that the two ears are from two different people. One ear obviously comes from a man and the other from a woman. Holmes does not believe that the ears were removed by a medical student as they had been cut off with a blunt instrument and were packed in salt to preserve them, rather than being preserved in formaldehyde or a similar liquid. Holmes also remarks that corpses are injected with a preserving fluid before they passed on to medical students. There is no trace of the fluid in the two ears. Holmes believes that they are evidence of a double murder.
After Lestrade leaves, Holmes questions Miss Cushing. He finds out that she has two sisters, one called Sarah who lives nearby and one called Mary who lives in Liverpool. Mary is married to a man called Jim Browner. Jim Browner used to work as a steward on board ships which sailed between England and South America. However, since he could not bear to be separated from Mary for long, he now works on board a ship called the May Day which only calls at ports in Britain and Ireland. Susan used to be on friendly terms with Jim Browner. Her sister Sarah used to be very friendly with him and even moved to Liverpool to be closer to the Browners. However, Susan and Sarah Cushing lost contact with him after he began drinking heavily. Susan Cushing has had no news of Jim Browner for a long time because her sister Mary no longer writes to her. Holmes expresses surprise that the two unmarried sisters Susan and Sarah do not live together. Susan Cushing says that she used to share her Croydon home with Sarah but Sarah had to leave because they constantly quarreled.
Holmes decides to pay a visit to Susan Cushing's sister Sarah. On the way, he stops to send a telegram. On arrival at Sarah Cushing's house, he is told that she is seriously ill and cannot see anybody for ten days.
When Holmes and Watson arrive home, Inspector Lestrade is waiting for them with a reply to the telegram which Holmes sent. After he reads it, Holmes writes a name on the back of one of his business cards. He gives the card to Lestrade and tells him that he can arrest the person named on it the following evening.
Watson knows that Holmes suspects Jim Browner of having killed two people and cut off their ears but does not know why he came to that conclusion. Holmes says that the string which was used to tie the parcel is of a kind used by sailmakers on ships and it was tied in a knot popular with sailors. Both the woman's ear and the man's ear that were put in the cardboard box were pierced. Sailors are much more likely to wear earrings than other men. Holmes noticed that Susan Cushing's ear was almost identical to the woman's ear in the box, indicating that it belonged to a close blood relative. Holmes' main reason for wanting to visit Sarah Cushing was to see her ears. Holmes believes that Sarah Cushing's illness was the result of hearing about the cardboard box sent to her sister. The parcel was addressed to "Miss S. Cushing". Sarah Cushing had lived with her sister Susan in Croydon. Jim Browner was unaware that Sarah had moved out because he had lost contact with her. The telegram which Holmes sent was to his friend Algar of the Liverpool police. He asked if Mrs. Browner was at home and if Mr. Browner had left on board the May Day. Algar replied that Mr. Browner had left on board the May Day, which would be calling at London the following night, and that Mrs. Browner had not been seen for three days.
Jim Browner is arrested without a struggle the following evening. He makes a full confession, a copy of which is sent to Holmes.
In his confession, Jim Browner says that, after his marriage to Mary Cushing, her sister Sarah came to live with them in Liverpool. Sarah made amorous advances towards Jim. When he rejected her, she began to hate him and started to turn her sister Mary against him also. Sarah introduced Mary to a sailor called Alec Fairbairn. Suspecting that his wife and Fairbairn were having an affair, Jim Browner said that he would not allow him to come in the house anymore. Sarah Cushing said that she would no longer stay in the house if Alec Fairbairn was no longer welcome there. Jim Browner told her that she was welcome to leave and that he would cut off Fairbairn's ear and send it to her if he ever saw him in his house again.
Sarah Cushing moved to another house and rented out rooms to sailors, including Alec Fairbairn. Jim Browner followed his wife Mary to her sister's house one day and saw her in Alec Fairbairn's company. Fairbairn ran away. Jim told his wife that he would kill her if he saw her with Fairbairn again. Afterwards, Sarah Cushing left Liverpool and went to live with her sister Susan in Croydon.
Due to the May Day having to return to port for repairs, Jim Browner found that he was able to return home for twelve hours. On his way home, Jim Browner saw his wife Mary and Alec Fairbairn in a cab. He followed them to the train station and then to the nearby seaside town of New Brighton. In New Brighton, Alec Fairbairn and Mary rented a boat. Jim browner rented another boat and followed them. He killed them by hitting them with oars, cut off their ears and sank their boat. He then returned to his ship, prepared the package for Sarah Cushing and posted it from Belfast the following day.
After reading the confession, Sherlock Holmes is left feeling emotionally distressed and asks, "What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?"
The sixth and final episode of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the fourth and final Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett, is an adaptation of "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box". It first aired on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on April 11, 1994. Among the many changes to the original story, the action is moved from August to Christmastime. Susan Cushing assumes that the package containing the severed ears is a Christmas present and it is placed underneath a Christmas tree. She opens the parcel after dinner on Christmas Eve in the company of several friends. Jim Browner works on a ship called the May Morning which travels between ports in England, France and Belgium. While he is in France, Jim Browner reads a newspaper article about Susan Cushing receiving the severed ears. He returns to England to confront Sarah Cushing. He is prevented from doing any violence to her by the arrival of Holmes, Watson and Inspector Hawkins of Scotland Yard. Browner makes his full confession to Holmes in a police cell. Holmes gives his speech in which he questions the point of human existence after the bodies of Mary Browner and Alec Fairbairn's are found beneath a frozen pond.
"Ears to You", the seventeenth episode of the second season of Elementary, the American Sherlock Holmes series starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, is a loose adaptation of "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box". It was first shown on CBS on March 6, 2014. In the episode, a man named Gordon Cushing receives a ransom note along with two severed ears. DNA tests indicate that the ears belong to his wife Sarah Cushing, who was believed to have died four years earlier.
A largely faithful radio adaptation of the story, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, first aired on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on January 12, 1994.
- Sound files of public domain audiobooks of "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" from LibriVox:
- ↑ The only one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sixty canonical Sherlock Holmes which takes place at Christmastime is "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle".