Holmes examines the dancing men hieroglyphics. Original illustration for "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" by Sidney Paget, Strand Magazine, 1903.

"The Adventure of the Dancing Men" is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in the December 5, 1903, issue of the weekly Collier's magazine in the United States and in the December 1903 issue of Strand Magazine in England. Later collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905), it is the twenty-seventh short story and the thirtieth tale of the Sherlock Holmes Canon. The story was named third, following only "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and "The Red-Headed League," by Conan Doyle himself on his list of "12 best Sherlock Holmes stories" which he compiled for the Strand in 1927. The story was also ranked ninth in the "Ten Best Contest" held by The Baker Street Journal in 1959.[1]

The mystery concerns a clever secret writing disguised as a child's drawing. Holmes is consulted by a Norfolk squire whose American wife is inexplicably terrified by the strange hieroglyphics. Although Holmes deciphers the code, he arrives in Norfolk too late to warn his client of the terrible danger from his wife's past. Dismayed by the tragedy, the great detective resolves to bring the criminal to justice.

The 1923 silent movie The Mystery of the Dancing Men is based on "The Adventure of the Dancing Men." The story has also been adapted for radio many times and for television twice, with Peter Cushing (1968) and Jeremy Brett (1984) as Sherlock Holmes.


One day, Sherlock Holmes shows his friend Dr. Watson a sheet of paper with hieroglyphics on it resembling a child's drawing. Its sender, Hilton Cubitt, arrives shortly and explains that his wife is terrified by the drawing. Holmes asks him to elaborate.

Cubitt, a squire from Norfolk, met and fell in love with a young American named Elsie Patrick a year ago when he was in London for the Queen's Jubilee[2]. They were married within a month. He knows nothing of his wife's background, for she made him promise, before she would marry him, to let her forget her painful past. Trouble started a month ago when a letter arrived from America. His wife threw the letter in the fire, and she has been living in fear ever since. Then a week ago, he found the dancing men scrawled in chalk on window sills. He only mentioned them to his wife after they were cleaned off, and she begged to see them if they appeared again. Yesterday morning, this paper was found on the sundial in the garden. Upon seeing it his wife fainted, and she has since been in a terrified daze.

1 Am here Abe Slaney

The message which caused Mrs. Cubitt to faint, Strand Magazine, 1903.

Cubitt refuses to press his wife for her secret because of the promise, so Holmes agrees to help him. He asks Cubitt to make copies of any fresh samples and to make discreet inquires for strangers in the area before coming back with more evidence.

A fortnight later, Cubitt returns with more dancing men and some news. The morning after the last visit, new pictures appeared on the tool-house door, followed two days later by a different message. When the same message was then repeated, Cubitt decided to stand watch overnight with his revolver. He spotted a crawling figure near the tool house, but the man had gone by the time he shook off his terrified wife to get there. The same message was again left on the door: and in the morning, they found a new short message added to it.

As soon as Cubitt leaves, Holmes spreads out the messages and starts calculating. After two hours, he rises from his chair satisfied, writes a telegram message, and announces plans to go down to Norfolk the next day. They are held back, however, by a delay in the answering telegram. On the second evening, a letter from Cubitt brings more dancing men. Holmes studies the message then springs to his feet in dismay. It is too late to catch the last train, and they are again forced to wait. Meanwhile, the telegram finally arrives and confirms Holmes' suspicions.

In the morning, Holmes and Watson take the first train to North Walsham. As soon as they alight, they hear from the station master that Mrs. Cubitt shot and killed Mr. Cubitt then tried to kill herself. Holmes is despondent and silent during the long carriage ride. They arrive at the manor house just behind Inspector Martin. Martin is eager to work with the famous detective and watches intently as Holmes begins his investigation.

The Adventure of the Dancing Men 04

Holmes questions the servants, Strand Magazine, 1903.

The local surgeon says Mrs. Cubitt is unconscious with a bullet wound to her head. Hilton Cubitt was shot through the heart, and the pistol was found between them with two barrels empty. The housemaid and the cook state that they were awakened by a loud explosion, followed by a second one a minute later. They came down together and found the study door open. Their master was lying dead and the mistress was crouched near the window, the side of her face red with blood. The passage and the room were full of smoke and the smell of gun powder. The window was shut and fastened on the inside. Holmes asks about the smell of powder, and the women answer that they smelled it from the top floor.

They proceed to the study to examine the scene. Hilton Cubitt was shot from the front, and the bullet is still inside him. The surgeon says the second bullet is left inside Mrs. Cubitt. Then, to everyone's amazement, Holmes points out a bullet hole - the third bullet - near the bottom of the window. He explains that he knew the window had been open because the smell of powder reached upstairs. Suspecting a third person had been present outside, he looked in case a shot fired at him hit the window frame. The first loud explosion had indeed been two shots fired almost simultaneously. Holmes believes the wife closed the window afterward. They also find in the room a hundred pounds in a lady's handbag. Outside the window, trampled flowers and the third cartridge confirm Holmes' theory.

The Adventure of the Dancing Men 05

Holmes finds the third cartridge, Strand Magazine, 1903.

Inspector Martin, overcome with admiration, is ready to follow Holmes' lead. Holmes asks if there is an inn called "Elrige's" in the area, and the stable boy remembers a farmer by that name some miles off. Holmes writes out a note addressed to Mr. Abe Slaney at Elrige's, and tells the stable boy to deliver it without answering any questions. He then instructs the servants to direct all visitors to the drawing room with no reference to Mrs. Cubitt's condition. Holmes then leads Watson and the inspector into the drawing room. Spreading out the dancing-men papers, he tells the inspector about Cubitt's consultations. He then explains how he deciphered the messages.

In the first message, one of the figures appeared four times. "E" being the most common letter in the English language[3], it was reasonable to assume that the figure stood for it. Holmes also suspected that the flags divided the sentence into words. Of the new samples, the short message added to the door lacked flags, suggesting a single word. Filling in the E's, and supposing it was written by Mrs. Cubitt as a reply, Holmes deduced the word was "NEVER." Then the preceding message became clear as an appeal to her reading "COME ELSIE." With more letters known, the earlier messages then solved themselves as "AM HERE ABE SLANEY" and "AT ELRIGES." Holmes then sent an inquiry to New York for information on Abe Slaney. The reply, "The most dangerous crook in Chicago," came too late, as the last message read "ELSIE PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD."

As Holmes answers Inspector Martin's questions, a visitor arrives. When the man enters the room, Holmes puts a pistol to his head and Martin handcuffs him. The man glares at everyone then laughs, saying he was invited by Mrs. Cubitt. Told that she is at death's door, he cries out that it was the husband and not she that was hurt.


Slaney is handcuffed, Strand Magazine, 1903.

After composing himself, Slaney swears that he only shot back at Cubitt who fired first - he loves Elsie and would not hurt her. Holmes reproaches him for making her life miserable and bringing about the tragedy. He then urges him to help prove Mrs. Cubitt innocent of her husband's murder. Slaney agrees to tell the truth.

Elsie's father was the boss of a Chicago gang who invented the secret writing. Elsie was engaged to Slaney but could not stand the business. She got away, and was only found after her marriage. Receiving no reply to a letter he sent, Slaney decided to come over. He tried to coax her at first, but then he lost his temper and began to threaten her. She wrote back asking him to leave, saying she would see him during the night if he would leave her alone afterwards. When she tried to bribe him to leave, he became mad and grabbed her. At that moment the husband rushed in with his revolver. Slaney held up a gun just to scare him but Cubitt fired, and he shot back almost at the same time.

After Slaney is taken away, Watson finds the note Holmes sent to lure him. Written in dancing men, it reads "COME HERE AT ONCE." In closing the story, Watson reports that Slaney avoided the death penalty due to mitigating circumstances. Mrs. Cubitt recovered from her injury and remains a widow, devoted to caring for the poor and administering her husband's estate.


  1. The following eight stories were ranked ahead of "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" in the contest; "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," "The Red-Headed League," "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," "Silver Blaze," "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Musgrave Ritual," "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," and "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons."
  2. Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in 1897, indicating that "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" takes place in 1898.
  3. "The Gold-Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe, published sixty years earlier, also involves a substitution cipher and includes a discussion on the frequency of letters.

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