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Front cover of an adaptation of "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" published in Indonesia in 2007.

"The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It first appeared in print in the December 1910 issue of the magazine The Strand. It would be republished in October 1917 as part of the anthology His Last Bow.

While on vacation in Cornwall, the brilliant consulting detective Sherlock Holmes is asked to investigate a very strange case. A woman named Brenda Tregennis has been found dead at a table in her house. Two of her brothers, George and Owen, are found seated next to her, still alive but completely insane. The dead woman and the mad men all have looks of terror on their faces. A few days later, a third brother, Mortimer Tregennis, is also found dead with the same look of horror on his face.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle included "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" in a list of his twelve favorite Sherlock Holmes short stories which was compiled for The Strand magazine in 1927.[1] The story has been adapted for film and television.

Plot

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Mr. Roundhay and Mortimer Tregennis visit Holmes and Watson. 1910 illustration by Gilbert Holiday.

The action takes place in March 1897. Sherlock Holmes has been ordered to take a vacation for his health. He and his friend Dr. John Watson rent a cottage on the coast of Cornwall. Holmes enjoys learning about the ancient history of the area. For that reason, he makes the acquaintance of the local clergyman Mr. Roundhay, an amateur archaeologist. Mr. Roundhay rents two rooms at his vicarage, a living room and a bedroom directly above it, to Mortimer Tregennis, a man who is wealthy enough to not have to work. Mortimer Tregennis' sister Brenda and two brothers George and Owen live in a cottage nearby. Mortimer Tregennis says that the separation in his family was caused by a dispute he had with his sister and brothers about money and property several years earlier. However, he claims that the disagreement has now been forgotten, that they are friends again and that he visits them regularly.

Mr. Roundhay and Mortimer Tregennis arrive at Holmes' and Watson's cottage early one morning with some startling news. Brenda Tregennis has been found dead and the two brothers George and Owen have gone mad. Mortimer Tregennis says that he went to see his sister and brothers the previous evening and that they played cards together. The evening was cold and damp and, for that reason, there was a fire in the fireplace. Mortimer Tregennis left at around ten o'clock. In the morning, Mortimer Tregennis went out early for a stroll and saw the doctor's carriage heading towards the home of his sister and brothers. In the cottage, Mortimer Tregennis saw his sister and brothers still at the same places at the table which they had been at the night before with the playing cards still in front of them. However, Brenda was dead and George and Owen were speaking nonsense and singing snatches of songs. They all had looks of terror on their faces. Although the window had been opened by the housekeeper Mrs.Porter, the room was very stuffy. It is revealed that Mrs. Porter fainted when she first entered the room. The doctor also nearly fainted and had to sit down in a chair.

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Holmes and Watson are shown the body of Brenda Tregennis. 1910 illustration by Gilbert Holiday.

Holmes and Watson go to the cottage. A carriage taking the insane George and Owen Tregennis to an asylum passes them on the way. While walking up the sandy path towards the cottage, Holmes appears to clumsily knock over a watering can. Holmes and Watson are shown the body of Brenda Tregennis, which has been moved to her bedroom. Holmes carefully examines the room where she died, including the ashes in the fireplace. He determines that the incident must have happened shortly after Mortimer Tregennis left. He later reveals to Watson that he deliberately knocked over the watering can in order to see what Mortimer Tregennis' footprints looked like. He could then compare them with footprints which were left on the sandy path on the previous rainy evening. Holmes did not notice footprints belonging to anyone other than Mortimer Tregennis left the night before.

When they return from a walk, Holmes and Watson find the famous explorer Dr. Leon Sterndale waiting for them at their cottage. Dr. Leon Sterndale is known to be a frequent visitor to that part of Cornwall. Holmes and Watson have seen him a few times but have not spoken to him before. Dr. Sterndale says that he has become good friends with the Tregennis family and that he is distantly related to them. He says that he had gone to Plymouth, intending to take a boat to Africa, but returned when he received a telegram from Mr. Roundhay telling him the awful news. Consequently, he has missed his boat and some of his luggage has already been sent on to Africa, although this does not seem to trouble him very much. Dr. Leon Sterndale asks Holmes if he can offer any explanation for the crime. When Holmes says that he cannot, the explorer leaves angrily. Shortly afterwards, Sherlock Holmes leaves too and does not return for several hours. When he comes back, he finds a telegram from Dr. Sterndale's hotel in Plymouth, the name of which he got from Mr. Roundhay. The telegram confirms that the explorer had recently stayed there and that some of his luggage has been sent on to Africa.

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The dead body of Mortimer Tregennis. 1910 illustration by Gilbert Holiday.

Early the next morning, Mr. Roundhay comes to Holmes' and Watson's cottage with the news that Mortimer Tregennis has been found dead. He has the same look of horror on his face that his sister and brothers had. Holmes and Watson go to the vicarage. They find Mortimer Tregennis fully dressed in his living room. He is seated next to an oil lamp that has been burning for some time. However, there is also evidence that his bed was slept in the night before. Although the window is open, the room is very stuffy. The stuffy air made the servant who found Mortimer Tregennis' body feel so sick that he had to go to bed. Holmes examines the living room and bedroom. He looks out of the bedroom window and examines the lawn beneath it. He pays a lot of attention to the oil lamp which is next to Mortimer Tregennis' body. Finding some brown powder on the lamp, he takes half of the powder away in an envelope, leaving the other half for the police to find. Before leaving the vicarage, Holmes tells Mr. Roundhay to point the police towards the bedroom window and the oil lamp in the living room. He says that he would be very happy to help the police with their investigation. However, the Cornish police never ask Holmes for any assistance.

Sherlock Holmes buys a lamp identical to the one from Mortimer Tregennis' living room. He times how long it takes for the lamp to burn oil and determines that the lamp in the vicarage must have been lit after it was already daylight. He also tests the effects of the brown powder by burning some of it on the oil lamp. He and Dr. Watson sit across from each other near an open window while the powder burns. Dr. Watson begins to see visions of black clouds, followed by shapes that are vaguely suggestive of the most horrible things imaginable. He then notices that Holmes' face looks very much like that of the two recent murder victims. He finds the strength to carry his friend outside. They both lie in the sunshine to recover. For some time, they have to remain outside, away from the noxious fumes which fill their cottage.

Holmes says that he is certain that Morgan Tregennis committed the first murder, placing some of the brown powder in the fireplace before he left the home of his brothers and sister. However, he does not think that Mortimer Tregennis' death was suicide.

Dr. Leon Sterndale arrives in response to a note which Holmes sent him. Holmes accuses him of the murder of Mortimer Tregennis. Holmes knows that he is guilty because he found some gravel of a reddish color by Mortimer Tregennis' bedroom window. There is no gravel of that color anywhere else in the vicarage garden. However, Holmes secretly followed Dr. Sterndale back to his cottage and saw identical gravel there. Dr. Sterndale reluctantly admits that Holmes is right. He explains that the two crimes were committed using a poisonous West African root called Radix pedis diaboli or "Devil's foot-root". He shows Holmes and Watson that he has some of the powdered root. The poisonous root gets its name because it looks a little like the foot of a man and a little like the hoof of a goat. When it is burned, it is known to induce madness and death.[2]

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Dr. Leon Sterndale speaks to Sherlock Holmes. 1910 illustration by Gilbert Holiday.

The explorer tells Holmes and Watson that he was in love with Brenda Tregennis. He wanted to marry her but could not because he was already married. Although his wife had left him many years earlier, English law made getting a divorce almost impossible. Only the vicar Mr. Roundhay knew the true nature of the relationship between Dr. Sterndale and Brenda Tregennis. In order to spend time with Brenda, Dr. Sterndale had to befriend her brothers, including Mortimer whom he never really liked. Mortimer Tregennis once visited Dr. Sterndale's cottage. The explorer told him about various African items in his possession, including Radix pedis diaboli. Dr. Sterndale is certain that, while he was not looking, Mortimer must have taken some of the powdered poisonous root.

As soon as he found out about the death of Brenda, Dr. Sterndale suspected Mortimer, reasoning that he must have believed that he could inherit all of his family's property if all the other members of his family were declared legally insane. Dr. Sterndale went to see Holmes to try to find out if the detective had any other suspects. When he found out that Holmes did not suspect anyone else, Dr. Sterndale determined to take the law into his own hands against Mortimer Tregennis. He woke the man up by throwing gravel at his bedroom window and was then allowed to come in through the window in the living room. At gun point, Dr. Leon Sterndale forced Mortimer Tregennis to breathe in the powdered root which he burned on the oil lamp. The explorer explains that he decided to do this because he thought that no jury would convict Morgan Tregennis of murder because they would find the story of the poisonous African root too fantastical to believe. He insists that his love for Brenda was his sole motivation in the revenge which he took.

Since he was not asked to help in the murder inquiry by the Cornish police, Holmes does not feel obliged to tell them what he knows. He allows Dr. Leon Sterndale to return to Africa.

Adaptations

The Devil's Foot, a British silent movie starring Ellie Norwood as Sherlock Holmes, was released in 1921.

"The Adventure of the Devi's Foot" has been adapted twice for British television, as the second episode of the BBC TV series Sherlock Holmes starring Douglas Wilmer (which first aired on February 27, 1965) and as the ninth episode of the Granada TV series The Return of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett (which first aired on the ITV network on April 6, 1988).

The 1944 Hollywood movie The Spider Woman, which stars Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, is based on four Sherlock Holmes short stories ("The Adventure of the Devil's Foot", "The Final Problem", "The Adventure of the Empty House" and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band") and one novel (The Sign of the Four).

"The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" is briefly referenced in the Japanese TV series Miss Sherlock (Japanese: ミス・シャーロック) , starring Yuko Takeuchi as Sherlock and Shihori Kanjiya as Wato-san. In the first episode of the series, "The First Case" (Japanese: 最初の事件; Saisho no jiken), Devil's Foot is the name of a highly powerful liquid explosive that causes the deaths of four people who unknowingly swallow pills that contain it. The episode was first streamed on Hulu Japan and broadcast simultaneously to twenty Asian countries on the cable channel HBO Asia on April 27, 2018.

Footnotes

  1. In the list of his twelve favorite Sherlock Holmes short stories, which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle compiled for The Strand magazine in 1927, the author ranked "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" as his ninth best, following "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", "The Red-Headed League", "The Adventure of the Dancing Men", "The Final Problem", "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Adventure of the Empty House", "The Five Orange Pips" and "The Adventure of the Second Stain".
  2. The poisonous Radix pedis diaboli does not exist in reality.

External links