by Shari Randall
221B Baker Street. We all know Sherlock Holmes’s address, right? Well, here in Connecticut we know a secret. Sherlock Holmes had another home, a castle overlooking the Connecticut River.
Don’t believe me? My daughter and I visited just last week. The castle looks like it was transplanted directly from a misty Scottish moor to a spectacular overlook on the Connecticut River.
How did that incongruous mansion get there? It all started with a young man who defied his parents to become an actor.
William H. Gillette was born in Hartford, CT, the son of a US Senator. His mother was the direct descendant of Thomas Hooker, the co-founder of the Colony of Connecticut. Mark Twain and Harriett Beecher Stowe lived down the street from his boyhood home. To say that his parents didn’t support his desire to work in the theater would be an understatement.
But William H. Gillette became one of the most popular playwrights and actors of his time. His legacy endures in two ways.
First, Gillette was the first to portray Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen, and his acting choices became the bedrock for the Holmes persona. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to bring Sherlock to the stage (evidently Doyle needed the money) he contacted a fresh, young American to adapt the stories into stage plays. Gillette read all the stories and the play he wrote, called simply Sherlock Holmes, debuted in 1899 to great success. Holmes and Conan Doyle enjoyed a long creative partnership and personal friendship.
Some of the trademarks we associate with Holmes were the creation of Gillette, not Conan Doyle. The signature deerstalker hat and caped coat were hunting gear a well-bred Englishman would never wear in the city, but became part of Gillette’s Sherlock costume. He also adopted the curved briar pipe, which did not appear in the stories, thinking it a distinctive stage prop.
One of Holmes’ most famous catchphrases “Elementary, my dear Watson” never appeared in the original stories. For the play, Gillette wrote “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” For the Holmes films, the phrase was shortened to “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Gillette played Holmes on stage and on film for almost 33 years and made over 1,300 stage appearances as the great detective. This work made him a famous and wealthy man.
He used his fortune to build a twenty-four room mansion of magnificent imagination and charm in the Connecticut countryside. Known to locals as “Gillette’s Castle,” the building sits high over the Connecticut River in East Haddam. The exterior walls were constructed with local fieldstone, interior walls built in southern white oak. One can imagine Sherlock Holmes retiring to this retreat, walking in the woods enjoying the spectacular view of the river. Inside, Gillette designed ingenious locks, built-in furniture, and strategically placed mirrors that allowed him to keep track of the comings and goings of his guests.
Gillette died in 1937 and the State of Connecticut purchased the property from the executors of his will. He had directed that the property not fall into the hands of “some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.”
If you’d like to visit this home of “Sherlock Holmes,” it is open from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Check out www.stateparks.com/gillette_castle.html for more information.
Have you ever visited the home of a fictional character?