Literature Study GuidesThe Adventures Of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventure Of The Engineers Thumb Summary

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb | Summary



Watson confesses this is only one of two adventures initiated by him and not Holmes. Early one morning in 1889, Watson is awoken at his house (which doubles as his practice) by a man in need of medical care. He has come from Paddington Station, London's main rail depot. The man introduces himself as Victor Hatherley, and he is in a poor state. One of his hands is wrapped in a bloody handkerchief, and he seems to be on the cusp of a nervous breakdown. He removes the handkerchief to reveal a gory mess where his thumb once was. As Watson dresses Hatherley's wound he gradually regains his composure, and he explains to Watson that the previous night he was the victim of a "very murderous" attack. Hatherley says he is planning to talk to the police, but he is worried they won't believe his "very extraordinary" story. Watson suggests that Hatherley pay a visit to Holmes, and he readily agrees, saying he has heard of the famous detective.

When Watson and Hatherley arrive at Holmes's house the detective is smoking a "before-breakfast pipe" and reading the paper. He invites his visitors to have breakfast with him, and asks Hatherley to tell his story. Hatherley begins by discussing his background. He is a hydraulic engineer, and two years ago he left a company he had been working for to start his own firm. His new business has struggled severely, however. It was a (very) pleasant surprise, therefore, when a man came into his office the previous day praising Hatherley's reputation and offering him a job for 50 guineas. The man was a singular character, to use a favorite description of Holmes. He was extremely thin, looked to be around 40 years old, and had a trace of German accent. His business card said his name was Colonel Lysander Stark, and he repeatedly demanded Hatherley's work remain absolutely secret.

Colonel Stark asked if Hatherley could visit his property, seven miles from the Eyford train station, in the country, that evening. Hatherley, whose office is in London, protested at first because this would keep him out past the last train back to London. Colonel Stark, however, promised to pay him for the inconvenience. With Hatherley's agreement in hand, Stark explained the situation. He said he recently discovered deposits of fuller's earth, a type of clay that has cosmetic and industrial uses, on his property. The majority of the deposits, however, ran underneath the land of his neighbors to his left and right. He intended to purchase the adjacent properties before their owners realized the (high) value of the lands, but he didn't have enough money to buy them out. To raise money he has been drilling on his own plot, in secret, with the help from some of his friends.

Hatherley said he understood the predicament, but he wondered why Stark was using a hydraulic press to excavate fuller's earth, since the material is typically "dug out like gravel from a pit." Stark dismissed him, explaining "we have our own process." He then thanked Hatherley for his discretion and asked him to confirm he would be at the Eyford station at 11:15 that evening, which he did. After Stark departed, Hatherley thought long and hard about taking the job, but despite his deep misgivings he traveled to Eyford on the last train. When he arrived he saw the only other person at the station was a dozing porter. Stark greeted him and was ushered into a cab pulled by a single fresh horse; he immediately covered the windows inside the cab. They traveled at a rapid pace over worn country roads for over an hour, despite the fact that Stark claimed to live only seven miles from the station. When the cab eventually pulled up to a house, Stark pushed Hatherley inside and shut the door so quickly he was unable to get any sense of the place.

Hatherley then spotted a woman approaching from down the hall. She was pretty, well-dressed, and spoke a few words in a foreign language to Stark, who sent her away. He asked Hatherley to wait for a few moments in a small room and then left. Hatherley surveyed the room and saw books on science and poetry in German. The door abruptly opened, and the woman was standing at the entrance. She appeared distraught, and she warned Hatherley, quietly and in broken English, he should leave immediately. Hatherley considered her advice but figured he had come this far, and the fee was so good, that he'd stick the project out. There was a sound of footsteps upstairs, and the woman left the room. Stark entered along with a fat man named Mr. Ferguson, who, according to Stark, was his secretary and manager. Stark said it's time to see the press. Hatherley was surprised to learn the machine was actually inside the house, but Stark deflected the question, saying it's because they compress the fuller's earth inside.

Stark led Hatherley upstairs and through the large, labyrinthine house, which was clearly falling apart. The site of peeling plaster and mold unnerved Hatherley, but he kept a straight face. The men stopped in front of a small door. Stark directed Hatherley through the door into a tiny chamber; they were inside the press, standing underneath the descending piston. Stark explained the piston seems to have been losing force for some reason, and asked Hatherley to diagnose the problem. Hatherley examined the machinery and discovered a problem with the driving rod, which he conveyed to Stark and Ferguson. He also concluded the machine was clearly not being used to process fuller's earth. He saw a metallic crust accumulated on the floor of the piston chamber, and as he moved to inspect it further Stark asked what he was doing. Hatherley replied, a bit rashly, that if he knew the true purpose of the machine he would have been better equipped to troubleshoot it. This seemed to enrage the colonel, who replied, "You shall know all about the machine." He then stepped out of the room, locked the door, and started the hydraulic press's engine. As the roof of the room—in actuality, the descending piston—descended on him, he searched frantically for an escape. At the last moment he spied a ray of light coming through one of the walls and threw himself through it, landing in a corridor; moments later he heard the crunch of the lantern he had been using underneath the piston.

As he picked himself up he saw the woman again, and she frantically directed him into a bedroom with a window. Hatherley hung from the windowsill, which sat about 30 feet above a garden. Stark barged into the room cursing the woman, Elise; he had a meat cleaver in one of his hands. She begged "Fritz" to leave Hatherley alone, imploring him to "remember your promise after the last time." Fritz (Stark) waved her off, claiming Hatherley "has seen too much." He then charged toward the windowsill and swiped the cleaver at Hatherley, who fell into the garden. Hatherley ran away, but as he was escaping he looked down at his hand and saw the bloody place where his thumb used to be. He was able to tie his handkerchief around his hand before he fainted in an area of rosebushes.

He awoke in a hedge as the sun was coming up. He stood up to get his bearings and was shocked to see he was within walking distance of Eyford Station; neither the Germans' house, nor their garden, was within view. He walked to the train station and found the sleepy porter whom he spotted the night before, but the porter said he didn't know anything about a man named Colonel Lysander Stark nor the carriage that picked Hatherley up. He took the first train back to London and then made his way to Watson's practice.

Holmes sits contemplatively, and then pulls a year-old missing persons notice from his large archive. It asks for information about a 26-year-old hydraulic engineer who left home at ten o'clock at night and hasn't been seen since. Hatherley gasps at the connection, which confirms the woman's remarks about "the last time." Per Holmes's suggestion, the three men go to Scotland Yard, where they tell the story to Inspector Bradstreet. The group—which now includes Bradstreet and a plainclothes officer—set off for Eyford Station by train.

During the ride they brainstorm where the Germans' house might be located. Hatherley is at a loss, but he contends someone from the group must have picked him up and dropped him off near the station. Given the large distance his carriage traveled to the house—about 12 miles, by his estimate—there's no way he could have walked far in his bleeding daze. Bradstreet pulls out a map of the area, and each man—except for Holmes—hypothesizes where the house might be located. Holmes points to the center of the map—the village of Eyford—and asserts this is where the house is. He says the horse carriage must have traveled six miles out of town and then six miles back; there's no way the horse could have been fresh (per Hatherley's description) if it had just traveled over rough roads from a house 12 miles away. Bradstreet agrees with Holmes's reasoning, and then says Hatherley has very likely stumbled upon a well-known gang of coin counterfeiters.

As the train pulls into Eyford Station the group sees a cloud of smoke rising from a house nearby. The stationmaster says the house is owned by an Englishman named Dr. Becher, but a slim foreign man has been staying with him. The group takes off for the house; when they arrive Hatherley confirms it's the very structure he was on the previous night. Neither Colonel Stark, Ferguson, or the German woman can be found. Holmes concludes Hatherley's lamp, which was crushed by the piston, must have accidentally started the fire.

Earlier that morning a villager had come across a group ferrying large boxes toward the town of Reading, but that was the last time the culprits were seen. Watson also explains that stocks of nickel and tin were discovered on the premises, but no coins. He speculates the bounty must have been transported in the boxes. The firefighters, however, did come across Hatherley's thumb. Also, a series of large and small footprints tracking from the rosebushes where Hatherley passed out to the hedges where he woke up revealed he must have been carried to safety by the woman and Ferguson. The men take the train back to London.


This adventure, like most, begins with a bit of preamble from Watson. He points out this investigation is unique not only because he, not Holmes, initiated it, but also because it was "so dramatic in its details." This is certainly true; after all, it's not every day we meet skinny German coin counterfeiters working under the alias Colonel Lysander Stark. In addition the idea of a man-chomping hydraulic press hidden inside a house is as bizarre as it is bold. This introduction leads to a smart reflection from Watson: stories are much less interesting when they are reported matter-of-factly in the press. Rather, they have their greatest power "when the facts slowly evolve before your own eyes, and the mystery clears gradually away as each new discovery furnishes a step which leads on to the complete truth." This is an excellent expression of the ethos of Watson and Holmes—and of Doyle himself, who has so expertly created these exact kinds of stories.

This story seems to have a hidden message buried beneath its entertaining plot: trust your gut. Numerous times alarm bells go off in Hatherley's mind throughout the story warning him to bail on this job. He's not greedy, but he is desperate for work, so the prospect of making 50 guineas—ten times his normal fee for the kind of service he was providing—blinds him to the multiple red flags in his way. Looking back on his adventure, Hatherley realizes as much. He explains to Watson and Holmes that he had serious doubts about the job as soon as Colonel Stark left his office: "The face and manner of my patron had made an unpleasant impression upon me, and I could not think that his explanation for the fuller's earth was sufficient to explain the necessity for my coming at midnight." And yet, he pressed on. Even when he was explicitly warned to leave and was told something bad was afoot by the German woman, he still pressed on. One could argue Hatherley's deception of himself is almost as intense as the plot perpetrated by the gang of counterfeiters. At the very end of the story, on the train back to London, he laments his plight to his co-investigators. "I have lost my thumb and I have lost a fifty-guinea fee, and what have I gained?" he asks. "Experience," Holmes replies, driving home the message of the story.

As is the case in so many other stories in this collection, the countryside is the setting of the crime in this one. The counterfeiters exploited the isolation offered by their rural environment to run their operation and to attack Hatherley (and his predecessor, who was presumably killed "the last time"). Far away from prying eyes, all sorts of bad things can be done with impunity.

Lastly, the title of this story, "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb," is a bit cheeky. Most of the story titles in this collection are straightforward: they simply name the main person, thing, or event at the center of the tale. While it's true the engineer's thumb had an "adventure," if you can call it that, it's only part of the larger story. It's clear Doyle was putting a clever, morbid spin on the titling conventions.

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