Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bartitsu: Sherlock Holmes's martial art

In Arthur Conan Doyle's story The Empty House, Sherlock Holmes -- previously missing, presumed dead in The Final Problem -- explains to Watson how he was able to evade his nemesis's clutches on the edge of Reichenbach Falls, before disappearing for a bit of a breather from detective work:
I had little doubt that I had come to the end of my career when I perceived the somewhat sinister figure of the late Professor Moriarty standing upon the narrow pathway which led to safety. I read an inexorable purpose in his grey eyes. I exchanged some remarks with him, therefore, and obtained his courteous permission to write the short note which you afterwards received. I left it with my cigarette-box and my stick and I walked along the pathway, Moriarty still at my heels. When I reached the end I stood at bay. He drew no weapon, but he rushed at me and threw his long arms around me. He knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went. With my face over the brink I saw him fall for a long way. Then he struck a rock, bounded off, and splashed into the water. [my emphasis]
Holmes and Moriarty grapple on the precipice
It turns out that the mysterious art of "baritsu", was a probable mis-remembering of an actual composite martial art of circa-1900: bartitsu, a mix of jiu-jitsu, judo, savate and boxing, popularized by Edward Barton-Wright.

Although there is (too the best of my knowledge) no surviving film footage from the era, here is a reconstruction from cinematograph images in a 1905 book:

Hmmm: looks familiar!