John Bennett Shaw
1913 — 1994
“. . . the man whom above all others I revere.” (THOR)
You’ve heard of John Bennett Shaw (BSI-1965), the “Hans Sloane of His Age,” the “Sage of Santa Fe,” the “Johnny Appleseed of Sherlockian Scions,” the creator of The Shaw 100, the Ragged Shaw quiz book, or the Really Ragged Shaw quiz book, right? Perhaps you were fortunate enough to have met him or to have known him as a personal friend. His name crops up in annotated versions of the Sherlock Holmes canon, such as those by William S. Baring-Gould and Leslie Klinger. There is a reason for that: Shaw was unique in the annals of Sherlockian lore in the United States and around the world. And no one had more fun with Holmes.
Shaw had this to say about himself: I am interested in Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the world in which they live. So what do I do? I obtain as many books, pamphlets, periodicals, Holmes society publications, video and audio tapes, and other material such as statues, puzzles, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, and even a Professor Moriarty toilet seat as I can. (From his Foreword to The Universal Sherlock Holmes. ( See FRIENDS section.)
Mattias Boström, winner of the Agatha Award for best nonfiction in 2018, assessed the importance of John Bennett Shaw in these words: “For a whole generation of Sherlockians, no one was as important as Shaw. . .If it was possible that one person could make the worldwide interest in Sherlock Holmes continue as well as grow, that person was John Bennett Shaw.” (From Holmes to Sherlock, [2013; English version, translated by Michael Gallagher, New York: The Mysterious Press, 2017])
By the age of 10 John Shaw was already collecting books, especially the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. During his life he amassed an incredible collection of Sherlockiana, and squeezed it into every nook and cranny in his adobe home at 1917 Fort Union Drive, Santa Fe, New Mexico. When the time was right he made financial arrangements with the University of Minnesota Libraries to catalog and house his entire stash. “They will get my books over my dead body“ was a phrase he shared with visitors. The year after his death, in October 1995, his collection was dedicated as the John Bennett Shaw Collection at the University of Minnesota. Shaw’s library contained some 12,000 books, 32,000 periodicals, and a vast amount of other Sherlockian ephemera. Since then, other collections have been added, and today it is known as the Sherlock Holmes Collections. This link to the first newsletter published by The Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collection (March 1997, vol. 1, no. 1) tells the complete story.
The Sherlock Holmes Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries constitute the world’s largest gathering of material related to Sherlock Holmes and his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Collections consist of over 60,000 items including books, journals, and a wide variety of other forms through which the transformation of the Holmes character from the printed page to a cultural icon can be traced. (from the UMN Library website: Browse the Collections)
But John Bennett Shaw was much more than a collector of “all things Holmesian,” as he was fond of saying. He was also a mentor to individuals interested in Holmes and to those wishing to start a local Sherlock Holmes chapter (or scion); he was a great humorist with a quick and devilish wit; and he was a friend to Sherlockians around the world, many of whom were members of the Baker Street Irregulars, founded by Christopher Morley in 1934.
The B.S.I. in New York City was the first-ever Sherlock Holmes society.
During his Tulsa days, Mr. Shaw dressed as a businessman, in suits and ties. After moving to Santa Fe, he adopted the Southwest dress code—relaxed, with turquoise and silver belt buckle and bolo lanyard-like necktie.
Only 640 miles separate the cities of Tulsa (OK) and Santa Fe (NM)—the cultures where Shaw’s reputation was forged and refined. Tulsa was a booming oil town founded in 1898, only 15 years before John was born. Santa Fe, founded in 1610 and the oldest European community west of the Mississippi, had been a gathering place for native tribes for hundreds of years. Citizen Shaw made lasting contributions to both cities.
YouTube Video of Tulsa, OK (1945——1955)
click to watch the 14-minute video
Published by the Tulsa City Council in 2014 from U. S. government archives, this is a video of the town where John Shaw grew up, and where in 1940 he completed his master’s degree in English literature (University of Tulsa). In his varied careers he “was owner and manager of the Tulsa Book Shop and Tulsa Record Shop, was the managing officer of the Bennett (Oil) Drilling Company, manager of the Fitzgerald Funeral Home, and lay director of the Catholic Center as diocesan director of information in Tulsa.” (Richard “Dick” Conklin, “221B Baker Street,” Notre Dame Magazine, Spring 1990. Permission to quote from that article granted by Kerry Temple, editor. The article may be downloaded further down this page.)
Shaw was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on October 10, 1913. He was a quick learner and fell in love with books early in life. Encouraged by a generous uncle who funded his hobby, John bought all the books he could afford within his five-dollars-a-month budget. As a devoted Catholic he came under the influence of G. K. Chesterton, the British author of the Father Brown detective stories. Thus, John’s first book collecting passion was for volumes by Chesterton. He even attended Notre Dame under the impression that the famous author would be on the faculty during his freshman year. He was not, but a few years after Shaw earned his college degree there in 1937 (A.B., cum laude), he graciously donated his entire Chesterton collection to the University. He then began collecting Sherlock Holmes in earnest, explaining that “he had the selectivity of a vacuum cleaner.”
Martin Gardner, a life-long friend of John Shaw, was born in Tulsa in 1914. A brilliant author and mathematician, Gardner was, for many years, the games editor at Scientific American magazine and editor of numerous editions of The Annotated Alice, the most recent being the 150th Anniversary Edition, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. (2015).
In a story reported by Vincent Starrett in the Chicago Tribune in 1948, Gardner tells of an incident about Shaw - the Bookseller and Bibliophile.
(Story shared by Ray Betzner).
In 1990 the Baker Street Journal issued a special collection of essays honoring Shaw. One of the contributors was his Tulsa high school pal, Martin Gardner. In his article titled “My Grandmother Is Blind,” Gardner tells about one of John’s favorite high school pranks: “We once stopped at a newsstand to buy a local paper. John carefully tore it in two and returned the right half to the seller. The paper was for his grandmother, John explained, who was blind in one eye. We then drove around the block, stopped at the newsstand again, and asked if we could exchange the half-paper for the one we left. ‘I forgot,’ John told the bewildered seller, ‘that my grandmother is blind in her left eye.’” (Copyright, Baker Street Journal. Quoted with permission from the current BSJ editor.)
The year before John was born, Ronald Knox, an Anglican priest in England, published his essay, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” (1912). Written in a style that assumed Doyle’s characters were real, the essay was the beginning of the Grand Game. In the Game, one holds that Holmes and Watson are real individuals, not fictional characters devised by Arthur Conan Doyle. It further assumes that Dr. John Watson wrote the stories and that Conan Doyle was his literary agent. John loved games, and this one was to shape the contour of his life.
The City Different — Santa Fe, the Shaws’ home from 1970 to 1994
A Brief Video
After the Shaw family moved to Santa Fe and John and Dorothy were married in 1971, John continued to increase his library, the world’s largest private collection of books, pamphlets, comics, and anything remotely related to Sherlock Holmes. He gathered his acquisitions from all parts of the world, writing and telephoning booksellers and other Sherlockian collectors in the Pre-Internet Era of long ago, without the benefit of a computer! John reminded other serious collectors to admit that you cannot get it all, ever— no one can, and, importantly, that you cannot take it with you. Remember that, and then let me have it.
Prior to his death in 1994, having made financial arrangements with the University of Minnesota, Shaw transferred everything to the Rare Books Collections. There his entire collection was cataloged and made available to interested Sherlockians, whether visiting the stacks in the library or visiting on-line. Much of what is presented here is from that collection, with permission from Tim Johnson, curator of Special Collections & Rare Books at the University of Minnesota, and with additional items from individuals who eagerly sent digital copies from their own collections.
The Shaws’ were gracious hosts to all who came to visit. Most of the visitors were Sherlock Holmes fans who had met John and Dorothy at Sherlockian events across the U.S., including Baker Street Irregulars dinners and local scion meetings in several states. Known as the “Johnny Appleseed of Sherlockian Scions,” he helped many Sherlock Holmes groups launch their scion activities. Dorothy Rowe Shaw enthusiastically joined in her husband’s Sherlockian hobby by constructing a miniature model of the rooms at 221B Baker Street (see image below). My personal remembrance of being at the Shaws’ residence was that Dorothy baked cookies for my children, Travis and Hannah, as John and I poked through his library and talked Sherlock Holmes.
221-B Baker Street, Santa Fe
Dick Conklin’s article on John Shaw,
alumnus of Notre Dame in 1935,
“Notre Dame Magazine,” Spring 1990
It is not a place where one would expect to find the world’s most famous consulting detective—he of fog, shag tobacco smoke, gasogenes, Victorian sitting rooms, hansom cabs, bleak manor houses, and half-sovereigns. “A man of exceedingly aristocratic type, high-nosed and large-eyed, with languid and yet courtly manners,” eating Mrs. Hudson’s sopapillas, wearing turquoise and silver jewelry beneath his Inverness cape, examining with a magnifying glass pastel images of howling coyotes, and festooning the entrance of London’s best-known, nonexistent address with red chilies? Could the fateful first meeting of the retired Army surgeon and the “desultory and eccentric” chemistry student have begun with the latter’s words, “You have been in Albuquerque, I perceive”?
Yes, Watson, the game is afoot in Santa Fe.
To download the Conklin article in its entirety, Click Here.
The Yard Sign
Soon after arriving in Santa Fe, John posted this sign in the front yard at 1917 Fort Union Drive. Locals who were not familiar with the famous address of Sherlock Holmes soon learned all about it from their new neighbor. Very few residents of Santa Fe knew that John housed the most incredible collection of Sherlock Holmes books anywhere, but the word was out among the followers of Conan Doyle’s Super Sleuth. Before long, visitors began streaming in from all parts of the United States and beyond.
The Car Tag
Not only did Mr. Shaw have a sign outside his home advertising his connection to Sherlock Holmes, he purchased this license plate for his 1981 Ford, carrying the banner of Holmes everywhere he went. Limited to seven letters, John had to go with SHERLOK, but it made the point that Shaw and “Sherlok” were a team.
The Big League Bubble Gum Baseball Card
Shaw kept dreaming up schemes to get his name “out there” where people needed to know more about Sherlock Holmes. In 1985 he hit upon the idea that a baseball style trading card would be the way to “get his foot in the door.” Shaw may have stretched the truth a bit, claiming his weight was 130 lbs. He may have weighed 130 in the eighth grade, but certainly not while he lived in Santa Fe. But, knowing John, he probably put that there to see if the person looking at the card had perception—did they see and observe. It was important to gauge how much work needed to be done with the Sherlockian newbie. He had handed out business cards all during his professional life; now was the time to be different and more casual—to make an impact.
The Brothers Three of Moriarty
I am convinced one of the reasons Shaw moved to Santa Fe, NM. was because the village of Moriarty was just an hour’s drive south, and around that little town John built his scion, The Brothers Three of Moriarty, which met at the Frontier Saloon. Professor Moriarty was Holmes’ arch enemy, no friend of John Shaw’s. He had enormous fun devising all kinds of scenarios around the name; one of the cleverest was the annual UN-Happy Birthday celebration, an idea that may have been suggested by Martin Gardner’s background with Alice in Wonderland. (“A very merry unbirthday to you”.)
And so it began, Shaw’s love affair with New Mexico and the shenanigans he devised around the name of this unsuspecting village of Moriarty.
Sherlockian Sonia Fetherston (BSI - 2014), a frequent contributor to the Baker Street Journal, visited the village of Moriarty, NM, in 2016 to trace Shaw’s lasting influence.
The name “Moriarty” is synonymous with evil, villainy, corruption and – God help us – math. Or, as Sherlock Holmes beautifully summed it up for Dr. Watson in The Valley of Fear, Moriarty is “in the highest degree sinister.” For the 1,900 souls who call Moriarty, New Mexico their home, however, the name means friendly people, warm welcomes, and unpretentious good humor. Pretty much like Mayberry, only with pinto beans and rattlesnakes. (Download her 11-page BSJ article: The Folks from Moriarty.)
Once he got The Brothers Three going on an “irregular” basis, the UN-Happy Birthday celebrations for (and at) Moriarty followed close behind. The program below is from the 10th Annual UN-Happy Birthday gathering. Presentations were given, toasts were lifted (sometimes with explicit language), a quiz was conducted, songs were sung, and the finale was the “Recessional”: a processional to the Moriarty Memorial with the annual deposit. (More on that below).
In a letter to Gael Stahl, Shaw had this to say about the 16th Moriarty Memorial Celebration (November, 1987).
“Our scion, The Brothers Three of Moriarty, met last Thursday in Moriarty, New Mexico. It was a memorable event, called by many the best meeting we have ever had. Best meaning loudest, wildest, and funniest. Crazy too. Forty-five members and a dozen townies. The locals put on a 30-minute melodrama with Holmes and Watson in Moriarty (a bar of course) 100 years ago. Even had bar girls and so on. The Mayor (was) also there and participating. Our deposits this year included Texas long-horn, Sea Gull and Coyote. Fortunately the wind was blowing out.”
There are so very many friends to thank for their contributions to the Friends of John Bennett Shaw Facebook page, and subsequently to this website. Let me mention three (behind the scenes) encouragers without whose assistance this project never would have been possible.
A Special Thank You to these :
Mattias Boström, author of From Holmes to Sherlock (Grove Atlantic, 2013),
who gave me the spark I needed to attempt this dream.
Tim Johnson, Curator of Special Collections & Rare Books / E. W. McDiarmid Curator of the Sherlock Holmes Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries, who opened the library resources to me
and made the outpouring of others possible.
Steven Rothman, editor of the Baker Street Journal, who signed on early, was generous with resources, and stayed enthusiastically behind the project.
Dean Richardson, co-editor of the Nashville Scholars newsletter, Plugs and Dottles,
was kind enough to edit all the text on this website. Any mistakes are mine, not his.
Other important people are mentioned (and pictured) in the text of the website.
My sincere thanks to each.