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Chemistry for Everyone

The Chemical Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:


The Shroud of Spartacus
Thomas G. Waddell* and Thomas R. Rybolt**
Department of Chemistry, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Chattanooga, TN 37403;
*Thomas-Waddell@utc.edu; **tom-rybolt@utc.edu

The following story is a chemical mystery with emphasis on a blood test, qualitative analysis, and the properties
of biological substances. This is the 12th article in a series presenting a scientific problem in mystery format in the
context of the popular and beloved characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (1, 2 ). There is a break in the story
where readers (students and teachers) can ponder and solve the mystery. Sherlock Holmes provides his solution in
the paragraphs following this break.

The Story
To the precise and analytical mind of Sherlock Holmes, the
emotional world of art and artists was alien. With the exception
of his beloved violin, which Holmes turned to in times of
inactivity or, in contrast, during the stress of a difficult criminal
investigation, Holmess mental processes were ratiocinative
to the extreme. Thus, the highly publicized murder of one of
Londons affluent art dealers and Holmess subsequent dealings
with a hysterical female client presented the Great Detective
with an investigation which was highly challenging to his very
nature. In fact, the volatile personalities in this case, which I
call The Adventure of the Shroud of Spartacus, stand in
sharp contrast to the logical and rational chemistry and
chemical knowledge that Sherlock Holmes applied to solve
this most bewildering of problems.
It all began on a bleak November morning in 1897. I
was settled before a crackling fire in my chair at 221B Baker
Street, engaged in a medical journal, as Holmes emerged from
his dark laboratory corner, wearing a long smock and smoking
his large cherry wood pipe. Billows of acrid, blue smoke hung
like fog about the ceiling of the room.
Beauty and sadness, Watson. How the two so often walk
together. Do we not feel the melancholy of a moving symphony
or stand in sadness at a golden sunset? And is not a woman
of stunning beauty so often a troubled soul?
Holmes, I replied, whatever has brought you to such
an unusually reflective mood?
Look at this, my friend. Holmes beckoned me to his
laboratory bench where he held up a test tube containing a
few milliliters of a yellow fluid.
Watson, this is a sample of the urine of the Countess
Andrea Lanner-Del Rey, which Scotland Yard has acquired
in a clandestine manner from the chamber maid of the
Countess herself. And here is a solution of ferric chloride, a
drop of which I now add to the urine.
He did so, and immediately the fluid in the test tube
turned a bright red. What does this analysis mean, Holmes?
I asked.
It means, my good fellow, he replied, that the beautiful
Countess, whom the populace of London believes to live a
dream life, is beset with sadness. For the urine of opium
smokers contains poppy acid, a phenol substance that reacts
470

with ferric chloride to give a bright red color (3). Here,


Watson, observe the results for this color reaction, which I
have also performed on salicylic acid, another phenol. Here
is the tube used in this test. Notice that it gives a light violet
color when reacted with ferric chloride.
As I looked down at the second tube, Holmes pointed
to his opened laboratory notebook and chemical equation.

But Holmes, salicylate medicinals are just beginning to


be used to relieve headaches and other pains. Could not the
Countess simply be taking some innocent substance?
Capital, Watson! he replied. However, said Holmes
as he held the two tubes before my eyes, the bright red of
the poppy acid test and the violet of the salicylic acid result
are easily distinguished. Moreover, we know the Countess has
no unusual disease that could interfere. No, Watson, the ferric
chloride test is a reliable test for opium use (3).
After Holmess burst of activity quieted, I withdrew to
my medical journals and the cold, quiet morning drew on.
We ate our breakfast in silence while Holmes intently studied
the front page of the Times.
Watson, he exclaimed suddenly, do you remember
reading about the art dealer who last month sold the Shroud
of Spartacus for a rather exorbitant sum?
Well, I do remember the Shroud, I replied. Isnt that
the archeological artifact that held the body of that Roman
slave who was executed after the rebellion? Why do you ask?
Because that very art dealer was murdered last night.
Bludgeoned to death with a niblick, one of his own ironheaded golf clubs.
Shocking, Holmes! Most shocking. The world is becoming more and more dangerous even for ordinary citizens. Does
Scotland Yard have a suspect?
Yes, indeed, he offered in what seemed like an unusually
cheery voice. The prompt Lestrade has arrested an artist by
the name of Uriah Malthus. It says here that Malthus was
having an affair with the art dealers wife.

Journal of Chemical Education Vol. 78 No. 4 April 2001 JChemEd.chem.wisc.edu

Chemistry for Everyone

A passionate love triangle, Holmes?


Perhaps, Watson, perhaps, he replied thoughtfully.
However, with Lestrade at the helm, one can never be sure
of the course he is steering.
The matter did not end there, for a few minutes later, on
the landing outside our door, we heard a shrieking female
voice intermingled with the calm entreaties of our faithful
landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Holmes rose from his chair, strode
across the room, and opened the door. Immediately, a young
woman rushed unceremoniously into our flat. She was dressed
plainly in shades of brown, her hair was short and straight,
and her face was reddened and streaked with tears.
Mr. Holmes, Mrs. Hudson pleaded, Im sorry to
But her apology was interrupted as Holmes dismissed her
from our flat and turned to face our visitor.
Excuse me, sir, she pleaded, but I need your help most
urgently. You see, my brother Uriah Malthus has been arrested.
He is innocent, Mr. Holmes! He would not harm a fly! New
tears rolled down her cheeks, which she dabbed at nervously
with a twisted kerchief.
Calm yourself, Mrs. ?
Mrs. Mary Neill, Mr. Holmes. The police say my brother
murdered Leeds Lanner, the art dealer. But I know he didnt
do it! With this exclamation, Mary Neill covered her face
with her hands and wept. Holmes puffed calmly on his pipe,
but I felt it my duty as a counseling physician to intercede.
Mrs. Neill, I said, placing my arm properly around
her slumped shoulders, Sherlock Holmes will do everything
he can to assist you. What are the circumstances of your
brothers arrest? Mary Neill looked up at Holmes and he
nodded, encouraging her explanation of the tragic events.
Mr. Lanner and my brother Uriah had a professional
association for many years, Mr. Holmes. Uriah is quite a good
artist, painting mainly, and Mr. Lanner served as his agent.
In fact, Lanner himself bought several of Uriahs paintings.
Lanner has many fine works of art in his house. The police
found out that Uriah was romantically involved with Lanners
wife. Its true, Im afraid. I tried to stop him. She is a gorgeous
woman, but timid and frail, not my brothers type. And she
is a married woman! It is extremely improper and unsettling.
Anyway, Lanner and Uriah had a falling out, as you might
expect. Each threatened the other with violence. Uriah was the
obvious suspect when Lanner was found dead. Scotland Yard
questioned him, an Inspector Lestrade, I believe. He has no
alibi for last night, and the police found what looks like stains
of blood on his coat. Mr. Holmes, I know my brother very
well. He is innocent. Please help him!
Holmes stood up and began pacing about the room. The
blue smoke from his pipe trailed behind him and his long
legs cast grotesque shadows on the wall opposite the fireplace.
Mrs. Neill, if your brother is indeed innocent, I will
find a way to prove it. However, I must warn you, until the
facts are in, I can reach no conclusion. Meanwhile, if you
will leave us your address, we will be in touch in due time.
You will take the case, Mr. Holmes? she asked anxiously.
I will, Mrs. Neill. Rest assured. Watson, please have
Mrs. Hudson summon a cab. You and I have a few errands
to run about the city.
Later, as we sat in a hansom cab clattering through the
streets of London, I tried to apply Holmess own methods to
the case at hand. Now Holmes, it seems to me that Lestrade

is overlooking the obviousisnt Lanners wife as strong a


suspect as Mrs. Neills brother, Uriah Malthus? Mrs. Lanner
was surely in the house, and considering her love affair, might
have had a strong motive to get rid of her husband.
My good fellow! he offered, congratulations on some
sound reasoning. However, there may be one or two additional
facts that make this supposition less likely.
Before he could explain, our cab stopped abruptly before
the grim walls of Scotland Yard and we were soon seated in
Inspector Lestrades office, face to face with the man himself.
Holmes skipped over any idle pleasantries and spoke
right to the matter of our visit. Who found Lanners body?
he asked.
It was the victims son Bart, said Lestrade as he consulted
his notebook. Our patrolman was notified just past midnight.
And you went through the procedure of eliminating his
son Bart as a suspect, I assume.
Of course, Mr. Holmes. Bart was at a party near Grays
Inn Road, surrounded by his rowdies all night. He was taken
home by two friends. They found Leeds Lanners body and
then located the local constable to report the crime. Bart was
in the presence of his friends the whole time and rather drunk
to boot. I dont see how he could have done it. Later the
patrolman found Lanners wife fast asleep in a distant part
of the mansion. Likewise two servants were asleep in their
quarters.
Inspector, Holmes said, would you be so kind as to
allow me to examine Uriah Malthus coat, the one with the
blood stains?
I guess I can do that, Lestrade replied, his facial muscles
twitching in rodent-like fashion. It is a bit out of the ordinary,
but this is an open-and-shut case if I ever saw one. Malthus
threatened Lanner, Mr. Holmes. They hated each other. Well,
wait a moment and Ill get the coat.
Lestrade returned immediately and handed Holmes a
well-worn tweed coat, light brown but stained with dark gore.
I was repelled by the thought of the violence and fury of the
attack. Before Lestrade could stop him Holmes drew out from
the coat several thick fibers which were caked with the dark
substance.
Here now, Lestrade shouted, lets not have this! Ill
have you for damaging evidence!
Inspector, please, Holmes replied. Here is your coat,
returned to you intact with only a trifle of the mass removed.
No harm, Inspector, no harm.
Well, I suppose not, Lestrade allowed. But Ill not
have you stirring around with my investigation. I think you
had better leave now.
You will not hear from us again, Inspector, Holmes
declared, unless, of course, I have something worthwhile to
report. I did not hear Lestrades response because Holmes
quickly guided me out the door and into the street.
One more errand, Watson, one more and then a little
laboratory work, he said.
During our second cab ride of the day, Holmes reflected.
As you will recall, Watson, the slave Spartacus led a revolt
against Rome in 73 B.C. in Catua, Italy. He was later captured
and executed most horribly. His burial shroud has become
quite an item these days among artifact collectors.
The carriage made a left turn onto Farringdon Street and
I turned to Holmes. Where are we going now, Holmes?

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471

Chemistry for Everyone

To the home of Mr. Tor Heidegger, the new owner of the


Shroud of Spartacus. With a clatter of hoofs, our carriage
pulled to a stop in front of a stately brownstone. Holmes paid
the driver and I glanced up at the three-storey house, built
of granite and trimmed with brass and dark green shutters.
Holmes approached the door and sounded the bell. After a
minute or two, the door was opened by a large man wearing
a smoking jacket of the same dark green which adorned the
house. Mr. Heidegger? Holmes inquired.
Ya, it is me, replied the man in a thick Norwegian
accent.
May we have a word with you, sir? I am Sherlock
Holmes and this is my associate, Dr. Watson.
Ya, come in. Ive heard of you, Mr. Holmes, Heidegger
said. We were led into a small but exquisite sitting room.
Paintings, ceramic pieces, artifacts, and sculptures covered the
walls and counter tops. The taste and expertise of their owner
were clear.
Mr. Heidegger, you have recently purchased the Shroud
of Spartacus, I believe. I am wondering if I may have a look at
it? Watson and I have acquired a passion for Roman history
and to look upon such an archaeological treasure will provide
us with great satisfaction. This proclamation came as a surprise
to me, but I went along with Holmes, as I was sure that there
must be some logical direction in which his deception was
leading.
I dont see why not, Mr. Holmes, Heidegger replied,
in what I thought was a rather subdued manner. It is in my
study. Hold a moment, please. While he was gone from the
room, I glanced at my colleague.
Where are you heading with this sham, Holmes?
Maybe nowhere, Watson, he replied, or maybe everywhere. Time will tell.
Our Norwegian host reappeared momentarily carrying
a long, shallow box of smooth, dark cherry wood. He placed
the box on the floor at Holmess feet and said quietly, Well,
this is it, Mr. Holmes, the Shroud of Spartacus.
The garment in the box was certainly ancient. The fabric
was stiff with age and several small pieces of it had broken
from the main and lay scattered about. A close examination
of the shroud revealed dark stains, the result of the execution,
no doubt. I was captivated by the thought of this ancient
slaves life and death.
Ah, Mr. Heidegger, Holmes said, pointing, that landscape painting on the wall, is that a Uriah Malthus original?
Isnt that St. Andrews?
Ya, Mr. Holmes, that it is. I bought it at the same time
that I purchased the shroud, although, as you may imagine,
it was much less expensive.
While Heidegger was admiring his painting, Holmes
snatched a small fragment of the shroud from the box on
the floor and stuffed it quickly into his coat pocket.
Fascinating, Holmes said and glanced at his watch.
But I am afraid that Dr. Watson and I are late for an appointment and we must reluctantly take our leave. I thank
you, for your hospitality. It was a helpful visit. Our host
accompanied us to the door where, we bid him farewell.
When we were alone again on Farringdon Street, a cold
rain began to fall. Holmes, I said, in there, you
Rain, Watson, Holmes rejoined, adjusting the collar
of his coat. Lets hail a cab. Quickly, now.
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In twenty minutes we were back in our rooms at 221B


Baker Street. Holmes had been silent during our trip and was
silent still as he worked furiously at his laboratory bench
preparing solutions. I knew that he was performing chemical
experiments on the fibers from Malthuss coat and on the
fragment of the shroud that he had purloined from Tor
Heidegger. However, I could offer no help in these areas so I
sat patiently and waited.
Watson, come here. I want you to witness these results,
Holmes called from across the room. I rose from my chair
and approached his laboratory bench.
Before I ask you to serve as witness to the tests Im about
to perform, I must first explain something about chemical
blood tests, said Holmes. These tests are necessary because
it is not always clear whether a stain is, in fact, blood or some
other pigment. Do you remember when we first met in 1881
at the time of the little adventure you chronicled as A Study
in Scarlet? At that time I told you I was very interested in
new chemical tests for blood.
I recall it well, I said.
And Im sure you remember from your medical training
that proteins are complex compounds containing carbon,
hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur, and they are in some
mysterious way essential to the very process of life itself.
I nodded and Holmes continued, Well, a new chemical
test for proteins recently published by Nietzki [4 ] is based
on a simple principle. There is a dye, tetrabromophenolphthalein ester, that is yellow in its neutral state. Look at these
formulas in my notebook. The potassium salt of this dye is blue!
Adding dilute acetic acid would, of course, convert the blue salt
back to the yellow, neutral dye. However, according to Nietzki,
in the presence of protein (like blood, Watson!) a saltlike
adsorption compound forms and the blue color persists even
when the acetic acid is added [5 ]. Its a brilliant test!

Now, Watson, watch carefully, he continued, you are the


official witness. In this tube on the left is an extract from the
stained fibers from Malthuss coat. I add a drop of solution
of the blue salt. Then, I add two drops of dilute acetic acid.
Watch! I draw your attention to the result.
The solution has turned from blue back to yellow, I
offered.
Exactly. Now again, Watson, he continued, let us do
the same experiment on an extract of the stains on the shroud
fragment on the right. I treat it with the blue dye salt. Then
I add two drops of dilute acetic acid. The bluish color persists.
We have detected blood protein!
Blood, Holmes! I cried. The blood on the shroud!
The blood of Spartacus!

STOP
Can You Solve the Mystery?

Journal of Chemical Education Vol. 78 No. 4 April 2001 JChemEd.chem.wisc.edu