The Adventure of the Nameless Corpse

Lovely little nutcracker, isn’t it?  Well, this nutcracker has a very interesting story behind it.  This nutcracker is both a trophy and a reminder of the time I assisted Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in solving a murder at the Victorian Villa in Union City, MI.

I had alluded to this story when I wrote my remembrance of the inn back in 2014, but enough time has passed that it is now safe to share the tale.  Some elements must still remain hidden, so some names may be changed and some details removed and altered, but those that know the truth will understand.

Many believe Holmes and Watson to be fictional characters, but that is a myth perpetuated by Dr. Watson’s literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who published Dr. Watson’s stories under his name.  In truth, they are real and much older than one would believe. 

In his retirement, Holmes had cultivated a royal jelly elixir and ingestion of it had greatly extended his life span and that of Dr. Watson.  Over the years Holmes and Watson had regularly visited the Victorian Villa as its owner, Ron Gibson, is the great-grandson of Senator Neil Gibson referenced in the case known as “The Problem of Thor Bridge”.  Aside from their friendship, Holmes also enjoyed visiting Union City as, in his own words, “it is a hellhole of crime of great depth and brilliance”.

When I learned that Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson would be visiting, I immediately booked a weekend stay to meet the famed detective and his trusted associate.

It was September of 2005 and I was making my second foray out to the Villa.  I was a bit weary as I had mistakenly forgotten to schedule myself as unavailable for Hamlet rehearsals the night before so I had put in a long night of rehearsing before setting off on my drive at 10pm.  By midnight, I was exhausted and collapsed at a Motel 6 in Des Moines, IA before driving another 8 hours to Union City the next morning.  The welcome sight of the gorgeous Victorian mansion served as a salve to my spirits and boosted my energy level as I pulled into the tiny parking lot.

The Victorian Villa

Once more, I was greeted by Ron and his two sons, Zach and Josh, before being led to my room for the weekend:  the Victorian Country Bedchamber.  As I got myself situated, I found a note under my pillow.  It was rather snarky and, I noted, written in a feminine hand.  I put it away before freshening up and reacquainting myself with the Villa.

Around 6pm, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson arrived at the inn.  I introduced myself to Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson who politely shook my hand.  Holmes was just as Watson had described him with his aloofness and unmistakable air of authority.  Watson was friendly and every bit the gentleman.

I retired to the parlor with Holmes and Watson and the other guests who had come to meet the legendary duo.  Among them were Ted and Rhonda Cowell and their Holmesian scion society, The Stormy Petrels of Maumee Bay; the Mallon family; George Ault; and Mr. and Mrs. Glenn Harbaugh.

We opened up the night with a round of Sherlockian Trivial Pursuit.  We formed into two teams and Mr. Holmes asked diabolically difficult questions relating to the many cases he had investigated.  As the two teams battled back and forth, Mr. Holmes would vacillate between contentedly smoking his pipe and brooding about some vexing problem.  On several occasions he alluded to a case he was working on before returning to the game.

Sherlock Holmes relaxes

By the end of the game, the two teams were locked into a tie, though I ended up stealing a symbolic victory for my side when I answered the question “Who killed Victor Savage?”  After the hard-fought game, we entered the dining room where Mr. Holmes gave us a demonstration on the art of observation and deduction while we dined on one of Ron’s fine meals which consisted of English Cheshire Cheese Soup and roasted loin of boar among other delicacies.  I did note that Ron had brought on some help for the event as a placard on the table said the meal had been partially catered by Maxine Simons.

Upon finishing our meal, we returned to the parlor where Mr. Holmes told us he was investigating a murder that had taken place at the Villa a few days prior.  A man had shown up at the Villa around 11am on the fateful day and asked Ron if he could have a room.  As Ron had no reservations, he rented a room to the man who gave no name, but simply went upstairs to his bedroom with his dressing bag.  A short while later, Ron saw him descend the stairs sans bag and enter the parlor.  Ron left him to his own devices as he had to leave the Villa to run some errands.  When he returned later, he found the man collapsed on the floor, arm outstretched in front of him, and clearly dead.  Ron contacted the police who found no identification on the man nor in his room.  The labels on his clothes had been cut off and the only items found on him were a handkerchief, some cigarettes, and a pen.  Ron had told Mr. Holmes of the baffling death and he agreed to look into it.

Mr. Holmes wanted us to be his eyes and ears and help him investigate.  He asked us to discover the following:

  1. Who was the victim?
  2. How was he killed?
  3. Who killed him?
  4. Find a way to link the killer to the crime and unmask him or her.

Certain rules were set in place for us.  As Mr. Holmes had already investigated the private areas of the mansion, we were not to enter them.  He also told us not to snoop into Ron’s desk as only he would be allowed to investigate it.  Short of that we were free to investigate as we chose. If we managed to discover any evidence, we were only to hold onto it for 10 minutes before returning it exactly where it was found.  Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson bade us good evening and left the Villa promising to return after breakfast in the morning.

Exhaustion had found me again so I retired to my bedroom, vowing to rise early and begin looking into the case.

I arose the next morning feeling refreshed.  After heading to the dining room and enjoying some of Ron’s special scrambled eggs and sausage patties, I began to look into the case. 

From re-reading Ron’s statement, I realized that the victim had not carried his dressing bag back down with him so I immediately went to the second floor and began searching for it, but was unable to find it.  I searched the mansion from top to bottom and then made my way over to the Carriage House.  Up in the Sherlock Holmes Bedchamber, I discovered George Ault and Glenn Harbaugh discussing something and they froze when they saw me.  I asked if I could enter and Glenn said I could.  I quietly closed the door and noted they had the dressing bag.

“So you found it,” I said.

Realizing I had already deduced the clue, George and Glenn opened the bag and we all looked into it.  Among the toiletries, we found a letter addressed to James Fitzsimmons requesting a meeting in the parlor of the Villa to discuss the matter of a deadly toxin that had been developed by the writer of the letter.  Apparently Fitzsimmons had been the letter writer’s boss and had aspirations of selling the toxin to the highest bidder who would likely weaponize it.  The toxin caused almost instantaneous paralysis before shutting down the body’s vital organs.  Death would occur in a matter of minutes.  The writer wanted Fitzsimmons to destroy the toxin and begged for a meeting to convince him of this.  It was simply signed Max, though I recognized the handwriting as being the same as that on the note in my bedroom.

After examining the evidence, I asked the two men if they had found notes as well.  They admitted they had and let me read them.  Red herrings and smart alecky comments.  After reading this, we looked at each other and I suggested pooling our resources to which George and Glenn readily agreed.

“All right, we’re now a team,” I said.

Upon forming our alliance we headed down to the parlor to meet Mr. Holmes who asked if anybody had anything to share.  I casually blurted the bag clue to which Mr. Holmes looked at me and said, “You’re a rather blithe young man, aren’t you?”

After unintentionally giving out the clue, the race was on.  Though we were investigating a crime, it was treated more like a competition and ended up as a three way battle between The Stormy Petrels, the Mallons, and my little triumvirate.  The Petrels played for keeps and were not above providing a few red herrings.  The Mallons were smart and crafty, though I engaged in a little quid pro quo with Mrs. Mallon which I’ll get to in a bit.

Mr. Holmes was always available for private consultation where we could bring our discoveries and theories and he would make comments and subtle suggestions to help light our path.  When we first informed Holmes about the letter we found, Glenn kept referring to the writer as a he, to which Mr. Holmes asked, “Why do you keep saying ‘he?’”.

“What do mean?” asked Glenn.

“He means how do we know it’s a man,” I replied.

“Precisely,” said Holmes as he clasped my shoulder.

A vital clue, indeed.  While not a guarantee, we did have to open our minds to the possibility that Max, if that was the real name, was a woman.

We continued to investigate.  I realized that no matches or lighter were found on the corpse, though cigarettes had been discovered.  No smoker would ever lack those items and there was no reason for the killer to take them.  Remembering the outstretched arm, I assumed the position of the corpse and found a book of matches under the coal scuttle.

Taking them, I opened up the packet and found a scrawled message which said “Beware TR-70”.  The name of the toxin had been found!!

Outside the parlor, I found a business card book on a stand and began thumbing through it and saw Mrs. Mallon watching me.  When I leafed to the third page, she suddenly coughed.  I looked up and saw her smiling at me, I took a hard look and found the business card for Maxine Simons—Caterer.  However, “caterer” had been written in pen over a blacked out word.  Reversing the card and holding it up to the light, I saw “chemist” written under it.  I had the name of the killer!!  I then shared with Mrs. Mallon the name of the poison out of gratitude.

My team had another consultation with Holmes where Glenn spun an amusing, but outlandish, theory that Ron Gibson was the killer or, at least involved with her.  Mr. Holmes and I shared some glances and after Glenn finished his theory, Holmes simply stated, “I sense you have some misgivings about his theory.”

“One or two,” I replied.

I then finally had a chance to fill in Glenn and George on my discoveries and had a private conversation with Mr. Holmes and Mrs. Mallon while I made my deductions.  When I finished, Mr. Holmes looked to Mrs. Mallon and said, “You know, I have great faith in this young man.  He’s quiet, thoughtful, and observant and everything he says is based soundly on logic.”

Then we took a break and had a reading of one of Watson’s stories followed by a pop quiz.  I ended up winning the quiz contest and surprised Mr. Holmes with one of my answers.

“This number is the square root of the number alluded to by Watson,” said Holmes.

“Sixteen,” I readily answered.

“Sixteen is correct!!” said Holmes with some wonderment.  “Tell me, young man, how did you come up with that answer?”

“Watson mentioned the wait was like the night the two of you faced the Andaman Islander which was a reference to the case known as The Sign of Four,” I said.

Holmes smiled and nodded approvingly.

After the quiz we had afternoon tea where Ron had prepared a whole turkey and we helped ourselves to little sandwiches with a bit of homemade mustard and fixings.

The case was solved, but there was still one last item:  how to unmask Maxine.  There was no real proof tying her to the death and all my deductions wouldn’t hold water in court.  I had a final consultation with Holmes where I told him everything I had learned, but felt I was just one step away from the total truth. 

“Think of the problem of the three Moriartys.  All of them were named James and were identical.  How would one tell them apart?” said Mr. Holmes.

I began to see the light when he gave me one final nudge.

“You have two pieces of vital evidence.  What you need is a third.”

The truth hit me like a thunderbolt.  The letter on my pillow plus the letter in the bag were my pieces of evidence.  What I needed was a way to get a third example of Maxine’s handwriting to connect her with the other two.  Handwriting was how you’d distinguish the Moriarty boys from each other.

Piecing the puzzle together

I expressed this problem to Glenn and George and we threw around ideas until I said, “Maybe we could get a card of some sort.”

“My son is serving over in Iraq.  We could get him a Wish You Were Here card,” said George.

“Yes, and we’ll have everybody in the inn sign it!!” I exclaimed.

The three of us dashed to Mr. Holmes where I laid out the scheme.

“An excellent plan,” said Holmes. 

I shook hands with Holmes and Watson and dashed to the bar area where I found Ron.

“Is there a drug store nearby?” I asked.

“Yes, just a few blocks up on Main Street,” said Ron.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then I speed walked through the front door and vaulted over the steps to the sidewalk.  I then sprinted and I do mean SPRINTED to the drug store where I bought the card and repeated the process back to the Villa where I hurdled the steps once more.  George later said it was the funniest thing he ever saw.

As I walked back in, I heard Mrs. Mallon’s daughter ask if there were a drug store nearby.  I then politely coughed and gently waved the card.  Knowing that the game was up, the Mallons signed the card and Mrs. Mallon’s daughter assisted me with finishing the job by asking Ron if there were any other people in the kitchen as Maxine was also helping to cater tonight’s dinner.  Ron stepped into the kitchen and asked Maxine to step out.  I told her about the card while George showed a picture of his son and Maxine signed the card.

I then led my team back to the parlor where the other guests had gathered. 

“Do you have something to show me, young man?” asked Mr. Holmes.

I presented the card to him and he looked at it.

“Were there any witnesses?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.   Myself, (Mrs. Mallon’s daughter), George, Ron, Zach, and Josh all witnessed this.”

“Very good,” said Mr. Holmes.  “This case has been solved.”

Then we proceeded to have a debate about what to do with the killer.  Her motivations were understandable.  Fitzsimmons would have unleashed a plague of death on the world.  He had committed no crime, but would have had the blood of countless people had he sold the toxin.  Maxine shouldn’t have killed him, but her act had thwarted a much greater evil so I pled for leniency.  Holmes said he would consider the situation.

Glenn gave me a hug and then bought George and myself a drink at the bar.  Mr. Holmes approached me privately and asked me to present the denouement after dinner.

A splendid dinner was served and after we were all satiated, Mr. Holmes signaled for silence, indicated my two partners and then clasped my shoulder acknowledging our victory.  He then presented me with the nutcracker as a trophy for the case.  Then he brought Ron, his two sons, and Maxine into the dining room where I presented my findings.

I walked the group through the maze of the case, casually keeping an eye on Maxine who whitened with every revelation.  When I explained about the card we had purchased and how the killer had sealed her fate by signing it, I calmly looked at Maxine and said, “Isn’t that right, Maxine?”

At that point, Maxine begged for mercy and Holmes gently led her out of the dining room while discussion resumed.  Shortly afterwards, he returned and he and Watson made their final farewells and exited.

And that was how I helped Mr. Holmes solve The Adventure of the Nameless Corpse.  I would later learn that Holmes did show mercy to Maxine, letting her leave the country.  George did send the card to his son with an incredible story.  I had made new friends and had a reminder of the case forever gracing my mantle.  And the next morning, I enjoyed some of Ron’s incredible cream cheese stuffed French Toast.

Little did I know that I would return to the Villa a few years later with my trusted friend, Mat O’Donnell, to engage in a peculiar investigation centering around a crying woman.

But that is a story for another time.

Switzerland in America: Black Bear Manor & Ouray, CO

Black Bear Manor

Today the road has brought me to Ouray, CO.

Ouray (pronounced you-ray) is nicknamed the Switzerland of America and is a quaint, mountain village nestled in the Rocky Mountains.  I was actually led to this trip by a couple (The Jacksons) whom I met when I visited Racine, WI earlier this year.  They told me I had to visit Ouray as it contained the most beautiful B & B they had ever visited:  Black Bear Manor owned and operated by Tom and Cyndi Elliston.

The inn was actually on my list, but on the farther end as Ouray is nearly 13 hours away from Omaha.  But with the country rapidly reopening and the fact that I hadn’t had a proper vacation in nearly two years, I decided to embark on the biggest road trip I had undertaken.

This was truly a tale of two drives.  The first day of the drive was pretty flat as once you get past Lincoln, the state of Nebraska is pretty flat and sightless.  Around Kearney, the route veered off the interstate and became mostly a highway drive which broke up the monotony as I at least was able to drive through small towns.

Around noon, I found myself in the tiny town of Alma, NE and I decided I could use a lunch break to stretch my legs and stopped into KJ’s Café for a bite to eat.

It was a pretty decent little diner where I enjoyed a Special Hamburger (it’s uniquely seasoned) along with some fries while I continued working through my latest volume of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  After a restful meal, it was back on the road.

The lack of scenery continued to be broken by occasional forays through small towns as I passed from Nebraska into Kansas and eventually into Colorado.

After 7.5 hours, I finally found myself at my stopping point of Limon, CO.  It’s a town of only 1,000 people yet actually has a Holiday Inn.  I was weary and truly grateful for the free upgrade to a suite as I was darn near ready to collapse after the grueling drive.

A couple hours of relaxing did rejuvenate me enough to attend an evening service at Our Lady of Victory.  Most surprising to me was that the service was at 7pm as, historically, most Catholic services tend to be held between 4 to 5:30pm on Saturdays. 

Our Lady of Victory

It was a very nice service as Father shared a great sermon about witnessing and the best way to do it was to tell people about why Jesus was my friend.  After the service I returned to the hotel where I read for a bit before finally answering the calls to the land of Nod.

The next morning, I was out the door by 8am for another long drive.  But the scenery began to change around Colorado Springs when I saw the Rockies looming in the distance.  Soon I was enjoying a picturesque drive through the mountains and forests and I just drank in the scenery as well as watching numerous rafters shoot the rapids.

Around 3pm, I finally arrived in Ouray and felt like I was transported back in time.  The town definitely has the feeling of another era with its older building designs and a Main Street where all the major businesses are located.  And everything is within walking distance.

Soon I found myself at Black Bear Manor which is one of the most interestingly constructed houses I had seen and I suspect the building had been a traditional hotel once upon a time.  Before I could dial the inn’s number, Tom opened the door, introduced me to Cyndi, and gave me the nickel tour of the inn before leading me to lucky number 7, Cliffside King.

The room is small, yet comfortable, with a soft king-sized bed and a private balcony which has a view of the Rockies.  I got settled in, wandered about the inn, and then took a walk through town.

Ouray has a semi-boxed in feeling as it’s surrounded by mountains on all sides and only has two ways in and out.  One from the north and one from the south.  The southern entrance/exit is actually the start of the Million Dollar Highway.  This highway is a 20ish mile stretch of road considered the most beautiful drive in America.  The flip side is that it’s also considered one of the most dangerous with its narrow roads, hairpin turns, and lack of guardrails.  The speed limit never exceeds 25 mph on this road that connects Ouray with Silverton.

Million Dollar Highway

I had a relaxing walk through town (though it is very steep) and stopped in at Ray’s Jerky where I bought some jalapeno jerky for my hikes the next day and snacked on an old-fashioned hot fudge sundae complete with whipped cream, sprinkles, and a cherry at The Yankee Girl Café & Sweets before going back to the inn.

I decompressed for a bit before heading out to dinner at the Ouray Brewery.  Only rooftop dining is currently available, but it was a cool evening and I supped on a Green Chile Cheeseburger while sipping on a Box Canyon Brown (most beer in Ouray is brewed locally or regionally) which was quite flavorful and tasted closer to a black beer without the bitterness.  After a satisfying meal, I returned to the inn and spent some time in the hot tub where the churning water massaged and soothed aching muscles.  I then went back to my room where I forced myself to stay up late to compel my body to adapt to Mountain Time.

Ouray Brewery

The plan worked as I woke up at 6am.  I then lazed about watching some TV and catching up on the news.  At 9am I headed down to breakfast.

Black Bear Manor is unique in that it offers two breakfasts.  At 7am a continental breakfast is laid out and then a hot meal is served at 9am.

The hot breakfast is served buffet style so you can have as much or as little as you please.  The place was packed as the inn was actually sold out (the first I’ve experienced since starting this project back in 2013).  I filled my plate with a smidge of everything so I was able to enjoy a taste of French Toast Souffle, ham, fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, and fruit.  It was such a nice day that I ate outside and enjoyed some conversation before heading off to commune with nature.

A little breakfast buffet

I began my day at Cascade Falls Park and I certainly got my exercise in.  It’s not an extremely difficult trek, but it is steep and one has to take the much higher altitude into consideration so be sure to pace yourself.  Interestingly enough, the trek actually starts at the waterfall and it is an awesome sight, not to mention a quite refreshing one as cool air buffets you from the thundering falls.  I spent nearly two hours hiking around and keeping my strength up with water and jerky.

When I was through with Cascade Falls, I made my way over to Box Canyon Park which included a brief, and I do mean brief, drive on the Million Dollar Highway.  Box Canyon contains two treks.  An easy 500 foot walk to Box Canyon Falls and a difficult trek up to a high bridge overlooking the falls.  With the sun beating down on my head and my protein supply depleted, not to mention the few hours I had just done, I decided to simply visit the falls. 

The roar of the falls in deafening and one wouldn’t even be able to have a shouted conversation.  As I gazed upon this force of nature, I suddenly realized how the battle between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty would have played out in reality.

Box Canyon Falls

I then returned to Black Bear Manor where I organized photos and caught a small nap.  Around 4pm, I took a walk down to Ouray Hot Springs and back and partook of Black Bear Manor’s happy hour where I enjoyed some regionally brewed beer.

About 6pm, I headed over to an Ouray institution, The Outlaw, for dinner.  The restaurant has a rustic feel, but is actually a fine dining establishment.  I entered the restaurant and smiled as I listened to the piano player deal up a bevy of standards and movie tunes.  I was led to a table at the back where I ordered a New York Strip with garlic mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables.  I had a side salad added on and the meal came with a small loaf of freshly baked garlic bread.

The Outlaw

In fairness I didn’t think the salad merited the extra $5, but that was countered by the steak which was tender and delicious and seemed a bit bigger than the 10 oz advertised on the menu.  The potatoes were fluffy and light and the vegetables were nice and crisp.

From there it was back to the inn for another session with the hot tub and a quiet, peaceful evening.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a breakfast casserole, personal quiches, bacon, eggs, and fruit.  I had another round of great conversation with fellow guests before embarking on my day.

As the previous day had been quite active, I decided today would be a relaxing day.  So I decided to visit The Historic Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa & Lodgings.  This is a very unassuming hotel, but hides the incredible vapor baths below.

For $25 per two hours, day guests can enjoy a soaking session in the famed caves.  The mineral water that comes from the springs is a constant 104-108 degrees and is not recirculated.  The water is completely chemical free and is known for its restorative and therapeutic properties.  The cave acts as a natural sauna so you’ll really sweat out the impurities.  Sections of the cave also drip much cooler water which helps to cool down the body after a session in the springs.

From there I returned to Cascade Falls where I just admired the waterfall while engaging in a conversation with my best friend.  Afterwards, I headed down to the riverbank by Black Bear Manor where I pondered life for a little while.

In hindsight, I think I made the day too relaxing.  By mid-afternoon, I was itching for another activity, but some nearby museums had not yet reopened and the local historical museum was about ready to close.  Should I ever find myself this way again, I’ll be sure to visit them as well as schedule a jeep tour, another local highlight.

Instead I took a little walk and then enjoyed the happy hour where Tom serenaded the guests with some solo guitar work and songs.  He even takes requests and I joined him for some two man harmony on Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels)”.

Tom performs for his guests during happy hour.

Then I made my way to The Mineshaft & Tiki Bar.  This completely outdoor restaurant provides a comfortable eating experience under the sun and I enjoyed a Philly Steak for the evening repast before returning to Black Bear Manor for a bit of writing and photo organizing.

The Mineshaft & Tiki Bar

What a way to close the trip! Today I had what is easily one of the best breakfasts I’ve enjoyed since starting this project. This morning I enjoyed Chile Relleno Casserole, breakfast enchilada (with some red and green salsa), country potatoes, and a cinnamon roll that just melted in my mouth. Braced for the long trip, I wrapped up this article and said my good-byes.

If you ever find yourself in Ouray, rest assured you’ll find plenty to do. It’s a popular tourist site with activities for all seasons (famed for ice climbing and skiing in the winter). And if you want some real hospitality, make sure to visit Black Bear Manor. Tom and Cyndi will treat you right and you’ll enjoy comfortable rooms and food that will knock your socks off.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.