By Debbie Burke
For many mystery readers and writers, Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned four novels and 56 short stories featuring the character. Additionally, from 1939-1946, a total of 14 films were made starring British actor Basil Rathbone who was indelibly defined in the minds of movie fans as THE Sherlock Holmes.
(Sorry, Robert Downey, Jr. You were outstanding as Chaplin but you can’t match Basil’s Sherlock)
As imaginative and puzzling as the Holmes mysteries were, a real-life mystery that personally involved Basil Rathbone rivals any fictional tale penned by Conan Doyle. I ran across this tidbit in the Spring 2022 issue of Mystery Scene magazine.
Rathbone relates the story in his autobiographical memoir, In and Out of Character, originally published in 1962 by Doubleday.
In either 1929 or 1930, Rathbone and his second wife Ouida returned to London after several years away. A friend of Ouida’s insisted on helping find servants to staff their new home. A good-looking blond, blue-eyed man named Dennis Poole arrived for his interview with excellent references and was hired as Rathbone’s butler.
The class system in Britain dictated strict conduct that had to be observed by servants toward their employers. Although they were privy to the most intimate details of their masters’ lives, there was a line that must never be crossed. Aristocrats had their station in life and servants had theirs.
Poole came from a long line of butlers. His aspiration was to be the best in the business. To all appearances, Poole was the ideal gentleman’s gentleman, respectful, deferential, anticipating the desires of his employer and fulfilling them quickly and efficiently.
Rathbone soon trusted him enough to leave “considerable sums of cash” on his dressing table without worry of theft.
During the actor’s morning tea and shave, Poole would entertain Rathbone by reciting poetry by Kipling. In conversation, Rathbone learned Poole had never been married; his self-confessed failing was he didn’t care to stay long in one place; and someday he planned to retire and travel.
Poole also charmed the other servants in the household, regaling them with tales of adventure that were colorful but not necessarily believable.
One evening, Poole asked for the night off which was granted. Rathbone encountered Poole as he was leaving the house, splendidly dressed in “white tie and tails, a boutonniere, fur-lined coat, gold-topped cane—and wearing a monocle in his left eye.” He explained his finery to Rathbone with the excuse he was going to the “Servants’ Ball.”
This English tradition was held around the Christmas holiday season. In Rathbone’s book, Ouida is quoted as saying: “Lords and ladies of the realm dancing with cooks and butlers and no condescension on the part of the titled folk, and the domestics like soldiers on parade.”
This was evidently an attempt by the privileged aristocracy to mollify servants’ resentment toward the ruling class.
One stormy winter night when Poole was out, Rathbone, his wife, and a maid entered the butler’s room to close a window that had been left open to the rain. What they found stunned them.
Poole’s dressing table might well have surprised almost anyone entering his room. I looked at my wife, and she was giggling rather self-consciously. Laid out on the dresser, very neatly, were two gold-backed hair brushes and a gold-backed comb; a beautiful Swiss watch as thin as paper; a manicure set in an ivory case, and a row of cut-glass bottles. I lifted the stopper from one of them—eau de cologne; another contained an excellent cognac. I looked at his bed, turned down for the night, silk sheets! Silk pyjamas marked Sulka, and an elaborate and expensive oriental dressing gown were laid out for his return!
“Seems to me I married the wrong man!” My wife giggled again, but somehow I didn’t think what she had said was too funny.
When Rathbone later questioned Poole about the luxurious possessions, he explained, “Some of my gentlemen have been more generous to me than I deserve.”
The episode temporarily raised Rathbone’s suspicions but he dismissed them and life went on with the ideal butler.
The following summer, Poole went on holiday and didn’t return when scheduled. The Rathbones were concerned for his wellbeing but couldn’t locate him. “Poole had been the cornerstone to our comfort all winter, and we hated the thought of losing him.”
Then a woman visited them, saying she was Poole’s sister, Edith. She was visibly upset and very pregnant. She held a newspaper clipping in her hand.
“They got him.”
“Who got him?”
The tale of a double life began to unfold.
One night, near Ciro’s, an elderly socialite couple was approached by a handsome man in full evening dress. They exchanged pleasantries then the man asked for a match. The elderly man felt in his pockets but, when he looked up again, the handsome man now held a revolver. “Whatever you have, hand it over.” To the woman, he said, “That necklace and earrings please.”
Then the thief—Poole—darted away with his loot.
Another night, Poole was dining at the expensive Carleton Grill when he spotted his next victim. He followed the gentleman to the cloak room and engaged him in conversation about which public school he had attended. Poole mentioned he’d gone to a different public school whose name the man also recognized.
(Note: in England, “public school” actually means private exclusive facilities where the wealthy send their offspring).
They bantered about sporting events where their teams might have played against each other while Poole thought, This old school-tie stuff was too good to be true.
They continued their cordial visit as they walked in the evening until they reached the man’s door. As he pulled out his key, Poole pulled out his revolver and robbed the man.
By varying his hunting grounds, Poole continued his successful streak of robberies for months. Posing as the well-dressed “man about town,” he used his upscale appearance to disarm his victims into putting caution aside, allowing him to get close enough to steal from them.
His undoing happened one evening at The Embassy with his wife, Mildred. He had apparently lied to Rathbone about never being married and in fact was providing Mildred with a life of luxury.
Additionally, he may have been supporting his sister who had been impregnated by “His Lordship” who was never named. Apparently, Poole ultimately convinced the anonymous lordship to provide for Edith and her child.
Back to dinner that night at The Embassy.
Poole spotted a couple who looked like “sitting ducks.” While Mildred was powdering her nose, he followed the couple outside the club into a deserted street.
“Excuse me, you dropped something,” he said. When the couple turned, he reached for his revolver but realized he didn’t have it. He tried to bluff, ordering them to give him their valuables.
But…the couple was actually a pair of decoy cops who arrested him.
They escorted him back to the club where a waiter greeted him with his revolver on a silver tray. “This yours, sir?” the waiter asked. “It was found in your coat in the cloak room.”
At Poole’s trial, Rathbone testified as a character witness but to no avail. Poole was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison and nine lashes with the cat o’ nine tails for carrying a weapon.
The “cat” had been a particularly cruel punishment in the British Army and Navy that was abolished in the late 1800s. However, due to a sudden upsurge of violent crimes in the early 1920s, it was brought back for a period of time but ultimately outlawed by England, Scotland, and Wales in the Criminal Justice Act of 1948.
Rathbone wrote: “I have heard it said that most prisoners stand up better under the death sentence than one that carries with it the additional penalty of ‘the cat.’”
Rathbone answered Poole’s letters from prison. He never mentioned “the cat” but wrote that he was composing songs. A few weeks after his release, Rathbone and Poole met.
Mildred had divorced Poole and he was living with his mother. He claimed he learned his robbery technique “from the movies” and said he had never hurt anyone during his crimes.
Poole had learned to play the saxophone and had a job with an orchestra. One of his songs had been published and he gave a copy to Rathbone with a personal inscription, “From your devoted servant, Dennis Poole” followed by a Kipling poem.
They parted, after Poole helped Rathbone on with his coat, like the gentleman’s gentleman he’d always been.
In 1939, Basil Rathbone began his run playing Sherlock Holmes in the first of 14 films that would forever identify him as the brilliant, enigmatic detective.
Rathbone never saw Dennis Poole again but later learned that Poole ultimately gave his life for his country during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
The origin of the phrase The butler did it is widely considered to have been inspired by Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1930 novel, The Door.
Could Rinehart’s inspiration have actually come from the strange tale of Sherlock Holmes’s butler?
TKZers: Had you heard the story about Basil Rathbone’s butler? (It was news to me!)
Which is your favorite Sherlock Holmes movie?
Who’s better? Rathbone or Downey?