Plot Summary of the Adventure of the Cardboard Box

Updated on April 26, 2018
Colin Quartermain profile image

Colin has been reading as long as he can remember, and the works of Conan Doyle were some of the early works that kept him reading.

Sherlock Holmes and the Cardboard Box

Today, it is hard to believe that The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was the most controversial tale out of all the Sherlock Holmes books or stories. The Adventure of the Cardboard Box deals with murder and some gruesome removal of body parts but for this was not the reason why the story was controversial, this was due to the reason for the murder.

Publication of the Adventure of the Cardboard Box

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was first published in the Strand Magazine in January 1893; the month after the story of Silver Blaze had been featured. Over the following ten months, ten more short stories would be written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Today, The Adventure of the Cardboard Box might appear in the compilation work The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes or in His Last Bow; as it has been published in both. In 1894 it was omitted from the UK version of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, but included in the US version, before being omitted from both versions for many years. Over the years the publication order has been reversed. In the UK today it is in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, whilst in the US it is more common to find is in His Last Bow.

Short Review of the Adventure of the Cardboard Box

Sherlock Holmes stories were bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the general public were clamouring for more, and yet Conan Doyle penned a story that could have damaged his reputation severely.

On the face of it, The Adventure of the Cardboard Box seems like a case that only deals with a practical joke; and this is certainly a belief that Lestrade holds. Holmes though, immediately sees a more murderous reason for the sending of severed ears from two different people.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes use of his own medical knowledge to put details into the story, and also has Holmes demonstrate his own scientific abilities in the examination of ears. Conan Doyle also though, designs the case so that Holmes finds it simple to solve, although it is not so clear cut for Lestrade and Watson.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is perhaps more famous for a scene between Holmes and Watson, that sees the detective seemingly able to read his friend’s mind; something which just goes to prove the prowess of Holmes when it comes to reasoning.

So why is The Adventure of the Cardboard Box so controversial? Well, the story deals with adultery, a reason so mild today that it is hard to comprehend, but for many years it was a subject that prevented the story from being reprinted.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is also famously the last story adapted by Granada TV where Jeremy Brett starred as Holmes. The episode appeared in the seventh series, and was broadcast on 11th April 1994. Like most episodes the storyline is kept close to the original, with only minor alterations for impact.

The story would also prove inspiration to the second series episode from Elementary titled Ears to You.

Examining the Evidence

Sidney Paget (1860-1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860-1908) PD-life-70 | Source

Spoiler Alert - Plot Summary of the Adventure of the Cardboard Box

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box opens with Holmes and Watson sweltering in their Baker Street rooms. Holmes though shows his deductive ability by apparently reading the mind of Dr Watson, in regards to the settling of a dispute between General Gordon and Henry Ward Beecher. Watson is of course amazed, although the explanation of events by Holmes makes it seem a simplistic undertaking.

Holmes is much more interested in a small article in one of the London papers; the article telling of the receipt by Miss Susan Cushing, a 50 year old spinster of Cross Street, Croydon, of a package containing two severed ears packed in salt.

Inspector Lestrade was already on the case, but he was coming to 221B Baker Street to consult Sherlock Holmes.

Lestrade has already come to his own conclusions, for it seems that years earlier, Susan Cushing had had three medical students lodging with her, but had been forced to throw them out because of their behaviour. One of these students had come from Belfast, and the fact that the parcel had been dispatched from there, seems conclusive to Lestrade.

Holmes and Watson travel down to Croydon to meet with Lestrade, and the three then meet with Miss Susan Cushing; and Holmes gets to examine the parcel and ears for the first time. Holmes is already surmising a more serious crime is afoot, rather than a medical student prank.

The ears prove to come from a man and a woman, and the fact that they are packed in salt indicates a non-medical practitioner. The parcel is also indicative, for the writing is in the hand of someone with less of an education than a medical student, indeed, the tying of the knot would indicate a sailor has tied it.

Lestrade is not convinced that there is a sinister element to the parcel, for Sarah Cushing has led a life devoid of incident; Holmes is convinced though that the owners of ears have been killed.

A few simple questions are directed to Susan Cushing, and these questions provide all the answers that Holmes needs to solve the case; although by this time Lestrade has returned to Scotland Yard. Susan Cushing has two sisters, Mary and Sarah.

Mary is married to a ship’s steward, Jim Bronwer, and the pair had moved to Liverpool for his job. Sarah had lived with them briefly, but was known to be of an interfering nature, and so had returned to live with Susan, although she had subsequently moved out of the Croydon address.

Holmes and Watson depart, in order that they can visit Sarah Cushing, although on the way Holmes sends a telegram. On arrival at Sarah Cushing’s, the pair find the sister ill with fever, and cannot see her.

Susan Cushing Interviewed

Sidney Paget (1860-1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860-1908) PD-life-70 | Source

Holmes though is not disappointed, and indeed is pleased when he receives a telegram response, and provides Lestrade with the identity of the criminal. Holmes leaves Lestrade to apprehend him, as the policeman has the bulldog endeavour to do it.

Holmes then explains the case to Watson, although Watson has also come to the conclusion that it is Jim Browner who Lestrade is now seeking. Holmes is convinced that one ear belonged to Mary Cushing, and the other to her lover. The intended recipient of the parcel had been Sarah Cushing, rather than Susan; Jim Browner though, was unaware that the sister had moved out. Sarah Cushing though, had realised the significant of the parcel delivered to her sister, and had caused her to become ill. The family resemblance of the ears, and the sailors knot, had been all that Holmes had required to solve the case.

It was simple for Lestrade to arrest Jim Browner, when the May Day docked in London; and the husband of Mary Cushing gives himself up immediately, and readily confesses to his crime.

It seems that Mary and Jim had been relatively happily married until Sarah Cushing had started to interfere; Sarah Cushing seemingly in love with Jim Browner herself. Jim would not give in to Sarah’s advances, and so she had started to turn Mary against her husband, and this had led Browner to start drinking heavily.

Mary had taken up with a man called Alex Fairbaim, and when Browner had discovered the affair, he had threatened to send Fairbaim’s ear to Sarah. Sarah had at that point returned to London, and Mary and Jim were seemingly happy once again.

One day though, Jim had gained some unexpected leave from his ship, but on his return to his home he had found Mary with Fairbaim again. Jim Browner had followed the pair to a boating lake, and there, the ship steward had killed his wife and her lover. Ears had been cut off and sent in the mail, just as Jim Browner had promised.

Jim Browner is wracked with guilt though, and Jim Browner appears as a fairly pitiful figure.

Watson is of course impressed that another case has been brought to a close, although it looks like Lestrade is going to take all of the glory from the case. This though doesn’t bother Holmes, for in his mind The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was exceeding simple, and not one that he necessarily wished to be associated with. Holmes was perfectly willing to have his name removed from the case, although of course Watson has other ideas.

Jim Browner

Sidney Paget (1860-1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860-1908) PD-life-70 | Source

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

  • Date of Events - 1888
  • Client - Inspector Lestrade
  • Locations - Croydon
  • Villain - Jim Browner


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