Here is a quote from the original 1908 edition of “Scouting for Boys.”
“It may happen to some of you that one day, you will be the first to find the dead body of a man, in which case, you will remember that it is your duty to examine and note down the smallest signs that are to be seen on or near the body before it is moved or the ground is disturbed and trampled down.”
The quote is not referencing the death of a loved one, but happening to find a stranger’s body, like the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Mr. Holmes is featured prominently in the chapter about tracking and reading signs.
“Remember how ‘Sherlock Holmes’ met a stranger and noticed that he was looking fairly well-to-do . . . Well, Sherlock Holmes guessed correctly . . .”
Seriously? Sherlock Holmes isn’t even a real person. It’s easy for a novelist to plant the right signs and for the detective to find the clues. As an author, I should know.
How often did boys run across dead bodies, anyway? I’ve lived half a century without finding even one.
At the time, everyone was fascinated with amateur sleuthing and making observations. The handbook recommends studying everyone around you. It warns, “But in doing this, you must not let them see you are watching them, else it puts them on their guard.” In other words, creep on the people around you, but don’t get caught.
Feet, shoes, and way of walking might give telltale signs. For example, a person who is well dressed, but wearing worn shoes may be hiding an unfortunate circumstance.
“It is an amusing practice when you are on a railway, carriage, or omnibus with other people, to look only at their feet and guess without looking any higher what sort of people they are . . . and then to look up and see how near you have been to the truth.”
I decided to try this at the airport. Pretending to be interested in something on my phone, I took stealth photos of people’s feet. My husband questioned my sanity. Most wore tennis shoes. They didn’t tell me a thing about the person unless they moved fast enough to blur the picture. That guy must be in a hurry.
A few painted toenails peeped out of women’s sandals. They might belong to a cute young woman or a lady with white hair. I couldn’t tell from her feet.
I wasn’t quick enough to photograph the tall, black leather boots with metal embellishments. The person above those wore piercings to match.
I found the luggage more telling. A dad sat with a Wonder Woman backpack at his feet. But what does a camouflage suitcase say about the white-haired, hunch-backed older woman next to it?
My efforts to read the signs showed a serious lack of deductive reasoning skills. I would have made a poor scout in 1908.
I’m not Sherlock Holmes. But who is? He’s not even real.