The First American Doctor-Detective?: The Protagonist of “A Needle in a Bottle”

Old-Fashioned but Newly Polished

I'll go with you cheerfully; and let me tell you, my dear sir, that I never jump at conclusions. I've seen and heard too many wonderful things myself -- things which I cannot pretend to explain by any other theory than that of supernatural agency -- to doubt that you may have had a similar experience.

With these words of encouragement and faith, the unnamed doctor/narrator/occult detective in an 1874 short story titled “A Needle in a Bottle” agrees to investigate the mystery of haunted Thornapple Cottage. In some ways, the story is an unremarkable work. After all, it features a haunted house, a hidden treasure, a run-of-the-mill love plot, and even the clandestine machinations of a Catholic cleric. This last staple of Gothic fiction even feels a bit outdated for 1874 — think, for example, of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk from 1796 though, unlike that earlier work, the later one puts a positive spin on its Catholic character.

Regardless of its reliance on familiar motifs, “A Needle in a Bottle” is still well worth reading. Some of its spooky images are particularly sharp and weird for the period. The architecture of Thornapple Cottage, for instance, is an odd patchwork of styles, the main section described as looking like a jail while one wing appears “Elizabethan” and the other “Arabeseque.” Once we’re inside the house, the creepy visuals really jump forth, such as when the doctor follows his patient’s gaze to witness this unsettling ghostly manifestation:

Lying upon the floor, in front of a small door in the wainscot, I saw the head, the throat, and a portion of the shoulders of a gray-haired old man. There was no body visible, for below the shoulders the form faded into nothingness. Around the throat were clinched the fingers of a pair of brawny hands, the arms of which were visible only to the elbows, and at no time could I perceive the slightest trace of the form to which they belonged.

The description of this strangulation being committed by “amputated” body parts grows far more graphic in the paragraphs that follow. This is one of the reasons I judged the work to be strong enough to be included in my anthology Ghostly Clients & Demonic Culprits: The Roots of Occult Detective Fiction.

A Nice Blend of Supernatural and Detection

What I think will especially please fans of occult detective fiction, though, is how this pre-Flaxman Low and pre-Sherlock Holmes tale blends supernatural- and detective-fiction genres. Noted above, the doctor-detective’s previous experience with “supernatural agency” prepares him to approach the case as an actual haunting, not simply a matter of a patient-client suffering from hallucinations. His visit to the site confirms he was wise to proceed in this way. The doctor then uses some very basic, very worldly detective methods to get to the heart of the haunting. In fact, the doctor’s theory about how such things occur might bring to some readers’ minds the electric pentacle of Thomas Carnacki, William Hope Hodgson’s famous occult detective of a few decades later.

Needle in a Bottle
An illustration from “A Needle in a Bottle”

Another American Occult Detective

It’s also interesting that the story is set in and around New York (with a nod to colonial days), and it was published in a magazine from the same city. I can’t know for sure, but it seems likely that the anonymous author was American. In fact, this character is the first American doctor-detective character on my bibliography. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s presumably German Dr. K. leads the list at 1817, and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s definitely German Dr. Martin Hesselius arrives at 1869. “A Needle in a Bottle” was published in 1874, and it wasn’t until the late 1890s that doctors dabbling in the supernatural really became a convention that led to John Silence, Jules de Grandin, and similar characters of varied nationalities.

As I’ve traced occult detection back to the roots of modern mystery fiction, I’ve been discovering that American writers had an important role. Formerly, critics discussing this cross-genre kept the spotlight on Irish and British authors such as Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, L.T. Mead and Robert Eustace, and E. and H. Heron when naming progenitors. But the emergence of occult detective fiction now appears to be much more a trans-Atlantic effort.

Go to the Chronological Bibliography
of Early Occult Detectives — 1800s page.

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