The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb

"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb", one of the 56 short Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is the ninth of the twelve stories collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The story was first published in Strand Magazine in March 1892. Dr. Watson notes that this is one of only two cases which he personally brought to the attention of Sherlock Holmes.

"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"
Hatherley losing his thumb, 1892 illustration by Sidney Paget
AuthorArthur Conan Doyle
SeriesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Publication date1892


The story, set in 1889, mainly consists of a young London consultant hydraulic engineer, Mr. Victor Hatherley, recounting strange happenings of the night before, first to Dr. Watson, who dresses the stump where Mr. Hatherley's thumb has been cut off, and then to Sherlock Holmes himself.

Hatherley had been visited in his office by a man who identified himself as Colonel Lysander Stark. He offered Hatherley a commission at a country house, to examine a hydraulic press used, as Stark explains, to compress fuller's earth into bricks. Stark warned Hatherley to keep the job confidential, offering him 50 guineas (£52 10s, an enormous sum at the time, worth over £4000 today[1]). Hatherley felt compelled to take this work, despite his misgivings, as his business was newly established and he had very little work.

Upon arriving late at night at the appointed train station, Hatherley is met by Colonel Stark and is driven a considerable distance in a carriage with frosted glass windows to the house where he is to examine the machine. (A minor detail is that the house was actually quite near the station; Holmes realizes that the carriage drove "six [miles] out and six back" to disguise the house's location from Hatherley.) Hatherley is still under the spell of the 50 guineas and does not become afraid even when a woman at the house warns him to flee. He is presently shown the press and makes his recommendations as to needed repairs. Then, he rashly decides to inspect the press more closely. His discovery that its floor is covered by a "crust of metallic deposit" confirms his suspicion that the machine is not used for pressing fuller's earth. When he rashly confronts Stark with the knowledge, Stark tries to kill him. He narrowly escapes getting crushed to death when Stark turns the machine on, but he escapes the press with the aid of the woman. Pursued by the murderous Stark, Hatherley is forced to jump from a second story window, in the process getting his thumb severed by Stark's cleaver. Hatherley survives the fall but passes out in the rose-bushes, coming to hours later by a hedge near the rail station.

Holmes then makes sense of the happenings, recognizing Stark and his allies as counterfeiters, but he, Watson, and the police arrive too late: the house is on fire, and the perpetrators have fled. Ironically, the press was destroyed when Hatherley's lamp was crushed inside it, setting the machine on fire and ruining the criminals' operation, although they escaped with several "bulky boxes" presumably containing counterfeit coins.

This case is one where Holmes fails to bring the villains to justice.[2]

In other media

The story was adapted for an episode of the 1954 television series Sherlock Holmes starring Ronald Howard as Holmes and Howard Marion Crawford as Watson. The episode was titled "The Case of the Shoeless Engineer"[3] and the story was altered so that Hatherley loses a shoe rather than his thumb, and Stark and his co-conspirator are captured by Lestrade with the assistance of Holmes.

The story was also adapted in the Soviet (1986) TV movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. WatsonThe Twentieth Century Approaches.[4] There, the criminal (colonel Stark) is Eduardo Lucas from The Adventure of the Second Stain, and the gang's work is economic sabotage by the German Empire. Upon hearing the details, Mycroft Holmes orders to balance the damage through producing an equal amount of counterfeit German currency.

"The Engineer's Thumb" was dramatised for BBC Radio 4 in 1991 as part of Bert Coules' complete radio adaptation of the canon, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, and featuring John Moffatt as Lysander Stark.[5]

The story was additionally adapted for the TMS Entertainment anime series Sherlock Hound, specifically in the episode "A Small Client". The general gist of the story was retained, but contained a several differences, namely Professor Moriarty being in charge of the counterfeiting instead of Stark (who isn't present in the episode at all), and the case being brought to Hound's attention through the engineer's young daughter instead of the engineer himself, who is being kept prisoner for the majority of the episode.


  1. Measuring Worth – Relative Value of UK Pounds using the Retail Price Index, 1889 -> 2008
  2. (Others include The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, The Five Orange Pips, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, The Adventure of the Resident Patient, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual and The Hound of the Baskervilles, though in all these cases Providence exacts vengeance on the villains. Exceptions to Providence exacting vengeance on villains are A Case of Identity, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet)
  3. Barnes, Alan (2002). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. p. 137. ISBN 1-903111-04-8.
  4. Hutchings, Stephen; Vernitskaia, Anat. Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature, 1900–2001: Screening the Word. Routledge. p. 130. ISBN 9781134400584.
  5. Bert Coules. "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes". The BBC complete audio Sherlock Holmes. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
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