The Adventure of the Devil's Foot

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The Adventure of the Devil's Foot
by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventure of the Devil's Foot 04.jpg
1910 illustration by Gilbert Holiday
SeriesHis Last Bow
Publication date1910

"The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. It is one of eight stories in the cycle collected as His Last Bow.

Doyle ranked "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" ninth in his list of his twelve favorite Holmes stories.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson find themselves at Poldhu in Cornwall one spring for the former's health, but the holiday ends with a bizarre event. Mr. Mortimer Tregennis, a local gentleman, and Mr. Roundhay, the local vicar, come to Holmes to report that Tregennis's two brothers have gone insane, and his sister has died. Tregennis had gone to visit them in their village ('Tredannick Wollas'), played whist with them, and then left. When he came back in the morning, he found them still sitting in their places at the table, the brothers, George and Owen, laughing and singing, and the sister, Brenda, dead. The housekeeper had discovered them in this state, and fainted. The vicar has not been to see them yet. Tregennis says that he remembers one brother looking through the window, and then he himself turned to see some "movement" outside. He declares that the horrific event is the work of the devil. Mortimer Tregennis was once estranged from his siblings by the matter of dividing the proceeds from the sale of the family business, but he insists that all was forgiven, although he still lives apart from them. The doctor who was summoned, reckoned that she had been dead for six hours. He also collapsed into a chair for a while after arriving.

Holmes goes to the house in question and, apparently carelessly, kicks over a watering pot, soaking everyone's feet. The housekeeper tells Holmes that she heard nothing in the night, and that the family had been particularly happy and prosperous lately. Holmes observes the remains of a fire in the fireplace. Tregennis explains that it was a cold, damp night.

Afterwards, Holmes lays the case out to Watson thus:

  • Quite obviously, there is no point in attributing the tragedy to the Devil; therefore, what took place can only be the work of a human.
  • Whatever happened to those people happened right after Tregennis left, for they had not moved and everything was in the same place;
  • Mortimer Tregennis went swiftly back to the vicarage where he lives (a footprint sample was obtained in the watering pot "accident");
  • The only suggestion of an explanation—the "movement"—comes from Mortimer Tregennis;
  • Given the weather, anyone appearing at the window and doing something horrifying enough to instantly kill someone would have had to come right up to the window thus trampling the flowerbed, which is still intact;
  • What on earth could this person at the window have done to cause such horror?

None of this seems to make for an elementary case, but soon, new questions are raised.

Dr. Leon Sterndale, the famous hunter and explorer, aborts his sailing from Plymouth after the vicar wires him (as the Tregennises and Sterndale are cousins) with the tragic news. He asks Holmes what his suspicions are, and is displeased when Holmes will not voice them. After Sterndale leaves, Holmes follows him discreetly.

The morning after Holmes comes back to his room, apparently none the wiser for following Sterndale, the vicar arrives in a panic with the news that Mortimer Tregennis has now died in the same way as his sister. The two men, along with Watson, rush to Mortimer's room, and find it foul and stuffy, even though the window has been opened. A lamp is burning on the table beside the dead man. Holmes rushes about, examining many things. The upstairs window seems especially interesting. He also scrapes some ashes out of the lamp, and puts them in an envelope.

Holmes deduces how the victims died or went mad and why people present when the death rooms were first opened fainted or felt unwell in each case. He tests his hypothesis by buying a lamp like the one in Tregennis's room, lighting it, and putting some of the collected "ashes" on the smoke guard. The smoke from this powder is so potent a poison that Holmes is immediately struck down. Watson is able to resist and drags Holmes out of the room just in time.

It is clear to Holmes that Mortimer Tregennis poisoned his siblings, but who killed Mortimer?

It is Dr. Sterndale, who left physical evidence at the vicarage clearly implicating himself. Holmes confronts Sterndale, who explains that he loved Brenda for years (but had been unable to marry her because of the current marriage laws which prevented him from divorcing his wife even though she abandoned him years ago) and killed Mortimer in revenge for the cruel murder.

The poison is called Radix pedis diaboli ("Devil’s-foot root" in Latin),[2] which Sterndale collected from Africa as a curiosity. The toxic contents of the plant root are vaporized by heat and diffuse into the local atmosphere. He once explained to Mortimer what it was and what it was capable of, and Mortimer later stole some to murder his siblings by throwing it on the fire just before he left. Mortimer thought Sterndale would be at sea before news reached Plymouth, but Sterndale recognized the poison's effects from the vicar's description of the tragedy and deduced right away what had happened.

Holmes's sympathies in this matter lie with Sterndale, and he tells him to go back to his work in Africa.

Publication history[edit]

"The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" was first published in the UK in The Strand Magazine in December 1910. It was first published in the United States in the US edition of the Strand in January and February 1911.[3] The story was published with seven illustrations by Gilbert Holiday in the Strand,[4] and with eight illustrations in the US edition of the Strand. An extra illustration was needed for the story's publication in two parts.[5] The story was included in the short story collection His Last Bow,[5] which was published in the UK and the US in October 1917.[6]


Film and television[edit]

"The Devil's Foot" served as the basis for a 1921 short film starring Eille Norwood as Sherlock Holmes and Hubert Willis as Dr. Watson.[7]

It was adapted as an episode of the 1965 television series Sherlock Holmes starring Douglas Wilmer (with Nigel Stock as Dr Watson and Patrick Troughton as Mortimer Tregennis).[8]

The story was adapted as a 1988 episode of The Return of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Watson.[9]

The first episode of the HBO Asia/Hulu series Miss Sherlock has a digestible pill-bomb called the Devil's Foot.


The story was dramatised by Edith Meiser as an episode of the American radio series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The episode aired on 8 October 1931, with Richard Gordon as Sherlock Holmes and Leigh Lovell as Dr. Watson.[10] Other episodes adapted from the story aired on 17 February 1935 (with Louis Hector as Holmes and Lovell as Watson)[11] and 30 May 1936 (with Gordon as Holmes and Harry West as Watson).[12]

Meiser also adapted the story as an episode of the American radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that aired on 30 October 1939. Other dramatisations of the story were broadcast on 21 May 1943 and 10 July 1944. All three productions starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson.[13] In an adaptation that aired on 13 January 1947, Tom Conway played Holmes with Bruce as Watson.[14] Max Ehrlich adapted the story as an episode that aired on 31 January 1949 (with John Stanley as Holmes and Wendell Holmes as Watson).[15]

"The Devil's Foot" was adapted for the BBC Light Programme in 1962 by Michael Hardwick, as part of the 1952–1969 radio series starring Carleton Hobbs as Holmes and Norman Shelley as Watson.[16]

"The Devil's Foot" was dramatised for BBC Radio 4 in 1994 by Bert Coules as part of the 1989–1998 radio series starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, featuring Patrick Allen as Leon Sterndale, Geoffrey Beevers as Reverend Roundhay, and Sean Arnold as Mortimer Tregennis.[17]

In 2014, the story was adapted for radio as an episode of The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series on the American radio show Imagination Theatre, with John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes and Lawrence Albert as Watson.[18]


  1. ^ Temple, Emily (22 May 2018). "The 12 Best Sherlock Holmes Stories, According to Arthur Conan Doyle". Literary Hub. Retrieved 6 January 2019.
  2. ^ Q&A New York Times 2 October 1990 Radix pedis diaboli does not exist in nature.
  3. ^ Smith (2014), p. 167.
  4. ^ "The Strand Magazine. v.40 1910 Jul-Dec". HathiTrust. pp. 650–665. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  5. ^ a b Cawthorne (2011), p. 147–148.
  6. ^ Cawthorne (2011), p. 151.
  7. ^ Barnes, Alan (2011). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Titan Books. pp. 13–17. ISBN 9780857687760.
  8. ^ Barnes, Alan (2011). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Titan Books. pp. 185–190. ISBN 9780857687760.
  9. ^ Barnes, Alan (2011). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Titan Books. p. 155. ISBN 9780857687760.
  10. ^ Dickerson (2019), p. 39.
  11. ^ Dickerson (2019), p. 63.
  12. ^ Dickerson (2019), p. 74.
  13. ^ Dickerson (2019), pp. 75, 129, 136.
  14. ^ Dickerson (2019), p. 218.
  15. ^ Dickerson (2019), p. 268.
  16. ^ De Waal, Ronald Burt (1974). The World Bibliography of Sherlock Holmes. Bramhall House. p. 389. ISBN 0-517-217597.
  17. ^ Bert Coules. "His Last Bow". The BBC complete audio Sherlock Holmes. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
  18. ^ Wright, Stewart (30 April 2019). "The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Broadcast Log" (PDF). Old-Time Radio. Retrieved 11 June 2020.

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