The Truth About Sherlock Holmes' Mailbox

Fans of Sherlock Holmes know the address 221B Baker Street by heart. It's the London flat that detective Sherlock Holmes shared with his friend and associate Dr. John Watson in the novels and short stories created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The first Sherlock Holmes story, titled "A Study in Scarlet," was published in 1886, and by 1892, the author's first collection of the detective's stories were released as "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (via History).

It's a known fact that the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes came from Doyle's professor in medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell. The author also took inspiration from Baker Street — a real street in London that still exists to this day — but the exact number of the flat, 221B, was non-existent when the stories were written. In fact, per Today I Found Out, the house numbers back then only reached the 100s. In the 1930s, however, there was an effort to make the London streets more organized, and that's when the numbers 219 to 229 appeared in Baker Street.

Is 221B Baker Street real?

When the numbers were changed in Baker Street, the address 221B became part of a block of buildings that was occupied by a bank, the Abbey National Building Society. Technically, though, 221B still did not exist and was just included in the block of numbers assigned to that location. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the building immediately began receiving letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. In fact, they got so many letters from avid fans that a secretary was hired in order to respond to the letters, some of which sought help from the fictional detective. In most cases, the secretary would tell the letter writer that Sherlock Holmes had retired.

In 1989, The New York Times conducted an interview with the "secretary" who answered Sherlock Holmes' mails, Nikki Caparn. Abbey National had received countless letters from around the world. "Many people don't ask for anything in particular. They just want to know what Mr. Holmes is doing now or where he is and they hope he is well. And many people know he's not real and write tongue in cheek," Nikki said. The responses are written on Sherlock Holmes stationery with a silhouette of the detective with his signature cap and pipe. Caparn said that she takes the job seriously and said, "We never say he never existed."

A fight for Sherlock Holmes' mail

Sherlock Holmes fans who travel to Baker Street today will be delighted to see the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which was established in 1990. The museum which is located in a four-story Georgian-style townhouse, consisting of rooms designed to replicate Sherlock Holmes' abode. Upon entering, visitors will be greeted by costumed tour guides and will be brought to different rooms in the style of the Victorian London era, decked with authentic furniture from the time period. The museum also houses the largest collection of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia.

When the museum was built, there was a custody battle over who gets ownership of the letters to the fictional detective. The newly-built museum said that they weren't getting all of Sherlock Holmes' mails despite owning the 221B address, as fans were still sending them to Abbey National, per the LA Times. The bank, however, countered that they have been answering letters for many years. The fight over the letters spanned a decade and was only resolved when the bank moved its headquarters to a different location and left the duty of answering mails to the museum (via AV Club).