a bit of background and history

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     The 1947 annual dinner at the Murray Hill Hotel


Shortly after Repeal made it possible for Americans to drink in public again, the BSI had its public birth at a cocktail party at the Hotel Duane on Madison Avenue on January 6, 1934, a date which Christopher Morley determined by means exegetical and astrological to be Sherlock Holmes’s birthday. The first few years were on the irregular side, but starting in 1940 the BSI received form and continuity thanks to a newcomer named Edgar W. Smith, a vice-president of General Motors Overseas Operations in New York City who became the BSI’s Buttons-cum-Commissionaire up to his death in 1960. Morley created the BSI; Smith established it as an institution, continuing to this day. The BSI is by invitation, and currently has some three hundred living members, each of whom bears a nom de Canon taken from the Sherlock Holmes stories. Many more belong to its local and professional-association chapters (known as “scion societies”) operating autonomously across the nation, the first of which, The Speckled Band of Boston, was founded in April 1940.

    In the 1920s and ’30s Christopher Morley wrote two columns for the Saturday Review of Literature, and made it the BSI’s informal journal of record until its quarterly Baker Street Journal was founded in 1946. During the first few months of 1934 his column published the first reports of the BSI’s founding, a Sherlock Holmes Crossword devised by his brother Frank as the BSI’s fanciful entrance exam, and in February 1934 the BSI’s Constitution and Buy Laws (sic) composed by newsman Elmer Davis:



The name of this society shall be the Baker Street Irregulars.


Its purpose shall be the study of the Sacred Writings.


All persons shall be eligible for membership who pass an examination in the Sacred Writings set by officers of the society, and who are considered otherwise suitable.


The offices shall be: a Gasogene, a Tantalus, and a Commissionaire.

The duties of the Gasogene shall be those commonly performed by a President.

The duties of the Tantalus shall be those commonly performed by a Secretary.

The duties of the Commissionaire shall be to telephone down for ice, White Rock,

and whatever else may be required and available; to conduct all negotiations

with waiters; and to assess the members pro rata for the cost of same.


(1)  An annual meeting shall be held on January 6th, at which those toasts shall be drunk which were published in the Saturday Review of January 27th, 1934; after which the members shall drink at will.

(2)  The current round shall be bought by any member who fails to identify, by title of story and context, any quotation from the Sacred Writings submitted by any other member.

Qualification A.—If two or more members fail so to identify, a round shall be bought by each of those so failing.

Qualification B.—If the submitter of the quotation, upon challenge, fails to identify it correctly, he shall buy the round.

(3)  Special meetings may be called at any time or any place by any one of three members, two of whom shall constitute a quorum.

Qualification A.—If said two are of opposite sexes, they shall use care in select-ing the place of meeting, to avoid misinterpretation (or interpretation, either, for that matter).

Qualification B.—If such two persons of opposite sexes be clients of the Personal Column of the Saturday Review, the foregoing does not apply; such persons being presumed to let their consciences be their guides.

(4)  All other business shall be left for the monthly meeting.

(5)  There shall be no monthly meeting.

The remarkable story behind Elmer Davis’s Constitution & Buy Laws was finally revealed in chapter four, “The Friendly Sons of St. Vitus,” in the 2009 Archival History volume “Certain Rites, and Also Certain Duties.”

    And also readable at that linked webpage is chapter three complete: “The Second Most Dangerous Toast in New York,” revealing how difficult it’s been, and still is, for the BSI to keep its own Constitution & Buy Laws straight. (And occasionally deliberately!)

For further reading about Baker Street Irregularity then and since, in addition to the BSI Archival Histories themselves, I recommend especially Paul Singleton’s Spring 2006 Baker Street Journal article “From Sardines to Sodality,” and Cait Murphy’s March 1987 Atlantic Monthly article “The Game’s Still Afoot,” written for Sherlock Holmes’s centenary year and still the best account of the BSI written for the public.