Margaret Stanford Burton had been accused of killing her husband, John Burton, the famous fish-skeleton collector, a crime she pleaded not guilty to. Mr Burton was found pierced by the sword of a swordfish on the steps of the entrance to his house in London, where he lived with his wife until his death. (Thereafter they did not speak again, which was interpreted by the police as a clear sign that the couple was not as close as their neighbors thought.)
Sherlock Holmes had met John Burton at a collectibles fair. (Holmes collected sunflower seed shells and chewing gum.) When the day after his death he went to offer his condolences to his widow, he found that she was behind bars accused of murder. After a brief interview in prison, my friend came out convinced of Mrs. Burton’s innocence, and set out to find the real killer.
First of all, he prepared to follow all of Burton’s steps the hours before his death. He found out that in the afternoon he went to Brighton’s fish market where he had an argument with a fisherman on account of a 6-pound bass.
“I just want the skeleton”, he declared.
But the fisherman insisted that, if he wanted the bass, he should buy the whole fish.
After this discussion, he returned to London and went to his favorite pub to shake off his annoyance. According to the barman, he chugged a 50 liter beer barrel in one gulp.
“How is that possible?” asked Holmes. Burton was a short, weak guy and couldn’t have raised the barrel to drink the beer. But the barman explained that Burton was in the habit of inserting his head into the barrel and thus drinking all the beer.
The next thing Burton did was key to solving his murder, according to Holmes.
Obviously at that point Burton was drunk. A witness said that beer came out of his ears, which was a disgusting sight. In such a state, according to the police, he came back to his house. And it was then when his wife allegedly grabbed the swordfish’s skeleton and pierced her husband with the sword.
But Holmes noted that there was no swordfish in John Burton’s collection, so Mrs. Burton could hardly have grabbed its skeleton.
This argument seemed weak to the police, according to which the woman, on seeing his husband drunk, could have taken the train to Brighton, rented a boat and caught a swordfish.
Holmes had to admit that this was possible, but he didn’t give up yet. The next day, I accompanied him to Brighton, to visit the fish market there. He wanted to know if there had been any swordfish for sale on the day in question.
Not many swordfish are caught on the Brighton coast, so it turned out to be public knowledge among fishermen that on that particular day one of the boats had caught one.
“Was it a woman who caught it?”
“No, unless it was a long-bearded woman.”
This remark provoked the laughter of the fishermen. One of them with a beard that reached his knees, came forward:
“I caught that fish devil. We were crossing swords for more than half an hour until I managed to feint before I lunged and pierced it with my sword.”
The other fishermen cheered the swordsman on.
“And who acquired the fish?” asked Holmes.
“A drunk guy whose ears looked like the spout of a beer fountain. But he only took the skeleton. He was a nut.”
“Aha!” Holmes exclaimed, with the certainty of having solved the case. And indeed, the next day Mrs. Burton was released without charge. Holmes had demonstrated that, after getting drunk, Burton took again the train to Brighton, returned to the fish market, and when he saw the shining swordfish, he bought it, but not before asking to have the meat removed. Next he took the train back and, when he arrived at his house, stumbled on the steps of the entrance, with such bad fortune that he fell right on the sword of the fish.
“Great, Holmes!” I couldn’t help but exclaim. “But how did you know that Burton had returned to the fish market after leaving the pub?”
“The first time we were at the market, didn’t you notice a strong beer smell?”
“The beer that Burton was pouring through the ears!” I exclaimed.
“Elementary, my dear Watson.”