Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and the famous Kensington Rune Stone

Architectural historian and author of Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery

The trouble with fiction, as anyone who wrestles with writing it will tell you, is that it can seldom match the sheer weirdness of reality.

Images of the two carved faces of the Kensington Rune
Stone (Illinois State Historical Society, 1910)
This explains why, when it came time to write my third Sherlock Holmes adventure in Minnesota, I decided to base my tale on the Kensington rune stone, an artifact so curious that no mere writer like myself could have thought it up. Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery is indeed a work of fiction, but a good deal of my tale draws on the vast and controversial historic record surrounding the stone and the wonderful cast of characters associated with it.

The real story began in November 1898 when a Swedish-born farmer named Olof Ohman unearthed (or so he claimed) the now famous artifact on his farm, near the village of Kensington in Douglas County in west central Minnesota. Ohman said he found the 200-pound slab of graywacke stone on a hill, entangled in the roots of an aspen tree. Chiseled into one face of the stone and along one side as well was a lengthy runic inscription that has been translated thusly: “8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by 2 rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year 1362.”

Naturally, Ohman’s discovery caused quiet a stir, suggesting as it did that Norsemen not only reached North America 130 years before Christopher Columbus but somehow managed to sail all the way to Minnesota. It would have been quite a trip, since Minnesota is about as far from the bounding main as anywhere on the continent. Despite its seeming implausibility, the stone soon found ardent defenders. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of skeptics as well, and the stone’s authenticity or lack thereof quickly became the subject of a debate that has now raged for well over a century.

A locator map of Kensington, MN, where the
famed Kensington Rune Stone is reported
to have been discovered by a farmer in 1898.
Most academic historians and runologists have dismissed the stone as a hoax concocted by Ohman with the help of a friend or two, and there is indeed evidence to suggest that the farmer had a bright strain of whimsy beneath his stoic Scandinavian surface. If Ohman really did concoct the whole thing, you have to give him a big tip of the hat, since his hoax is still going strong after all these years. I’d be happy to have such a clever, tantalizing and enduring bit of foolery on my resume. The stone’s early defenders tended to be amateur historians, with the occasional crank or crackpot thrown in for good measure. But over the last twenty years or so, the stone has also gained support from a number of enthusiasts bearing impressive academic credentials.

There are a dozen or so books, as well as numerous articles, devoted to the stone and its meaning. Minnesota historian Theodore Blegen’s 1968 book, The Kensington Rune Stone: New Light on an Old Riddle, remains the best account by a skeptic. Books and articles written by the stone’s adherents are more numerous and contentious. Geology, dendrology (the study of trees), epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), linguistics, and of course runology have all been enlisted by various authors to argue on behalf of the stone’s authenticity. Among the best of these books is The Kensington Rune-Stone: Authentic and Important, written in 1994 by Robert A. Hall Jr., an emeritus professor of linguistics at Cornell University. Alas, many of the books penned by supporters of the stone are so dense and esoteric that they verge on the unreadable.

I confess to being a skeptic when it comes to the stone’s authenticity, but I love the rather crazy story surrounding it, which is why I thought it would form the basis for a good mystery novel. The timing of its discovery was also convenient for my purposes, since it gave me an excuse to bring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson back to Minnesota only a few years after their 1896 adventure in St. Paul, which was featured in Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders. I also liked the idea of bringing my two English heroes out to the prairies, quite a different environment from the northern pineries where they’d experienced their first taste of Minnesota (as recounted in Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon). The setting of the mystery was convenient in another respect, in that Shadwell Rafferty, my other favorite detective, had long fished at nearby Lake Osakis and so was familiar with the territory when the time came to help Holmes and Watson in their investigation.

The real rune stone saga, as far as I know, did not include any acts of murder or mayhem, but for my fictional tale I naturally had to spice up the historic record with various kinds of criminal wrongdoing. The names of many characters in my novel are based on actual people who were involved in one way or another with the stone and its discovery, but I gave them different roles than they had in real life, just to mix things up a bit.

As part of my research for Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery, I drove out one spectacular autumn day to Alexandria, MN, where the stone is displayed in its own small museum. Joe Rossi, then a photographer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where I worked at the time as a reporter, was with me. While in town we met a retired car dealer who claimed to have discovered, with the help of dowsing rods, the remains of buried Viking ships in the hill where the rune stone had been found. Hoping he could demonstrate this wonder to us, we accompanied him and his wife to the pretty little Douglas County park that now occupies the site of the stone’s discovery.

As it turned out, however, the man’s dowsing rods proved to be uncooperative and our expedition in search of buried nautical treasure did not succeed. No matter. We chatted a bit and then went back down to the park shelter, where the man’s wife surprised us by producing a thermos of hot coffee and some delectable homemade “bars.” Above us, buttery October light raked Runestone Hill, as it’s now called, and it was easy to imagine Ohman grubbing out a tree and suddenly coming upon his astounding discovery. It was possible, too, to imagine a different scenario in which the sly old farmer pulled off a joke for the ages.

Even Sherlock Holmes himself wasn’t entirely sure about what to make of the stone. At the end of my novel, he’s asked by Watson whether there is any possibility that the stone might be the genuine article. He replies: “I do not know, Watson, I do not know, though I must always remain a skeptic. But I am inclined to think that a hundred years from now, people will still be debating [its] authenticity . . . and what the world will think of I then, I cannot fathom. Perhaps it will be a mystery for the ages.”


Larry Millett was a reporter and architecture critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for thirty years. He is the author of fifteen books, including five other mystery novels in this series featuring Sherlock Holmes and Shadwell Rafferty, all in new editions from the University of Minnesota Press.

"Millett recreates the world of Holmes with uncanny precision."

No comments:

Post a Comment