Sherlock Holmes Wields a Deadly Scarf

Bartitsu is particularly noted for its weaponising of gentlemanly accoutrements such as walking sticks, umbrellas and overcoats.  We’ve also previously examined the use of bowler hats, belts and flat caps as weapons.

The use of weighted scarves as improvised and concealed weapons has a pedigree extending at least as far back as the early 19th century, when members of the Indian Thugee and Phansigari cults infamously employed their rumāl scarves to strangle their victims.  A heavy coin knotted into the end of the rumāl allowed Thug assassins to swiftly and silently “noose” their prey from behind.  This weapon and technique was elaborated by the French popular novelist Eugène Sue, who detailed the art of Thuggee strangulation in his 1884/5 series The Wandering Jew:

(The Strangler) then took a long and thin cord which was encircled round his waist, at one of the extremities of which was a ball of lead, in shape and size like an egg. After having tied the other end of this string round his right wrist, the Strangler again listened, and then disappeared, groping his way along the tall grass in the direction of the Indian, who came on slowly, singing his plaintive and gentle ditty.

At this instant, the sinister visage of the Strangler arose before him; he heard a whistling like that of a sling, and then felt a cord, thrown with equal swiftness and power, encircle his neck with a triple fold, and, at the same moment, the lead with which it was loaded struck him violently on the back of his head.

The assault was so sudden and unexpected, that Djalma’s attendant could not utter one cry — one groan.

He staggered — the Strangler gave a violent twist to his cord — the dark visage of the slave became a black purple, and he fell on his knees, tossing his arms wildly in the air.

The Strangler turned him over, and twisted his cord so violently that the blood rushed through the skin. The victim made a few convulsive struggles, and all was over.

Although the strangler cults were successfully suppressed, the notion of robbers making use of elaborately deceptive tactics – particularly involving strangulation techniques – made its way into the emerging urban folklore of European cities, as in during the “garroting panics” of 1850s and ’60s London.  A very similar tactic was employed by Parisian Apache muggers during the early 20th century, as in the notorious coup du pere Francois trick.

Famed “baritsu” practitioner Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) wields an adaptation of the Indian rumāl in the 1979 movie Murder by Decree, which pits Holmes against the arch-fiend Jack the Ripper.

In one scene set in Holmes’ lab, Dr. John Watson (James Mason) advises his comrade to arm himself, and offers Holmes a revolver – but Holmes demonstrates that he is, in fact, already armed, by smashing through a large glass beaker with a roll of coins concealed in a hidden pocket in his long scarf. Holmes then begins to explain the weapon’s origin, but Watson remarks that he already knows about the rumāl from his time serving as an Army doctor in India.

The climactic fight scene represents what may well be the only combat scarf vs. sword-cane encounter in the annals of cinema:

In 2010, American martial artist Jason Gibbs released the BattleScarf – essentially a standard scarf with pockets, but accompanied by a DVD illustrating how to use it as a striking and entangling weapon. Here’s a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) promotional clip, demonstrating the serious striking power that can be generated by this type of weapon under ideal circumstances:

Although the BattleScarf per se is no longer available, winter scarves with pockets at the ends are easily obtained from clothing stores and may be worth the consideration of modern urban adventurers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *