When Watson comes to visit his friend Sherlock Holmes and meets Jabez Wilson for the first time, Watson amuses himself by trying to make deductions about Wilson in imitation of Holmes. But Watson doesn't get far, although he gives the reader a fairly complete external description of Wilson's face, physique, manner and clothing.
Sherlock Holmes' quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”
Jabez Wilson is amazed. He states that Holmes is right on every point and wants to know how he could have arrived at those conclusions so quickly and easily. Holmes explains that he knew Wilson had done manual labor because one of his hands is larger than the other, suggesting years of hard work. Wilson tells him he had been a ship's carpenter. In those days of wooden sailing ships a carpenter would have plenty of hard work to do on the hull, rails, decks, masts, yardarms, and riggings. Holmes won't bother to explain how he knows Wilson takes snuff, a finely powdered tobacco which is usually inhaled. The reader can surmise that there is plenty of evidence on the man's coat and vest. Later Wilson will give visual proof that Holmes was right on that count.
“Your experience has been a most entertaining one,” remarked Holmes as his client paused and refreshed his memory with a huge pinch of snuff.
Holmes explains that he deduced that Wilson was a Freemason because he was wearing "the arc-and-compass breastpin." As far as China is concerned, Holmes tells Wilson:
“The fish that you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China."
The most significant aspect of Wilson's appearance reveals that Wilson has been doing a great deal of writing lately. Holmes explains why this was obvious to him.
“What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk?”
Jabez Wilson is amazed at first, but once Holmes has explained everything he loses his amazement.
Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. “Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all.”
The author, Arthur Conan Doyle, stresses some other aspects of Wilson's appearance. Watson notices them immediately when he comes in and sits down.
I HAD CALLED upon my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced elderly gentleman with fiery red hair.
During Wilson's lengthy discourse about his involvement with the Red-Headed League, he mentions that his new assistant, Vincent Spaulding, is extremely interested in photography and is always diving down into the cellar to develop his photos. Conan Doyle knows the reader might wonder why Wilson never goes down into his own cellar out of curiosity to see what Spaulding is up to. The reasons are obvious from Wilson's description. He is old. He is overweight. And his florid face suggests that he has high blood pressure. Such a man would be unlikely to venture down a steep flight of wooden cellar stairs and then climb back up again. Watson mentions Wilson's age and stoutness several times throughout his tale. There is also the fact that Wilson is a heavy user of snuff. Like all tobacco, snuff must have a deleterious effect on the lungs over time.
So there are four reasons that Wilson would not care to go down into his cellar. It is fortunate for him that he has never done so, because Vincent Spaulding is really John Clay, "the murderer, thief, smasher, and forger." Clay would not hesitate to kill his employer with a shovel if Wilson ever came down and caught him digging a tunnel. Wilson would have been buried in his own cellar.
Watson does not describe his own reaction to Holmes' offhand deductions about Jabez Wilson, but Watson has been impressed so many times by his friend's analytical genius that he is no longer amazed but only more admiring.