What leads Sherlock Holmes to think that Jabez Wilson has done manual labor?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "The Red-Headed League," Sherlock Holmes deduces that his visitor Jabez Wilson has done manual labor in his earlier life from the following observation. When Wilson asks:

“How did you know, for example, that I did manual labour. It's as true as gospel, for I began as a ship's carpenter.”

Holmes replies:

“Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.”

The purpose of many of Holmes' deductions from Wilson's physical characteristics, his clothing, and his small decorations is to establish that the visitor must have been out of the country for a long time. This would explain why he might never have heard about the formation of the Red-Headed League by the American millionaire, Ezekiah Hopkins. Otherwise, a man with his flaming red hair should have heard about it because it was, according to his new assistant, a big news item for quite some time after it was founded. Customers would have called it to his attention, just as Vincent Spaulding did when he brought him the newspaper and said:

“‘I wish to the Lord, Mr. Wilson, that I was a red-headed man.’ ”

In those days of wooden sailing ships it would have taken as long as a year to get from England to China, and then another year to get back to England. If Wilson made a number of such voyages he would be far away from London for many years and would have had little news about events in that city. The fact that he had spent time in China was also shown by the tattoo on his wrist and the little Chinese coin attached to his watch chain. Even when Wilson was established in business in London, he did not get very much information about what was going on in the big city. He tells the consulting detective:

"You see, Mr. Holmes, I am a very stay-at-home man, and as my business came to me instead of my having to go to it, I was often weeks on end without putting my foot over the door-mat. In that way I didn't know much of what was going on outside, and I was always glad of a bit of news.”

The author of "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, took considerable pains to make it plausible that Wilson, a man with such brilliant red hair, would not have heard about what his assistant tells him was the talk of the town when the fictitious Ezekiah Hopkins established the nonexistent Red-Headed League. Wilson is portrayed as a penny-pincher. He was not likely to go out and buy a newspaper every morning, so he would never see a reference to the League in the papers. The first newspaper he had seen in a long time was the one Vincent Spaulding brought him in order to entice him to apply for the opening in the League being advertised in the in the ad Spaulding himself had just inserted in The Morning Chronicle of April 27, 1890.

“TO THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE: On account of the bequest of the late Ezekiah Hopkins, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, U. S. A., there is now another vacancy open which entitles a member of the League to a salary of £4 a week for purely nominal services. All redheaded men who are sound in body and mind and above the age of twenty-one years, are eligible. Apply in person on Monday, at eleven o'clock, to Duncan Ross, at the offices of the League, 7 Pope's Court, Fleet Street.”