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Generating A Timeline

In the story of Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes is investigating the disappearance of a famous racehorse. How could such a famous animal just go missing? Who was the culprit? What events led up to the missing animal?

To answer those questions, Holmes uses timeline reconstruction to figure out when the events occurred. There are huge benefits to doing this when trying to create deductions or even just improving observations. Why?

Before we answer that question, let's first examine what he does in the Adventure of Silver Blaze. “On that evening the horses had been exercised and watered as usual, and the stables were locked up at nine o’clock. Two of the lads walked up to the trainer’s house, where they had supper in the kitchen, while the third, Ned Hunter, remained on guard. At a few minutes after nine the maid, Edith Baxter, carried down to the stables his supper, which consisted of a dish of curried mutton. She took no liquid, as there was a water-tap in the stables, and it was the rule that the lad on duty should drink nothing else. The maid carried a lantern with her, as it was very dark and the path ran across the open moor."

Did you catch the timeline that has been established so far? The stables were locked up at 9. The maid brought the food a few minutes after nine for the stable boy. This may seem trivial but this information helps him establish when the events occurred. Let's continue.

If we continue reading the story, a man approaches the maid as she approaches the stable to deliver food to the stable boy named Hunter. The man is looking for a betting edge on the horses appearing in the race. He peeps through the window where Hunter and Silver Blaze are locked up for the night. Hunter chases the man. The man escapes.

We read, ‘I’ll show you how we serve them in King’s Pyland.’ He sprang up and rushed across the stable to unloose the dog. The girl fled away to the house, but as she ran she looked back and saw that the stranger was leaning through the window. A minute later, however, when Hunter rushed out with the hound he was gone, and though he ran all round the buildings he failed to find any trace of him.”

“Hunter waited until his fellow-grooms had returned, when he sent a message to the trainer and told him what had occurred. Straker (the trainer) was excited at hearing the account, although he does not seem to have quite realized its true significance. It left him, however, vaguely uneasy, and Mrs. Straker, waking at one in the morning, found that he was dressing. In reply to her inquiries, he said that he could not sleep on account of his anxiety about the horses, and that he intended to walk down to the stables to see that all was well. She begged him to remain at home, as she could hear the rain pattering against the window, but in spite of her entreaties he pulled on his large mackintosh and left the house.

Mrs. Straker awoke at seven in the morning, to find that her husband had not yet returned. She dressed herself hastily, called the maid, and set off for the stables. The door was open; inside, huddled together upon a chair, Hunter was sunk in a state of absolute stupor, the favorite’s stall was empty, and there were no signs of his trainer.

Okay so did you catch the other parts of the timeline? After the trainer received the message he couldn't sleep so he investigated stables sometime after one in the morning. Then his wife, awakening at seven, found that her husband hadn't returned. They find the body of the trainer a ways off from the stable. He has his head stabbed by a vicious blow. This helps us to know when the trainer died. Likely before seven but after one.

This timeline along with the other pieces of evidence help Holmes establish what happened to the horse as well as the trainer. This practice of creating a timeline isn't unique to just this story. In many of the other stories penned by Doyle, we read Holmes' reconstruction of events. He clarifies times, locations, items, sounds, etc...

Now the timeline in this story, wasn't the primary method Holmes used to figure out how the horse went missing, but we do learn in the story that the trainer was the only one that could have tampered with the stable boys food. In light of this, it becomes obvious who must have taken the horse when we consider the point of the dog not barking in the night. But knowing who had access to the stable boys food (he was drugged) and when would have been a powerful link in the chain of his deductive reasoning. (To read the full story, go to the end of the post and click the link. )

The question was asked before, 'why is there a huge benefit to creating a timeline to improve deductions?' Let's try to make a deduction based on mostly a speculative timeline to see it's value.



A well dressed man walks into the lobby of an office building where you work and is drenched from head to toe with coffee. Yes including his hair. The coffee is virtually everywhere. Do you have the mental image? Okay, let’s explore a little.

He obviously didn’t wake up and cover himself with coffee. We are assuming that he is in his right mind and didn’t intend to cover himself with coffee. So he was covered in coffee sometime after he left his house. Why can we say that with relative certainty? If he dumped the coffee on himself at home, he would have simply grabbed a change of clothes or changed while in the house but he didn’t. So this coffee spill happened after he left his house.

The fact that he didn’t turn around to go back to his residence also suggests that the spill occurred far away enough from his home that it was impractical to turn around. This is suggestive that he was rather close to the office building when this happened.

The spill didn’t occur in the lobby of the building, so we can eliminate the lobby as a potential spill site. Next we have to gather some other information to reach a stable conclusion of our observation. We mentioned that the coffee was even in his hair. How did it get there? Here are some possibilities:

  • He had the coffee on the roof of his car and it spilled on his head and body.

  • It was on some surface above him like a window seal or scaffold and dropped down on him.

  • He fell with the coffee in his hands and threw it up into the air and it landed on top of him.

  • Someone spilled the coffee on his head and all over him.

Is it possible to figure out which of these scenarios took place? Yes. All we have to do is apply a little imagination to figure it out.

Let’s explore the idea that he fell and the coffee landed on him after he threw it over his head after falling. I personally don’t like this theory. It seems like something I would see in a movie staged for comical effect. I’m inclined to believe that when you spill something, like coffee, it will dump out in front of you, to the side of you or even towards you. But for the coffee to spill on you from above just doesn’t seem natural.

If he has a pair of car keys, we can conclude that maybe he may have dropped the coffee from the roof of his car, onto his head.

Pretend for a moment, that you placed a coffee on the roof of your car. You get into your car and close the door. Realizing you left the coffee on your roof, you open the door. What happens next? If the coffee was at the ledge of the door, when you opened it, wouldn’t the coffee simply spill onto the outer part of the door and possibly some of it would trickle into the inside of the car. This wouldn’t be enough to dump all over your head. Then if we got out of the car why would it spill on us from above if it didn’t spill before?

Even though this seems possible, this theory doesn’t seem probable.

Next, let's discuss the idea that the coffee spilled on him from an upper ledge like a scaffold or window ledge. This theory works if the man didn’t have car keys. Why is that the case? If he had car keys, he likely didn’t have many opportunities to stand under ledges, especially if he parked by the building that he just entered into.

If he didn’t have any car keys, this theory has a little more credibility. The more opportunities he had to walk under ledges the more the chances he would have for coffee perched on a ledge to fall on his head. While this is a completely valid explanation, I do think that the likelihood of this happening is sort of slim.

The theory that seems to be the most probable, of our options, is that someone poured the coffee on his head. There is of course the possibility that the man purchased a coffee, someone bumped into him and it flew above his head, landing on him. Also a strong wind could have blown, picking up the coffee into the air then landing on his head.

Regardless of the conclusion we reach, the important thing to take away from this is that creating a timeline is a powerful tool to fill in context when we make observations. When did this event take place? How did this event happen? When you place time into the equation, possibilities arise that may not have been considered before. In the coming week, why not try creating a deduction based on a timeline or timetable. You might surprise yourself with how much information you can extract from an observation by just thinking about the timeline.


If you enjoyed this post consider feel free to share it with others. Also, I am have been less diligent with posts because I am working on a book for the science of deduction. After blogging for some time about deductions, I have learned a lot of lessons that I want to share with others. I feel that a book will be nice way to do that. I hope to be sharing some snippets with you in the coming weeks.


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