“When I reached the end I stood at bay. He drew no weapon, but he rushed at me and threw his long arms around me. He knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went. With my face over the brink I saw him fall for a long way. Then he struck a rock, bounced off, and splashed into the water.”
As can be seen in this recount of his struggle with his arch enemy Professor Moriarty in the Adventure of the Empty House, Sherlock Holmes accounts for his miraculous survival through the use of ‘baritsu’.
At the time Sir Arthur Canon Doyle wrote the Adventure of the Empty House and for years afterwards, there was some confusion as to just what he was talking about. It is now agreed upon and shown explicitly in the new Sherlock Holmes movie that Canon Doyle was referring to the Japanese system of wrestling called ‘bartitsu’.
Without being able to ask the writer himself, we can only guess as to why he misspelled the word. We will never know if it was a typographical error, a concern about copyright, if he was trying to invent a new form of martial arts for the great detective or whether he simply was not sure of the correct spelling.
Bartitsu is an eclectic martial art created by London engineer Edward William Barton-Wright while working in Japan as a railway engineer and surveyor in the 1880s. By his own accounts, bartitsu is a blend of the ancient Japanese martial art of judo or jujitsu and savate or French boxing. Barton-Wright introduced his new method of fighting to London in 1898 when he established the Bartitsu Club.
When asked what bartitsu was, Barton-Wright said, “Bartitsu has been devised with a view to impart to peacefully disposed men the science of defending themselves against ruffians or bullies, and comprises not only boxing but also the use of the stick, feet, and a very tricky and clever style of Japanese wrestling, in which weight and strength play only a very minor part.”
Barton-Wright taught bartitsu as a form of self defense and as an alternative to firearms whose use was falling out of favor. Rather than relying on aggressive moves, practitioners of bartitsu use their opponents own weight and strength against them to outbalance them. In fact, Barton-Wright showed his students how to defend themselves using only an overcoat – a move frequently employed by Holmes.
Bartitsu could be used to protect oneself from any form of attack from one or more assailants with the unwelcome intruder being easily and non-aggressively expelled.
By the time Canon Doyle introduced baritsu, the Bartitsu Club had closed its doors, more for a lack of business sense on the part of Barton-Wright than a lack of interest in the art. Still, Sherlock Holmes’s mastery of the mixed martial art became legendary.
There is much controversy about the extreme use of bartitsu in the new Sherlock Holmes movie. Many say that this portrayal of Holmes is way too violent. Perhaps it has been carried too far, but it is in keeping with Canon Doyle’s depiction of the great detective.
You can read about Holmes use of baritsu and his talents in wrestling, boxing, fencing and stick fighting in The Sherlock Holmes Handbook.