“The game’s afoot, Watson.”

And with those words, Sherlock Holmes delved into another mystery. I’m no Sherlock, but I’ve got a woodworking mystery. Want to help solve it?

Civil War officers traveled with field desks. These portable offices were essentially boxes with doors (most, but not all, folded down to become writing surfaces). Inside where slots, cubbies and sometimes drawers to hold correspondence, company books, orders and anything else the officer needed. Here’s a perfect example of one shown below.

This desk, belonging to Union Capt. William Holden, is on display at The Castle Museum in Marietta, Ohio, where I take part in living history programs from time to time. The director and I were discussing this desk last night, and he noted that the desk is rumored to have a secret compartment, but that no one has ever been able to access it.

Well, if you look closely at the photo it’s clear where the compartment is, but the mystery here isn’t the location but how to open it. The desk is 10” deep, but those two cubbyholes on the left are only 6” deep. The third cubby is 9” deep. The fourth cubby on the right extends all the way to the back panel of the desk (you can see a crack in the panel), as do the horizontal slots.

I played with the desk for some time last night, and again this morning when I took this photo. Naturally, the museum director has also spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. There is nothing obvious anywhere – no buttons, no exposed dowel tips, no tilting panels, nothing that slides. Again, looking closely at the photo, you can see in that second cubby on the left that the rear wall seems to have a gap on the left side. However, that piece is very solidly in place.

Here’s what we’ve ruled out. None of those thin dividers pulls out; they’re in there solid as can be. A release mechanism isn’t hidden in one of those horizontal slots – we examined them thoroughly with a flashlight, plus they’re too narrow for a man’s hand to fit in. Nothing on the bottom of the desk, or on the back or sides. All joinery is solid.  But if that secret compartment is to be accessed, something has to move. We just can’t find it.

Or maybe the solution to the mystery is simpler: Maybe that’s not a secret compartment at all. Maybe Capt. Holden kept a particular size envelope there, or maybe a specific set of orders, and merely wanted to keep from sliding to the back of the cubby and so he just had the regimental carpenter insert wood into the back simply to make the cubbies shorter. Could it be that simple?

Your comments – and Sherlockian theories – are welcome.

Till next time,

A.J.

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