The History of the Notorious Canary-Trainers

Notorious Canary-Trainers logo

by Michael H. McCoy, January 2014
Revised 2022 by Max Magee

The Madison Sherlock Holmes society known as the Notorious Canary-Trainers was founded in April, 1969, by Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts in the Madison area.

The group began its existence as the Amateur Mendicant Society of Madison and kept that name for several years until it found out that another group elsewhere already had established informal “rights” to the use of that title.

The Amateur Mendicant Society was an organization investigated by Holmes in 1887 and which “held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse,” according to the story “The Five Orange Pips.” According to the first issue of the AMS newsletter, “A Case of Identity,” issued in 1971:

“The Holmes addicts of Madison…wished to form a group of devotees, led by Mr. Ira Fistell, host of Radio Station WKOW’s “Nightline” program, who became our first president and has since moved on to Milwaukee.”

Fistell also was the first recipient of the group’s main award, the Mycroft trophy (a form of recognition no longer presented). Fistell later left Milwaukee for Los Angeles, where he continued to work in radio, hosting talk programs as late as 1995, and perhaps even longer. The call letters WKOW no longer are used by what is now WOLX. The newsletter was renamed the “Tweet Sheet.”

(The group’s newsletter once was named “Notes from a Notorious Card Club” as a joint publication of the Notorious Canary-Trainers and a similar group in Milwaukee called the Bagatelle Card Club. The editor of these publications and a member of both groups was Susan Flaherty, the only remaining original member of the Madison group. The Tweet Sheet passed into Michael H. McCoy’s capable hands but was discontinued with his death in 2017.)

According to Rita Wlodarczyk, one of the founding members, the organization’s establishment was prompted by Fistell asking callers trivia questions about Holmes on his “Nightline” radio program. Because of the response that program generated from callers, there appeared to be enough interest in the Canon to justify an organizational meeting.

According to the first newsletter, “There were approximately fifteen charter members, of whom five are still with us, including the present president (Miss Joanna Overn) and vice president (Mrs. Donna Kopecky).” The group eventually decided to submit a request to the Baker Street Irregulars for formal recognition by that group. But as they were to learn, the Amateur Mendicant Society was a name already in use by another group. Since the BSI discourages duplicate names for organizations it recognizes, the BSI in 1975 proposed the name the group uses today. An organization recognized by the BSI is called a scion, although BSI membership remains invitation only. No current members of the Notorious Canary-Trainers are members of BSI.

The group first held its meetings in downtown Madison at the Community Center. Later, meetings moved to the Wisconsin Union (Room 221, of course), to members’ homes for parties and picnics, an antique shop, and eventually to various booksellers and coffeehouses. The group has floated between the Fitchburg Public Library and other alternate venues as required throughout the last decade. Beginning in 2020, we met virtually, using video chat, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We still hold story discussions once a month plus extraneous events (including continuing the annual birthday dinner celebration, as well as our social group, The Comrades of the Order) interspersed as we find interesting things to do and see together.

Our group just wrapped up a Raffles (The Amateur Cracksman/Gentleman Thief) discussion group that spanned about a year and a half. Since it was pandemic time, we met entirely online, and that allowed several Raffles-fan folks to join us regularly from Canada. After finishing the Raffles series, our alternate reading group began reading the Lord Peter Whimsy novels by Dorothy Sayers — one each month, in publication order. That group meets virtually the first Sunday of the month.

As of Fall 2022, in-person meetings have resumed at the Fitchburg Library, with online broadcasting of the sessions to allow virtual participation offered upon request.

For more on our history, including an explanation of the name, an archived version of a group webpage circa 2006 is available, as are meeting minutes and newsletters from that time.