Poison in Princeton: A Sherlock Holmes Escape Room

sherlock holmes escape room

You might recall the sneak peek of our Sherlock Holmes escape room. Now it’s time to unveil all its secrets! It all started when our gang did a professional escape room for my birthday weekend. Katie and I thought the puzzle-solving premise of the escape room would pair perfectly with the literary world’s master of deduction.

bottle solvingThis entire escape room – the research, the puzzles, the narrative, the props, the logistics – is all Katie’s doing! Her preparations were extensive. She watched escape room videos, visited escape rooms, and had a meeting with game master Rebecca Ross from “Epic Escape Game” in Greenwood Village, Colorado. She bounced clue ideas around with Princeton University student Anna Leader (she of Victorian Tea fame) and pretested everything on a group of 6th graders at the Saint Paul School of Princeton. The logistics were pretty staggering too. We ran 3 identical escape rooms simultaneously for 5 hours,180 kids total.

solving pop sci

The premise of the escape room was that a poison had been released into the water system of Princeton, and Princeton University asked Sherlock Holmes to quickly find an antidote. He did, but a nefarious group of business men were trying to capture him, steal the antidote, and sell it to the infected populace. Holmes escaped and hid the antidote in a room with clues on how to find it. Kids had 20 minutes to solve the clues and identify the antidote.

The escape rooms took place in East Pyne Hall on campus. Its beautiful wood-paneled classrooms with leaded windows were the perfect setting for a Victorian caper.

east pyneUpon entering the room, kids found a large wooden desk with a number of items scattered on it. A teacup, teabag, an old map of London, a magnifying glass, books, photos, trade cards, a key, and an issue of Popular Science.

desktopAs I mentioned in the sneak peek, the trade cards, Popular Science, photos, and books are real objects from that period (sooooo cool). Also in the classroom were 8-10 Princeton University test booklets…

test bookletsFive bottles on the windowsill with scientific labels (Katie filled the bottles with items from her pantry, and hot glued the corks in really, really tight!)…

bottlesThere was a padlocked wooden box, which was in turn chained to a radiator grate…

locked box and keyAlso chained to the radiator (and far, far out of range of the box) was a key that had an unusual letter lock.

letter lockAdditionally, the room had two signs posted on opposite walls. An alphabet:

alphabet cipherAnd a figurine code. Holmes fans will recognize this as the famous “Dancing Men” cipher.

dancing men cipherThe blackboard also contained some clues…

clues on blackboardFinally, we had “Do Not Touch” signs posted in the room for over-eager investigators. You’re definitely going to need these…kids tear the rooms up looking for clues!

do not touch trapdoordo not touch flatscreenHere’s how all the clues worked, and the final solution. Hidden inside (and on) the various objects were Dancing Men clues. There was one inside a book:

book clue

One spread across the back of 2 test booklets…

test booklet clue

There was one on the back of the tea bag…

tea bag clueOne on an old map of London (you needed the magnifying glass to find it):

map clueFinally, there was one in a dyspepsia ad in Popular Science.

popular science clueThe last two clues were a little hard to find, so we left hints on the blackboard…

scotland yard hintdyspepsia hintThe Dancing Men clues corresponded to the 2 signs on the wall. Each figurine matched a different letter of the alphabet.

dancing men cipher

alphabet cipher

However, the signs were posted on opposing walls. So the kids had to cooperate to solve them. Teamwork! Did you notice the Roman numeral on each Dancing Men clue? Those were the order in which you dialed the letters on the letter lock.

letter lockOnce the key was released from the letter lock, it opened the padlock on the wooden box.

solving box clueInside the box was an old-fashioned periodic table with the words “I’ve found it!” scrawled on it. Elements hydrogen (H), sodium (Na), oxygen (O), and phosphorous (P) were circled as well.

periodic table clueKids matched the circled elements to the correct label on the antidote bottle. And we made sure it was an actual antidote. Sodium hydrogen orthophosphate is a saline laxative agent (something Katie’s 11 year-old finds endlessly amusing).

final solutionThe kids took the bottle to the game master, who confirmed that they had solved the escape room! We had a game master in each room, dropping hints when needed, preventing parents from solving puzzles, and generally keeping kids on task. Here are our 3 amazing game masters, Princeton University students Anna Leader, Anne Merrill, and Erica Choi.

game mastersAs kids exited the room, the game masters awarded them their choice of a souvenir key to take home!

key prizeBut wait, you say, what about the photographs, the trade cards, the key on the desk, and all that other writing on the blackboard? Hah HAH! Those are all red herrings, added to throw kids off. Because it wouldn’t be an escape room without red herrings!

red herrings

And how did the escape room go over? Very, very, well! There was excited screaming, running, urgent problem solving, clever work-arounds, and hilarious dialogue. Two of our favorites as heard through the door: “For the LOVE! Will someone please FIND Scotland Yard?!?” and this one (presumably when the periodic table was discovered): “Oh my gosh…guys! We all got Ds in science class!” Most kids finished the room right at the 20 minutes mark. The record? 12 minutes, my dear Watson.

To conclude, here is a list of hints for running the room. If you have any specific questions, or want to know where we found/ bought our items, feel free to e-mail Katie: zondlo@princeton.edu

  • Our room was designed for ages 9-14. A maximum of 6 kids participated per room.
  • Make sure participants arrive at least 10 minutes before the game begins. We were very clear in all promotional and registration material that late arrivals would not be admitted.
  • Have a waiting area for participants, and try to keep it away from the the actual escape room so no one overhears the puzzles being solved.
  • Make sure all clues are printed. Not all kids can read cursive. We learned this the hard way.
  • Test everything in advance! Make sure the locks slide into the objects they’re supposed to lock! Again, learned this the hard way.
  • Make sure you have backups of every clue and object in case something breaks or wanders away (scotch tape for paper repairs is a good idea too).
  • Make sure the game masters know the game. We ran them through the room once, and we gave them cheat sheets on event day.
  • Bring cell phone chargers. Our 20 minute game timers were our cell phones. Woe to ye who runs out of battery!

Many thanks to everyone who helped us put this escape room together! Thank you Rebecca Ross from Epic Escape Game for fielding our endless questions. Anna Leader, thank you for helping with the puzzles! Thank you to Anne Merrill, Erica Choi, and Anna for being such excellent game masters. To the young investigators at Saint Paul School Princeton, thank you for enthusiastically testing our room. And finally, a BIG tip of the deerstalker to Katie for putting this all together. You are an escape room MASTER!

Don’t Touch the Tiger

don't touch the tigerTyger Tyger burning bright! Make it past the teeth, and you’ll be all right!

We recommend reading Beware of Tigers by Dave Horowitz (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006). Feathered friends Chirp and Birp are laughingly incredulous that a tiger is in their city, despite warnings from others. Well, there IS a tiger, and he is more than happy to entertain two tasty little birds. As his smile grows wider and wider, Chirp and Birp realize that perhaps cuddling up with a tiger isn’t such a great idea. Good thing they have a friend with even bigger teeth!

You’ll need:

  • 1 large tissue box
  • Construction paper
  • Scissors, tape, and/or glue for construction
  • Markers for decorating (optional)

This project is a modification of a Valentine’s box I pinned and swore I would find a use for. Yes! Begin by covering a large tissue box with orange construction paper. Next, use more construction paper to add a nose, eyes, and stripes (or draw them on with markers). The teeth are construction paper too.

To play the game, place several objects in the tiger’s mouth. Then challenge kids to gently reach in, and – without moving, tapping, or knocking over the tiger – remove the objects. The objects can be anything. For younger kids, it might be best to use something that stick out past the mouth like drinking straws. For older kids, smaller objects like jingle bells, foam beads, or pom-poms work!

tiger straws

Believe it or not, we have more chomping creature projects on the blog. Check out our cookie-consuming cow here, and our monster food chain here. Need some dental assistance? We have your crocodile care kit right here.

Welcome to the Jungle

welcome to the jungle

It’s a jungle out there, but we bet you can safely navigate your bouncy ball up ramps, over bridges, past drinking straw obstacles, and through pipe cleaner wickets to the goal!

We recommend reading The Zabajaba Jungle by William Steig (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987). In a dreamy, dangerous journey through the Zabajaba jungle, young Leonard and his trusty bolo encounter a number of jungle creatures and treacherous obstacles. A Steig classic.

You’ll need:

  • 1 copy paper box lid
  • Construction paper
  • Drinking straws
  • Green pipe cleaners
  • Paper cups
  • Paper bowl
  • Poster board or tagboard
  • Scissors, tape and/or glue¬† for construction
  • Hot glue (optional)

Our jungle game is a copy paper box lid with as many (or as few) obstacles for you to navigate a ball through. We used bouncy balls – I bought a 6-pack for $1 at our local dollar store. Here’s our basic jungle:

just the obstacles As you can see, we had a paper bowl tunnel, a bumpy drinking straw “path,” green pipe cleaners acting as vine wickets, and a blue construction paper river. We used tagboard to make a bridge, as well as a ramp and an elevated pathway. At the bottom of the box lid are the “goals”…paper cup halves cut down to various heights. Want to fill things out a little? Add construction paper foliage:

with foliageYou can also add fabric (or construction paper) flowers for some pops of color!

with foliage and flowersTo play, drop a bouncy ball in anywhere, then navigate through the obstacles and foliage by tilting and turning your box top. The ball goes in a cup, you win! Bonus fun – use multiple balls at once, or play with one kid at each end of the box top!