Will the Real Sherlock Holmes Please Stand Up?

May 6, 2019 | 5 min read

In 1893, Sherlock Holmes was approaching the peak of his popularity when his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, decided to do the unthinkable. He vowed to kill off his literary progeny. The method he would use came to him on a trip he made to Switzerland that summer—he would dispose of the world’s first and most popular consulting detective by throwing him over the beautiful Alpine Reichenbach Falls.

Holmes’s apparent death was documented in “The Final Problem,” published in The Strand Magazine in December 1893. Readers were inconsolable. Legend has it that a large number thronged around the Strand’s offices, wearing black mourning armbands. Conan Doyle, though, was rather less affected. He was utterly weary of his detective, believing he kept him from better and more important work. He wanted to be a Sir Walter Scott for the next generation, not a scribbler of mere detective yarns.

By coincidence, at the same time as “The Final Problem” appeared, a real-life murder trial was playing out in Scotland. A sensation in its own right, it also served to cast a light on the extraordinary genesis of Sherlock Holmes—although few observers quite grasped its significance at the time.

At Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary, a private tutor by the name of Alfred Monson was on trial for the murder (and additionally, the attempted murder) of his student, a handsome young army lieutenant called Cecil Hambrough. Cecil had lived as virtually part of Monson’s family for the best part of three years, since he was 17 years old. The case caused an absolute sensation. For one thing, Monson was far from the typical defendant in a capital case. He was the son of a rector whose close family relations included Lord Oxenbridge (who had become the Queen’s Master of the Horse the previous year), Lord Galway, and the British ambassador to Austria.

Monson had been employed by Cecil’s father to prepare the boy for a gentleman’s life in the military. By the summer of 1893, Cecil was living with Monson, his wife, and their young children at the grand Ardlamont estate on Scotland’s Cowal peninsula. One stormy morning in August, Monson, Hamborough, and a mysterious third man known as Mr. Scott embarked on a hunting expedition. But only Monson and Scott came back alive. Cecil received a shotgun wound to his head and died where he fell. The local doctor accepted that a tragic accident had taken place and so the victim was buried at the family church on his native Isle of Wight, off England’s southern coast. But over the next few weeks, it emerged that Monson and his wife had taken out life insurance policies on their charge. What had appeared accident was now treated as murder. Cecil’s body was exhumed and so began one of the Victorian era’s most notorious murder investigations—one that came to be known as the Ardlamont Mystery.

For Holmes aficionados, Cecil Hambrough’s death might have evoked memories of one of Conan Doyle’s earlier Holmes short stories—“The Boscombe Valley Mystery.” That tale featured a young man who reported the death of his father—in whose company he had recently been—his “body stretched out upon the grass” in a wood. But whereas Cecil’s death was initially regarded as accidental—ensuring that a vast wealth of evidence from the scene of death was lost—in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” the son was assumed to have had a hand in his father’s demise. So, when Holmes got on the case, he had plenty of evidence to mull over. Not so the poor expert forensic witnesses charged with figuring out what had happened at Ardlamont.

Among those experts were two of the most respected medical men in Edinburgh society, not to mention pioneers in the then burgeoning world of forensic science. Their names were Joseph Bell and Henry Littlejohn. Moreover, as chance would have it, they were the chief inspirations behind the creation of Sherlock Holmes.

Bell and Littlejohn were leading figures in the medical faculty at Edinburgh University when Conan Doyle began his medical studies there in 1876. As had been subsequently well documented, Bell had an extraordinary gift for establishing the symptoms and back stories of his patients simply by close observation of the subtlest non-verbal signals. He could tell a man’s profession from his walk, whether he had served in the military by the way he wore his hat, or where he lived from the state of his shoes.

His displays of inductive reasoning—that is to say, making broad generalizations from specific observations—fascinated Conan Doyle, who stretched the technique as far as he could in the character of Holmes. In 1892, Conan Doyle even wrote to Bell to tell him: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.” That same year, Bell was named in the press as “the real life” Holmes. Whether or not he enjoyed the attention that this revelation engendered is moot, but his name became synonymous with that of the fictional detective forevermore.

Littlejohn, though, received no such acknowledgement in his lifetime. Yet at the time when Conan Doyle was studying under Bell (in fact, he even worked as Bell’s medical assistant for an extended period), Littlejohn was the country’s leading forensic expert. Moreover, as the official Police Surgeon, he was the first port of call for the police whenever there was a suspicious death. He was a virtual ever-present at the major murder scenes in Scotland throughout the second half of the 19th century.

He was, also, a great friend of Bell. So how could Conan Doyle not have been influenced by him in the creation of Holmes? It was only in 1929, years after Littlejohn’s death, that Conan Doyle is recorded as acknowledging his contribution. At a talk he gave in Nairobi, Kenya, he revealed that it was the methods of Bell and Littlejohn that first induced him to write a detective story from the point of view of the scientific man.

It is my belief that Littlejohn was purposefully written out of the Holmes genesis story so that he might continue his vital work unhindered. During the Ardlamont trial, Bell gave an interview to a journalist from the Pall Mall Gazette. He revealed that he and Littlejohn had been working together on cases for the police for over 20 years. Littlejohn—as the paid employee of the police—routinely called upon Bell to be his “second man” on investigations. In other words, Bell was something akin to Littlejohn’s Watson. As the press clamored for information on the real-world origins of Holmes, how much better for Bell to “take the heat” while Littlejohn (the professional detective, as it were) could continue his labors without the extra pressure of being tagged “Holmes incarnate”?

The Ardlamont case put enormous strain on both Bell and Littlejohn. The stakes were extraordinarily high and the courtroom drama intense. But for us today, it is a case that delivers in so many ways. Firstly, there is a mystery as perplexing and gripping as anything Holmes himself ever faced. Then there is the spectacle of Littlejohn and Bell in their pomp, turning over the evidence in search of truth—and so giving us a masterclass in the evolution of forensics into the scientific discipline that we recognize today. In doing so, these men of science, rationalism, and reason provided us with a compelling glimpse into the world that birthed Sherlock Holmes—still the greatest detective who ever (and, of course, never) lived.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/dynamosquito.

is the author of The Ardlamont Mystery: The Real-Life Story Behind the Creation of Sherlock Holmes and How to Think Like Einstein. He is also a long-time contributor to The Statesman's Yearbook.