Was Sherlock Holmes a real person?

A drawing of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular fictional characters that has ever been created. His name has become synonymous with the detection of crime and the solving of mysteries. Holmes is widely viewed as the epitome of what a detective should be. Since his introduction to the world, he has appeared many times on screen and stage.

Holmes is so popular that many people assume he was a real-life figure. This is not the case. This article will examine if the character was based on a historical crime fighter or real-life detective. It investigates the development of the character, a biography of the fictional character and then evaluates the likely candidates for the original model for the most famous detective in history.

The evolution of Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle

The British writer Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) created Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a remarkable man, the son of an alcoholic Irish artist he became a medical doctor, writer, freemason, and spiritualist. Conan Doyle created the character of Holmes when he was 27. Initially, found it very difficult to find a publisher.

The first Sherlock Holmes story was A Study in Scarlet (1887), and it proved a minor success. Later stories soon followed, and they became a sensation and made their author a celebrity. Soon the British public had an insatiable demand for the stories of Conan-Doyle.[1]

Doyle wrote over a dozen stories and two novels, but soon he became bored with the adventures of Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson. Despite pleas from his publishers he killed off Sherlock Holmes in 1893. This led to a public outcry, and many fans of the investigator allegedly cried when they heard that Holmes had died.[2]

For ten years Conan-Doyle concentrated on historical fiction, which was well received. In 1901 he returned to writing stories about Holmes, after pressure from his writing public and lucrative offers from publishers. In total, Doyle wrote four novels and 57 short stories over his career. He wrote the last story about his most famous creation was in 1927. Since the death of Conan Doyle, many authors have continued to write stories based on the British doctor’s creation. There have been many movies about the great detective, and perhaps the most popular was Basil Rathbone, who portrayed the detective on the silver screen in Hollywood’s Golden era (the 1930s and 1940s). Robert Downey Jr. portrayal of Holmes was very well received in 2009 and a sequel in 2011.

Many of the movies are not based on the Conan Doyle stories but only use the unforgettable character in new plots. An excellent example of this was Mr. Holmes (2015), which is a re-imagining of the detective's later years in retirement. In recent decades there have been numerous television series based on the character including Sherlock, which has the master-investigator living in modern London and stars Benedict Cumberbatch (2010-2017). Many believe that Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of the detective in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994) was one of the greatest ever.

The fictional biography of the master detective

The cover of the Hounds of the Baskervilles

There are few references to Holmes early life. It appears that he was born in the 1850s and that he came from the English gentry and that his mother may have been part-French. It has been speculated that Holmes who never married had a cruel governess in his youth and this is why he never had a lasting relationship with a female. Sherlock had an older brother called Mycroft who was something of a genius and worked for the government and is often referred to in the stories. The future detective went to Oxford and it was here that he acquired his formidable powers of deduction. He became an amateur detective after he visited a university friend during his summer vacation.

Holmes solved a mystery revolving around secrets from his friend’s father dubious past. The young man later became what is known as a consultant, and he worked on many criminal cases. Holmes lived in London in 221 B Baker Street and eventually took in a lodger Dr. Watson a veteran of the British Indian Army and they became partners. The two Batchelors lived in an apartment that was maintained by Mrs. Hudson. Holmes was already an experienced detective by the time he met the doctor. Sherlock became a very well-known detective and was consulted by aristocrats, politicians, and monarchs and even by Scotland Yard. Watson later married and left Baker Street but returned to live with his old friend and partner after she died.[3]

At some point, Sherlock became addicted to morphine a common problem in the 19th century and also occasionally took cocaine. Holmes was also an expert on forensic science and a master of disguise. He was also a polymath and was very knowledgeable of several scientific subjects and was an accomplished violinist. The investigator had many battles of wits with criminal masterminds and his greatest enemy was the evil genius Professor James Moriarty.

In a fight with Moriarty, also known as the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, the two men plunged into the Reichenbach Falls, in Switzerland, and it appeared that Holmes had died. Years later he returned to the amazement of many and announced that he had faked his own death. He once again helped British police with some of their most perplexing cases, such as the mystery involving the Hounds of the Baskervilles. The great criminal investigator never married but he apparently had a romantic interest in one of his many criminal foes, Irene Adler.[4]

In about 1904 Holmes retired and he took up beekeeping but it appears that the police still sought out his help. During the First World War, his advice was sought out with regard to the activities of German spies in London.

Literary antecedents of Sherlock Holmes

Many critics at the time of the stories’ publication came to believe that Holmes was inspired not by a real-life detective but by fictional ones. Some critics believe that Conan-Doyle was inspired by the works of the English mystery writer Wilkie Collins. However, undoubtedly, one of the main influences on the creation of the world’s most famous fictional detective was Edgar Alan Poe (1809-1849). He created the world’s first fictional detective, Auguste Dupin. He is a very logical and rational thinker who used reason to solve impossible mysteries.

For example, in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), he solved a murder that took part in a locked and inaccessible room. The creator of the world’s best-known fictional crime fighter was a great admirer of the Baltimore born poet and short-story writer. The stories of Dupin certainly influenced the writer and doctor. Another potential model for Holmes was the fictional French detective M. Lecoq, who was created by Emile Gaboriau (1832–1873). This Parisian criminal, like Holmes, is an opium addict and there are several other similarities to the most famous creation of Conan-Doyle.[5]

Was Joseph Caminada the real Holmes

Another potential model for the hero who solves so many mysteries was Joseph Caminada (1854-1914). There are many undeniable similarities between this real-life detective and the one who operated out of Baker Street. Caminada was born in Manchester and was the son of an Italian immigrant. He joined the police force at an early age and studied criminals so that he could catch them; this is something that Holmes also did, during his many visits to London’s Underworld. Caminada was like Conan Doyle's literary figure, a master of disguise and also used a scientific method to catch criminals, which resulted in him apprehending over 1000 offenders.

The Manchester-based detective was also like Holmes regularly consulted by the police when he became a ‘consultant.’ Then as was the case with the man who solved the Mystery of the Hounds of the Baskervilles, Caminada had a nemesis, who was a criminal mastermind. His enemy was not some egocentric Professor like Moriarty, but a young man who swore revenge on Caminada for arresting him.[6]

Sir Henry Duncan Littlejohn, the inspiration for Holmes?

Sir Henry Duncan Littlejohn (1826-1914), was a Scottish medical doctor, a public health advocate, and a social reformer. Doyle knew him, because Littlejohn, taught him at medical school in Edinburgh. He was one of the earliest experts in the new forensic science, and like Holmes, he was regularly consulted by the police, especially in Scotland.

Littlejohn was frequently used as an expert witness in court cases, and this brought him a measure of fame. He was a very logical man and was a pioneer in the use of science to solve difficult cases. There are many differences between Littlejohn and Holmes, especially in their character. Littlejohn was a rather dour, religious man, who played a very active role in his Church.[7]

He was also a happily married man with a large family. This was very dissimilar to the life led by Sherlock, a committed bachelor, and an opium addict. Moreover, Holmes is portrayed by Doyle as rejecting the opportunity to be knighted, while Littlejohn was knights by Queen Victoria, for his services to medicine.[8]

Joseph Bell

It is widely held by scholars of the works of Conan Doyle that the main model for Sherlock Holmes was Joseph Bell (1837 – 1911). He was a doctor and a lecturer and lived in Edinburgh, Scotland and that Doyle was taught by Bell and later became his assistant, for a while.[9] Bell believed that observation was essential for correct diagnosis. This made him a very successful doctor and surgeon.

He later applied his system of close observation to difficult criminal cases. The deductive method so famously used by Sherlock seems to have been based on the techniques developed by Bell. Like the great detective, he had an uncanny ability to identify a strangers’ occupation, home, and even past, based on simple clues. Bell was also involved in some famous criminal cases and was regularly consulted by the police. In the 1890s, he was consulted by the London Police in relation to the most famous case in British criminal history - Jack the Ripper. Jack Ripper was serial killer who brutally murdered five women in London.

However, Bell did not have any of the eccentricities of Holmes and was a rather respectable figure. He even served as Queen Victoria’s personal medic when she visited Scotland.[10]

Conclusions

Conan Doyle created not only one of the great figures in crime fiction; he fashioned one of the most significant figures in popular culture. Sherlock Holmes creator, Conan Doyle, was influenced by other, writer’s work, especially that of Poe. However, there is a great deal of evidence that suggests that he based his classic character on a historical figure. It is not likely that Joseph Caminada was used as a model by the Edinburgh born writer for his most famous creation. Sir Henry Duncan Littlejohn was probably someone who inspired the young writer to conceive of Holmes famous powers of deduction.

Certainly, the logic and rationality of the fictional detective are very similar to the approach advocated by Littlejohn. However, the main influence on Conan Doyle, when conceiving his immortal character was Joseph Bell and he even admitted it in letters to friends and also publicly in interviews. The Scottish medic was one of the pioneers of forensic science and modern investigation techniques. The writer for his character clearly adopted his analytical method. Then there were his frequent consultations with the police and his involvement in mysterious cases which no-doubt inspired the young writer.

It appears that the author mainly based Sherlock on Bell, but also used some of the characteristics of Littlejohn. However, undoubtedly, Conan Doyle added much to the character. His imagination added memorable details such as the deerstalker hat and phrases such as ‘Elementary, Dear Watson’, that have made the criminal investigator such a beloved hero.

Further Reading

  • Foxcroft, Louise. The Making of Addiction: The 'Use and Abuse' of Opium in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007)
  • Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Volumes I and II. Introduction and Notes by Kyle Freeman. (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003).
  • Knight, Stephen Thomas. Crime fiction 1800-2000: Detection, death, diversity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

References

  1. Edwards, Owen Dudley, The Quest for Sherlock Holmes: A Biographical Study of Arthur Conan Doyle (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1983), p 114
  2. Edwards, p 119
  3. Tracy, Jack, The Sherlock Holmes Encyclopedia: Universal Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes (London: Crescent Books, 1988), p 112
  4. Jack, p 141
  5. Murch, Alma Elizabeth, and Peter Owen. The development of the detective novel (London, Peter Owen, 1968), p 116
  6. O'Neill, Joseph, Crime City: Manchester's Victorian Underworld, Milo Books, 2008), p 14, 89)
  7. Boström, Mattias. From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women who Created an Icon. (York, Grove Press, 2017), p. 118
  8. Ben-Yami, Hanoch. "Could Sherlock Holmes Have Existed?." Croatian Journal of Philosophy 10, no. 30 (2010): 3-9
  9. Jacks, p. 12
  10. Scarlett, Earle P. "The Old Original: Notes on Dr. Joseph Bell Whose Personality and Peculiar Abilities Suggested the Creation of Sherlock Holmes." Archives of internal medicine 114, no. 5 (1964): 696-701