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Joseph Bell, The Real Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

An illustration of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that appeared in a stamp printed in Alderney, circa 2009. Photo: Olga Popova/Shutterstock.com

The Ardlamont murder was an open and shut case. A young, wealthy aristocrat, Cecil Hambrough, was out hunting on the Ardlamont estate in Scotland with two associates—Alfred Monson, his tutor, and a mysterious third man named Edward Scott, who was identified only as a friend of Monson—when shots were heard. Estate workers saw Monson and Scott running out of the woods carrying guns. They were cleaning the weapons when the estate butler asked what had become of Mr. Hambrough. Monson replied that he had shot himself in the head by accident while climbing a fence. At first, the death appeared to be a tragic accident. But two weeks later it was discovered that Hambrough had taken out two life insurance policies only six days before he died. The nominees for both were Monson’s wife.

Monson was arrested and charged with murder. Meanwhile, his accomplice Edward disappeared from the face of the earth. At trial, witnesses were produced, alibis were invented. In the end, the jury decided that there was not enough evidence, and Monson was set free.

Among the witnesses for the prosecution was Joseph Bell, an Edinburgh surgeon and forensic detective, who had a reputation for keen observation. Bell often enthralled his students with demonstrations where he deduced a patient's occupation, place of living and other personal details just by studying his appearance and mannerisms. One of his students was Arthur Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle met Bell in 1877 at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. He later became an assistant in his ward, which gave Doyle the opportunity to observe Bell’s remarkable deducing skills. Bell was able to discern the nearly imperceptible differences in his patients’ accents and correctly identify their places of origin. He could tell, by looking at hand calluses, whether a person was a carpenter, or a mason, or a church bell ringer, and from the walking gait, whether he was a solider or a sailor.

Joseph Bell, The Real Sherlock Holmes

Dr. Joseph Bell.

In his autobiography Memories and Adventures, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Joseph Bell:

Bell was a very remarkable man in body and mind. He was thin, wiry, dark, with a high-nosed acute face, penetrating grey eyes, angular shoulders, and a jerky way of walking. His voice was high and discordant. He was a very skillful surgeon, but his strong point was diagnosis, not only of disease, but of occupation and character. For some reason which I have never understood he singled me out from the drove of students who frequented his wards and made me his outpatient clerk, which meant that I had to array his outpatients, make simple notes of their cases, and then show them in, one by one, to the large room in which Bell sat in state surrounded by his dressers and students. Then I had ample chance of studying his methods and of noticing that he often learned more of the patient by a few quick glances than I had done by my questions. Occasionally the results were very dramatic, though there were times when he blundered. In one of his best cases he said to a civilian patient:

"Well, my man, you've served in the army."
"Aye, sir."
"Not long discharged?"
"No, sir."
"A Highland regiment?"
"Aye, sir."
"A non-com. officer?"
"Aye, sir."
"Stationed at Barbados?"
"Aye, sir."

Bell later explained to his astonished audience:

You see, gentlemen, the man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British.

Bell emphasized the importance of close examination, the attention to physical details, the empirical observation of the patient, and the legitimate inferences which might be drawn therefrom. Conan Doyle embodied these qualities in Sherlock Holmes, and he makes no attempt to hide the fact that the character was based on this remarkable professor:

It is no wonder that after the study of such a character I used and amplified his methods when in later life I tried to build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal.

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in A Study in Scarlet, in 1887, just ten year after Doyle first met Professor Joseph Bell. Holmes’ popularity became widespread when the first series of short stories featuring the character were published in The Strand Magazine in 1891. Within two years, the character became such a strain on Doyle’s “literary energies” that Doyle had Holmes killed in the short story The Final Problem, to the horror and outrage of his readers. Doyle was eventually coaxed into resurrecting the character eight years later.

Sherlock Holmes

Holmes and Watson in a Sidney Paget illustration for "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" published in The Strand Magazine in December 1892.

Joseph Bell took a keen interest in these detective tales, and even offered his former student suggestions, which Doyle respectfully rejected saying they were not “very practical”.

As the publicity of Sherlock Holmes soared, so did that of Joseph Bell. Bell was soon asked by Edinburgh’s police force to assist them solve crimes. In 1888, the Scotland Yard consulted him during its hunt for Jack the Ripper. It is said that Bell even came up with a name of the suspect, but the name was never made public.

Bell never associated himself with Sherlock Holmes. “I hope folks that know me see another and better side to me than what Doyle saw,” Bell told the press. Aside from the great mind, there was little in common between Bell and the fictional detective. Bell was not the incredibly untidy man that Holmes was. He was not addicted to cocaine, and he did not play the violin.

Bell gave all credit to Doyle. “I always regarded him as one of the best students I ever had,” Bell told of Arthur Conan Doyle. “He was exceedingly interested in anything connected with diagnosis, and was never tired of trying to discover all those little details which one looks for.”

Bell continued:

I should like to say this about my friend Doyle's stories, that I believe they have inculcated in the general public a new source of interest. They make many a fellow ... think that, after all, there may be much more in life if he keeps his eyes open ... There is a problem, a whole game of chess, in many a little street incident or trifling occurrence if one once learns the moves.

“You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it,” Bell once wrote to Doyle.

References:
# https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php?title=Joseph_Bell
# Irish Examiner, https://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/analysis/fiction-imitates-real-life-in-a-case-of-true-inspiration-172752.html
# Barbara F. Westmoreland, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/590739
# The Scotsman, https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/ardlamont-mystery-tragic-mistake-or-calculated-evil-2463317

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