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Issue 101 - The Ardlamont Mystery

Scotland Magazine Issue 101
November 2018


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The Ardlamont Mystery

A real-life murder mystery and the men who inspired the character Sherlock Holmes

This year marks the 125th anniversary of one of the most notorious murder trials of the Victorian era. At Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary in December 1893, Alfred Monson - a rector’s son whose close relatives included lords of the realm and European ambassadors - faced trial for the murder of a 20-year-old army lieutenant named Cecil Hambrough. For its 10-day duration, the case became a cause célèbre throughout the nation. At least one man was stabbed and another accidentally killed as public debate about the defendant’s innocence (or not) got out of hand. In the same month, The Strand Magazine in London published a short story called ‘The Final Problem’. It has gone down in literary folklore as the tale in which its author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, tried to kill off his famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, by flinging him over the Reichenbach Falls.

By curious coincidence, one of the prosecution’s star witnesses in the Ardlamont trial was an Edinburgh doctor, Joseph Bell, who had recently been unmasked by the press as the real-life inspiration for the famous Baker Street detective.

Bell had been one of Conan Doyle’s tutors when he studied medicine at Edinburgh University in the 1870s. He was renowned for his awe-inspiring powers of reasoning and insight. His party piece involved being presented with a previously unseen patient. Picking up on the subtlest non-verbal signals, Bell could build a thorough picture of the subject’s background and medical condition. 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.

These remarkable displays of inductive reasoning - that is to say, making broad generalisations from specific observations - captivated Conan Doyle. So much so that he made Bell’s talents a key feature of Holmes’s own crime-solving method. In 1892 Conan Doyle even wrote to Bell to tell him: ‘It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes’.

What is less well known is that another witness to take the stand at the Ardlamont trial was also a formative influence on the creation of Holmes. His name was Henry Littlejohn and he is, I would argue, deserving of equal billing with Bell in the legend of Sherlock Holmes. But somehow history has denied him the same credit. So, who was he?

Bell and Littlejohn were both leading figures in the medical faculty at Edinburgh University when Conan Doyle began studying there in 1876. Littlejohn also held an array of important public offices, including that of Edinburgh’s official police surgeon. As well as being responsible for the medical welfare of all police staff and prisoners, he was also invited to be present at the scene of a great many of Scotland’s most serious crimes in the second half of the 19th century.

He developed a reputation as a pioneer of forensic science. Forensics - the use of scientific methods in the detection of crime - was then in its infancy but Edinburgh was at its very forefront. Arguably, it was not only the leading forensics hub in Britain but in Europe too. Littlejohn himself forged new approaches to forensic pathology (the art of discovering a victim’s cause of death by post-mortem examination) and was quick to embrace such emerging innovations as fingerprinting and crimescene photography.

Littlejohn considered Bell among his most trusted and capable colleagues. From the 1870s he got into the habit of bringing his friend along with him on many of his investigations. Among their most famous cases was that of Eugene Chantrelle. In 1878, Chantrelle, a French teacher, was convicted of murdering his young wife after post-mortem investigations by Bell and Littlejohn showed that what had been a suspected accidental gas poisoning was actually a case of deliberate opium poisoning. Bell also hinted that 10 years later he and Littlejohn had been asked by Scotland Yard to assist on the Jack the Ripper case, even suggesting that they were successful in identifying the culprit.

Conan Doyle worked for a time as Bell’s medical assistant. To suggest that he was influenced by Bell in the creation of Sherlock Holmes, but not by Bell’s great friend, crime-fighting partner and forensics genius Henry Littlejohn, seems absurd. My suspicion is that Littlejohn did not want the distraction of the inevitable attention that would fall upon him if he was unmasked as the model for Holmes. Instead, Bell took the heat alone. If this was the case, Littlejohn made a wise decision. Although Bell enjoyed aspects of the acclaim he received, he soon grew weary of being known as the ‘real-life Sherlock Holmes’. Littlejohn, on the other hand, continued with his vital work unhindered.

It was only in 1929, years after Littlejohn’s death, that Conan Doyle is recorded as acknowledging his influence. 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 a scientific man’s point of view.

Nonetheless, the Ardlamont case of 1893 brought Littlejohn and Bell to public attention in a manner neither could have imagined. Something of an irony, given that Conan Doyle was trying to bump Sherlock Holmes off at just that moment. The trial proved to be a sensation. The public was captivated by its revelations of gory death, wealthy families undone, shady life insurance dealings, dubious figures from the London underworld and even a suspect whose non-appearance led to the court deeming him an outlaw

The evidence given by Bell and Littlejohn was controversial. It was countered by another of the age’s major figures in forensics development, Matthew Hay, leading to some fearsome courtroom exchanges. Nonetheless, in a trial where evidence was too often dominated by innuendo and deceit, theirs at least shone as rooted in unbiased reason. As for how the trial played out, that is perhaps a story for another time. Suffice it to say, people still talk of the Ardlamont Mystery.


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