3 Real People Who Were the Inspiration Behind Sherlock Holmes
Throughout the 125 years since the character of Sherlock Holmes first appeared, there have been countless fictional representations of the consulting detective, but there have also been a handful of "real" Sherlocks, as well. Here are three of the originals.
Joseph Bell (1837 – 1911): Holmes is always at his coolest when he’s systematically breaking down the background of an individual by close inspection of subtle details. Apparently, Dr. Joseph Bell used that same process as a dramatic demonstration of the powers of observation and reason. Arthur Conan Doyle was a student of Bell’s while at medical school and served as his clerk for a time. This set up the Holmes-Watson relationship with the inexperienced Conan Doyle as the young doctor trying to keep up with the master. While Bell may have had a bit of Holmes’s mind, he did not have Holmes’ job. Bell used his deductive powers to diagnose diseases and disabilities, and while he did occasionally assist the police it was in the capacity of a forensic doctor, not a consulting detective.
Henry Littlejohn (1826 – 1914): Littlejohn was another individual that Conan Doyle specifically acknowledged as one of the inspirations for Sherlock Holmes. Littlejohn was also a doctor, but his relationship with the police was more official than that of Joseph Bell. For almost 50 years Littlejohn served as Surgeon of Police and Medical Officer of Health of Edinburgh. Part of this job was a public health position (a relatively new idea at the time), but the other part was to serve as a consultant to the police when they needed medical expertise. The story goes that both Littlejohn and Bell were brought in during the investigation of the “Jack the Ripper” murders.
William Gillette (1853 – 1937): Okay, so we're cheating on this one. William Gillette wasn't an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes at all. He was just one of the many hundreds of actors who played Holmes. What makes Gillette special is that he was among the first. He was the first to wear Holmes's signature deerstalker hat, the first to replace Holmes's straight pipe with a curved one, and the first (while helping Conan Doyle to write the first official Sherlock Holmes stage play) to pen the line, “elementary, my dear fellow,” which would eventually be turned by later writers into, "elementary, my dear Watson." Gillette had his own Homes-like qualities. He was an inventor, earning patents for a variety of items including a timestamp device and a system for making more realistic horse-hoof sound effects on stage. Gillette was fantastically successful for an actor of the time and used a great deal of his wealth to construct a 24 room stone castle in Connecticut. This marvel, which is open to the public today. It features hand-carved puzzle locks of Gillette's own design and a system of mirrors throughout the house that allowed Gillette to observe guests remotely.
Though all three of these gentlemen captured certain elements of Holmes's character, none of them achieved his most important trait, his literary immortality. No doubt the next 125 years will be filled with even more fantastic Sherlocks populating our stages, screens, and direct brain-download devices.
Who is your favorite Sherlock Holmes, real or fictional?