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The Real-Life Figures Who Inspired Conan Doyle’s Characters

Meet the real people behind some of the most iconic characters from the Sherlock Holmes books.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the most imaginative writers of his age, but even he needed a little help from real life when it came to creating the characters who populate the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Related: Jeremy Brett: The Real Sherlock Holmes

Joseph Bell

Joseph Bell
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Scottish surgeon Bell was a pioneer of forensic science and lecturer at Edinburgh Medical School where one of his pupils was the young Arthur Conan Doyle. Bell taught his students that the accurate diagnosis of a patient must be based on careful and acute observation of small points. The Scot was one of the first forensic pathologists to help the police, giving evidence in famous cases such as that of Alfred Monson, tried in 1893 for shooting his wife’s lover and attempting to pass it off as a hunting accident. 

Conan Doyle served as Bell’s clerk for a time and often played the Watson role as his brilliantly observant mentor told him that the patient sitting before them was a left-handed sailor who had recently been in India. Unsurprisingly the analytical Bell, who died in 1911, became the model for the great consulting detective of 221B Baker Street.

Related: 9 Novels that Re-Imagine Sherlock Holmes

Lillie Langtry

Lillie Langtry
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Born on the British island of Jersey, Lillie Langtry was a Victorian pin-up girl who appeared on advertising posters for Pear’s Soap. She also modeled for artists such as John Millais, acted on stage in London’s West End, and hung out with Oscar Wilde. Sparklingly witty and sharply intelligent as well as staggeringly beautiful, Langtry inevitably attracted the attention of the notorious philanderer, Edward, Prince of Wales. Despite the fact they were both married, the two began an affair. 

When the relationship became public knowledge, British gossip columnists speculated that the future King of England might be cited in divorce proceedings. It didn’t come to that and “The Jersey Lily” continued on her merry way, breeding racehorses and bedding wealthy men such as the Earl of Shrewsbury and Prince Louis of Battenberg. A tough and resourceful survivor in a male-dominated world, Langtry would become the model for Irene Adler (born in the US State of New Jersey), the cunning femme fatale who captures Holmes’ normally frozen heart in The Scandal in Bohemia.

Related: 13 Sherlock Holmes Gifts for the Supersleuth in Your Life

Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria

Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1889, Arch Duke Rudolf, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, committed suicide in the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling alongside his mistress Mary Vetsera, The Austrian authorities attempted a cover-up. Rudolf was said to have died of a brain disorder, while Mary’s body was smuggled out under the cover of darkness and secretly buried in a village cemetery. Word of the scandal soon slipped out, however, creating an international sensation. Rudolf would become the model for the troubled Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein who lives in dread of being blackmailed by his former lover, Irene Adler in The Scandal in Bohemia. The tale was written a couple of years after Rudolf shot himself.

Charles Augustus Howell

Charles Augustus Howell
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Art dealer and friend of prominent members of London’s Bohemian art set including John Ruskin and James McNeil Whistler, Howell was found dead in a Chelsea street in 1890, His throat had been slashed and a gold coin stuffed in his mouth. When police searched his house for clues they found hundreds of carefully filed letters belonging to prominent people. Rumors began to circulate that the letters contained compromising material and that the killer had placed the coin in his victim’s mouth as a reference to slander or extortion. It was the sort of case Holmes would have cleared up easily, but the authorities in London bizarrely claimed Howell had died of natural causes and the throat wounds were post-mortem. This ended the possibility of an inquest or trial and hinted at a cover-up. Conan Doyle followed the case closely and would turn Howell into the loathsome, cold-hearted, and amoral blackmailer in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.

Related: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

James McParland

Molly Maguires
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  • Harper's Weekly illustration of a meeting of the Molly Maguires.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Conan Doyle met Allan Pinkerton on board a ship crossing the Atlantic and spent hours talking to him about the Pinkerton Detective Agency, whose agents often feature in the Holmes stories. One of the tales that particularly caught the author’s imagination was that of Pinkertonman, James McParland. In the 1870s, McParland went undercover to infiltrate the Molly Maguires, a union of Pennsylvania miners. 

After many heart-stopping adventures, the agent compiled enough evidence of reprisal murders and assassinations to have ten members of the Molly Maguires tried and executed, His actions effectively broke the union and McParland had to go into hiding after threats on his life. The undercover agent forced to live under a false name far from home would be the inspiration for Birdy Edwards aka John Douglas in the final Holmes novel The Valley of Fear.

Related: A World of Sherlocks

Adam Worth

Adam Worth's gravestone
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  • Worth's gravestone in London's Highgate Cemetery.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A truly international felon, German-born American, Adam Worth would begin his life of crime as a New York pickpocket, rob pawnbrokers' shops in the English city of Liverpool, and run a gambling racket in 1870s Paris, before establishing a criminal network in London that organized robberies—of cash, diamonds, gold, and art—across Europe. Eventually, he’d be arrested, tried, and jailed in Belgium. A Scotland Yard detective dubbed him “The Napoleon of the Criminal World” a title Conan Doyle (who’d been alerted to Worth’s story by the theft of a Gainsborough painting in 1876) would amend to “The Napoleon of Crime” and apply to master criminal, Professor James Moriarty, the evil genius who sits like a spider at the center of a web of crime and almost kills our hero at the Reichenbach Falls.

Related: 12 Books for Sherlock Holmes Fans

Major Henry Levenson

Sebastian Moran
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  • An illustration of Moran from The Adventure of the Empty House.

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

Major Henry Levenson lived the sort of life that was stranger than fiction. Having served in the British Indian Army during campaigns in Sri Lanka and the Punjab, he traveled to Istanbul and became the commander of a Turkish Army Brigade that fought in the Crimean War. After that, he joined Giuseppe Garibaldi during his campaigns to liberate Italy, was wounded fighting in Nigeria, and then returned to the British Army during the invasion of what is now Ethiopia. Levenson was a prominent big game hunter who shot man-eating tigers in India and rampaging elephants in Africa and ended up getting trampled by a buffalo. He was also a prolific author who wrote dozens of books about hunting around the world. Levenson would be a model for the crack-shot and writer Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right-hand man, who attempts to kill Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Related: A Sherlock Holmes Novel Without Sherlock

Featured image of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle via Wikimedia Commons.