Edinburgh crime: The story and cases of James McLevy who is said to have inspired Sherlock Holmes

See Edinburgh through the eyes of a Victorian detective
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Ever wondered what Edinburgh was like in the 1850s? Did you know there was a real life Sherlock Holmes who could tell you exactly that?

A review in the Edinburgh Evening News, written in 1922, describes Victorian detective James McLevy as someone who may have been taken "for a well-to-do farmer from the Emerald Isle on a visit to Scotland intent on a ‘deal’”.

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It continues: “He was of medium height, square-faced and clean shaven and always wore a tall silk hat, from beneath the broad brim of which a pair of quick black eyes scrutinised the crowd as he sauntered along the streets accompanied by his faithful companion Mulholland.”

Most famous for his detective, Sherlock Holmes, this legendary author was born on Picardy Place. A statue of Holmes usually marks the spot, though is temporarily in storage due to roadworks.Most famous for his detective, Sherlock Holmes, this legendary author was born on Picardy Place. A statue of Holmes usually marks the spot, though is temporarily in storage due to roadworks.
Most famous for his detective, Sherlock Holmes, this legendary author was born on Picardy Place. A statue of Holmes usually marks the spot, though is temporarily in storage due to roadworks.

The stories of James McLevy have captured imaginations around the world for the last century as he revealed a deeply human and personal side to Edinburgh’s criminal underworld.

Originally from Ireland, he joined the Edinburgh Police force in 1830, spending the next few decades building a reputation as a sharp and fair detective, with an unbeatable knowledge of the city, and his deductive skills were noticed by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, who was thought to have used them when creating his very own sleuth.

What makes McLevy stand out is that he wrote a series of volumes, noting his experiences dealing with his “bairns” as he called them, those who he caught and arrested for a whole host of crimes, including theft, assault, and in a particularly moving and horrific case, the mutilation and disposal of a baby’s body after a still birth. His stomping grounds, with his trusty sidekick and fellow police officer, Mulholland, were the Royal Mile, the Leith area, and the area formally known as Leith Wynd, one of the most notorious streets in Victorian Edinburgh. Leith Wynd ran from the High Street, where Jeffrey Street is now, across the area now occupied by Waverly station, and joined up with Regent Road.

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The street would have been thin and long, with towering buildings on either side – thought to be the highest in Europe at the time – meaning the street level would have been in shadow, and dangerously dark, even during the day time. Three ‘lands’ were found on Leith Wynd, explains McLevy in his “The Casebook of a Victorian Detective” , the Happy Land, the Just Land and the Holy Land. Three tenement buildings, famed for prostitution, gambling and vice.

A letter printed in The Scotsman in 1850 described the street as "aprecipitous, narrow, and filthy close... you look up to the heights of huge mansions, honeycombed into the receptacles of a hundred inhabitants; and at a height which it makes the head giddy to look up to or to look down from, you see two or three heads of children projecting, or the filthy and squalid figures of their mothers, or of the other female inmates….Into these places, parties in recent times have been dragged, forcibly stripped of their clothes, and flung out again; and innumerable crimes have been committed of which the world remains in ignorance.”

There would have been very few people living in this street who didn’t know the name McLevy, including local “bawdy hoose” (brothel) owner Jean Brash. Of her, McLevy wrote: “The house she occupies in James Square was a bank of exchange” with panels in the walls to observe the activity within the rooms. James Square was where the St James Quarter now sits, and links the top of Leith Walk to the Georgian houses of the New Town.

McLevy’s writing is full of tragedy and comedy, along with small nuggets of what life would be like in this fair Capital over 150 years ago – from “Hamilton” the “hawking broker in the Canongate” who had “a secret place in his house which no man has ever found, and nobody will ever find, where he puts all the stolen articles he gets” to "Mr Blyth’s shop” which was “a little above the Fleshmarket Close” and was robbed by “McQuarry and a friend of that accomplished shoplifter”.

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On one occasion, while deciding how to trace a thief who had done a runner, McLevy rubbished the idea that he had ran to Leith to hide at a relatives house, noting “I have often found that Edinburgh thieves, when disturbed in their sweet security, make, like the deer, for the water – not to swim and distribute their peculiar odour in the fluid, but as a means to get away. And Fife is often the destination. Somehow they think policemen don’t cross waters.”

McLevy, it seemed, couldn’t avoid catching wrong doers, with one tale noting that when he ended up in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary with an illness, he was prescribed small amounts of wine. He suspected that a nurse was taking a liberty with his “medicine”, and so pretended to be asleep during her shifts, thus catching her in the act swigging from his bedside wine glass. She begged him not to loose her job, and he agreed, on condition he was given even more wine.

James McLevy died in 1875 in Edinburgh and is buried in the Canongate Cemetery on the Royal Mile, though his grave marker, likely made of wood, is no longer there.