Edinburgh’s Henry Littlejohn was also inspiration for Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
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A BUZZ of excitement rippled through the High Court in Edinburgh. The scene was one of the most dramatic trials to grip Victorian Edinburgh, at centre stage was one of the most familiar faces to grace the halls of justice.

Henry Duncan Littlejohn took his time entering the witness box. Methodical and precise, no doubt savouring the moment, he made himself comfortable while the public benches, packed with curious spectators who had queued for hours to see for themselves the spectacle of this dramatic trial, settled into silence.

Stars of the latest Sherlock adaptation

Stars of the latest Sherlock adaptation

“The veteran doctor, without whom no great trial would be complete, stepped into the box, and having taken the oath, poured out a glass of water and settled down to an examination which lasted well over two hours,” reported The Scotsman at the time.

Littlejohn’s appearance in the trial of the year – indeed, that particular hearing in 1893 would go down in Scottish legal history for its unsatisfactory outcome, its high drama and its bloody detail – was sensational. So much so that his gruesome evidence, in which he dissected in intricate detail his postmortem findings, even down to the smell from the victim’s opened stomach, his shattered skull and blown apart middle ear, was reported in intricate detail.

Indeed, so gripping was Littlejohn’s testimony, that by the time forensic detective Dr Joseph Bell took the stand to support his colleague’s claim that the victim could not possibly have simply shot himself, his evidence merited merely a passing mention in newspaper reports from the time, and it seemed simply a matter of fact that the accused would be found guilty.

The sensational trial – known as the Ardlamont case – brought two of the most dynamic characters of the time together in a powerful real-life drama that gripped Edinburgh society.

Henry Littlejohn's son lecturing at Edinburgh University

Henry Littlejohn's son lecturing at Edinburgh University

Of course, Dr Bell’s impressive powers of deduction had already inspired his student and one-time clerk Arthur Conan Doyle to create the world’s best-known sleuth.

But while he is typically given credit for providing the fictional detective’s DNA, there’s little doubt that the astonishing figure of Henry Littlejohn – forensic scientist, police surgeon and, when not dissecting bodies, the man responsible for completely transforming public health and sanitation in Edinburgh – played his own role in forging the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Interest in just who inspired Conan Doyle to create his multi-faceted and charismatic lead character has been revived with the BBC’s contemporary adaptation of the classic stories, which have received rave reviews. On Sunday, the final episode in the latest trio of Sherlock stories starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the consulting detective, The Reichenbach Fall, hits screens, inspired by The Final Problem in which Holmes locks horns with his criminal nemesis Moriaty.

But while Conan Doyle’s creation broke the mould when it came to delivering a super sleuth with skill, dazzling intellect and personal magnetism, in real life Henry Littlejohn – and eventually his son Harvey, born 150 years ago this year – was every bit as fascinating and remarkable.

For father and son not only helped develop forensic science skills that endure today, between them they helped bring to justice the perpetrators of dozens of bloody and brutal crimes. And in Henry Littlejohn’s case, he would also help improve the lives of hundreds of poverty stricken citizens and bring comfort and medical help to their sick children.

This year marks 150 years since he was appointed to the dual role of surgeon of police and medical officer of health in Edinburgh. To hold one of those roles would have been quite enough for most men – as surgeon of police he was expected to carry out postmortems, testify in court and attend executions – to take on the public health role too was almost superhuman.

Father and son were, agrees Dr Paul Laxton, who is writing a book about Henry Littlejohn’s life, exceptional characters. “Henry Littlejohn was very prominent in dealing with murder cases all over Scotland – to then take on a role in public health and at the same time lecture at Edinburgh University was quite incredible. His son, Harvey, succeeded him as chair of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh University. There is a lot of academic writing that supports the theory that Sherlock Holmes is not based on one man, but on several people. And, of course, Littlejohn would have been well known to Conan Doyle.

“Edinburgh at that time was a village, all middle class people in the New Town wined and dined together and knew each other well. Bell and Littlejohn were two major characters.”

Henry Littlejohn’s impact on Edinburgh life was dramatic. Born in Leith Street in 1826, he was the seventh child of a master baker. Aged 21, he graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University with distinction and trained at the Sorbonne in Paris before becoming a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in 1854.

His speciality, however, was forensics, a growing and fascinating area of detective work that seized upon scientific understanding and medical advances to help crack crime.

From the halls at Edinburgh University where he’d lecture for hours without notes, to the hush of the courtroom where he’d present evidence in fine and often nauseating detail, Littlejohn cut an impressive figure with his strong, determined jaw, top hat, long coat and Gladstone bag.

His ability to dissect a crime scene – and a victim – was legendary. But it was his new role as medical officer of health that impacted on most Edinburgh citizens’ pitiful lives.

Tragedy had struck in 1861 when a High Street tenement building collapsed, killing 35 people. The horror led to calls to clean up the city’s ruinous buildings and improve sanitation for Old Town citizens.

Within a few years Littlejohn had single-handedly produced a damning report that prompted the clearance of dire tenements. He pioneered smallpox vaccination programmes that dramatically improved the city folks’ health and helped lay the foundation for the Sick Kids hospital.

Enough for one man, perhaps. But Littlejohn’s other skill – the one that may well have planted a seed in the mind of Edinburgh University student Arthur Conan Doyle who attended his lectures – was forensic science.

“Littlejohn was very famous in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland,” says Professor Dorothy Crawford, assistant principal for public understanding of medicine at Edinburgh University, who has written about Henry Littlejohn in her medical history book Bodysnatchers to Lifesavers.

“He made an enormous impact on public health but he was also in court a lot and was an incredibly popular lecturer to students who taught from his own forensic cases.

“This was at a time when photographic evidence and fingerprinting was being introduced and Conan Doyle would have been very much involved in that. Of course Conan Doyle’s novels hit the public at a time when detective work was becoming more scientific and being a medic and a writer meant he excelled.”

Conan Doyle penned The Final Problem, in which Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriaty apparently plunge to their deaths down the Reichenbach Falls, in December 1893. At the same time, the Ardlamont murder trial was creating a national sensation that held Victorian Edinburgh and beyond engrossed – one newspaper report of proceedings stretched to a staggering 44,500 words.

Forensic evidence provided by Littlejohn seemed certain to seal murder accused Alfred Monson’s fate. Monson, described as a “gentleman’s tutor”, had gone shooting on the Ardlamont estate with a friend, Edward Scott, and young gent Cecil Hambrough in August 1893 when, they claimed, Hambrough accidentally shot himself.

Their story was accepted until Monson appeared with two life insurance policies in Hambrough’s name, taken out a few weeks earlier, benefiting Monson’s wife.

In two hours of gripping evidence, Littlejohn picked over the injuries to Hambrough: the position of the wound, the damage to the victim’s skull, his stomach, scorch marks from the bullet.

His testimony – backed by Dr Bell – would have put Sherlock Holmes himself to shame. There was just one problem; the jury wasn’t convinced and returned a not proven verdict.

It was one of the few occasions that Henry Littlejohn’s wealth of experience, brilliant mind and astonishing charisma was not quite enough.

Appliance of science

FORENSIC detective Dr Joseph Bell is typically regarded as the main inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But lesser-known Sir Henry Littlejohn was almost certainly another.

One case of which the young Conan Doyle would have been acutely aware caused a sensation in Edinburgh in 1878 – the same year he took up his role as clerk to Dr Joseph Bell.

Eugene Chantrelle’s wife Elizabeth had been found ill in bed, apparently overcome by escaping gas. Littlejohn attended the scene and his knowledge of poisons quickly came into play.

He suspected that she was actually suffering from opium poisoning. Languages teacher Chantrelle was charged and convicted of her murder.

As Edinburgh’s Police Surgeon and Chief Medical Advisor to the Crown in Scotland, Littlejohn was required to attend Chantrelle’s execution.

In a curious twist that further entwines Littlejohn, Bell and Conan Doyle, Chantrelle is said to have turned to Littlejohn and muttered: “Give my compliments to Joe Bell. He did a good job in bringing me to the scaffold.”