CSI: Sherlock Holmes?
How the fictional detective meshed with the forensic science of his times.
Most people have heard of the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes. But many may not know that Holmes, a fictional character, engaged in activities that were quite real.Skip to next paragraph
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How so? The detective's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had an intense interest in the budding field of forensics. Doyle was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, a forensics expert, to study all aspects of an individual, and use science and deductive reasoning as intellectual tools. This in turn helped shape Holmes's character, and made the sleuth appear more lifelike than any fictional character before him.
Yet, this revelation about Holmes only scratches the surface. E.J. Wagner, a well-known crime historian and lecturer, has taken it one step further.
In her fascinating book, The Science of Sherlock Holmes, Wagner juxtaposes some of Holmes's famous cases with a number of real mysteries, and finds some surprising similarities. She sets Holmes's work in the context of the forensics of his time and proves that the detective's scientific mind was more than a mere work of fiction.
Wagner notes that Holmes "demanded acute observation, accurate data, and careful method." Holmes followed the purest code of logic and ethics to crack a case. His reasoning and knowledge were extremely high. He was a master of disguise, had an eye for detail, and, as the author noted, "practiced detection with the adroit help of Conan Doyle."
Interestingly, there were people in Holmes's time very much like the fictional detective. Wagner points to Eugène François Vidocq, in whose amazing life it was "difficult to separate fact from fiction." A former criminal turned detective, Vidocq was a master of disguise - like Holmes - and had a keen sense of observation. He collected data on the criminals he investigated and could successfully change his physical features and appearance. He trained former criminals to work for him, created the world's first private detective agency, and helped improve fingerprinting techniques and crime scenes analysis.
There was also Henry Goddard, an "intelligent, well organized, and intuitive" British detective. Goddard was involved in many cases, including the burglary and attempted murder of Mrs. Maxwell at her Southampton home. He discovered some unusual inconsistencies, including the shape of bullets supposedly fired from a gun discovered at the crime scene. In the end, as Wagner wrote, the detective "remains forever inscribed in forensic history as the man who proved that the butler did it."
"The Science of Sherlock Holmes" also investigates high-profile cases of the era which ignored basic principles of forensics. In 1888, one year after "A Study in Scarlet" was published, the murderous rampage of Jack the Ripper in the Whitechapel area of London began. The Ripper's identity was never discovered since there wasn't a Holmes-like investigation done with careful analysis and proper study. "No matter how adept a pathologist, how clever a detective," writes Wagner, "their usefulness would always be determined by the skill and integrity of the professionals at the scene." In the Ripper case, the professionals failed.
The same can also be said in another famous murder. The 1892 case of Lizzie Borden, accused of bludgeoning her parents with an axe, did not include positive tests for blood, and involved a hastily-done autopsy. If police had spent more time studying the blood and dried bloodstains at the Borden crime scene, as Holmes was prone to doing in tales like "The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans," perhaps Lizzie would have gone to jail.
Holmesian discipline and study could have changed the course of other events, too. For example, Elizabeth Barlow was famously poisoned by her husband, Kenneth, in 1957. But police were not as careful when they studied the death of Barlow's first wife, which later turned out to also have been caused by poison. Had they followed Holmes's fascination with all things poison, including snakebites in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," the second Mrs. Barlow might not have met her grisly fate.
And imagine how many more cases would have been solved if 19th-century detectives had followed Holmes's advice to Watson in "The Adventure of the Creeping Man": "Always look at the hands first, Watson. Then cuffs, trouser-knees, and boots." In the real world, criminologist Hans Gross, who stressed the importance of "occupational dust" and the need to look for prints and fibers on clothing, agreed and followed the detective's lead.
"The Science of Sherlock Holmes" will intrigue readers with incredible stories and amazing tales from the early days of forensic science. But what will they think of Sherlock Holmes and his brilliant and highly innovative forensic skills? To paraphrase Dr. Watson, the reaction will surely be elementary.
• Michael Taube is a public affairs analyst and commentator based in Toronto, Ontario.