Sherlock Holmes Sourcebook Part 5 – The Supporting Characters

Like so many others, Sherlock Holmes sometimes needs “a little help from him friends.” Find out more about the supporting players in Conan Doyle’s tales.

John Hamish Watson

Though Dr. Watson narrates almost every one of Conan Doyle’s detective stories, readers rarely get a glimpse into his own life and past. His life seems to begin with his meeting of Sherlock Holmes in 1881 after he returns from a stint as a military doctor in Afghanistan. Watson does state in The Sign of Four that he has no relations in England. But we do know that he had an older brother from whom he inherited a pocket watch. His father is also deceased by 1881, and there is no mention of his mother who is also presumably deceased.

He got his medical degree from Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of London in 1878. Later, he studied to be a surgeon at Netley. He joined the British military forces in India with the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers. Later, he was a part of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot which was engaged in efforts during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. He leaves the frontlines because is wounded during the Battle of Waidwand (1880). Later, he contracts enteric fever (which is related to typhoid fever) which ruins his overall health.

In the course of solving the mystery in The Sign of Four, Watson met his future wife, Mary Morstan. At that time she was working as a governess. She hires Holmes (and Watson) to solve the mystery of expensive pearls she is receiving in the mail. We know very little of their life together, other than that they did not have any children. Unfortunately, their union is short-lived and Mary died sometime during “the long absence” when Holmes is presumed dead. Her cause of death is never mentioned.

Detective Inspector G. Lestrade

This Scotland Yard detective appears in many of Holmes’ stories, and was named after a friend of Conan Doyle from his university days. His physical appearance is described both as “rat-like” and “sly-looking” and characterized by his “bulldog tenacity.” He gains his reputation as Scotland Yard’s best detective, often because he gets the public credit for Sherlock Holmes’ achievements. His thinking is totally conventional. He often dismisses Holmes’ deductive powers before finally being swayed by the results.

In many adaptations of the tales, the relationship between Lestrade (and the police in general) and Holmes is antagonistic, but within the pages of Conan Doyle’s stories this is not the case. Holmes will occasionally withhold information, but relies on the police to investigate lines of evidence and potential leads while he focuses on others. Holmes is a consummate gentleman, and rarely says anything openly critical of Lestrade directly. By the time the two work together in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson describes Lestrade’s attitude towards Holmes as “reverential.” Holmes calls him “the best of the professionals.”

Irene Adler

According to the one short story in which Adler appears, she was born in New Jersey sometime during the 1850s. Her official occupation is listed as opera singer, and she is a prima donna contralto in the (fictional) Imperial Opera of Warsaw. Holmes first learns of her existence during an in cognito visit from the (fictional) King of Bohemia, Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein.

He describes Adler as “an adventuress” and admits to an affair. It threatens his politically motivated marriage to the (fictional) princess of Scandinavia. Von Ormstein hires Holmes to recover a photograph of the two together in order to avoid a scandal. The incriminating photo is never recovered. But she leaves one of herself alone in its place, which is the only payment Holmes wishes to receive from the case. Even though she only appears in one story, she plays a much larger role in most adaptations of Sherlock Holmes for film and television.

Conan Doyle had many examples of real-life entertainers who had dalliances with aristocrats from which to draw. Lillie (or Lily) Langtry, for instance, became the royal mistress to Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales. Though both she and the prince were married, they carried on an affair for three years. She was officially presented to Queen Victoria, and she was so charming she even had a cordial relationship with the Prince’s wife. Another possible model for Adler was Lola Montez, and Irish dancer who was the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. She was made a countess in 1847. She exercised a great deal of power from behind the throne until Ludwig abdicated in 1848 during the Year of Revolution.

Professor James Moriarty

Like Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty’s role in Sherlock Holmes’ life has been greatly expanded in adaptations. In actuality, he only appears in two of Conan Doyle’s 60 stories. We know even less about him than we do about Adler or Watson. Just that he is a genius who controls much of criminal activity in London’s underbelly. In The Final Problem, Homes describes him. “He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in [London}. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.” This is high praise indeed coming from Holmes.

Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Moriarty likely stemmed from real-life criminal mastermind, Adam Worth. He bore the same moniker as Moriarty, “The Napolean of Crime.” Though he was of German lineage, he spent much of his time in America first as a pickpocket and later as a bank robber. He was known for his affinity for tunnels, once employing this method to break out a safe-cracker named Charley Bullard. Later, he robbed a bank from the basement of a neighboring shop.

Bullard and Worth moved to Liverpool under assumed identities. After a brief stint in Paris running an illegal gambling establishment the two men and Bullard’s wife, Kitty, moved to England. While in London, Worth & co. repeatedly baffled Scotland Yard and it wasn’t until a trip in 1892 to Belgium that he was finally caught. He was released in 1897 and almost immediately robbed a jewelry shop to finance his return to America. While there, he confessed his whole life story to William Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The manuscript is preserved in their archives.


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