I became aware of the Ardlamont Mystery several years ago from a couple of fleeting references I stumbled across when I was researching a book about Sherlock Holmes. I little realised that I was about to embark on a long, twisting journey through one of the most intriguing criminal cases in British history.
In 1893 a young army lieutenant, Cecil Hambrough, died from a gunshot wound to the head while out hunting on the Ardlamont estate in Scotland. He had been in the company of Alfred Monson—his tutor and the black sheep of an aristocratic family—and a mysterious third man called Mr Scott. At first, the death was treated as a tragic accident but it was soon discovered that Monson and his wife had taken out life insurance policies on the victim. With suspicions aroused, Monson was arrested and went on trial for murder in Edinburgh. Mr Scott, meanwhile, had seemingly disappeared into the ether. Debate as to what really happened at Ardlamont has raged ever since.
On these merits alone, the story is a fascinating one. But there is an added twist. Two of the key prosecution witnesses were Edinburgh doctors, Joseph Bell and Henry Littlejohn. Bell is justly famous as the real-life model for Sherlock Holmes. He had taught Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator, when Doyle was a medical student in the 1870s. Doyle wrote to him in 1892: ‘It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.’
Littlejohn is less well-known. But it is my contention that he deserves equal billing as the ‘original of Holmes’. The Police Surgeon for Edinburgh and a pioneer in the then emerging field of forensic science, he was present at most of Scotland’s major crime scenes in the late nineteenth century. From the 1870s, he regularly took his friend Bell with him too. The pair helped solve such infamous cases as that of Chantrelle the Wife-Killer, while Bell also hinted that they had successfully identified Jack the Ripper.
Only once did Doyle give any public credit to Littlejohn for his literary creation, and then only after Littlejohn was dead. In 1929 Doyle ruminated on the unsatisfactory methods of detection in much of the crime fiction he read in his youth, reflecting that ‘neither Joe Bell nor Littlejohn would have gone about things in that way’. It was their methods, he said, that first induced him to write a detective story from the point of view of the scientific man.
Back in 1893—just as Doyle was casting Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Final Problem’—Littlejohn and Bell were in concert at the Ardlamont trial. It provided cracking drama that kept the nation on tenterhooks and still resonates today. It is also the perfect prism through which to view the pair and to investigate their role in the birth of the world’s favourite fictional detective. The result is a story where the worlds of crime fiction and crime fact spectacularly collide.
Daniel Smith is the author of The Ardlamont Mystery: The Real-Life Story Behind the Creation of Sherlock Holmes (Michael O’Mara Books).