The most famous detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes, made his first public appearance in the December issue of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887. The story, A Study in Scarlet, was not an immediate success when it was reprinted by Ward Lock & Co. in the following year. That was unsurprising, however, for in August of that year the first of Jack the Ripper’s many victims was added to the already high crime statistics of London. The appetite of the Victorian reading public enjoyed a full enough saturation of bloody murder and mayhem from the popular press of the day.

But perhaps there was another reason for the story’s distinct lack of success. The detective within its pages was unlike any other. Arrogant, haughty, contemptuous of the official police-force but equipped with a rapier-like intelligence and all the resources of modern science, Sherlock Holmes reached his results by an apparently magical process.

Sherlock Holmes, Fingerprinting and Handwriting Analysis

To today’s audience, the facts of Forensic Science are commonplace. But who, in 1888, had heard of fingerprinting? Certainly the London police did not accept it as a practical science. If they had done so, the mystery of Jack the Ripper would certainly not have remained thus. Handwriting identification was also in its infancy. An Austrian judge, Hans Gross, had realised its tremendous potential, but clearly the C.I.D. (set up in 1877) did not think to analyse the three grim letters sent by the Ripper to the news agencies. In those days there was a distinct lack of co-operation between the medical profession and the police. All but one of the Ripper’s victims were removed from the scene of the crime, their bodies stripped and washed ready for the mortuary, thus destroying valuable forensic evidence.

This predicament is well reflected in A Study in Scarlet when, faced with the pathway outside No. 3 Lauriston Gardens, Brixton, Holmes remarks, ‘If a herd of buffaloes had passed along there could not be a greater mess.’

Sherlock Holmes and the History of Criminology

The date of Holmes’ debut (1881) is an important one to the student of criminology. Only a year before, a young assistant in the Paris Prefecture of Police, Alphonse Bertillon, had laid the cornerstone of modern criminology with his development of the ‘bertillonage’ system of measurements for criminals. And a year before that, in the pages of a magazine called Nature, a Scottish physician named Henry Faulds, made a number of observations about the ‘skin-furrows in human fingers (which) … may lead to the scientific identification of criminals.’

But in Victorian England it was not until 1871 that Parliament finally passed a bill providing for the registration of habitual criminals, complete with photographs and personal dossiers, whilst the system of fingerprinting did not gain official recognition until as late as 1895.

Sherlock Holmes represented a revolutionary trend, therefore, in the investigation of crime. The public of the time certainly shared his contempt for the official detective force but they were also understandably puzzled by his approach. This was really because Holmes was first and foremost a pioneer of new techniques which very soon would change the face of Scotland Yard.

Written by Kelvin I Jones, author of Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, etc.

For a number of my books on the famous detective, visit my website:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *