Nerd History (w/ Tom Elmore): The Case of the Mysterious Moriarty – Did He Really Exist?

By the time you read this the fourth season of BBC‘s Sherlock will be airing and we will have an answer to a two-year-old mystery, is James Moriarty dead or alive? While the character of Professor Moriarty and/or characters based on him are real in the Sherlock and Elementary universes and in scores of other Sherlock Holmes adaptations, some Sherlockians have been asking themselves for decades, if “The Napoleon of Crime” ever really existed at all?


The character is first mentioned in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem first published in the December 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine,  and latter included in the collection of short stories entitled The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes though Moriarty may or may not have been anonymously referred to in a few previous cases. In the story, set in 1890, Holmes asks Watson, “You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty?” When Watson says no, Holmes then tells him, “Aye, there’s the genius and the wonder of the thing! The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on a pinnacle in the records of crime. I tell you, Watson, in all seriousness, that if I could beat that man, if I could free society of him, I should feel that my own career had reached its summit, and I should be prepared to turn to some more placid line in life.” 

Holmes then gives Watson the professor’s background,

“His career has been an extraordinary one. He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the Binomial Theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the Mathematical Chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearance, a most brilliant career before him. But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumors gathered round him in the university town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and to come down to London, where he set up as an army coach.”

The great detective then speaks of Moriarty’s empire,

For years past I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which forever stands in the way of the law, and throws it shield over the wrong-doer. Again and again in cases of the most varying sorts — forgery cases, robberies, murders — I have felt the presence of this force, and I have deduced its action in many of those undiscovered crimes in which I have not been personally consulted. For years I have endeavored to break through the veil which shrouded it, and at last the time came when I seized my thread and followed it, until it led me, after a thousand cunning windings, to ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity.

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. If there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed — the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defense. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught — never so much as suspected.”

(image courtesy of BBC)

Holmes goes on to say that he had spent three months trying to obtain evidence on the professor in order to bring him to trial, without any success and was about to give up. “I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.” But then Moriarty “made a trip — only a little, little trip — but it was more than he could afford when I was so close upon him. I had my chance, and, starting from that point, I have woven my net round him until now it is all ready to close. In three days…matters will be ripe, and the Professor, with all the principal members of his gang, will be in the hands of the police.” With Moritarty’s arrest and the break-up of his gang, forty mysteries will be closed in “the greatest criminal trial of the century” but if Holmes moved too soon, “they may slip out of our hands even at the last moment.”

Holmes then tells Watson that Moriarty had visited 221B Baker Street just three days earlier. He describes his nemesis to Watson as “extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in this head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward, and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.”

Now keep in mind, all of this is related to the reader by Holmes via Watson. Watson never meets Moriarty. The closest that Watson comes face-to-face with the not-so-good professor happens when Watson and Holmes are at a train station departing for a trip to the continent. As their train leaves Watson sees “a tall man pushing his way furiously through the crowd, and waving his hand as if he desired to have the train stopped.” Though Holmes quips “we have cut it rather fine” there is no confirmation from either Holmes or Watson that the “tall man” was Moriarty. Thus some have questioned the validity of Holmes’ claims. In fact, many believe that Professor Moriarty is nothing more than a product of Sherlock Holmes’ imagination!

Many who subscribe to this theory connect it to Holmes’ use of cocaine. One view holds that the professor is nothing more than a drug-fueled hallucination. Some have said it was a ruse to get him away from London to seek recovery from his addiction. Novelist and filmmaker Nicholas Myer combined both of these ideas in his 1974 best-selling novel The Seven Percent Solution where Moriarty is exposed as having been Holmes’ math tutor.

However other see the invention of the professor as a product of Holmes’ notorious problems with boredom (which in turned fueled his cocaine addiction). This theory holds that Holmes’ mind needed an opponent worthy of his intellect and so it created Moriarty.

(image courtesy of BBC)

A darker variation on the above theories is that Holmes and Moriarty are the same person. That through boredom, drug abuse or both, his mind went schizophrenic and Holmes led a double life. Some of those who subscribe to this belief claim that when Holmes realized what was happening, he felt the only way to end it was to commit suicide and thus he went to Reichenbach Falls. Others believe that he intended to fake his death all along and seek help for his problem, which is why during “the hiatus” Holmes visited a number of spiritual places, such as Mecca and spent time with Tibetan monks.

A rather odd theory holds that there was a third Holmes brother named James, who was the middle child between Mycroft and Sherlock. Unlike his other brothers, James turned to a life of crime and Sherlock, using funds provided by Mycroft, used himself as a decoy so James could flee from his gang and make a new start.

Perhaps the most plausible theory among Moriarty skeptics is that Holmes and Watson were actually involved together in a cover-up. Holmes was going to undertake a long mission for Mycroft, and Watson planted the death story to help the detective remain undercover.

Whether he is real or not, there is no denying that Professor James Moriarty is one of the greatest villains of Victorian English literature. Given that he appears in only one story and mentioned in only two others; the short story The Empty House and the novel The Valley of Fear, out of the sixty Sherlock Holmes tales penned by Doyle shows, what an amazing impact he has had in culture and literature. And though he may have “died” at Reichenbach Falls, he has continued to live on in films, movies and pastiches.


NOTE: Much of the information for this article comes from “Revisions of ‘The Final Problem’” written by Leslie S. Klinger published in 2005 “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume I” edited by Klinger.


– Tom Elmore
Staff Writer/Reisdent Historian: Nerd Nation Magazine




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