Professor James Moriarty
Last Updated on March 30, 2021 – Originally published in February of 2015
The character of Professor James Moriarty makes quite an impression. However, for all his notoriety, he appears in surprisingly few Sherlock Holmes stories.
Moriarty only directly appears in two stories, The Final Problem and The Valley of Fear.
He’s mentioned in five other stories, The Empty House, The Norwood Builder, The Missing Three-Quarter, The Illustrious Client, and His Last Bow.
According to Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, Moriarty is rather like a Victorian mafia leader. Not only that, but Moriarty is incredibly intelligent.
Holmes says Moriarty,
“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.”
According to Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, Moriarty had a promising future ahead of him, but then went astray. Why? Moriarty couldn’t resist the pull of the dark side of his nature.
“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 appearances, 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. “
Adam Worth, the Real Moriarty?
A Scotland Yard detective called Adam Worth, “the Napoleon of the criminal world.”
Adam Worth was born in Germany in 1844. When he was five, his family moved to the United States. During the American Civil War, Worth fought for the Union army. He was wounded and erroneously declared deceased.
After he recovered from his injuries, Worth made a living by reenlisting in military service under assumed names. He’d draw his sign-up pay, desert and repeat the process.
After the war, he became a pickpocket. Later his criminal career advanced to include bank and store robberies.
At some point, Worth and his associate Charley Bullard, a safecracker, migrated to Europe. Worth found an appreciation for the “good life”. He enjoyed appearing to be a respectable businessman with refined tastes. No one need know how his lifestyle was funded.
Eventually Worth made his way to London. He purchased a large estate outside of the city as well as leasing an apartment in the fashionable Mayfair district. Worth enjoyed his lifestyle and his position in society.
Late in 1892 Worth, upset by the death of Bullard, planned and participated in a robbery that seemed doomed to fail from the start. His accomplices were new, he was in an unfamiliar place (Belgium) and he used a plan that had not worked in the past.
The results were predictable. He was arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to seven years in a Belgian prison.
Other Role Models for Moriarty
While it seems that Adam Worth was the chief inspiration for Moriarty, some aspects of Moriarty’s character may have come from other people.
Simon Newcomb was a brilliant astronomer and mathematician. He also has been accused of maliciously destroying the career of a rival mathematician.
George Boole, the inventor of Boolean algebra, might have been an inspiration for Moriarty’s mathematical genius.
Jonathan Wild was one of the most famous criminals in Great Britain during the 18th century. At one point Wild’s gang had almost a monopoly on crime in the London area. At the same time, Wild was serving as a “thief-taker” or policeman.