EXIT JAMES MORIARTY—ENTER THE TELEPHONE COMPANY – Page Two
In 1863, Alexander Melville Bell, the great phoneticist, assigned his sons Alexander, then sixteen years old, and Melville the ambitious project of designing and constructing a machine that could talk like a human being. The ingenious youths actually constructed mechanical equivalents of lips, teeth, throat, and tongue out of rubber and gutta-percha. Alexander could not immediately design an artificial larynx, however, since he had never seen a real one. After much frustration, he and Melville decided that they must sacrifice the life of the beloved family cat to the experiment. From the medical school they enlisted the aid of an anonymous confederate, who promised to dispatch the cat mercifully and then to remove its voice box. Once the cat was in his hands, however, the young doctor horrified the Bell brothers by pouring nitric acid down its throat, then releasing the wretched animal, and howling with laughter as it ran round and round the laboratory in extreme agony. It was only after much pleading that Alexander and his brother persuaded the unsavoury consort to recapture the cat and to end its misery by severing an artery.
By this time, of course, the larynx was of no use whatsoever to anyone. Fortunately the local butcher was able to supply a similar organ from a lamb, thereby enabling Alexander to complete the design of his remarkable contrivance, which, after some practice on the part of its creators in manipulating its levers, was able to say “Mama” clearly enough to bring to the door a neighbour accusing the brothers of torturing a baby. Thus Bell’s first major technical project would have been an unmitigated success had it not been ruined by the nightmarish memory of the tormented cat, which memory is said to have haunted Alexander until the time of his death, fifty-nine years later.
Could this evil accomplice have been the young Moriarty? From what he did to the cat, there seems to be no doubt that the man was evil. He must have been at least reasonably intelligent to be a doctor, but was he a genius? Dr. Watson constituted living proof that in those days it was possible to be one without being the other.
There is no record of anyone by the name of Moriarty at the Edinburgh Medical School in 1863. Since he had already had medical training, the sadistic confederate must have been several years older than Alexander Bell. The difference in age, plus the fact that Alexander had just returned from a year’s stay in London with his grandfather and hence was not likely to have many close friends in Edinburgh, suggests that the sadistic doctor to whom Alexander brought his strange request was known by way of a blood relationship rather than as a close friend. In such a case, his surname probably was also Bell. Was there then a Bell at the Edinburgh Medical School in 1863? There was indeed. None other than Dr. Joseph Bell, later to be the mentor of Arthur Conan Doyle. In his mid-twenties, Joseph had recently finished his formal training and had just become Demonstrator of Anatomy under Dr. Syme. In later years, of course, Joseph Bell confounded students and colleagues alike with his near-Holmesian powers of observation and deduction. He was, in short, a genius.3
When a doctor goes wrong he is the first of criminals. Joseph Bell, James Moriarty, and the cat torturer were one and the same fiendish person!
Joseph Bell was Holmes’s intellectual equal, yet Holmes repeatedly made it dear that he acknowledged but two such peers in Britain — his brother Mycroft and Professor Moriarty. Either Holmes was grossly mistaken, which is unthinkable, or Professor Bell was really Mycroft, which is ridiculous, or Professor Bell was Professor Moriarty. When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Moriarty-Bell used family pressures and the psychological effects of the cat episode to establish and maintain his hold on Alexander Bell. Unspeakable promises must have been extracted from the terror-ridden Alexander before the evil doctor finally agreed to end the cat’s agonies. Moreover, having witnessed one small atrocity of which his cousin was capable, it surely was not difficult to imagine even greater calamities which might lie ahead of himself, should Alexander choose to exert his independence excessively.
3 Joseph Bell biographic data were kindly supplied by the Edinburgh University Library.