James McLevy is Edinburgh’s first detective, Criminal Officer number 1 and is said to be part of the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. He worked in Edinburgh from 1830 to 1860 and solved over 2200 cases. His methods produced results with his deduction and use of psychology. He was famous in Edinburgh and called to parliament to give advice, such was his success.
James McLevy was born in Ballymacnab in 1796 and died in 1875 in Edinburgh. His father, John McLevy, was a weaver and farmer, his mother was Catherine Dourie. He had a sister Mary, one year older and who never married, who would eventually come to Edinburgh at the age of 40 to work as a fruit seller and live with McLevy. At the age of thirteen in 1809 James McLevy was apprenticed to the trade of fine-linen weaving until age 17 after which in 1813 he went to Gatehouse of Fleet for two years. It is probable he worked in the Gatehouse of Fleet linen mill
In 1815 he came to Edinburgh to be employed by a builder Mr Wallace, then his son-in-law Mr Walker and latterly Mr Robert Paterson. At some point he married Rosa O’Neill although no mention is made of her in all his books and she probably died early in his life. In August 1830 at the age of 34 he successfully entered the Edinburgh police as a night-watchman. Three officers joined that year; Edinburgh police officer 92, James McLevy, and in May 1830 officer 79, Andrew Goodall and officer 80, a William Mulholland who was to share many adventures with McLevy.
In 1833 he became Edinburgh’s first criminal officer detective – CO 1 – and during his career is said to have dealt with 2200 cases.
In 1850 the police log book described him as 5 foot 9 inches tall, full of face, grey eyes, grey hair and a fresh complexion.
His stature and fame was such that he was the first police officer to get a financial award for the recovery of stolen goods, gold watches, and was invited to speak before the house of parliament in 9 June 1856 to the select committee on transportation of criminals. He published two popular books after retiral and it is said these influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when writing Sherlock Holmes. There are similarities in the detective’s approach although McLevy’s is based on real cases.
His sister Mary McLevy came to Edinburgh as did a Mary Rodgers, described as his niece. James McLevy died on 6 December 1873 at 5 South Richmond Street now demolished.
He is buried in the prestigious Canongate Cemetary on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile alongside Adam Smith, Robert Feguson and William Fettes. Unfortunately the marker was probably wooden and has long since disappeared although the location of the grave has been recorded.
Mary Rodgers registered both deaths; the sister in 1870 and Mclevy himself in 1875 before dying herself in 1895. With no surviving family nor registered will it is unknown what became of the book proceeds.