Charles Augustus Milverton and The Final Problem, or “The Villain(s) in Your History”

Before we get started – yes, I do plan to find as many ways as I can to incorporate “Hamilton” quotes into my titles from here on out.  Consider that adequate warning.

There’s a great Clive Barker quote that I try to keep in mind during the character creation process.  He said, “I firmly believe that a story is only as good as the villain.”  (He also wrote, “Every body is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red,” but I keep that quote around more as the credo of one of my villains than writing advice.)  Taken one step further, a hero is also only as good as his antagonists.  If you don’t give the main character something worthy to fight – be it a personal or thing or a more internally focused struggle – there’s no real conflict, or risk, or reason to care.  Batman is just a crazy dude in Kevlar and latex without his Rogues’ Gallery.  Princess Aurora is just another dull royal without Maleficent and her curse.  Likewise, Sherlock Holmes is just any other (albeit very clever) detective without some very bad men to stop.  And in Doyle’s London, there are no two worse men than Charles Augustus Milverton and Professor James Moriarty.

(Quick sidebar, based on a completely unrelated conversation that I still managed to make about Sherlock in the end – do you ever think Moriarty’s parents or school chums called him Jamie?  Unimportant, but food for (perfectly frivolous) thought.)

The Worst Men in London

So, who are Milverton and Moriarty?  According to Sherlock Holmes, they represent the most villainous men in London, if not the world.  Of Milverton, he says:

“Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow.”

Moriarty, on the other hand, brings to a mind a different, though oftentimes also venomous, creature:

“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 centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them….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.”

Holmes definitely talks about Milverton in much less flattering verbage than he does Moriarty.  Milverton gets words like “creeping,” “venomous,” “wicked,” and “repulsion.”  Professor Moriarty, on the other hand, is “a genius” and “abstract thinker” with a top-notch brain of the first order and “extraordinary mental powers.”  That’s probably in part because Holmes has no love for blackmailers, which is exactly what Milverton is.  In the hierarchy of crime, blackmail is far more unsavory than even murder in Holmes’ view.  Moriarty, on the other hand, just facilitates criminal enterprise. Well, I say just.  He facilitates it all so brilliantly that Holmes considers him “an antagonist who was my intellectual equal.”  High praise from Holmes.  He doesn’t have such nice things to say about Milverton at all.

Another likely reason?  Moriarty’s the one Doyle is trying to set up as Holmes’ arch nemesis – not Milverton – so Moriarty has to be the equal, while Milverton is just the worst.

History Break – Truth in Fiction

Both men are based at least loosely on real-life people. Art dealer Charles Augustus Howell was rumored to be a blackmailer – rumors his biographer, Helen Rossetti Angeli, never found hard evidence to support.  Howell was a charming, charismatic man, questionably of Portuguese royal blood, with a reputation for stretching the truth now and then.  There were plenty of questionable circumstances that  contributed to his villainous reputation, though. His association with the man who attempted to assassinate Napoleon III and his well-timed decision to leave Britain just prior had some wondering if he wasn’t somehow connected to the plot.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti reportedly suspected Howell of selling forgeries of his paintings.  There were also accusations of embezzlement and general manipulative villainy that those who got to know Howell didn’t have too much trouble believing, apparently.

Then there’s his death in 1890: Howell was found outside a pub in Chelsea with a slit throat and a coin in his mouth, the latter sometimes used to identify the corpse as a slanderer.  There’s all sorts of inconsistency surrounding his death, though.  Some say he was found dead in that alley; others say he died in the hospital later.  The official cause of death was listed as pneumonic phthsis – aka, Tuberculosis – with the slit to his throat dismissed as having happened post-mortem.  The police apparently never actually investigated it and no coroner’s inquest was held.  If none of that specifically screams blackmailer to you, you’re not alone.  Most of that reputation came from the fact they found a collection of meticulously filed letters from very important Londoners in his rooms after his death.

It probably didn’t help his reputation that he was responsible for the  exhumation of Rossetti’s wife so the painter/poet could dig out the poems he’d buried with her.

Moriarty’s generally accepted inspiration, on the other hand, had a long, proven history of law-breaking. Doyle borrowed the criminal adventures of American Adam Worth when he created his own “Napoleon of Crime.”  Worth started out as a bounty jumper in the Civil War; he was declared killed in battle and took advantage of that fact by going around enlisting with various regiments under assumed names long enough to collect the enlistment bounty, then going AWOL.  This led to a career in pickpocketing, which developed into running a gang of thieves, which then led to bank robbery.  One of his heists, the 1869 robbery of the Boylston National Bank of Boston, involved tunneling into the bank’s vault from a store next door, likely the inspiration for the bank job in “The Redheaded League.”

Worth and his associate, safe cracker Charley Bullard, headed for Europe after the Boylston job to avoid getting pinched by the Pinkertons.  This is where Worth’s reputation really takes off.  What started off as pawn shop thefts in Liverpool became an illegal, cleverly hidden gambling house in Paris; when William Pinkerton helped the Paris police turn up the heat, the pair relocated to London, where Worth’s legacy was formed.  He built a virtually impenetrable web of criminality, a network of nogoodniks that pulled off major heists at his whim, but without ever knowing the name of the man in charge.  Worth’s organization flummoxed  Scotland Yard; they knew it existed, but proving it and finding the mastermind proved impossible.

In the end, it was trusting a couple untested partners during a last-minute robbery in Liege that got Worth nicked.  After serving his time and finding his former life lost, Worth looked up his old pal Pinkerton and told him the whole sordid story.  Which is probably how Doyle learned all about him.

I said “generally accepted inspiration” up above because we really only have the word of a Dr. Gray C. Briggs, who told a Chicago columnist that Doyle once told him Worth was Moriarty’s inspiration.  Like most second-or-third-hand information, take it for what it’s worth.  No pun intended.

What Makes a (Good) Villain?

So, why are these two men, Milverton and Moriarty, considered by Holmes (and readers/academics) to be the greatest foes Holmes ever tackles?  Well, in Moriarty’s case, it helps that he’s the weapon used to take our hero out in what was intended as his swansong.  But it’s more than that.  We’re shown, in the case of both, that these are wickedly clever men whose devious intellects nearly match – or, in Moriarty’s case, do match – Holmes’.  Why is Moriarty so successful and so difficult to outsmart?  Because he thinks just as Holmes does.  For every move that Holmes makes, Moriarty has a perfect counterpoint.  Why does it take Holmes seducing one of Milverton’s maids and then breaking into his house to foil his evil plot?  Because, while Milverton may be a scumbag, he is a very clever, careful, and paranoid scumbag.

Doyle takes great pains to set up these men as the epitome of evil.  It’s not just how Holmes describes them.  We meet both men and are given a chance to see their ruthlessness for ourselves.  Moriarty makes it clear to Holmes that his continued meddling in the affairs of dragons criminal masterminds will not end well, with “not end well” left purposefully vague and menacing.  The fact Holmes is stalked, assaulted, has his home set (briefly) on fire, and is then followed halfway across Europe (with Watson’s safety presumably also called into question) seems to support just how menacing that end will be.  Milverton never threatens Holmes directly, just the client that has hired him to retrieve certain incriminating documents.  Sure, the threat is only to interfere in a woman’s marriage, but in a world where reputation is everything and a woman’s social and financial situations are so precarious anyway, that’s the same as threatening her life.

So, the villain has to be a good match for the hero, capable of throwing him curves that prevent his success, and he has to represent real peril, however that word is defined in the context of the story.  It also helps, though, if it feels like maybe the villain exists as more than just evil for evil’s sake.  Culturally, we’ve moved past the days of Snidely Whiplash cackling menacingly as he ties damsels to train tracks, all while twisting the end of his fine mustache.  A little depth in a villain is a good thing.  Audiences like some gray mixed into all that usual black and white.  The bad guy should have just as much motivation to act as the hero, and “because he’s the bad guy” isn’t really enough.  What does he want?  Why does he want it?  What’s his problem with the hero, anyway?

He, by the way, doesn’t have to be a “he” either.  Just ask Maleficent.

And maybe that’s why I find Moriarty so much more interesting in the adaptations than in the canon, and why Milverton makes more of an impression.  We never get the build up we deserve with the Professor.  Never get to understand why he’s the villain, or what he wants, or why it’s so damned important Holmes doesn’t get in his way.  Doyle created the ultimate villain, an archetype that has become part of our cultural lexicon, but he left him unfinished.  Of course, he only built him in the first place to use him as a weapon.  Even when he revisited Moriarty in The Valley of Fear, the character still feels like little more than a prop to rest the real plot against.  With Moriarty, Doyle kept loading the pistol, but never quite managed to pull the trigger.
Wow. I just realized that, as of “The Final Problem,” I have also finished The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. That means two collections and four novels down, only three collections left. I’m also technically at the half-way point. That just means I can see the downhill half of this journey finally.  Isn’t it fortuitous that I start down the cliff just as Sherlock falls over it?  Sad thing?  I didn’t even plan it that way, it.just.happened.

Yes, there are Charlotte adventures due. They’re coming, I promise. No, she’s not falling off a cliff this week to her doom, leaving poor Watson heartbroken. Actually, now that I mention it…

No, wait. Never mind.

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4 thoughts on “Charles Augustus Milverton and The Final Problem, or “The Villain(s) in Your History”

  1. Good morning, this is your resident Devil’s Advocate here. The contradiction over Mr. Charles Augustus’s death doesn’t seem necessarily contradictory to me. Well, at least, it might not be in modern times; they probably did things differently back then. But I could see someone being dead in the alley, but not being “pronounced” dead until they got to the hospital, and then two stories rising up out of those two facts.

    Also, Adam Worth sounds like he could have been the inspiration for the villain in the Lord Peter Wimsey tale “The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba”. Mysterious leader no one knows, whose organization cannot be discovered by the police? If you haven’t read Lord Peter you need to, and this is only a short story…

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    1. I love it when you play Devil’s Advocate.

      I think what I find more contradictory about Howell’s death is the fact his throat was slit, but without investigation or inquest it’s determined that didn’t kill him, TB did. I wonder (and would likely have looked if I hadn’t already half-disappeared down a research hole) if no investigation/inquest also meant no autopsy. I didn’t see mention of one, but that doesn’t explicitly mean there wasn’t one.

      Now, the throat could have been slit post mortem and have nothing to do with his death, but that’s really the kind of thing it takes work to confirm. Especially in a time before modern forensics.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You relieve my mind greatly. 🙂

        I suppose, if the cut throat hadn’t bled much or at all, they would have known even then that it was post-mortem? Agreed that no investigation does have a suspicious ring to it though. Practically a public declaration of, “We know he was a bad guy who deserved this end, so let’s thank the person who took care of that for us by announcing natural causes and leaving it at that.”

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      2. The blood evidence, or lack thereof, would have definitely pointed to whether his heart was still beating or not when the slice was made or not.

        It does sound like Howell may have been the kind of guy one would just assume the world was mostly better off without and not necessarily investigate the passing of with much enthusiasm. Holmes more or less agreed with that idea when it came to his fictional counterpart.

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