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Meet John Wilson Murray, the Real Detective Behind Murdoch Mysteries

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John Wilson Murray

Murdoch Mysteries is produced and aired in Canada. Thanks to syndication and streaming services like Acorn TV, the show also enjoys great popularity in the U.S. and U.K.

Set in Toronto at the dawn of the 20th century, the series centers around the exploits of William Murdoch, a detective with an uncanny knack for inventing forensic techniques with which today's viewers are quite familiar. His fictional innovations include the lie detector machine and sonar, but Murdoch is not simply a gadget man. He is also a shrewd logician with keen powers of observation.

Author Maureen Jennings introduced William Murdoch in Except the Dying in 1997. It was adapted for a made-for-TV film in 2004. The current series, starring Yannick Bisson as the great detective, debuted in 2008.

Jennings has publicly stated that she based William Murdoch on the real Canadian detective John Wilson Murray. But while Murdoch is a humble hero who often eschews the spotlight, Murray - as evidenced by his memoirs - was prone to boasting and revising history. Still, a dogged determination for justice is possessed by both men, as is their willingness to try any new investigative means available.

In Murray's Memoirs of a Great Detective: incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray, he tells his readers he was born on June 25, 1840 in Scotland. Like many other details in the book, however, this is a slippery fact to nail down. The 1901 census for Toronto records his birth date as June 28, 1839 in the United States. The 1870 Pennsylvania census for Erie County provides an estimated birth year of 1834.

Murray tells of his family's move from Scotland to New York when he was five. In 1857 he joined the U.S. Navy. By the mid-1860s he was assigned to the Great Lakes patrols. Although Murray claims he played a major role in saving his ship from Confederate capture, other historical records are silent on his involvement.

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More verifiable is Murray's next job with Pennsylvania's Erie Police Force, a fact substantiated by the 1870 census. Murray lists his occupation as "policeman." Perhaps the rarest bit of data captured on this document, though, is the mention of his wife, Mary. Sadly, after her death, Mary disappears from history leaving this as one of a very few bits of evidence connecting her to her famous husband and their daughters, Mary and Kate. Murray never remarried.

Aggrandized claims aside, Murray's career did blossom after he left the Erie Police Force. He won the position of railroad detective, where his reputation for tenacity led to an assignment with Ontario officials in tracking a counterfeiting ring. In 1875 Murray was made an official government detective, although his position was not made permanent until several years later. He was Ontario's only full-time detective for nearly a decade. The criminal investigation department of what would later become the Ontario Provincial Police was formed in 1899. John Wilson Murray was its first chief inspector.

The years leading up to the turn of the 20th century saw great innovations in the fields of investigation and detection. Science was evolving as well. Fingerprinting, blood typing, mugshots and other tools common today revolutionized police work in the Victorian era. Murray embraced and employed many of these technologies.

In one case, Murray removed a chunk of earth, completely intact, to preserve and compare the footprint pressed into it. Indeed, he was one of the first investigators to realize the value of footprint evidence. He also relied heavily upon forensic autopsies. One such examination proved that a man, thought to have been kicked to death, actually died of natural causes. In another instance, Murray was able to prove that a presumed drowning victim had actually died before entering the water. This realization was based on the lack of water in the dead man's lungs.

Murray was described by the Toronto Globe as the most famous police official in the country. When he died in 1906 he was earning $1,650 per year - a salary significantly higher than that paid to the great majority of his neighbors.

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Although arguably the most popular, Murdoch Mysteries is not the first dramatization of Murray's exploits. In 1979 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired an eight-episode series called The Great Detective. It would take 18 more years for England native, but Ontario raised, Maureen Jennings to use Murray as the inspiration for her fictional detective.

John Wilson Murray would undoubtedly find William Murdoch to be a fine - if too modest - representation of his own career. In fact, you can almost hear Murdoch speaking the concluding remarks in Murray's memoir: "As civilisation [sic] and science advance, crime also will advance. The detective business of the future will be far ahead of the detective business of the past. I hope that the future will see it raised to the high place of a profession, whose members will have a pride in their calling and a careful preparation for their duties."

Those interested in reading Murray's complete memoirs can find them online, free of charge, on Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/memoirsofgreatde00murr.

Read Maureen Jennings' Original Murdoch Mysteries:

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