Love Murdoch Mysteries? See Historical Images of Toronto Tied to the TV Show

March 11, 2022 | Pamela

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Murdoch Mysteries is a tremendously popular Canadian television show. William Murdoch is a fictional police detective working in Toronto in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He solves many of his cases using methods that were unusual at the time such as fingerprinting and surveillance.

At Toronto Public Library (TPL), our Special Collections & Rare Books hold many historical items and artifacts that relate to the show's settings, plots and characters. I've done some sleuthing to find images tied to ten places and faces featured in Murdoch Mysteries.

Postcard reading Keele St. & High Park Toronto Ont. and showing police officer on bike in residential street from the past
Postcard near High Park entrance in Toronto, approximately 1917. Uniformed police officers in Murdoch Mysteries can be seen riding bicycles when solving crimes. View on our Digital Archive.

1. Station House No. 4

William Murdoch is the detective at Station House Number Four, one of several stations run by the Toronto Constabulary. Other stations in the city are mentioned in various episodes: House No. 1 is where Murdoch first started out as a police officer; Murdoch is almost promoted to Inspector of Station House No. 3; and there's an ongoing rivalry between House No. 5 and House No. 4.

In real life, Station House No.1 was located at 10 Court Street, Station House No. 3 was at 501 Richmond Street West and Station House No. 5 was at 860 Yonge Street. The old No. 4 Police Station (51 Division) at Parliament and Dundas Street opened in 1876. It was the first police station that had officers walking the beat on foot or horse in the Cabbagetown neighbourhood. Our Digital Archive has several pictures of old Toronto police stations.

Vintage photo of polic station with clock tower
Cabbagetown police station, Dundas Street, Toronto, 1946. View on our Digital Archive.

Our Baldwin Collection of Canadiana preserves historical documents about the Toronto police force from the time of Murdoch. This includes annual reports, many of them digitized. An 1886 account of the constabulary from its reorganization in 1859 gives a snapshot of the environment Murdoch would have been working in.

2. Toronto Public Library

My ears always prick up when I hear a character mention going to the library in Murdoch Mysteries. It’s astounding what they can find there – from how to build a reflective telescope (season 2, episode 8, "I, Murdoch") to how wine is manufactured in Italy (season 11, episode 2, "Merlot Mysteries"). Murdoch often sends Constable George Crabtree to the library to look up items in the newspapers.

In season 11, episode 12, "Mary Wept", Father McGray brags to Murdoch that he is well informed in matters of science because of his regular visits to the Dundas Library. This branch of TPL was in rented space on the second floor of the Brockton Town Hall located at Dundas Street and Brock Avenue from 1888 to 1909.

Inside vintage library with standing slanted desks for reading
TPL, Dundas Street, 1901. View on our Digital Archive.

The predecessor of TPL was the Mechanic’s Institute, officially established in the city in 1830. It was modeled after similar establishments in Edinburgh and London, England. Their goal was the improvement of mechanics and others by the formation of reference and circulating libraries and by delivering lectures and classes. In 1884 Toronto’s Mechanic’s Institute was relocated to a building at Church and Adelaide Streets. This site plays a prominent role in Murdoch Mysteries.

The two-part "Stroll on the Wild Side" (season 5, episodes 7 and 8), features character Anna Fulford in disguise and working at TPL. Murdoch first meets her in England when he was suffering from amnesia. Anna Fulford could easily be one of the ladies in this picture below of library staff.

Vintage group photo of women standing in front of bookshelves
Staff at Mechanics Institute, Church Street, approximately 1895. View on our Digital Archive.

3. The Provincial Lunatic Asylum

"The Provincial Lunatic Asylum" was also known as the "Toronto Lunatic Asylum" or simply "The Lunatic Asylum." It becomes the new place of work for Dr. Julia Ogden in season 6 of the show, as she starts practicing psychiatry. This location is referred to in many Murdoch mystery books and episodes but the most memorable is season 8, episode 14, "The Incurables". Murdoch investigates the violent death of a nurse only to encounter four dangerous inmates who audiences may remember from previous episodes.

The facility was located on 27 acres of land at 999 Queen Street West. At the time of its opening, it is was state of the art: it had central heating, mechanical ventilation and indoor plumbing. Architect John George Howard based his design on the National Gallery in London, England. Howard was the official surveyor and civil engineer for Toronto. He was also Toronto’s first professional architect, designing numerous public, commercial and residential buildings during the 19th century.

We hold a number of items related to this building, including Howards original blueprints (available to view in person from our manuscript collection in our Baldwin Collection of Canadiana).

Detailed sketch of large building with caption reading South View J G Howard Architect
Lithograph of "The Lunatic Asylum", approximately 1894. View on our Digital Archive.

4. The Victoria Hospital for Sick Children

The institution that would become what we now know as the Hospital for Sick Children began in 1875, in rented premises. In 1892 staff and patients moved to a purpose-built hospital. In season 1, episode 7, "Body Double", Murdoch and Constable Crabtree find a clue to a murder in an article of the Toronto Gazette about the hospital’s opening on May 11, 1892. In season 4, episode 4, "Downstairs, Upstairs", Dr. Darcy Garland mentions that he has been courted by the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children, which is one of the best in the world

The building where Darcy would have practiced still stands at 67 College Street and is now the Toronto Area headquarters of Canadian Blood Services. The name Victoria was in honor of the reigning Queen of Canada at the time. Over time the name was shortened to The Hospital for Sick Children and eventually Sick Kids. A fascinating history of this institution as well as its sister, the Lakeside Home for Little Children, written in 1891 has recently been added to our Digital Archive.

Vintage illustration of large brick building with the words Victoria Hospital for Sick Children Toronto
Postcard of Victoria Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, approximately 1907. View on our Digital Archive.

John Ross Robertson (1841-1918) was a major philanthropist of the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children as well as an art collector. His donation in 1912 of more than 4,000 pictures illustrating the history of Canada began TPL's collection of historical pictures. It is now part of the Canadian Documentary Art Collection, a collection area of our Baldwin Collection of Canadiana.

5. The Queen’s Hotel

In the time of Murdoch Mysteries, Toronto had many hotels but the finest was located across the street from Union Station, where the Fairmont Royal York hotel now stands. The Queen's Hotel was first called The Swords but had a name change in 1862. It is referred to often in Murdoch Mysteries. Queen Victoria’s son Alfred stays at the Queen’s when he visits Toronto. Alexander Graham Bell is a guest there. In season 6, Murdoch and Dr. Julia Ogdon register at the Queen’s Hotel in order to give Darcy Garland grounds for divorce.

Our Special Collections include many guidebooks from Toronto’s hotels, such as this 1909 publication by The Queen's Hotel. Download the book to see a fascinating snapshot of the attractions and amenities available in Toronto at the time.

Corner building on tree lined street with words Queen's Hotel Toronto
Postcard of Queen's Hotel, Toronto, 1905. View on our Digital Archive.

6. The Bishop Strachan School

Season 4, episode 11, "Bloodlust" involves the death of a young girl who attends a girls’ residential boarding school. The name of the school in the story is The Tepes School for Girls. Vlad Tepes is thought to be Bram Stoker’s inspiration for the character of Dracula. The girls at the school are intrigued by this new novel and the idea of vampires in Toronto. (Our Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy holds a first edition of Dracula.)

According to the user-submitted info on Murdoch Mysteries Wiki, the Boulden House at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario stands in for the Tepes school. However, elements in the episode make it feel very much like we are seeing characters attending the Bishop Strachan Anglican day and boarding school for girls. Bishop Strachan has been located at 298 Lonsdale Road since the fall of 1915 but before that, the school had a variety of temporary homes. First opened in 1867, it was relocated in 1870 to Wykeham Hall near Bay and College Streets. This is where the school would have been in 1898, the year "Bloodlust" is set.

TPL has a several paintings and photographs of Wykeham Hall such as the one below by Owen Staples.

Painterly illustration of old two story building
Watercolour painting of Wykeham Hall, south side of College Street, east of Bay Street, Toronto, 1912. View on our Digital Archive. 

Our Digital Archive also has postcards and other bits of ephemera relating to The Bishop Strachan School. A fun coincidence: on the back of one digitized prospectus is an ad for the Trinity College in Port Hope, Ontario — the place that stood in for the Tepes School in the Murdoch Mysteries episode.

Postcard of girls playing lawn sports with wavy text reading The Bishop Stachan school
Postcard of The Bishop Strachan School, approximately 1907. View on our Digital Archive.

7. The Royal Alexandra Theatre

In season 13, episode 10, "Parker in the Rye", special constable Robert Parker is asked by Inspector Brackenreid to go undercover. Parker is thrilled to have the assignment but disappointed, as he will not be able to attend the opening of Toronto’s newest theatre, The Royal Alexandra. He gives up his tickets to an astonished Brackenreid who says his wife Margaret was keen to see the show.

The Royal Alexandra Theatre was the vision of Cawthra Mulock, one of the youngest millionaires in Canada. He hired an equally young Canadian architect, John Lyle. Lyle was just starting out and eager to present Toronto with an entirely original design for a theatre. Lyle used the experience gained working in Paris and New York to design a building in the Beaux-Arts style.

Illustrated postcard of Royal Alexandra Theatre
Postcard of Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, approximately 1910. View on our Digital Archive.

The Royal Alexandra was the first fireproof theatre in Toronto and one of the first anywhere. It didn’t have the usual unsightly pillars supporting the balconies and blocking people’s views. Tom and Margaret Brackenreid would have had a fantastic view of "Top O'Th' World", the theatre’s opening show on August 26, 1907. It was the equivalent of a big English pantomime with a comic chief of police referred to as Inspector Archibald. The next day, the Toronto Star called the performance, “A whimsical musical extravaganza of the fairyland type.

We preserve many old theatre programs from these early days of the Royal Alex including the one below from January of 1909.

Two tall pages of program titled Royal Alexandra Theatre with ornate classical border and ads for wares such as Queen Quality Shoes and food and list of cast members
Left: Cover of Royal Alexandra Theatre program, January 11, 1909. Right: Page seven of program showing ads and acting credits including "Miss Mary Pickford" playing a young child. View on our Digital Archive.

The dramatic play that week in 1909, The Warrens of Virginia, had in its cast a 16 year-old Canadian, Mary Pickford. In season 15, episode 12, "There’s Something About Mary", Murdoch investigates the suspicious death of a stage manager after going away party for Mary Pickford whose star is rising. In the television episode, Mary plays Cleopatra to John Brackenreid’s Anthony, not Betty Warren of Virginia.

8. Eaton’s Department Store

Founded in 1869, the Timothy Eaton Company Limited, commonly known as Eaton’s was the dominant Canadian department store. It is frequently acknowledged in Murdoch Mysteries. Constable Crabtree is intrigued by the novelty of a store that sells everything under one roof.

In season 5, episode 9, "The Invention Convention", Timothy Eaton offers a prize for the most commercially viable invention. In season 6, episode 8, "Murdoch in Ladies Wear", Murdoch investigates the death of Preston Monk, the much-disliked manager of the ladies-wear department of Eatons.

Interior of vintage building showing two side by side images of white dresses in large space with text below reading ladies whitewear
Stereoscopic viewing card showing ladies department at Eaton's Department Store, Toronto, approximately 1915. One of many stereoscopic viewing cards available in our Special Collections. View on our Digital Archive.

People in rural communities had access to a selection of goods otherwise unavailable to them by means of the iconic Eaton’s mail order catalogue. We hold Eaton’s catalogues in our Special Collections — and many of them digitized. Researchers can use them to investigate trends from specific years, fashions in particular.

9. The Toronto Hunt Club

In season 13, episode 12, "Fox Hunt", Inspector Thomas Brackenreid participates in a traditional English fox hunt which leads him to discover a murder victim in the woods. The members of the club almost certainly belong to the Toronto Hunt Club.

Explore our digitized item related to the Toronto Hunt Club including ribbons from steeplechases.

Illustration of wooded area with two peope and a grouping of dogs and the text The Hounds Toronto Hunt Club Toronto Canada
Postcard for Toronto Hunt Club, approximately 1905. View on our Digital Archive.

10. Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) created the world's most popular detective, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and his assistant Dr. John Watson inspired many fictional detectives. In season 1, episode 4, "Elementary My Dear Murdoch", Conan Doyle comes to Toronto to deliver a lecture on spiritualism and tags along with Murdoch. In season 1, episode 9, "Belly Speaker", Conan Doyle returns to Toronto allegedly researching a case for a story to be based on Murdoch. In season 6, episode 4, "A Study in Sherlock", Conan Doyle finds he must return to Toronto to help the crew at Station House No. 4 deal with a man who has assumed the personality of Sherlock Holmes.

In real life, Conon Doyle visited Toronto, three times. While on a literary tour of North America in 1894, Conan Doyle delivered a lecture at Massey Hall.  On this occasion, he stayed with his friend Dr. Latimer Pickering. Pickering was married to a female physician, Dr. Annie L. Pickering just as Murdoch is the husband of Dr. Julia Ogdon. Doyle was a supporter of female doctors and wrote a story called “The Doctors of Hoyland” which included a positive portrayal of a female physician. That same year, Doyle almost became involved in a famous case known as the “Parkdale Mystery.” He was asked by the Toronto World newspaper to assist in a violent murder case. He showed interest but was unable to help. Conon Doyle also made public appearances in Toronto in 1914 and 1922.

TPL has one of the world’s foremost collections of materials devoted to the life and work of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Portrait of Arthur Conan Doyle in sepia photo
Arthur Conan Doyle, unknown date. From our Arthur Conan Collection. Object number: ACD-PHOTO-001374093

More about Murdoch Mysteries

The character of Detective William Murdoch was created by Canadian novelist Maureen Jennings with a series of seven books beginning in 1997. The mystery TV show which started in 2008 is based on Jennings’ stories. The first series is set in 1895. Prior to being picked up as a regular weekly series, three television movies aired in 2004.

According to the Jennings, William Murdoch was modeled after John Wilson Murray (1840-1906) who was the first salaried Provincial Constable appointed to act as a detective for the Government of Ontario in 1875. His memoirs, Memoirs of a Great Detective: Incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray (1905) can be read in person at our Arthur Conan Doyle Collection.

You can borrow Murdoch Mysteries on DVD or check out the show's companion book from TPL.