Journey back only a short time in history, when esteemed judges and assembled juries had only the testimony of witnesses and sometimes the coerced confessions of the accused to rely on, and there can be little doubt that every now and then innocent parties were executed, and the guilty went free. These were the days before CSI, before ballistics, chemical tests, dentistry, and fingerprinting when the only evidence was what was seen, what was heard and what was supposed.
By the dawning of the industrial age in the mid-eighteenth century however, knowledge of the physical world was becoming more advanced. Scholars in scientific communities began making ever increasing progress in the fields of medicine, chemistry, biology and physics and slowly, the justice system began to consider expert testimony from these learned men in what would eventually become the discipline of forensic science.
During the American Revolution in what has become known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, Major General Joseph Warren was killed instantly by a musket ball in the head as the British made their final assault on the hill. In the aftermath of the battle, his body was stripped and mutilated with a bayonet before he was buried in a shallow grave by enemy forces.
Some ten months later, his brothers exhumed his body, wishing to give him a proper burial. His remains were identified by none other than Paul Revere who recognised a walrus tooth that he had wired into General Warren’s mouth before the war in the first known case of post-mortem identification by odontology. 1“Joseph Warren.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 25, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Warren.
In what might be one of the earliest documented cases of a murder conviction based on ballistic evidence, John Toms, saddler, was found guilty of shooting Edward Culshaw, house carpenter, at the Lancaster Assizes in 1784. According to the newspaper accounts, it was on 19 January 1784 when John Toms followed Edward Culshaw as he travelled along the road from Liverpool. With robbery his intent, Toms shot Culshaw in the head with a horse pistol and the wadding from the pistol shot stuck in Culshaw’s wound. Toms then robbed the deceased of his watch and some pence and placed the pistol under the dead man’s body. 2“Wednesday’s Post.” British Newspaper Archive, Chelmsford Chronicle. January 30, 1784. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk. That same evening when Toms was taken by the authorities, he was found to have a scrap of paper on his person. The tear marks on the paper were found to match the wadding from the shot that killed Culshaw. On 26 March 1784, before Judge Willes at the Assizes at Lancaster, John Toms was tried and found guilty of the wilful murder of Edward Culshaw of Prescot. He was executed on the Monday following, his body given to the surgeons to be dissected. 3“Saturday and Sunday’s Posts.” British Newspaper Archive, Northampton Mercury. August 7, 1839. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.
In what might be one of the earliest documented cases of a murder conviction based on ballistic evidence, John Toms, saddler, was found guilty of shooting Edward Culshaw, house carpenter, at the Lancaster Assizes in 1784.
In March 1838 however, things went a little differently. It was alleged that James White fired a gun at Edward James Baker with the intent to kill and murder him, wounding him in the arm before the bullet lodged in the hindquarters of his horse. In the subsequent trial in August of 1839, Bow-street officer Henry Goddard told the court that he questioned Mr. Baker and took from him the bullet that had wounded him. He then went to White’s hut and found a bullet mould and a gun, both of which he produced during the trial. The mould, he testified, was not completely true, causing the bullets cast in it to be ‘more on one side than the other’. He told the court that he had himself cast bullets in the mould and that those he had produced appeared to have the same defect as the one that Baker had given him. Goddard added that the gun he had found at White’s appeared to have been recently discharged. A gunsmith by the name of Piper also testified and confirmed that it was his expert opinion that the bullet that had wounded Baker had been cast in the mould found at White’s hut. The mould was identified as being very old, perhaps 80 to 100 years-old and Piper stated that it was not likely that there was another the same in Birmingham. Despite the damning testimony from Goddard and Piper, the jury was not convinced and acquitted White of all charges. 4“Maliciously Shooting at a Person with Intent to Murder.” British Newspaper Archive, Evening Mail. August 7, 1839. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.
Mr. George Bodle, a wealthy gentleman of Plumstead, died on Tuesday, 5 November 1833, an apparent victim of poisoning. During the inquest into Bodle’s death, chemist James Marsh testified about various tests performed on the coffee consumed by the elderly murder victim, saying he had detected the presence of arsenic, although he could not say how much. The inquest terminated on 17 November in a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ against John Bodle, the victim’s grandson. However, at the subsequent trial in mid-December, the accused was acquitted when the jury felt there was reasonable doubt of his guilt. 5“Trial of John Bodle for the Murder of his Grandfather.” British Newspaper Archive, Hull Packet. December 27, 1833. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.
This failure to obtain a conviction in the Bodle case may have been what inspired James Marsh to develop the “Marsh Apparatus” which enabled better detection of arsenic. When Madame Laffarge was convicted of the murder of her husband by poison in a sensational French trial in September of 1840, the apparatus gained instant fame. Chemists had used the Marsh’s methods to test for the presence of arsenical acid, and this time their testimony held sway. Madame Laffarge was found guilty of poisoning her husband ‘under extenuating circumstances’ and was sentenced to public exposure in the pillory and hard labour for life. 6“Fourteenth Day – The Sentence.” British Newspaper Archive, Bell’s New Weekly Messenger. September 27, 1840. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.
There is much controversy about who invented the fingerprint method. Some attribute the discovery to William Herschel, who began putting his own handprint on contracts as proof that they were signed by him. Others believe that it was Henry Faulds, who began classifying fingerprints in the late 1870’s and who wrote of his findings to Sir Charles Darwin. Ill at the time, Darwin forwarded the letter on to his cousin Francis Galton who in turn forwarded it to the Royal Anthropological Society where it remained until finally returned to Galton in 1894.
In the meantime, Francis Galton published an 1888 journal article in Nature entitled ‘Personal Identification’ and after a series of other articles he published the major work ‘Fingerprints’ in 1892. In it Galton wrote about fingerprint ridges: ‘They have the unique merit of retaining all their peculiarities unchanged throughout life, and afford in consequence an incomparably surer criterion of identity than any other body feature.’
Galton’s system used several standard patterns found in fingerprints including plain arch, tented arch, simple loop, central pocket loop, double loop, lateral pocket loop, and plain whorl, all terms we hear on CSI episodes today. 7Galton, Francis. “Fingerprints.” Francis Galton. Accessed December 28, 2015. http://www.galton.org/books/finger-prints/galton-1892-fingerprints-1up-lowres.pdf.
On 18 September 1902, Harry Jackson became the first man to be convicted of theft based on the new science of fingerprinting at the Old Bailey. Police identified him by a thumbprint on the newly painted window of the house he burglarised. He was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. 8“HARRY JACKSON, Theft Burglary, 9th September 1902.” The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913. Accessed December 28, 2015. http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def1-686-19020909&div=t19020909-686#highlight.
German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen is usually credited with discovering the x-ray in 1895, although his work, like that of many scientists, built on the work of others.
In 1898, Charles Merry, a Chicago pedlar convicted of murdering his wife and convicted to hang, was given an X-ray examination of his brain to determine if a prior head injury that occurred when Merry was struck on the head with a brick might be responsible for his violent outbursts of temper. Although he was initially granted clemency for sixty days by the Governor, he was eventually executed for his crime on 22 April 1898. 9“To Examine Merry’s Brain.” Chronicling America, The North Platte semi-weekly tribune. February 11, 1898. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
Jack the Ripper
When a serial killer began murdering prostitutes in Whitechapel in the late 1880s, the London Metropolitan police collected some forensic evidence that led to the questioning of many suspects, although unfortunately this evidence never resulted in the apprehension of Jack the Ripper. Would the Ripper have been caught if the Met had access to today’s CSI techniques?
Recently in the news, author Russell Edwards claimed that based on DNA evidence, Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew whose family had immigrated to London was definitely the man behind the Ripper murders. Edwards bases his assertion on a bloody shawl found at the scene of the Ripper murder of Catherine Eddowes that was taken by Sergeant Amos Simpson as a gift for his wife, and then passed down in the Simpson family. Russell maintains that he has tested the DNA from the shawl against descendants of both Kosminski and Eddowes and that those tests prove Kosminski was the Ripper.
Case Study: Parkman-Webster Murder Case
In November 1849, a Bostonian businessman by the name of Dr. George Parkman, a member of one of the city’s richest families, disappeared. He was last seen at Harvard Medical College on 23 November when he entered the building at about 1:45 pm. When he did not return home that night, the police were informed of his disappearance and notices were posted. After a week with no trace of him, his friends gave up hope and offered one thousand dollars for the recovery of his body.
Disappearance of Dr. Parkman. -Dr. Parkman, an eminent physician of Boston, very mysteriously disappeared on Friday last, and has not since been heard of, although the whole police force of the city are out in search of him. Chronicling America, The Republic. November 28, 1849.
As investigators retraced Dr. Parkman’s last steps, they spoke to Professor Webster, to whom Parkman was known to have loaned money. According to Webster, Parkman had been to see him at the College on the day of his disappearance and Webster had paid him $470, the amount of a mortgage and that Parkman had then left. No one had seen the prominent physician since. 10“The Murder of Dr. Parkman.” Chronicling America, The Republic. December 4, 1849. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
Finally, on Friday, November 30, the press reported that mutilated and burned remains of a body, supposed to be Dr. Parkman, had been located. 11“Mystery solved – Dr. Parkman found.” Chronicling America, The Republic. December 3, 1849. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
The body parts were found in the basement of the medical college by the janitor Mr. Littlefield when he became suspicious of Webster. Littlefield broke through a wall into a vault accessible only from Webster’s private privy and discovered a thigh, part of a body and part of a leg. After authorities were informed of the discovery, they instituted a search and uncovered the ashes of human bones together with particles of gold and buttons and a set of false teeth in the college furnace. Webster was arrested at 11:00 am for the murder of Parkman and the following day a more intensive search discovered the thorax and chest of a human body in a tea-chest in a remote corner of Webster’s laboratory.
As authorities investigated, it was learned that Dr. Parkman and Dr. Webster were classmates in college but that while Dr. Parkman had become very wealthy, Dr. Webster’s success had been of a more scientific nature and that he was heavily in debt to Parker, a situation that had resulted in several disputes between them. It was alleged that during the meeting on the day of Parker’s disappearance, Webster had struck him a mortal blow and had then attempted to dispose of the body by dismembering it and burning it in the furnace. 12” Dr. Parkman.” Chronicling America, The Republic. December 6, 1849. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
The jury at the subsequent Coroner’s Inquest charged Webster with killing Parkman, 13“Correspondence of the Republic.” Chronicling America, The Republic. December 21, 1849. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/. and on 18 January 1850, the grand jury returned a true bill against Professor Webster for Parkman’s murder. 14“True Bill Against Professor Webster.” Chronicling America, The Republic. January 21, 1850. Accessed December 29, 2015. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
In the sensational trial that followed, physicians, anatomists and Parkman’s own dentist testified about the significance of the forensic evidence of the bones in one of the earliest uses of such evidence in a murder trial. Dr. Keep, Parkman’s dentist, exhibited a mould of Parkman’s mouth which he told the court that he had made when making Parkman’s false teeth in 1846. The jaw bones found in the furnace corresponded exactly with the mould.
Several medical and scientific professionals testified that they had examined the body parts and confirmed that they were consistent with a man of about 56 years of age that was 5 feet 10-1/2 inches tall, matching Parkman’s description. 15“The Parkman Murder : Trial of Prof. John W. Webster, for the Murder of Dr. George Parkman, November 23, 1849 : Before the Supreme Judicial Court, in the City of Boston with Numerous Accurate Illustrations : Webster, John White, 1793-1850, Defendant.” Internet Archive. 1850. Accessed December 28, 2015. https://archive.org/details/parkmanmurdertri00webs.
Unable to refute any of the findings or to provide any reasonable explanation for the presence of the dismembered body in his laboratory, Webster was found guilty on March 30, 1850 and was hanged the following August.
“HARRY JACKSON, Theft Burglary, 9th September 1902.” The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913. Accessed December 28, 2015. http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def1-686-19020909&div=t19020909-686#highlight.
“The Parkman Murder : Trial of Prof. John W. Webster, for the Murder of Dr. George Parkman, November 23, 1849 : Before the Supreme Judicial Court, in the City of Boston with Numerous Accurate Illustrations : Webster, John White, 1793-1850, Defendant.” Internet Archive. 1850. Accessed December 28, 2015. https://archive.org/details/parkmanmurdertri00webs.