The Dawn of Forensics

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, “A Study in Scarlett,” published in 1887, Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson “I have found a reagent which is precipitated by haemoglobin and nothing else.”

And so, writes DE Meredith, began the brilliant stories of Sherlock Homes which, almost single-handedly, introduced the British public to the idea that science could be used to solve even the most heinous of crimes.

Forensic science is now common parlance and despite a number of technical flaws along the way and the occasional, terrible miscarriage of justice, on the whole we believe in this science and because of programmes like “CSI” and “Waking the Dead” we are also hugely entertained by it.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Death and all his hideous crew

Here is a description of a nineteenth century morgue by the composer Hector Berlioz:

When I entered that fearful human charnel-house, littered with fragments of limbs, and saw the ghastly faces and cloven heads, the bloody cesspool in which we stood, with its reeking atmosphere, the swarms of sparrows fighting for scraps, and the rats in the corners gnawing bleeding vertebrae, such a feeling of horror possessed me that I leapt out of the window, and fled home as though Death and all his hideous crew were at my heels. It was twenty-four hours before I recovered from the shock of this first impression, utterly refusing to hear that words anatomy, dissection, or medicine, and firmly resolved to die rather than enter the career which had been forced upon me.

Pretty isn’t it? And that’s without the “scratch and sniff” card.

Forensic Science is a science of many parts and many of those parts are oozing, leaching, bloating cadavers.

The study of anatomy – the first step towards forensic science – wasn’t only difficult and unpleasant work back in the nineteenth century, when my novels are set, it was often dangerous. Infections were easily transferred from corpse to dissector, as no sterilised surgical gloves were worn until late in the 1890s. Added to which, doctors who cut up the dead for a living had to push against a great wall of ignorance and prejudice. Dissecting bodies was frowned upon by society as a whole, which considered the practice to be unethical , unchristian, and even verging on criminal.

The Resurrection Men

And the reputation of anatomists plummeted to new lows with the scandal of body snatching and the so-called Resurrection Men in the 1840s. The notorious criminals Burke and Hare didn’t help. These two men robbed graves and even murdered to meet the demand of anatomy schools who were desperate for corpses. Nevertheless, despite these setbacks, the building blocks for forensic science were starting to fall into place.

Victorian scientists’ understanding about how the body worked – how it decomposed, how it changed after death – was on the march. A huge array of scientific advances were being made in the key fields of chemistry, physics and mathematics. And many new experiments could later be used by forensic scientists.

Mid-nineteenth century advances

For example, in 1836, the British chemist, John Marsh discovered a new way of detecting minute traces of arsenic in human tissue (known as the Marsh Test and still in use today), whilst the mercury thermometer was used, for the first time, on dead soldiers by Dr John Davy to try and determine time of death. Dry plate photography was invented by 1854 and quickly adopted by a number of prisons to categorise and study the so-called criminal classes. Meanwhile, in Colonial India, Sir William Herschel was starting to develop finger printing techniques to verify documents as a substitute for the written signature and keep tally of his mainly, illiterate workforce.

In Germany, the manufacturing of powerful new microscopes by companies like Zeiss led to a far better understanding of molecular structures.

There were also many new discoveries made in the medical field as well, such as the identification of “Tardieu Spots” – haemorrhages occurring in asphyxia deaths – and the beginnings of usable blood tests by the 1860s – which could be used for taking forensic samples at a crime scene.

Silent Witness

In other words, during the Victorian period, the possibilities of the forensics were beginning to be understood. The methods, tools and techniques had finally arrived. With careful observation, scientific knowledge and technical know-how, a cadaver could become its own “silent witness.”

And this is where my novel, DEVOURED begins.

The Hatton and Roumande novels take us into a bleak world of rotting corpses and bloody murder, as my forensic “detectives”, Professor Adolphus Hatton and his morgue assistant, the doughty, Monsieur Albert Roumande, try to use these new ideas and experiments to crack crime and shine a light into a dark sea of ignorance.

D.E. Meredith
Author of The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries

D. E. Meredith’s newest novel, The Devil’s Ribbon, is now also available.

See D.E. Meredith’s article on the Irish famine.

2 thoughts on “The Dawn of Forensics

  1. Pingback: D. E. Meredith guest blogs for History in an Hour | D. E. Meredith

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