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Wednesday 6 July 2016

The Golden Age and Forensic Developments

Detectives of the Golden Age
Remember to Test for Fingerprints:
The Golden Age and Forensic Developments

by Carol Westron

Remember At the start of the Golden Age, newspapers were reporting and speculating about the many violent crimes that occurred and the crimes of convicted murderers such as Crippen, Armstrong and George Smith (the Brides in the Bath murderer) are still remembered today. Many detective novelists wished to join in the 'real crime' game, both to get new material for their plots and to raise their own profiles amongst the crime reading public. Dorothy L Sayers, who had great skill at self-promotion, was especially adept at getting her views of crimes and mysteries reported by the Press, even inserting herself into the investigation of the disappearance of fellow novelist, Agatha Christie in 1926. One of the most significant developments for crime fiction at the start of the 20th Century was the incredible number of forensic discoveries, which the newspapers duly reported and the detective novelists applied to their books, using this new knowledge to tease and inform their readers.

At this time, fingerprint evidence was a new, cutting-edge form of proof. In 1901 the UK Criminal Investigation Department had set up a fingerprint department, collecting and keeping on file fingerprints of known criminals. This proved useful in collating criminals who were using several aliases and, in 1903, had been used to obtain a conviction in a burglary case. In the late 19th Century, fingerprint evidence had helped gain a confession in an Argentinian murder case, however fingerprint evidence had not yet been taken to an actual murder trial.

In 1905 the police and judiciary were desperate for a new crime-fighting weapon in their arsenal. This was due in part to the public outcry at the wrongful conviction of Adolf Beck for fraud, which had occurred because of
inexcusably careless misidentification by the authorities and mistaken identification by eye-witnesses. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of Beck's champions, convinced that he had been wrongly convicted, and the newspapers took up Beck's cause. Eventually this resulted in Beck being cleared and awarded compensation, although the experience wrecked his health and life. As a direct result of the Beck case there were amendments to the law of appeal and the creating of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

With eyewitness identification regarded with such suspicion, the time was perfect for forensic evidence to take centre stage and, in 1905, fingerprint evidence was instrumental in sending two murderers to the gallows. The
victims in this case were Thomas Farrow and his wife Ann, who were robbed and beaten to death in the shop they managed in Deptford, London. The police discovered two black stocking masks abandoned at the scene of the crime. A greasy fingerprint was noticed on the cash box and elimination samples taken from the victims and the police officers present. The print was not in the police files but eye-witnesses reported seeing two men in the vicinity of the Farrow's shop and one person identified one of these men as Alfred Stratton. Alfred Stratton and his brother, Albert, were arrested but the evidence against them was insufficient, especially with the public and media suspicion of eye-witness evidence. However, Alfred's fingerprint matched that found on the Farrows' cash box. Although there was other evidence against the Strattons, the verdict was dependant on the jury accepting the fingerprint evidence. In this trial, the fate of fingerprint evidence hung in the balance as well as the fate of the two accused men. Detective Inspector Charles Collins appeared as the fingerprint expert for the police and, at the request of a juror, had to demonstrate the fingerprint taking process and the alteration caused by applying different amounts of pressure. The Defence had two expert witnesses who were employed to contradict the police fingerprint evidence but the first expert witness was discredited when it was demonstrated he'd been willing to support the side that offered him the highest fee and the Defence barrister decided not to risk calling his second expert. Newspaper coverage of this landmark case varied in tone, with headlines ranging from The Daily Mirror's
MASKED MURDERERS CONDEMNED to the more moderate broadsheets referring to THE DEPTFORD MURDERS but they all reported in detail the wonderful new science of fingerprint evidence.

So how did fictional detectives deal with this new forensic tool? In the case of Sherlock Holmes he was, as always, ahead of the game, first mentioning fingerprints in The Sign of Four (1890)and having them as an intrinsic clue in The Norwood Builder (1903.) Holmes is, of course, one of the masters of scientific detection, specialising also in typeprint and handwriting and in footprint evidence.

Close on the heels of Sherlock Holmes came Dr John Thorndyke, created by R. Austin Freeman. Thorndyke is a master of both medical and legal knowledge and an expert at detecting forged signatures. For those fascinated by forensics his books contain detailed descriptions of the processes involved in taking and analysing fingerprints and making moulds of shoe prints and photographing crime scenes and many other scientific procedures. In Unnatural Death (1927) by Dorothy L Sayers, Detective Inspector Parker describes the footprints in a faked attack: '“It was all worked out to a nicety – each set over and under the others, to produce the impression that three people had been there at the same time. Intensive study of the works of Mr Austin Freeman, I should say.”' In the same book, Sayers has fingerprint evidence providing a decisive clue that helps to locate the villain.  In many ways Thorndyke's skills mirror those of Sherlock Holmes but he goes a step further and shows how the science can be used to subvert justice. Thorndyke's first case, The Red Thumb Mark was published in 1907 and was unlikely to have endeared its author to the police or prosecution lawyers. In it Thorndyke demonstrates how a bloody thumbprint could be faked. This involved not only transferring the accused man's print onto another surface but also adding chemicals to keep the blood from setting. In The Red Thumb Mark Freeman strikes at the belief that expert witnesses were infallible and fingerprint evidence was incontestable.

In 1926, Annie Haynes, a writer once as famous as Christie, wrote The House In Charlton Crescent, in which she describes the importance a coroner's jury places upon fingerprint evidence. '“What we want to know is this, sir,” the inquisitive juryman persisted. “We have heard a good deal about fingerprints, all of us, one way and another, and we should like to know why Inspector Furnival has not had the handle of the dagger examined for finger-prints, if he has not. And, if he has, why he has not communicated the results of the examination to us.” The suspicion of a smile flitted across the inspector's face. Nothing that was done in all the wonderful artistic and scientific methods of detecting crime employed by the Criminal Investigation Department had so captured the public imagination as this one of finger-prints, he was well aware. Also no one was aware how fallacious such a test might be.'

Back in the real world of forensic science, in 1910, Edmond Locard set up the first forensic laboratory in two attic rooms in a Paris police station, although its status as a police laboratory was not acknowledged until two years later. In the 1914-1918 war Locard worked in the trenches, using his forensic skills to reassemble and identify badly disfigured and mutilated corpses. By the time of his death in 1966 he was acknowledged to be one of the most influential forensic scientists in the world. His major forensic work, Traite de Criminalistique is still studied and his contribution to the science of trace evidence is encapsulated in the famous quote: 'Every contact leaves a trace.' Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret, attended many of his lectures.

It is interesting to note that both Arthur Conan Doyle and R. Austin Freeman were medical doctors before they turned their talents to crime fiction. And they are not merely reporters of new scientific techniques but also pioneers of forensic science as a means of detection. In A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886, Holmes investigates the properties of haemoglobin and explains to Watson: 'It is the most practical medico-legal discovery for years. Don't you see that it gives us an infallible test for bloodstains.' In reality the test to distinguish human blood from animal blood was not developed until 1901 and was used in 1904 to bring the murderer of two children to justice.

In 1928 the newspaper headlines read 'Hanged by a microscope' when evidence matching an empty cartridge to the gun that fired it convicted the killers of an Essex policeman. Many crime writers found this method of
identifying a murder weapon as inconvenient, but others embraced it. In 1929, a year after the landmark real-life case, Annie Haynes based the entire plot of
The Crime at Tattenham Corner upon the striation marks in two otherwise identical weapons.

It was a time of great forensic development: fingerprints; striation marks on weapons, identification of human blood, tests for poisons, trace evidence: a whole toy-box of goodies for crime novelists to play with, and few had as much fun in the new forensic playground as Dorothy L Sayers. In her fiction Sayers uses fingerprints, soil analysis, shoe-prints, the identification of human blood, Marsh test for arsenic, paint analysis and photographic

Sayers was always looking for unique ways to kill her victims. As Wimsey complains in Unnatural Death (1927), there was a large demand for an untraceable way of committing murder: '“But surely there must be something which kills without leaving a trace,” pleaded Lord Peter... “A thing in such universal demand – surely it is not beyond the wit of scientists to invent it. It must exist... Why it's a thing one might be wantin' one's self any day.”' However, in Strong Poison Sayers resorted to the most common of poisons, arsenic, but she gave it a clever twist. The research Sayers did was painstaking. In 1836 the British chemist James Marsh developed a test that would reveal even small amounts of heavy metals, including arsenic. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1921) she gives a detailed description of Marsh's test for arsenic, conducted by expert Sir James Lubbock, in which Wimsey 'watched, interested, the flame from the Bunsen burner playing steadily upon the glass tube, the dark brown deposit slowly forming and deepening at the narrow end. From time to time, the analyst poured down the thistle-funnel a small quantity of a highly disagreeable-looking liquid from a stoppered phial; once his assistant came forward to add a few more drops of what Wimsey knew must be hydrochloric acid. Presently, the disagreeable liquid having all been transferred to the flask, and the deposit having deepened almost to black at its densest part, the tube was detached and taken away, and the burner extinguished.'

Wimsey often employs Lubbock to do scientific analysis for him but at other times he undertakes it himself, with the help of the invaluable Bunter, as in Strong Poison (1930)where the results of a test may serve to
exonerate Harriet Vane who is being tried for murder. 'Bunter... delicately dropped the white powder into the wide mouth of the flask. All five heads bent eagerly over the apparatus. And instantly, definitely, magically, a thin silver stain began to form in the tube where the flame impinged upon it. Second by second it spread and darkened to a deep brownish-black ring with a shining metallic centre... “Then it is arsenic,” said Parker. “Oh yes,” said Wimsey nonchalantly, “of course it's arsenic. Didn't I tell you?” His voice wavered a little with suppressed triumph.'

Sayers had an enquiring, academic mind. Accuracy mattered to her and if she made an error she acknowledged it. Sayers wrote The Documents in the Case (1921)in collaboration with Robert Eustace, whose real name was Eustace Robert Barton, an English doctor and mystery writer. It is the only one of her detective novels not to feature Lord Peter Wimsey and is an epistolary novel, told mainly in the form of letters. The story involves the death of a fungi expert by consuming muscarine, which can be found naturally in certain mushrooms. However, muscarine can also be produced synthetically and is distinguishable from natural muscarine by use of a polariscope. In this way, Sayers catches her killer. Unfortunately, soon after the book was published, a scientifically informed reader wrote to tell her that natural muscarine was an exception to this rule. Sayers wrote an article for the magazine, The Listener, in which she admitted that the novel ''contains a first-class howler and I may as well relieve my mind by confessing to it.''

She continued that she learned, too late, that natural muscarine does not ''twist a ray of polarized light any more than the synthetic kind.'' In the 1950s scientists finally isolated pure muscarine salt and verified that it, like almost all other organic compounds, does indeed rotate a beam of polarized light. So Sayers' method of discovery was accurate in retrospect.

Sayers was well aware how hard it could be for scientific expert witnesses to explain forensic details to a jury, as on the final page of The Documents In the Case when the Director of Public Prosecutions is contemplating the difficulties of presenting evidence of this sort: 'Mentally he watched his expert witnesses displaying an asymmetric molecule to a jury of honest tradesman under a withering fire of commentary by the counsel for the defence. He sighed. This sort of case always meant a lot of work and bother.' Obviously the expert witnesses did their job because the book ends with an extract from the Morning Express: 'MANATON MURDERER HANGED.'

Dorothy L Sayers would be pleased to know that, despite her 'howler' she is still regarded with respect by the 21st Century scientific community and Dr. Harold Hart, professor of chemistry at Michigan State University, says of The Documents in the Case, ''I strongly recommend it as supplementary reading for undergraduate organic students.''

In the 1939 In The Teeth of the Evidence Sayers takes us into the mysteries of forensic dentistry and the identification of a severely burned body by its teeth. At the end of this short story, Wimsey references two real-life murderers, Furnace and Rouse, who had both used similar methods to kill their victims and with similar motives.

One Golden Age writer who resolutely abstained from intricate scientific explanations was Agatha Christie, who declared, "I don't care two pins about accuracy. What really matters is plenty of bodies." Christie is not being entirely fair to herself. She created detectives who had little dependence on forensic evidence, indeed she often used new forensic advances for her criminals to mislead the unwary, not by clever science but by simple ingenuity. If Christie identifies a mutilated corpse by dental records beware, somebody will have switched the names on the files in order to cover their tracks. However, when it comes to poisons, Christie is without equal. She worked as a hospital pharmacist during both World Wars and was passionately interested in the subject and very accurate in her descriptions.

In Strong Poison (1930) Sayers has a reporter complaining that criminals learn how to evade capture by studying expert witnesses and the reports of trials in newspapers. 'Salcombe Hardy groaned: “How long, O Lord, how long shall we have to listen to all this tripe about commercial arsenic? Murderers learn it now at their mother's knees.”' Of course it could also be argued that murderers learned their killing skills from crime novels.  However, the other side of the coin is also true. As late as the early 1970s Agatha Christie was actually read by pathologists as reference material when they were dealing with the crimes of serial poisoner Graham Young. On a happier note, in 1977, a nurse at Hammersmith Hospital had been reading Christie's The Pale Horse (1961) and recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning in a very ill nineteen-month-old girl. The child was successfully treated and Christie's contribution was acknowledged in a subsequent medical publication: 'We are indebted to the late Agatha Christie for her excellent and perceptive clinical descriptions.'

It is fascinating to consider that in 1929 when Margery Allingham published The Crime at Black Dudley she had intended the character who is central to the book, pathologist, George Abbershaw, to be her long-term series hero. However both public and publisher fell in love with Albert Campion, who had a comparatively minor part to play in the book. It's hard to imagine Allingham being remembered for forensic pathologist mysteries, and anyway, what would the world be without Campion?

In the 1920s a real-life forensic super-star was dominating the witness box. Bernard Spilsbury was a Home Office approved pathologist who was greatly admired by Dorothy L Sayers. Spilsbury was part of the Prosecution team in many of the most famous cases of the time, including those already mentioned: Crippen, Armstrong and the Brides in the Bath.  It was Spilsbury who helped institute the 'Murder Bag' so that basic forensic instruments could be routinely present at the crime scene. Ngaio Marsh's Scotland Yard detective, Roderick Alleyn, travelled with his team of detectives, each with their own forensic skills and armed with murder bags containing equipment to take fingerprints and to preserve trace evidence, as well as photographic equipment to record the scene of the crime.

Spilsbury was knighted in 1923 and very much lived up to his new role as a celebrity pathologist. He was always elegantly clad in dress coat, top hat and spats and was authoritative and didactic when in the witness box. Soon his reputation was so well-established that it seemed that his expert evidence would almost guarantee a conviction. It was perhaps inevitable that Spilsbury became increasingly arrogant and obstinate, determined to work alone and have no peers reviewing his work. Even as early as 1925 concerns were expressed at his role as an expert witness and the part it had played in the conviction of a young farmer, John Thorne, found guilty of murdering his girl-friend. The Law Journal ran an editorial which expressed its shock that ‘twelve men in half an hour had “no reasonable doubt” that Bernard Spilsbury’s unsupported view was right, and that the several experts of hardly less eminence who ventured to disagree with him were wrong.’ It expressed concern about: ‘The more than papal infallibility with which Sir Bernard is readily being invested by juries.' On the eve of his execution, John Thorne wrote a letter to his father, describing himself as a ‘martyr to Spilsburyism.’

On the other side of the coin, Spilsbury could not act for the Defence in England or Wales but he could be an Expert Witness for the Defence in Scotland. In 1926 he was part of the team defending John Donald Merrett, who was accused of murdering his mother. Merrett escaped with a verdict of 'Not proven.' In 1954 Merrett murdered his wife and mother-in-law. He fled abroad, where he committed suicide. Forensic examination of his clothes proved his guilt.

The first decades of the 20th Century were vibrant with new scientific discoveries and the authors of the Golden Age rose to the challenge: predicting and explaining new forensic breakthroughs and familiarising the public with them; inventing new ways of killing people; describing the effects of little known poisons and how they could be detected; using new ways of categorising striation marks on weapons; helping to create the expert witness super-star. It seems clear that the new forensic developments inspired the authors of that period and played a significant part in creating the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014. Her latest book is The Fragility of Poppies published May 2016.

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