(Editor’s note: Pseudonymous British author James McCreet has published three historical crime novels in book form, all featuring crime solvers Albert Newsome and George Williamson–the most recent of those being The Thieves’ Labyrinth [Macmillan], which January Magazine named as one of its favorite mystery novels of 2011, and which I mentioned in Kirkus Reviews as one of the top UK crime-fiction works of last year. His fourth book in that series, The Masked Adversary, was released as an e-book in July. McCreet explains that “The Masked Adversary revolves around the discovery in Victorian London of two bodies that are not entirely human. To solve the crimes, the detectives must become acquainted with the relatively new science of forensics and the pseudo-sciences of pathognomy and physiognomy. The novel takes us on a bizarre journey of masking and likeness, of waxworks, effigies and taxidermy–all of the ways in which a man might hide or fake his identity. Only by discovering the real criminals behind the masks of untruth will the cases be solved.” In the essay below, McCreet acquaints us with some of the peculiar and less-than-scientific methods 19th-century sleuths employed to “get their man.”)
Today, we all know more about pathology and criminal forensics than the greatest medical experts of the 19th century did in their day. CSI and modern crime fiction have educated all of us in the finer points of profiling, DNA, MO, blood-drop study, and trace analysis. We have an intensely scientific appreciation of investigation.
The first detectives, however, had no such useful knowledge. They were totally in the dark.
Before forensics, police work was little more than a cat-and-mouse game. A crime was committed, the criminal would vanish, and the detectives would have to search an entire city in hopes of catching their prey. It didn’t help that the police were often bound by rules and regulations, while the thieves and killers were obviously not. (For example, many crimes in Victorian London were timed to coincide with the period when police shifts relieved each other.)
Eugène François Vidocq changed all of that. In the early 19th century, this notorious criminal and adventurer became–by a remarkable series of events–the head of the Parisian Secret Police (the Sûreté). His motto was that “the cat cannot catch the mouse if he is wearing gloves,” and so he changed the rules of detection. Forget the regulations–he would wear disguises and infiltrate the criminal gangs, learning their ways and becoming their friend. The crooks were often amazed when he pulled off the false nose and denounced them.
(Left) Eugène François Vidocq
More importantly, Vidocq’s first-hand experience with lawbreakers allowed him to create a nomenclature or classification system for many different kinds of criminals, identifying their slang, their clothing, their behavior, and the areas they worked in. He saw it as the same kind of thing that naturalists were doing with animals or flowers. For the first time, criminals might be observed and known before they committed a crime. Vidocq would often be waiting for them as they prepared to strike. It was not forensics as we recognize it today, but it was the beginning of a criminal science.
Around that same time, medical men were making the first steps in scientific forensics. In France and Germany, doctors were trying to determine a system of discerning how long a body had been dead. “Body farms” were kept to study decomposition and books were written attempting to clarify and classify the signs. Such variables as temperature, age, illness, the season, or the kind of coffin in which a body had been stored were taken into account to solve this great mystery. Often, the crime of infanticide was the stimulus and the focus of these studies, because so many people would discard newborn children out of shame or poverty.
As the cities of Europe grew ever larger, the need to identify bodies grew more important. With such huge populations, everyone was anonymous and the discovery of a severed limb or a head was an utter mystery. It was a time of intense study and marked the emergence of forensic medicine as a distinct specialty required by the police. A book from 1824 defined the forensics as “the physical grounds on which we may conclude that the human frame has sustained injury–whether fatal to life or not.”
Medical men would conduct experiments on pieces of flesh to test and record the effects of different weapons. They would apply their knowledge of human anatomy to stray pieces of body pulled from the River Thames or dug from fresh graves. And in all of this work, their knowledge would be increased with the collaboration of the police, who always had a steady stream of victims.
Perhaps the first and greatest of the London forensic examiners was Dr. Thomas Bond, the official surgeon of Scotland Yard’s Division A (to which the Detective Force belonged). He was a lecturer in forensic medicine at Westminster Hospital in the 1880s and was often called upon to identify lethal herbs found inside a corpse’s stomach or to attend to (still living) victims of street crime and study their wounds for evidence. On one occasion, Bond was presented with a coffin containing a body chopped into 10 distinct pieces. He discerned that the victim had been a woman of 20-25 years of age, about 5 feet tall, and with a bullet in her brain. She had first been shot (the bullet had flattened on impact), then hacked to pieces postmortem with an axe.
(Right) Dr. Thomas Bond
In 1888, Bond worked on the Thames Torso Murders case. Excavations for a new police station on Westminster Embankment had revealed a woman’s torso with all limbs missing, and he managed to link the body to an arm found in the adjacent river earlier that week. But 1888 was a busy year for Bond and he was soon given the case that would change the history of both crime and forensics: Jack the Ripper.
Dr. Bond worked in an unusual way on the Ripper case. Rather than examine the corpses himself, he studied the postmortem notes and photographs (the first ever of a serious crime) and tried to draw conclusions about the murderer. Just as a modern crime-fiction lover looks for clues in a story’s text, so Bond sought to reconstruct the narrative from the material he had, “re-writing” the crimes for the police. Most importantly, he used a clear, logical system to tell the story of the killers.
For example, he looked at the position of a body, the estimated time of death, the direction of attack, and the area of the city in which it was found to suggest what kind of criminal might have struck. What kind of clothing might the person have worn at that time, in that weather, in that part of town? What job might they do if they were free at that hour? What associates might they have?
He also paid close attention to the injuries. The direction of attack, the choice of weapons, and the location of wounds would denote whether the injuries had been intended to subdue, to kill quickly, or to torture. This in turn would reveal if the killer was frenzied, calculated, prepared, or spontaneous. In fact, Bond concluded that “Jack” was a sexual sadist.
Sadly, Dr. Thomas Bond might have been a victim of all the horrible things he saw. In 1901, he jumped to his death from his bedroom window after a prolonged period of insomnia. What was keeping him awake? And did he ever find peace?
The late 19th century also saw the birth of a number of pseudo-sciences that were utilized in the name of forensics. These all come under the general term of “anthropometry”–the measurement of man–and followed on from Vidocq’s reasoning that a criminal might be known before he ever committed a crime. Phrenology was an early one, created by Franz Joseph Gall and positing 27 distinct “brain organs” that affected the shape of the skull. From these bumps, it was thought that a man’s propensity to affection, or friendship, or violence might be revealed.
(Left) Author James McCreet
For those who thought phrenology too vague, two other pseudo-sciences were created–physiognomy and pathognomy–by which a man’s entire character might be known, even if he tried to disguise his appearance. This was taken so seriously at the end of the 19th century, that recruits to London’s Metropolitan Police were examined by a physiognomist and accepted or rejected based on the shapes of their ears, nose, or shoulders. For the difference between the two studies, here is an excerpt from my new novel, The Masked Adversary:
Physiognomy is the study of the body’s organic constitution: its shape and relative dimensions. There is a finite number of possible body shapes, just as there are a series of known individual features to the nose or fingers. Critically, all of these elements are necessarily connected within a single organic type so that a tall, thin man will not have a broad fat nose–unless, of course, he is of African descent. Phrenology, it need hardly be stated, also falls within the same discipline. Pathognomy, on the other hand, is the study rather of gesture and motion: the organic character manifested as a physical language, if you like. Thus, a thoughtful man gestures with grace, while the imbecile is spasmodic in gesticulation. Any skilled practitioner of the one discipline must master the other, since one’s actions derive directly from the character as apples issue only from an apple tree.
It should be clear that there was very little science and less justice in these disciplines. A man with a low forehead and thick, dark hair might be marked as a murderer, when in fact he was a judge. The next (il)logical step of such studies was the system created by the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon, who proposed exact measurements of known criminals to scientifically record their identities and prevent their re-offending. It was a system that implicitly sought to categorize criminal “types” and was thankfully soon rendered extinct by the science of fingerprinting and the wider use of photography. However, it still laid the foundations for the measurements Adolf Hitler’s Nazis made of “racial types” in the early 20th century.
The history of forensics is in many ways the history of crime fiction: the desire to know and to solve, the recognition of clues, the reconstruction of story out of chaos. The body is the text and we try to find ways of making it reveal its narrative postmortem. In the end, there may be many stories, but only one truth.