Secret Lives

Secret Lives

Later this year, I will be sharing stories of my shady ancestors at Secret Lives: Hidden Voices of Our Ancestors. Here’s my interview with Helen Tovey, editor of Family Tree magazine:     I’ll be giving two talks at the conference – Voices from the Underworld: Life in the Seedy Streets of Victorian Cities; and The Rattle of Bones: How to Uncover the Skeletons in Your Family Tree. More details here    ...
Criminal Lives

Criminal Lives

London Metropolitan Archives is one of my favourite places to study, with its airy atmosphere, efficient service and friendly staff. My recent visit was enriched further by an excellent new exhibition all about criminal transportation. From the early 1600s to the late 1800s, transportation was used, in Great Britain, as a means of punishment, and thousands of convicts were sent to serve out their sentence in far-off locations, such as the West Indies, America, Australia and Tasmania. Some 160,000 criminals were transported to Australia alone.     Criminal Lives, 1780-1925: Punishing Old Bailey Convicts, organised in partnership with Digital Panopticon, explores the impact on the lives of those individuals transported to penal colonies in Australia. It reveals the stories of men, women and children convicted in London and then sent overseas, examining their crime and trial, and tracing their experiences of transportation and their subsequent lives.   This fascinating exhibition covers the whole process in a relatively limited space. It includes the police who carried out the arrests, trials at the Old Bailey and the practicalities of transportation. It is an engaging and thought-provoking exhibition, which brings to life this draconian form of punishment through real-life case studies. The haunting images of some of the individuals who fell foul of the law and were sentenced to transportation are featured throughout, along with their often heart-breaking stories. The artefacts underline the reality of transportation, with prison record books, court records, police equipment and a convict’s uniform.   These important historical legacies form part of the Digital Panopticon project. Created through the collaboration of the universities of Liverpool, Oxford, Sheffield, Sussex...
Victorian CSI: Fingerprinting

Victorian CSI: Fingerprinting

Sherlock Holmes first used fingerprinting as a sleuthing tool in The Sign of the Four, in 1890, but it was another decade before the practice was adopted by real-life detectives. Early Victorian police detectives had only their powers of memory to rely on when trying to identify habitual offenders. At a time when criminals often changed their appearance and used aliases to evade the law, police officers visited prisons to record the physical appearance of inmates, in the hope that they would recognise them on the outside, if they reoffended. At the beginning of the 20th century, the instigation of the Fingerprint Bureau at Scotland Yard revolutionised suspect identification and transformed crime scene investigation.   Fingerprinting was first used, in modern history, in 1823, when the Czech physiologist and professor of anatomy Johann Purkinje published a thesis positing nine distinct fingerprint patterns. However, he made no reference to using the practice in crime investigation. In the 1850s, Sir William Herschel, a colonial administrator in the Indian civil service used fingerprints for signing documents. He later used them to identify prison inmates and is credited with being the first person to recognise their importance as a means of identification.   In 1880, Scottish surgeon Dr Henry Faulds published the first formal proposal of using fingerprints in crime investigation, although the idea didn’t gain ground with the police. A decade later, on the publication of his book, Finger Prints, in 1892, Sir Francis Galton laid the groundwork for transformative changes. In the meantime, Sir Edward Henry, the inspector general of police in Nepal had also been engaging in the practice. He...
The Suspicions of Superintendent Bent

The Suspicions of Superintendent Bent

Superintendent James Bent, of the Lancashire Constabulary, was a suspicious man. His favourite adage was, ‘Always believe everybody guilty until you prove them innocent’, which he put to good use throughout his long police career, especially when hunting cold-blooded killers. James Bent was born in Eccles, Salford in 1828. His father was a night watchman. At the tender age of seven, young James started work in a silk mill, where he was regularly beaten with a leather strap by his supervisor. On 7 November 1848, just before his twenty-first birthday, he joined the Lancashire Constabulary. Constable Bent was 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a fair complexion, grey eyes and sandy hair. He remained in the police force for over fifty years, rising through the ranks to superintendent. A married man with four children, he was transferred several times before being stationed at Old Trafford police station (close to my childhood home), from where he commanded the Manchester Division. Superintendent Bent tackled many different types of crime, including theft, burglary, illegal gaming, assault and murder. On one occasion, he investigated a case of attempted murder by a hawker who tried to poison his wife, an inmate of Prestwich Lunatic Asylum. Whilst on a visit to the asylum, the itinerant salesman gave his wife some Eccles cakes, in which he had concealed a dozen pins twisted into the shape of fish hooks – fortunately she wasn’t seriously injured. Superintendent Bent had the cakes analysed and found that they also contained antimony, a lead-based poison. (He later handed out the pins as souvenirs to local crime enthusiasts.)   Shortly afterwards, Superintendent...
Silent Witness

Silent Witness

Silent Witness is one of my favourite TV shows and I’m currently enjoying series 21, which is airing in the UK. Although I have to cover my eyes during the gruesome bits, I love the pathologists’ puzzle-solving detective work. Autopsies have been carried out for centuries but it wasn’t until the Victorian era that standardised procedures were developed.   The earliest known book on post-mortem examinations dates from 13th century China. Until the late 19th century, ascertaining the cause of death was a haphazard and individual process, with surgeons following their own course of forensic investigation. In 1876, Austrian doctor Rudolf Virchow published a treatise on autopsy techniques. Celebrated as ‘the father of modern pathology’ (and ‘the Pope of Medicine’ by his colleagues!), Virchow used his knowledge of cellular pathology to standardise post mortems with an emphasis on examining abnormalities, which would become vital evidence in criminal trials. (Virchow was also the first person to analyse hair in crime investigation.)         William Augustus Guy, professor of forensic medicine at King’s College London set out detailed guidance in his later editions of Principles of Forensic Science, stating that the medical examiner should begin with any evidence that could identify the victim, followed by the time of death, before moving onto any external injuries. The face should be checked for bruising or wounds, and the neck, back and legs for fractures and dislocations. Wounds and lacerations should be measured. Next, the examiner should compress the chest and check the mouth cavity. When the external assessment is complete, it’s time to conduct the internal examination. According to Guy, the golden rule...