First Murder Solved by a Fingerprint

First Murder Solved by a Fingerprint

In 1892, a double murder of two children in Argentina was the first ever successful conviction for homicide using fingerprinting.  On 29 June 1892, in the suburbs of Neocochea, a coastal city in the southeast of Argentina in the province of Buenos Aires, Ponciano Caraballo and his neighbour Ramón Velázquez came upon a terrible scene in the bedroom of the Caraballo family home. Lying on the bed were Caraballo’s two children, Ponciano Ernesto, aged 6 and Feliza, 4, and their mother Francisca Rojas. Their throats had been slit. The siblings were dead, but Ponciano’s wife was still breathing. Although she had lost a lot of blood, her injuries were quite superficial, and she was soon able to reveal what had happened. Francisca, who had been married to Ponciano for four years, told the police that she and her children had been attacked by their neighbour, agricultural labourer Ramón Velázquez. He had tried to seduce her and when she’d refused, he had threatened to kill them all. She later changed her testimony and stated that Velázquez had been attempting to take her children away from her, on behalf of her husband, from whom she was estranged. Whatever the reason for the attack, Ramón Velázquez was arrested on suspicion of murder. As was customary at the time, the police used torture to elicit a confession from the accused. Velázquez was subjected to several brutal beatings, and forced to spend a night locked in with the children’s bodies. It is also alleged that a police officer dressed up as a ghost one night to scare the prisoner into confessing. Despite the violent...
Vidocq: The Criminal Detective

Vidocq: The Criminal Detective

In the history of detectives, Eugène Vidocq is one of the most important and controversial figures of all (and one of my favourites!). A convicted criminal and legendary escape artist, he turned thief-taker and later established the first detective department in the world. Eugène François Vidocq was born in Arras on 24 July 1775, the son of a wealthy corn merchant. As a young man, he became renowned in the local area for his fencing skills, earning the nickname, Le Vautrin (wild boar). He also developed a skill for theft and, at the age of 13, spent his first short spell in prison after stealing his father’s silver.     His early adult life was one of adventure, including travelling with a band of entertainers – he played the role of a Caribbean cannibal – working as a pedlar and fighting for France against Austria. But trouble was never faraway and Vidocq committed a string of offences and misdemeanours: he had an affair with his employer’s wife, struck a fellow officer in the army and deserted from his regiment, and this was all before he’d reached the age of 18.     Vidocq spent much of the 1790s and 1800s in prison for assault, theft and forgery. He attempted to escape repeatedly, using disguises and subterfuge. When he was arrested once again in 1809, he brokered a deal with the authorities and agreed to act as a police spy. After he’d finally regained his freedom, he continued to work undercover as a secret agent, using his contacts in the criminal underworld.     In 1812, Eugène Vidocq founded the...
Holloway Unlocked

Holloway Unlocked

My criminal investigations often end up in Holloway and at last I’ve been able to glimpse inside its walls, through Caitlin Davies’ new book, Bad Girls. HMP Holloway opened its doors in 1852, as a mixed prison. Its female population at that time was about 20 inmates but, in 1902, it was re-categorised a women-only prison and became the largest and most famous women’s prison in western Europe. It closed in 2016. In her fascinating and shocking book, Caitlin Davies explores women’s lives and their rights, through the history of Holloway and its dark past.     Early Victorian female prisoners at Holloway included petty thieves, sex workers and the nefarious baby farmers. Amelia Dyer, who murdered hundreds of babies in her care, was transferred to Holloway from Reading Prison, on 2 May 1896, to await her trial at the Old Bailey. During the next two weeks she appeared ‘quite broken down in health and spirits’. According to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, she aged considerably and her hair became whiter. She wept constantly and threatened to take her own life.     On the second day of Dyer’s trial, the medical experts were called to the stand to give evidence about her mental health. One was Dr James Scott, Holloway’s medical officer. He had observed the prisoner closely since her arrival and concluded: ‘I consider she has not been insane during the time she has been under my observation.’ When the defence counsel suggested that it was possible ‘for a lunatic suffering from homicidal mania to be free from excitement’, Scott denied such behaviour, saying that Dyer had not even...
The Art of Measuring Criminals

The Art of Measuring Criminals

One of my crime history heroes is Alphonse Bertillon, the French criminologist who began as a humble clerk and ended up developing a worldwide system for identifying criminals. Alphonse Bertillon was born in Paris in 1853. Despite his father being an accomplished statistician (and later his younger brother Jacques), Alphonse’s educational achievements were patchy and he failed to complete medical school. Keen to find a post for his 26-year-old son, Monsieur Bertillon procured him a position in the Préfecture de Police, as a records clerk. Alphonse’s job was copying the details of known criminals onto index cards. But he soon realised he could do far better and, over the next two years, he developed his own recording system.     Using his knowledge that the structure of the adult body doesn’t change throughout its life span, and that no two individuals have the same combination of measurements, Bertillon devised his anthropometric system, later known as Bertillonage, which was based on 11 measurements of body parts, including the length of the left foot and the right ear. He presented his idea to the police department and it was formally adopted by the French police in 1883. During the first year, Bertillon used his new system to identify some 300 habitual offenders.     Once the suspect had been measured, the results were entered onto a card, with additional information such as personal history, past convictions and other physical features. At a time when offenders were adept at changing their appearance through the use of disguise, facial hair and tattoos, Bertillon sought to overcome this by developing further innovations, such as...
How to Get Away with Murder?

How to Get Away with Murder?

How to Get Away With Murder is one of my favourite Netflix shows, and if the ‘enterprising’ law students had been disposing of bodies in the 19th century, they might have tried quick lime to remove traces of human remains. I mixed crime history and chemistry to find out if this would work…     In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde wrote about the burial of trooper Charles Wooldridge, the subject of his poem:   For where a grave had opened wide, There was no grave at all: Only a stretch of mud and sand By the hideous prison-wall, And a little heap of burning lime, That the man should have his pall.   As was the custom with executed convicts, Wooldridge was buried in the precincts of the prison. He was wrapped in a shroud and placed in a shallow grave, filled with quick lime to accelerate decomposition. Wilde describes how the ‘burning lime eats flesh and bone away’. This method of burial was also used occasionally in an attempt to conceal a murder. Did it work, or was it a myth? Now for the science…     Commonly used in construction, limestone was readily available in the 19th century. When it is heated, limestone (containing calcium carbonate) breaks down into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide. The calcium oxide is the quick lime. This unstable compound is a highly-caustic alkali, which burns yellow when hot and is white when cooled down. It reacts with the carbon dioxide in air to create heat energy, known as ‘limelight’. ‘Slaked’ lime also appears in accounts of criminal body disposal...