Victorian CSI: ‘Dead Bodies’

Victorian CSI: ‘Dead Bodies’

Until the end of the 19th century, crime scene investigation in England was rather haphazard. When a suspicious death was discovered, the local police were usually called to the scene, followed by a doctor. The matter was then referred to the coroner, who organised a post mortem. There was no preservation of the crime scene – which would be trampled by the coming and going of so many people, including ‘sightseers’ (the Victorians loved a good murder!), and potential evidence would be removed from the scene. Such important items, including potential murder weapons were often  kept in the homes of police officers and court officials, until being produced in court, by which time, some would have been cleaned but others,  more often than not, would be still covered in blood. If discovered outdoors, the body of the unfortunate victim was usually taken immediately to a nearby building, such as an outhouse or the local workhouse infirmary/ If indoors, it remained at the scene until the coroner made arrangements for its removal. It was common to wash the body prior to examination.   On 17 August 1849, whilst investigating a missing person case, two police officers discovered the body of a man under some flagstones in the kitchen in a house in Bermondsey. Noticing a damp patch on the stone floor, PC Henry Barnes and his colleague had removed the flags and dug into the wet mortar, until they came across a man’s toe and then his loins. The man, who was naked, was facing downwards, with his legs drawn up behind him and tied with a clothes-line. Although his...
The Battle of the Detectives

The Battle of the Detectives

  When a brutal murder took place in Manchester in 1889, two detectives went head-to-head to track down the culprit. Renowned sleuth, Detective Chief Inspector Jerome Caminada, of the Manchester City police, and Superintendent James Bent, of the Lancashire Constabulary. Both used their superior powers of deduction to solve this case, but only one man would catch the killer. On 22 July, assistant pawnbroker Walter Davies opened his employer’s shop in Atherton, to prepare for the day’s business. He swept the floor and hung the watches for sale in the shop window. At 9.10 am, a neighbour entered the store and immediately became suspicious, as Walter was not in sight. After shouting the assistant’s name, he approached the cellar – Walter was lying at the bottom of the steps ‘in a dying state’. He was bleeding from several wounds from his head and face, and died a few minutes later without revealing any information about his attacker. The only clues to this ‘murder of a peculiarly savage character’, was that several watches were missing from both the shop, and a gold watch and guard from the victim himself.   Within a few hours, the stolen watches were recovered by the police from another local pawnbroker’s. The man who had pledged them had signed the book as ‘Fred Smith’. According to witnesses he was about 26 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches tall and of medium build. He had dark hair, a thin, dark moustache and a fresh complexion. Dressed smartly, he was wearing a black worsted coat and vest, dark-blue striped trousers and a billycock hat. He spoke...
Capturing the Image of a Killer

Capturing the Image of a Killer

  In the recently-released film, The Limehouse Golem, one of the flashback scenes depicts a murder victim with her eyes removed (nice, I know). This rather gruesome crime is linked to the Victorian fascination with ‘optography’ – the imprinting of the final image seen before death on a person’s retina. If the individual had been murdered, then photographing their eyes might capture the image of their killer. Optography first appeared in the 17th century. A Jesuit monk was dissecting a frog and claimed that he could see a faint image on the frog’s retina. In the 19th century, after the invention of photography, the practice of photographing murder victims’ eyes began to develop, with one of the earliest attempts taking place in Berlin in 1877. A year later, Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne, professor of physiology at Heidelberg University, invented a process by which such an image could be preserved. Professor Kühne used a rabbit to demonstrate this, asserting that the retina functioned like a photographic plate. He took an ‘optogram’ of the dead rabbit’s eyes and reproduced a shadowy image (pictured below), which looked like the bars of a window (or of the rabbit’s cage perhaps?).     Kühne’s first experiment on a human subject took place in 1880. After Erhard Gustav Reif was executed by guillotine for killing his sons by drowning, his eyes were removed immediately and analysed by the professor. This time, the images were very unclear and when a drawing was published, some speculated that the shape represented the guillotine’s blade, as the last thing seen by the condemned man. However, this is unlikely, as he...
The ‘Real’ Inspector Reid

The ‘Real’ Inspector Reid

  From the first scene of Inspector Edmund Reid poring over his files in the flickering gaslight of Leman Street police station, I’ve been hooked on Ripper Street, and I’ve avidly followed the adventures of the Whitechapel detectives through all five series. But, what was the real Inspector Reid like? And, did the character portrayed by Matthew Macfadyen resemble him? The ‘real’ Inspector Reid was indeed Head of the CID at the Metropolitan Police’s H Division in Whitechapel during the time of the murders attributed to ‘Jack the Ripper’. The pervious year, Reid had replaced Inspector Frederick Abberline (also present in the TV series), unaware that he would be investigating the most famous crimes in history. Edmund John James Reid was born on 21 March 1846, in Canterbury, Kent. By 1861, the family had moved to Camberwell, London. Working as a grocer’s assistant, Edmund, aged 15, was living with his father, who was a railway clerk, his mother and five sisters. He remained at home until 1868, when he married Emily Jane Wilson, also from Canterbury, and the couple moved to Southwark, where Edmund found employment in a warehouse. The Reids had two children: Elizabeth in 1872 and Harold in 1882.     After several jobs, including working as a pastry cook and a steward on a Thames steamer, Edmund joined the Metropolitan Police on 4 November 1872. Aged 26, he was five feet six and a half inches tall, he had dark brown hair, grey eyes and a ‘fresh’ complexion. PC Reid was first allocated to P Division Camberwell. Within just two years, he was promoted to the...
The Art of Tracing Footsteps

The Art of Tracing Footsteps

  ‘There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps. Happily, I have always laid great stress upon it.’ Sherlock Holmes extolls the virtues of footprinting in his first ever case, A Study in Scarlet, and by the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective story was published in 1887, real-life detectives were already using footprint analysis in the investigation of crime. Identification of suspects through footprints was first used in criminal investigations in the early nineteenth century. Marks made at a crime scene by footwear can link a suspect to the scene, as well as providing vital intelligence about the incident, such as the position and movement of individuals. The first detective to use footprinting was the French ex-convict and police informer, Eugène Vidocq, who established the world’s first detective department, the Brigade de la Sûreté in Paris, in 1812. Vidocq pioneered many investigative techniques, such as record-keeping and mugshots, as well as the examination of footprints. He used this technique successfully in the apprehension of a former police agent, who was implicated in the theft of a large quantity of lead from a house under construction, by matching the agent’s boots with prints in the soil at the building site. The master detective was also the first to use plaster of Paris to make casts of footprints.     Throughout the Victorian era, footprints were vital evidence in crime scene investigation, especially as shoes and boots were usually custom-made and therefore, unique. By the 1880s, the police were using plaster of Paris to preserve shoe and boot...
Charles Dickens’ Detective Party

Charles Dickens’ Detective Party

  I recently visited the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury, London, where the author lived for two years. He moved into 48 Doughty Street in 1837, with his wife and family and, whilst there, wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. One of my favourite pieces of Dickens’s journalistic writing is his description of meeting the early Scotland Yard detectives.     On a ‘sultry evening at dusk’, in 1850, Dickens and his colleagues at Household Words hosted a ‘social conference’ with the members of the ‘Detective Police’, which had been formed eight years earlier. The gathering was held at the editorial office in Wellington Street, the Strand. It was a hot and busy night, with carriages setting down theatre-goers opposite, and with much ‘shouting and bellowing’ coming through the open window. The editorial staff had arranged the room ready to receive their guests. There was a round table in the centre, on which cigars and glasses had been placed. The chairs were set out around the table. The first to enter the room were the two inspectors, Charles Field and Robert Walker. According to Dickens, Field was middle-aged, with a ‘portly presence’. He had ‘a large, moist knowing eye, a husky voice, and a habit of emphasising his conversation by the aid of a corpulent fore-finger’ (he was the inspiration for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House). Field’s companion Inspector Robert Walker was described as ‘a shrewd hard-headed Scotchman – in appearance not at all unlike a very acute, thoroughly-trained schoolmaster.’     The inspectors were followed by five sergeants: Stephen Thornton, Jonathan Whicher, Henry Smith, Edward Kendall and Frederick...