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...
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.)    ...
The Detective Who Fed Thousands

The Detective Who Fed Thousands

Victorian police detectives may have been hardened law enforcers, but there was a ‘softer’ side to the law too, especially as many of them had come from humble beginnings. Superintendent James Bent, of the Lancashire Constabulary, was so touched by the plight of the starving children he encountered on the frozen streets of Manchester, that he resolved to provide food for as many of them as he could.     In the bitterly cold winter of 1878, Superintendent Bent was walking in Gorton, in the southeast of Manchester, when he spotted a boy, who was about 14 years old, shivering in the snow – he was almost naked and without shoes. The child seemed to be begging on the frozen pavement and when he saw the police officer, he looked frightened. Feeling sorry for the lad, Bent decided to take him to a nearby shop to buy him some clogs, but as he approached, the boy fled. As he returned to his own cosy home, Superintendent Bent could not shake the image of the starving boy from his mind, so he decided that if couldn’t save that child, then he would try to relieve the suffering of others like him. James Bent resolved to offer shelter from the freezing conditions to 20 children from the poorest quarters of the city. Accompanied by a sergeant, he bought some ham and beef bones to make a large quantity of soup at Old Trafford police station. All he needed now was to find some hungry children. However, this proved more difficult than expected.     A group of police officers went into...
The Adventures of Detective Dew

The Adventures of Detective Dew

The latest subject of my ‘detective’ investigations is Chief Inspector Walter Dew, who served in the Metropolitan Police for 30 years. He had a fascinating career and is most remembered for his sensational capture of murderer Dr Crippen.     Walter Dew was born on 17 April 1863 in the town of Far Cotton, Northampton. His father was a railway guard, and Walter was one of 11 children. At the age of 10, he moved to London with his family. Walter was clearly interested in crime from a young age and was dismissed from his first job, as a junior clerk in a solicitor’s office, for bunking off to attend a trial at the Old Bailey. After a stint working with his father on the railways, Walter joined the Metropolitan Police as a constable, in 1882. Walter was stationed at Paddington Green, where he was soon detailed for ‘plain-clothes duty’. He investigated a wide range of crimes, including fraud, theft, forgery, sheep rustling, blackmail and murder. Dedicated to his job in detecting crime, young Walter regularly studied the list of ‘Wanted Persons’, circulated to police stations, in case he came across any of the felons whilst walking his beat. His exceptional memory and powers of observation soon led to his arrest of a woman wanted for a number of thefts in the city, whom he recognised from the list. He identified another thief by his peculiarly-shaped hat.     Determined to capture those who broke the law on his patch, Walter Dew developed effective investigative strategies, such as surveillance, tracking bank notes, house-to-house inquiries and interviewing witnesses. Like many...
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...