Investigating 19th century crime
Detective reports from Angela Buckley, Victorian Super-Sleuth…
‘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 prints. Another Frenchman, physician and criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne, perfected the technique and was even able to make casts in the snow by using salt to form an icy layer around the impression.
In Britain, William Augustus Guy, professor of forensic medicine at King’s College London, published The Principles of Forensic Science in 1844. Subsequent editions contained information about footprinting. He recommended heating footprints with a hot iron and dusting them with powdered stearic acid to preserve them. Guy stressed the importance of impressions left by footwear, as the position and shape of patches or nails could yield the first link in the chain of evidence.
During his investigation into the murder of PC Nicholas Cock in 1876, in Manchester, Superintendent James Bent found ‘the most perfect footprint’ very close to where the young police officer was shot. Believing that it had been made by his prime suspect William Habron’s left boot, he compared it with the mark left in the cinders on the path. Superintendent Bent didn’t employ any of the scientific methods mentioned above, and merely made an impression with the boot next to the print, which he had covered with a cardboard box to preserve it from the rain. As the patterns of nails on William’s boot corresponded with the impression, it placed him at the scene of the crime, and Bent used this key evidence. Together with percussion caps discovered in William’s waistcoat pocket, the incriminating footprint put the 18-year-old labourer firmly in the frame for Constable Cock’s murder and was compelling enough to convince the jury of his guilt.
If you’d like to find out more about early crime investigation techniques, please join my Facebook group, The Victorian Detectives’ Club – I look forward to chatting with you there!