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How Science Aids In Detection

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How Science Aids In Detection

Post by Karen on Sat 18 Jun 2011 - 10:31


The Webster-Parkman Murder Used as an Illustration - Photographing on the Eye - Tracing Poisons - The Microscope.

Not long ago, says the Glasgow Herald, a story appeared in one of the magazines the plot of which was professedly founded on a somewhat startling assertion as to the aid which science is or was believed to be capable of affording to the detective in the discovery of crime and pursuit of criminals. The case which the writer dealt with was that of the murder of a man, whose eyes were photographed and the negative skilfully developed, with the result that the portrait of the murderer was revealed. The story was a concession to the popular idea that the dead eye retains the impression or image upon which it last gazed. In the case of romance it is, of course, easy to bring such a story to a thrilling and successful denouement. The novelist, like the poet, can give a touch, and often a very realistic one, of semblance to the "airy nothings" of the imagination. The production in the witness box of the photographer with his portrait of the murdered man's eyes as a piece de conviction is too dramatic an incident to have escaped the notice of our modern romancers, who nowadays travel far afield into the domain of physical science, and of even psychology, to disinter the curious things of human nature and life for edification and amusement. The photograph of the murdered man's eye, although not yet a fact of science as applied to the detection of crime, is nevertheless a possibility of the scientific research of the near future. It so happens that the outer part of the curious rods of the retina, or nervous network, of the living eye contains a curious coloring matter of purple tint known as rhodopsin. The retina is to the eye what the sensit zed plate is to the photographer's camera, and it is therefore interesting to find that in the eye's sensitive plate this coloring principle exists. It is rapidly bleached on being exposed to the daylight, but if kept in the dark regains its colour - that is if its natural surroundings have been preserved in an undisturbed state.


that it is probably this eye purple is intimately concerned in the production of the images of objects seen, and that the sense of sight is therefore more analogous to the ordinary art of light picturing than might at first sight be supposed. A Continental observer, Kuhne, bored a hole in the wall of a dark wooden chamber and covered the hole with a circular shield or diaphragm. This hole led into a second chamber, wherein was a ground glass pane on which the bright light of day was made to fall. Then after placing over the bright pane's chrome yellow tissue paper, a recently killed rabbit's eye - the animal having been a white or albino one - was set in the dark chamber. The animal previous to being killed had been kept for fifteen minutes in the dark in order to preserve the visual purple intact, and the eye was removed from the head under a light which was of a character calculated to leave the eye purple unaffected. Placed in the dark chamber against the shield or diaphragm, and in an appropriate position, the yellow paper curtain over the window was removed, and after being exposed for five minutes the eye was examined in feeble gaslight. Here no image was seen, but when the investigation was pursued in feeble daylight the image of the bright pane was discovered. Subsequent experiments enabled Kuhne actually to "fix" the eye purple by means of potash alum, and then the details of the image, such as the cross bars of a window, were rendered clear and distinct. That it might be possible, therefore, to "fix" the image on the eye of a murdered person is a piece of theoretical science which we might not gainsay; only the scientist would be entitled to demand his conditions as to light and darkness and other details, and such conditions, needless to say, have not yet been illustrated in any legal case presented for scientific settlement. In other words, there is a marvellous difference between the details of the experiment on the rabbit's eye and those presented by the case of a murdered man.


If, however, science has not as yet mastered the technicalities of ocular photography, it has still attained the high reputation of being the Nemesis of crime. In almost every sphere of medical jurisprudence the criminal is today hedged in by a veritable network of scientific details and experience such as render the detection of crime a relatively easy matter compared with the difficulties that had to be encountered even a quarter of a century gone by. The common prisoner, for instance, who uses arsenic or antimony or any commonplace drug can be securely netted as far as chemical analysis is concerned, for the accurate detection of such substances nowadays is mere chemical child's play. It is in the sphere of more uncommon drugs - the delicate principles and subtle essences, as it were, of ordinary poisons - such as aconitine, digitaline, and the like that the chemist does battle, and fights very valiantly indeed with the criminal. From the date of the trial of Palmer, the Rugeley prisoner, the progress of chemical experts in tracing out poisons, the fatal dose of which may be measured by the half, quarter, or other mere fraction of a grain, has proceeded apace. In the well-known Lamson case the methods of detection used by Dr. Stevenson illustrated this remark. Even where the quantity of the poison found in the murdered person's body has been of such small amount as well nigh to escape detection, science steps in, and by experiments upon animals aids justice in the pursuit of the criminal. In more prosaic fashion, however, science helps the detective in his quest. If we take one sober branch of it, anatomy for instance, we may speedily discover how the man of science may succeed in establishing the identity of lost persons, and give to the law the means of settling what is often the primary question in dispute.


One Dr. Parkman was traced on the 23rd of November, 1849, to the laboratory of a fellow-professor (Webster) in Boston, U.S., and from the moment he entered the chemist's premises all trace of him was lost. The excitement regarding the disappearance of a well-known physician of the city increased in intensity as time passed without revealing any clue to the mystery. Suspicion clearly pointed to the laboratory of Professor Webster as the starting place for investigation. When it became known that he had been Dr. Parkman's debtor in respect of money transactions, and that he was in pecuniary difficulties, a motive for the suspected crime was readily surmised. A search in Webster's laboratory revealed the presence in its precincts of certain fragmentary animal remains. These consisted of haunch bones, a thigh, and a leg. Anatomists pronounced them to be in the first place human, but there remained the far more difficult task of identifying these remains with the missing man. Later on, among the refuse of the laboratory furnace were found fragments of skull bones and blocks of artificial teeth. A tea chest in Webster's possession was next discovered to contain a human trunk and a thigh corresponding to that previously found. Clever anatomists pieced together the parts of the dismembered body. Dr. Parkman's height was 5 feet 11 inches. Anatomically, the remains made up to a height of 5 feet 10-1/2 inches. Furthermore, anatomy reveals characteristic peculiarities of the frame at almost every epoch of life, and the bones, etc., were proved to be those of a man who had attained Parkman's age, which was given as 60 years. A Dr. Keep, who had fitted the missing man with artificial teeth, supplied sundry links in the chain of identification. It appeared that he had fitted teeth in both upper and lower jaws, and the blocks rescued from Webster's furnace were sworn to by Dr. Keep as those he had made for Dr. Parkman. A most convincing part of the dentist's testimony was found in the fact that the left side of Parkman's jaw had exhibited a marked irregularity, and this point was duly recognized in the shape of the gold plates found in Webster's furnace. The evidence thus supplied by careful anatomical examination sufficed to convict Webster who was duly executed for the crime. The foregoing case is paralleled on this side of the Atlantic by many similar. There was


for example, of 1857, in which case a carpet bag found on a ledge of the bridge of that name in London was found to contain the remains of a human being, the head, part of the spine, and the hands and feet being wanting. Here, by the exercise of patience and skill, the body was proved to be that of a man between 30 and 40 years of age and about five feet nine inches in height. He was dark-haired and had probably perished from a stab. This incident remains among the undiscovered crimes of our century, although there were not wanting theories on the subject which seemed to point to political or allied reasons to account for the assassination. The Wainwright case of more recent years will also be recalled to mind as one wherein the anatomical evidence served in the most complete manner to identify the victim of a very cold-blooded murder.
Even the microscope has contributed its own quota to help to aid the search of science after crime. We can readily appreciate the importance, for instance, of the identification of such objects as bloodstains, hairs, shreds of clothing and the like in criminal cases. We may realize the delicacy of such investigations when we reflect that the red corpuscles (or "globules," as they are popularly named) which give color to the blood in man, average in diameter the one three-thousandth part of an inch. That is to say, it would take 3,000 such corpuscles set on a line to make up the dimensions of an inch. Microscopically, scientists are able to settle the difference between the blood of fishes, frogs, reptiles, and birds, representing the lower animals, and quadrupeds (including man) representing the highest forms of animal-life. In the lower groups just named the corpuscles are oval or elliptical in shape, and each possesses a central particle, or "nucleus," as it is named. In quadrupeds and man, on the other hand, the red corpuscles are round in shape and do not possess a nucleus, with the single exception of the camel tribe, in which they are oval in shape. The latter animals, however, have no nucleus in their blood globules. Now, in the microscopic examination of


we can readily note how science is enabled to assert with certainty whether or not the stain is that of a quadruped's blood with its round corpuscles, or that of lower forms with oval and nucleated ones. So far a sharp line of demarcation is drawn between these groups. When, however, it comes to be a question of the settlement of the kind of quadruped blood which is in dispute science moves cautiously, or, indeed, may refuse to move at all. The fact is that the blood corpuscles of many quadrupeds so closely resemble those of man in size, and, as we have seen, in shape also, that it becomes impossible to distinguish with certainty between them.
If, as was the case in an English trial held at the Essex Assizes in 1851, the defence pleads that the bloodstains were those of a fowl, it is clear that such a statement is susceptible of microscopic proof or refutation as the case may be. Or if, as happened to the late Professor John Hughes Bennett, of Edinburgh, in the case of a patient who alleged that she coughed up blood from her lungs, the blood globules were found to be those of a bird, the value of the microscope is readily demonstrated. It is in the distinction of the blood of man from that of most ordinary quadrupeds that the limits of science are reached. Here the likeness is too close for exact evidence, and measurements of particles which extend downwards to the thousandths of inches, and which vary in size even in the same animal, are not, of course, to be relied upon where, it may be, the life of a prisoner is at stake. Yet, despite its limitations in this direction, the microscope has done much useful work in the detection of crime. In one case the discovery of certain clotted hairs found on a hatchet was regarded as a fact testifying to the guilt of an accused man until the microscopist was enabled to declare the hairs to be those of an animal and not of a human being. Shreds of woolen fibers found on the boots of a prisoner have been microscopically identified with those taken from the head of the man kicked to death, who in his turn had worn a woollen comforter, whence the fibers had been derived. Again, in another case of murder, certain fibers were found on the knife with which the crime was committed, and similar fibers of peculiar hue were discovered in the woollen jacket worn by the accused.


It has been said that the gravest issues of human life often hang upon the merest chance, and certainly the story of science and crime illustrates to the full the justice of this contention. For instance, in 1806, a Mr. Blight, of Deptford, was fatally wounded by a pistol shot. Sir Astley Cooper, the famous surgeon, was called in to attend the patient. The case was one of mystery, but Sir Astley, by the exercise of scientific observation, convinced himself that having regard to the situation of the wounded man at the time of attack, his assailant must have been a left-handed person. A Mr. Patch answered to this description, and as he was asked to plead to the indictment on being brought to trial, up went his left hand. This fact, aided by other evidence, served to convict him, and he was duly executed after having confessed his crime. Equally curious was the experience of one Stuart, so called, who was charged in London in 1834 with being an escaped convict. The prisoner was duly sworn to by the prison officials as the man who had escaped from custody. The real Stuart was known to have had a wen or small growth on his left hand. The prisoner could call no witnesses for the defence, and the Recorder was about to sum up the case when a Mr. Carfine, a surgeon, who happened by chance to be present in court, begged to be heard as a witness. He testified that if Stuart once had a wen, either that growth should be found on the prisoner's hand, or in its place the scar left by the removal should be visible. Both hands of the prisoner were found free from growths or scars, and his acquittal duly followed. The impartiality of science is equalled only by its accuracy, and it is satisfactory to record that equally in its pursuit of the criminal and in its advocacy of the innocent it can point to many veritable triumphs in our courts of law.

Source: Quebec Weekly Chronicle, Thursday November 15, 1888, Page 2

Karen Trenouth
Author of: "Epiphany of the Whitechapel Murders"
Author of: "Jack the Ripper: The Satanic Team"

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