A Very Brief History Of Forensics: Yes, Pre 20th c.

Like most people, I got my first “taste” of forensics through CSI, and found myself fascinated.

Unlike most people, this fascination led me to want to write a book about a Regency era detective who used forensics to solve crimes, and magic to fill in the blanks of unavailable technology. First, I had to research what was possible in early 19th century forensics. Turns out, quite a bit. I’ve included references if you’re interested in finding out more.

700s – Chinese use fingerprints to authenticate documents

925 A.D. – England’s Charts of Privileges lists the office that would become coroner (“crowners” at first), who collected taxes, and also summoned inquest juries when someone was seriously wounded or died from “misadventure”. Coroner’s became “death investigator’s” by the 13th century when they examined all dead bodies to determine the nature of wounds, diseases, and a person’s matter of death. (Ramsland, Beating the Devil’s Game, p5)

c. 1000, Quintilian, a Roman attorney, wins acquittal for his client by proving that bloody palm prints were intended to frame him.

1247 A.D. – Sung Tz’u, a Chinese lawyer, offered advice in one of the oldest forensic technique books, Hsi yüan chi lu (The Washing Away of Unjust Imputations). He based his ideas on solving cases and calculated decomposition rates on strict observation and logic. In this handbook on autopsies, the author describes how different causes of death would demonstrate themselves in the state of the body. (Ramsland, Beating the Devil’s Game, p6-7)

end of the 16th century – Battista Condronchi offered De Mortis Veneficiis, a study of poisoning deaths, followed seven years later by De Relationibus Medicorum by Fortunato Fedele. (Ramsland, ibid, p11-12)

1609 – First study on handwriting analysis by Frenchman Francois Denelle.

mid 1600s – Germany’s University of Leipzig offered a course in forensic medicine.

1670 – Anton Van Leeuwenkoek develops the first simple microscope, the world’s first powerful precision microscope.

1728 – Frenchman Pierre Fauchard writes Treatise on the Teeth, which proves teeth could be used for identification purposes.

post 1780 – “Scotland established itself as a leader in forensic investigation post-1780, such as in the case of a murderer girl where a cast of a suspect’s shoe was made, and the wound was determined to be made by a left-handed killer because the slash had started on the right. (Ramsland, ibid, p.16-17).

1784 – England. John Toms is convicted of murder because a torn piece of paper in the murder gun matched a piece of paper in his pocket; this is considered perhaps the first documented incidence of physical matching evidence.

1806 – Dr. Valentine Rose showed how arsenic could be detected in human organs, showing how toxicology was valuable to crime solving.

1807 – First forensic science institute established at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Even Americans looking to improve medical jurisprudence looked to Scottish physicians.

1811 – French pediatrician and chemist, Pierre Nysten, published results of his studies on rigor mortis, identifying various stages.

1811, December 7 – Horrific crime in London’s East End along the Ratcliffe Highway; intruder murdered shop owner Timothy Marr, his wife and apprentice, and the baby sleeping in the next room. Two weeks later, similar murders at the King’s Arm Inn. A seaman’s maul was found with the initials “J.P.” and an Irish sailor was suspected, but never convicted as he hanged himself first in Coldbath Fields Prison. (Ramsland, ibid, p. 22-23).

1813 – prodigy Dr. Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila publishes the first systematic treatise on known poisons. Has a second book four years later, but not consulted by police for a criminal case – despite being the world’s authority on toxicology – until 1824. (Ramsland, ibid, p32).

1814-1815 – Vidocq, a police informant working for Napoleon (among other things he’s accused / remembered as), had a systematic approach to crime which advanced forensic techniques, like keeping detailed written records, notes, comparing spent bullets to weapons, preserving footprint casts, comparing handwriting samples, suggesting fingerprints could be used as a form of I.D.

1823 – Czech physiologist Johannes Evangelist Purkinje publishes description of nine fingerprint types, thinking they could be used for identification (and you’ll note, arriving earlier than Galton). (Ramsland, ibid, p31).

1833 – Vidocq establishes world’s first detective agency, Le Bureau des Renseignments.

1835 – Bow Street Runner Henry Goddard uses matching bullets and the discovery of an inside job to solve a crime, and become one of the forerunners of ballistics experts (Ramsland, ibid, p35).

1839 – the word “scientist” comes into use.

1843 – Belgium’s Sûreté Publique takes the first known mug shots of criminals. Throughout the 1850s, police departments across Europe and the U.S. compile archives of prisoner images. (Ramsland, ibid, p44)

1859 – U.S. becomes the first country in which photographs can be used as evidence in a court of law.

1892 – Francis Galton develops the fingerprint classification system.

1901 – Karl Landsteindr identifies human blood groups.

So, what do you think? Does forensics interest you? Have you ever gotten so interested in something that it’s led you down unusual research paths? 

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