Apr 24 2014 12:00pm

Crime Solvers: Forensics From the Past

In writing my historical novels, which are set in seventeenth-century England, I have had to spend a lot of time thinking about the crime-solving methods that would have been available to authorities of the time. In the era before modern forensics, when there was no DNA evidence, blood typing, fingerprinting, math modeling, computer simulating, chemical processing, etc., how were crimes solved anyway?

Well, discounting those crimes solved through witchcraft, magic, fortune-telling, dreams, divine providence and popular beliefs (e.g. the corpse pointing at the murderer, ghostly apparitions who name the murderer, God speaking to people in dreams, a murder suspect being struck by sudden misfortune etc.), many crimes were certainly solved with the use of logic, reason, observation and even a bit of science that foreshadowed modern professionalized forensic methods. Such methods included:  

Autopsies: Dating back to the ancient world, autopsies have long been used to determine cause of death, including that brought on by sickness, injury, suicide or foul play. The ancient Greeks coined the phrase “eye-witnessing” or “seeing for oneself,” but there is evidence that the Egyptians, ancient Romans, as well as the Chinese, were conducting autopsies from 3000 BCE onwards. Indeed, the autopsy of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE may have been the first recorded autopsy used in legal proceedings. And despite popular myths to the contrary, dissection and autopsies continued throughout the Middle Ages.

Reference: Cyril H. Wecht, MD, JD (June, 2005) The History of Legal Medicine. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 33(2), 245-251

 Dental analysis and bite patterns:  The first recorded use of dental analysis to identify a murder victim occurred in 1447, when the body of a mutilated Englishman was positively identified due to his manservant’s awareness of his master’s missing teeth. Yet, the ability to connect the crime to the perpetrator did not occur until later. For example, bite patterns as evidence seem to have first been used during the Salem witch trials in New England. In 1692, the so-called Salem witches claimed that the Reverend George Burroughs had left bite marks on their bodies. As Cotton Mather, who attended the trial, explained: “Biting was one of the ways which the Witches used for the vexing of the Sufferers, when they cry’d out of G.B. biting them, the print of the Teeth would be seen on the Flesh of the Complainers, and just such a sett of Teeth as G.B.’s would then appear upon them, which could be distinguished from those of some other mens.”So, the careful reader will note that it was the Reverend’s specteraccused of the biting, not the man itself. Nevertheless as Mather duly recorded: “The judge allowed the man’s mouth to be pried open and his teeth examined. He was soon executed.”

Reference: Senn, D.R. & Stimson, P.G. (2010). Forensic Dentistry, 2nd edition. CRC press.


Eyewitness testimony: Naturally, eyewitness testimony was often a powerful tool in identifying a criminal. The credibility of the testimony, however, frequently relied on the stature of the eyewitness, and his or her place in the community, as well as the relative stature of the accused. The more powerful and wealthy someone was, the more credible their testimony was considered by authorities and juries alike.  Thus, wealthy trumped poor; men trumped women; adults trumped children and so on. Similarly, the more reputable the accused person was within the community, the less likely harmful eyewitness testimony would be taken seriously. It was not until the late nineteenth and early 20th century that the underlying psychology of eyewitness testimony was seriously examined.


Fingerprinting:  Incredibly, fingerprints (friction ridge impressions) were first used in ancient China during the Qin dynasty to assist with criminal investigations (there was even a third-century BCE document,  “The Volume of Crime Scene Investigation-Burglary,” that apparently describe how handprints could be used as evidence in a crime.) Clay impressions of fingerprints and palm prints were used throughout the later Tang dynasty to help determine ownership as well.  Similar awareness of individualization associated with fingerprints could be found in Japan and India. However, the awareness of friction ridge impressions was not commented on in Europe until the late 17th century, with more systematic inquiry happening throughout the nineteenth century.

Reference: Xiang-Xin, Z.; Chun-Ge, L. (1988) The Historical Application of Hand Prints in Chinese Litigation. J. Forensic Ident. 38(6), 277–284


Footwear Evidence: Physicians and others had long been aware that feet differed in size and shape, and that people’s gaits varied by length, pressure of the foot, and the placement of the foot on the ground.  Certainly hunters and trackers were able to track specific individuals.  However, the earliest footwear identification in a trial is alleged to have occurred in the 18th century, in a case involving the murder of a young girl in Scotland in 1786.* Apparently, an investigating authority noticed impressions made by boots that had been recently patched with nails. The investigator apparently made a cast of the impressions, and later compared it to the boots of certain suspects. Certainly, by the nineteenth century the use of casts as a method to compare shoes and feet was becoming more commonplace.

* “The internet” repeats this story over and over. While I tracked this down to the original source of the information, conference proceedings, I could not access the actual case to determine the veracity.


Handwriting analysis: There is some indication that scholars in the ancient world (notably Aristotle and Confucius) had some thoughts about the connection between a person’s script and his or her character.  Repeatedly, I see the same phrase attributed to Aristotle: “Speech is the expression of ideas or thoughts or desires. Handwriting is the visible form of speech. Just as speech can have inflections of emotions, somewhere in handwriting is an expression of the emotions underlying the writer’s thoughts, ideas, or desires.” But I could not find the specific reference to support this quote, so I would take the implication with a grain of salt. However, it does seem that in 1622, Camillo Baldi, an Aristotelian lecturer at the University of Bologna, published a collection of writings on the topic of handwriting. However, graphology as a subject was not systematically studied until the 1870s.

Of course, my own amateur sleuth uses few of these “official” methods.  As a servant and later as a printer’s apprentice, she uses time-honored ways to detect, by observing people, eavesdropping, poking in places she doesn't belong, and in general, by taking commonsense approach to deciphering puzzles.

But I’m curious…what is the most interesting method that your favorite sleuth has used to solve a crime?


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Susanna Calkins is a historian and academic, currently working at Northwestern University. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she lives in Highland Park now, with her husband and two sons. From the Charred Remains is her second novel featuring chambermaid-turned-printer’s apprentice, Lucy Campion.

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Andrew LaNeve
1. Andrew L.
Very interesting article, and the book looks very good, too! Thanks for the chance!

And I'll vote for autopsies. It's always interesting to see what sort of clues they're able to find!
Gordon Bingham
2. gordonbingham
Having worked in law enforcement for 20+ yers have always been interested in the history of the various disciplines...
Rebecca Brothers
3. RileyC
Love stuff like this. And the book sounds intriguing.
Tawney Mazek
5. tmaze
Overlooked physical evidence (no one else pays attention). The book sounds enjoyable.
Joanne Mielczarski
6. jtmswim
Would love to read this book - fascinated by forensics.
7. mousey
Wow!! I sure would love to read these!!
8. MK3
Wonderful. Can't wait to read them.
9. ForensicDoc
Thank you for this excellent article that indirectly points out that science is not immutable, but evolves as new evidence surfaces. Many of these forensic approaches to crime scene investigations have been under the microscope since the 2009 NAS report, and rightfully so. I have been involved as a forensic biologist since 1974 and have seen a great deal of changes in the technology, sensitvity and specificity of these tests. I am pleased that we are moving in the right direction!
Carl Ginger
10. cgin56
Yes, it looks like a good book. Very interesting piece on crime solving forensics from the past.
Irene Menge
12. Goldenmane
I have always wondered what methods were used when they had none of the modern instruments. I think statements from witnesses and those touched by the crime might be the best form of investigation. Finding discrepencies in testimony would surely be helpful.
Janice Santillo
13. themommazie
sounds like a really interesting read. Hope I win.
Laura McDonald
14. bonnieclyde
My favorite way to solve a crime is "the little grey cells" employed by Hercule Poirot!
David Boyington
15. tardisguy
I always find historical mysteries interesting to read because the characters of those novels have to work harder in solving the crime. They can only use the methods that are available in their time period. They have no way of knowing all the incredible forensic tests we can run now to get information.
Linda Knowles
16. strigoivii
Sounds like an AWESOME read! History, forensics, mystery, it has it all!
Jaydee Dusenberry
17. JaydeeD
Very nice, I would very much like to read this
Mary Ann Brady
18. mirahana
Would absolutely love to win this!! Thx!!!
Chi Shannon
20. anastasiafall
This sounds really interesting :) I'd love to give it a read :)
Jeffrey Tretin
26. jtretin
Sounds great. Thank you for the giveaway.
Diane Pollock
27. blacksnake
Fascinating and would also be a great source for crime writing!
Barbara Bibel
28. bbibel
So interesting. I really would like to read this.
carol kieda
29. carrie10
I think that forensics is wonderful. I watch NCIS, CSI all the time. To find out how these things started is even better. I hope to win. carrie10
Lynn Jarrett
30. OkieReader
This book sounds very interesting. I look forward to winning it and reading it!! Thank you.
Andrew Kuligowski
31. KuligowskiAndrew
A most interesting post. I remember an issue of Jonah Hex comic book (a western) where a character was attempting to use scientific methods (such as a fingerprint exaination) to prove or disprove guilt of an accused murderer, and that whet my appetite - not for what science IS doing in the courtroom and police squadrooms now, but for the earlier days when it was still being explored and proven.
Janice Heath
32. jaylee33
Well in one of the Sherlock Holmes video games he beats a pig's head from a butcher with a weapon to compare the markings on a corpse...which I think is something they still use today, as pig's flesh reflects injury very similarly to human. That's not my favorite way a detective has solved a crime, but I found it interesting nonetheless. ;)
Rena Sollish
34. Rena
CSI is one of my favorite shows, and I always think how did people ever solve crimes before this technology? But observation is so important, so I choose that method, like Sherlock Holmes.
vickie dailey
35. kidcurry
VERY INTERESTING TO learn that popular techniiques began so long ago - unfortuantely that means that crime did as well. I am quite amazed how Agatha Christies Miss Marple & Hercule Peroit managed to solve cases with very little given information - that all comes to gather at the reveal in the end.
Janet Robinson
37. Robinsoncat
17-century English forensics minus the superstitions makes for an interesting comparison against our modern media background....hope to win and donate the book to the local library.
Lori Provenzano
39. Mountainesque
Very interesting historical summary of forensic methods. Makes me wonder what methods might evolve in the future.
Charles Fraker
41. CharlieF
Looks like a quite interesting book. Thanks for the giveaway!
Kimberly Mayberry
42. MysticHuntress
How undeniably facinating! Just my sort of book to read.
Jane Schwarz
43. Janeschwarz
Sounds like a great read. Thank you for the opportunity to win a copy.
Susan Meek
44. smeek1958
Great article and I'd love to win the book! Love this kind of stuff :)
Michael Carter
46. rubydog
Sounds great!
Yes, please enter me.
Thanks ---
Kay Gornick
I'm a lab rat. You still have to put it together with your mind.
susan beamon
53. susanbeamon
My historical sleuths mostly used observation to slove crimes, but I really don't read that many historical crime novels. Mayhaps, this book will start me on that journey.
Cheryl English
55. RoyalCheryl
This reminds me of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sounds so interesting.
Anne Pichette
57. Happylady123
I enjoyed the article and these type of things interest me. The book sounds very interesting.
59. jpl123456
Boy o boy. The good old days.
Just love books & movies from that era.
Every thing has changed.
Sheila Korman
60. skkorman
I would love to read this book—thanks for the opportunity to win a copy!
Allison Moyer
61. The Loopy Librarian
The old ways of solving crime are fascinating. Thanks for the sweepstakes!
Michelle Brown
62. michelle.brown
I hope I win, thanks for the chance! The history of Forensic procedures is so cool!! I can't wait to read the book!
Bill Jankun
63. classyjudge
history and mystery are a great combination!!
Rosemary Krejsa
65. grandpa5
Very interesting article. It's nice to learn. All this and a contest too.
alicia marie
67. bamayankee
This definitely sounds like something I'd like to read : )
Brenda Tucker
68. rango3
Fascinating how it was done in the past. Sounds like an interesting book.
nancy black
69. rojo13864
Very interesting reading. Would love to read and enjoy this one...
Nancy Gonzalez
73. NancyNo5
It is a wonder that any murders were solved back in the 1600's.

Would love to read this novel to see how it was done!
Mary Torrey
74. marian115
I'll have to read the first one before this new book.
Karen Koziczkowski
75. zoom38
Interesting How time and technology have changed investigations.
Donna Bruno
76. dlbawiles
Wow- I'm with you zoom38.... then again, time flies....
Heather Martin
77. CrystalMirror
As a historian, nothing ruins a story more than historically inaccerate plot details. I love to see how writers do their research.
Marjorie Pawley
78. marjip
Very interesting! u-tube here I come! If you choose me, that is.
Stephen Bristow
79. Vanesmantha
Justice is a myth. No, wait...Justice is a Miss. That's right, that's what I meant. It's that lady with the tired arms holding that scaly thing and asking whoever will listen, "Who turned the lights out?!?" Thanks for the chance to win!
Patricia Nicklas
80. pmernick
Fascinating review! I'm putting this on my to-read list
Jody Crocker
84. JeiC
Always intersted in the how of forensics.
Elizabeth Chaldekas
88. lizchaldekas
I have already purchased the 1st book, and am now more motivated by this article to read the 2nd. I especially like historic mysteries and am fascinated by the development of forensics.
Rosa Abraham
89. ravensfan
Interesting article. I look forward to reading this book.
90. PandaBear
This is so cool. I really hope I win!
Jane Halsall
93. jhalsall
It's interesting how long it took all of these investigatory techniques to become standard procedure.
vicki wurgler
96. bison61
finger prints were first used in ancient China to assist with investigations-that's interesting!
Vicki Andrew
97. vandrew
Crime, 19th centuary England and Forensics three things I have always been interested in, sounds like a good read
98. Ron L Miller
Pet Detective.... Laces Out!
Wayne Lecoy
101. hotrodguy
I am entering your giveaway.
It would be great to win a copy of
From the Charred Remains by Susanna Calkins.
This looks like an interesting book.
Thank you for having this giveaway!!!!!!!!!!
102. ronframpton
good weekend reading
Debra Kidle
103. lubelle
Forensics is so interesting, I watch a lot of shows that deal with that subject. I'd love to read this!
kathy pease
104. klp1965
Great Giveaway! Thanks so much for the chance :)
Anita Yancey
105. rosewood780
Sounds so interesting. I would love to read it. Thanks for having the giveaway.
Heather Cowley
106. choochoo
How far we've come. Not CSI far, but pretty far.
Thanks for the giveaway.
Karen Hester
107. rosalba
Sounds Like a fascinating vire of the past
Susan Smoaks
108. susansmoaks
awesome giveaway, thank you for the chance to win!!!
109. Tim H. Moss
Good deal, count me in!
110. Heather Palamar
This book looks very good! Very good article as well. Thank you for the chance to enter the contest!
Carrie Conley
111. weeziestoy
Would love to get a copy of this book....great giveaway....
Buddy Garrett
112. garrettsambo
I would love to read this interesting book.
113. Sabine B.
I would love to read this book, sound interesting
116. MARIA m simon
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