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?
This Sweepstakes has ended.
To enter for a chance to win a copy of From the Charred Remains by Susanna Calkins, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below. TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In! From the Charred Remains Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry. To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2014/04/crime-solvers-forensics-from-the-past-susanna-calkins-from-the-charred-remains beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) April 24, 2014. Sweepstakes ends 12:59 p.m. ET May 1, 2014. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
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.