Monday, 26 June 2017


June 24, 2015 Karl Smallwood

Although crime in England’s capital was on the decline in the mid-19th century, thanks in part to the relatively recent formation of the London Metropolitan Police Force in 1839, fear of crime was a persistent, reoccurring issue thanks to a few instances of robbery and murder, and, of course, the news media. In particular, the so-called “garroting” cases, where someone strangles someone else, often using their arm or a length of wire, cord, or cloth, seemed to touch the rawest nerve with the people of London, with the fear of garroting reaching a fever-pitch in the 1860s.

Exactly when enterprising ruffians first realised that they could increase their odds of successfully robbing a person dramatically by placing that person in a chokehold first isn’t clear, since many crimes back in those days often went unreported due to a general mistrust of the police amongst poorer folk. However, historic letters written by purported survivors of garroting sent to various London newspapers date back to at least 1850. A popular theory is that the practise was first thought up by criminals on convict ships, where guards would often use roughly applied chokeholds to quickly knock out an aggressive criminal, hopefully without causing any long lasting injuries. It’s believed that this coldly efficient method of putting someone down was picked up by criminals who inevitably began using it in their day-to-day criminal dealings.

The weird thing about garroting and how widely it was reported at the time is that it doesn’t actually appear to have been all that common; even during the supposed height of the “garroting panic of 1862”. So why the panic? As it turns out, although garroting itself was never a major problem in London, newspapers from the era positively loved reporting on it. This led to the few isolated cases that did happen being blown way out of proportion and reported on to such an extent that the people of London were led to believe the streets were filled to the brim with roving rabbles of ruffians armed with lengths of wire.

Newspapers’ coverage of garroting exploded in 1862 when an MP called Hugh Pilkington was strangled and robbed of his watch on his way home from the House of Commons. Pilkington survived, but news of the incident was widely reported on to such an extent that Parliament pushed through the Security from Violence Act in 1863. Under the terms of this new act of Parliament, criminals convicted of any violent theft could be punished with “up to 50 lashes” along with a hefty prison sentence.

Following the attack, the police similarly became noticeably more heavy-handed, presumably in an attempt to reassure the public that they were “doing something” about the problem. London’s streets were flooded with plain clothes police officers; minor crimes, like pickpocketing, that had previously been punished with a small fine, suddenly became issues for the courts.

                                                         Anti-garroting collar

In an effort to prove that they were stomping down on garroting in particular, the police also began classifying regular robberies and even drunken brawls as instances of garroting, to fudge their numbers. This is similar to how in the 1930s they would often list instances of theft as “lost property” to make it appear as though those crimes didn’t happen as often as they actually did.

By far the most ridiculous by-product of the panic were the devices invented to dissuaded potential garroters. Various designs of hulking neck-collars with large spikes were patented. A cravat with a blade sewn into the hem (meant to either cut the attacker’s arm or the device he was using to strangle you) was also a thing.

But perhaps the greatest example of the extreme lengths people went to back then to protect themselves from garroting was invented by gun maker Henry Ball and patented in 1858- the “Anti-Garrotter Belt Pistol”. This belt-gun was designed to be worn on the rear. If someone was trying to strangle you from behind, you’d discharge the weapon into said attacker’s sensitive mid-section. This not only was a working device, but is now considered “among the rarest of firearms curiosa” with only a handful of specimens known to exist today. Beyond potentially taking away the ability of your attacker to have children, it no doubt also left the person firing it with a nice sized bruise and subsequent lower back pain.

                                                         Anti-Garrotter Belt Pistol

Although the press continued to discuss garroting all throughout the 1860s, actual verifiable reports of the crime dried up in 1863 right after a large amount of arrests were made in response to the passing of the previously mentioned Security from Violence Act.

As they do so often when a story reaches its saturation point, eventually the newspapers kind of forgot about garroting and started reporting on other types of crimes, which unfortunately for their sales-rates didn’t cause the same type of public panic… That is until a few murders in a small region of London’s East End sent the nation into yet another panic when Jack the Ripper began his reign of terror in 1888. But that’s a story for another day.

Bonus Facts:

As an example of how paranoid some members of the public were about being garrotted. In one particularly humorous case, two men in London attacked each other in self defence while walking home along the same road. After the fight, both men tried to insist to the police that they thought they were about to be the victim of a garroting attack.

During the height of the panic, you could hire a really tall or burly man to walk you home to scare away criminals. A pair of brothers even went as far as taking out an ad which read as follows: “THE BAYSWATER BROTHERS (whose height is respectively 6 feet 4 inches and 6 feet 11, and the united breadth of whose shoulders extends to as much as 3 yards, 1 foot, 5 inches) give, respectfully, notice to the Gentry and Public of Paddington, Kensington, Stoke Newington, Chelsea, Eaton Square, and Shepherd’s Bush, that they will be most happy, upon all social and jovial expeditions, such as dinner and evening parties, as well as tee-total meetings, to escort elderly or nervous persons in the streets after dark, and to wait for them during their pleasure, so as to be able to escort them home again in safety. No suburb, however dangerous, objected to. and the worst garroting districts well known, as the Brothers, both BILL and JIM, were for several months in the Police Force. – Terms, so much a head per hour, according to the person’s walk of life. A considerable reduction on taking a party of twelve or more. Distance no object. Testimonials, and ample security given.”

Spain used garroting as a method of execution up until 1974 when they executed Salvador Puig Antich and Heinz Chez in this way.  Others were later sentenced to death by garroting, but ultimately the death penalty was abolished in Spain in 1978.

The guillotine became popular during the French revolution as the people’s “avenger” against their tyrants, though first used on the 25th of April, 1792 to execute a common thief- Nicolas Pelletier. It continued to be used as France’s main method of judicial execution until the abolition of capital punishment in France in 1981. The last person executed via the guillotine in France was a Tunisian immigrant named Hamida Djandoubi, on the 10th of September, 1977. Djandoubi was convicted for torturing and murdering his 21-year-old ex-girlfriend, Elisabeth Bousquet, in Marseille.

Monday, 19 June 2017

The Golden Crown

The first known use of forensics to solve a crime.

In the first century BC the Roman architect Vitruvius related a story of how Archimedes uncovered a fraud in the manufacture of a golden crown commissioned by Hiero II, the king of Syracuse. The crown (corona in Vitruvius’s Latin) would have been in the form of a wreath, such as one of the three pictured from grave sites in Macedonia and the Dardanelles. Hiero would have placed such a wreath on the statue of a god or goddess. Suspecting that the goldsmith might have replaced some of the gold given to him by an equal weight of silver, Hiero asked Archimedes to determine whether the wreath was pure gold. And because the wreath was a holy object dedicated to the gods, he could not disturb the wreath in any way. (In modern terms, he was to perform nondestructive testing). Archimedes’ solution to the problem, as described by Vitruvius, is neatly summarized in the following excerpt from an advertisement:

The solution which occurred when he stepped into his bath and caused it to overflow was to put a weight of gold equal to the crown, and known to be pure, into a bowl which was filled with water to the brim. Then the gold would be removed and the king’s crown put in, in its place. An alloy of lighter silver would increase the bulk of the crown and cause the bowl to overflow.

Although theoretically sound, this method has been criticized for several reasons (see Galileo‘s Balance and Natural Magick). First, in spite of Vitruvius’s description of it as “the result of a boundless ingenuity”, the method requires much less imagination than Archimedes exhibits in his extant writings. Second, it does not make use of Archimedes’ Law of Buoyancy or his Law of the Lever. Third, and most important, it would be difficult to implement Vitruvius’s method with the degree of measurement accuracy available to Archimedes.

The third point needs some amplification. The largest known golden wreath from Archimedes’ time is the one pictured from Vergina. It has a maximum rim diameter of 18.5 centimeters and a mass of 714 grams, although some of its leaves are missing. For the purposes of illustration, let us assume that Hiero’s wreath weighed 1000 grams and that a container with a circular opening of diameter 20 centimeters was used. The opening would then have a cross-sectional area of 314 square centimeters. (All calculations are performed to three significant figures.)

Because gold has a density of 19.3 grams/cubic-centimeter, 1000 grams of gold would have a volume of 1000/19.3 = 51.8 cubic-centimeters (about the volume of a D battery). Such a quantity of gold would raise the level of the water at the opening of the container by 51.8/314 = 0.165 centimeters.

Next, suppose the dishonest goldsmith replaced 30% (300 grams) of the gold in the wreath by silver. Silver has a density of 10.5 grams/cubic-centimeter and so the gold-silver crown would have a volume of 700/19.3 + 300/10.5 = 64.8 cubic-centimeters. Such a crown would raise the level of the water at the opening by 64.8/314 = 0.206 centimeters.

The difference in the level of water displaced by the wreath and the gold is thus 0.206 minus 0.165 centimeters, or 0.41 millimeters. This is much too small a difference to accurately observe directly or measure the overflow from considering the possible sources of error due to surface tension, water clinging to the gold upon removal, air bubbles being trapped in the lacy wreath, and so forth. Additionally, the change in water level would be even less than 0.41 millimeters if the wreath had a mass of less than 1000 grams, or if the diameter of the container opening were larger than 20 centimeters, or if less than 30% of the gold were replaced with silver.

A more imaginative and practical technique to detect the fraud is the following, which makes use of both Archimedes’ Law of Buoyancy and his Law of the Lever. Suspend the wreath from one end of a scale and balance it with an equal mass of gold suspended from the other end. Then immerse the suspended wreath and gold into a container of water. If the scale remains in balance then the wreath and the gold have the same volume, and so the wreath has the same density as pure gold. But if the scale tilts in the direction of the gold, then the wreath has a greater volume than the gold, and so its density is less than that of gold. It must then be a alloy of gold and some lighter material.

To check the practicality of this technique let us again assume a 1000-gram wreath which is an alloy of 70% gold and 30% silver. Because its volume is 64.8 cubic centimeters, it displaces 64.8 grams of water. (Water has a density of 1.00 gram/cubic-centimeter.) Its apparent mass in water is thus 1000 minus 64.8 grams, or 935.2 grams. Next, 1000 grams of pure gold has a volume of 51.8 cubic centimeters, and so its apparent mass in water is 1000 minus 51.8 grams, or 948.2 grams. Thus, when both ends of the scale are immersed in water, there is an apparent mass of 935.2 grams at one end and an apparent mass of 948.2 grams at the other end, an imbalance of 13.0 grams. Scales from Archimedes’ time could easily detect such an imbalance in mass. Additionally, sources of error arising with Vitruvius’s method (surface tension and clinging water) would not arise with this scale method.

It should be remarked that the scale method still works if the masses of the wreath and the gold are not equal. One simply adjusts their distances from the fulcrum of the scale until the scale balances before dipping them into the water.

The two methods described above can be summarized as follows: Under our assumptions (a 1000-gram wreath consisting of 700 grams of gold and 300 grams of silver) the difference in volume between the wreath and 1000 grams of pure gold is 13.0 cubic-centimeters. Vitruvius’s method attempts to detect this volume difference by detecting an equal volume of displaced water. Now, 13.0 cubic-centimeters of water would form a cube of 2.35 centimeters on each side and would be easily detected in that form. But when 13.0 cubic-centimeters of water is spread over a container opening large enough to accomodate the wreath (in our example, an opening of area 314 square-centimeters) it translates to a vertical displacement of only 0.41 millimeters. Such a displacement of water level is too small to accurately measure by sight or through an overflow measurement. The scale method essentially translates this 13.0-cubic-centimeter volume difference into a 13.0-gram imbalance on a scale, and such an imbalance is easily detectable with ancient scales.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Forensic Ballistics: Who Did The Shooting? 

A real treat for fans of early forensics. An actual piece written by one of the early giants in the field of Forensic Ballistics. 

By Calvin H. Goddard (1927)

In a county in Western New York a man was found guilty of a double murder on the opinion of a firearms "expert" that the bullets remove from the bodies had issued from the defendant's revolver. The case aroused the interest of Charles E. Waite, a lifelong criminal investigator, then attached to the office of the State Attorney General. He proved the bullets could not possibly have come from the weapon in question, established the innocence of the convicted man and secured his pardon, and brought about the arrest of the actual murderers.

From that time, twelve years ago, Waite devoted his life to establishing a system of bullet and firearm identification which would require no "opinion' of experts to substantiate it. It was to deal with facts, and facts alone. In ten years he visited every pistol and revolver factory in America, and many in Europe, gathering a mass of data about weapons and their manufacture. Later he and I joined forces, adding as associates Philip O. Gravelle, a master of photography and John H. Fisher, an expert in micrometrics. Since the death of Mr. Waite last year, I have continued the work.

Today the result of our efforts is a new science of identifying weapons - a science as exact and conclusive as that of tracing criminals by their fingerprints founded on the revelations of the microscope and precision measurements within the ten thousandth of an inch.

This science bears the rather high sounding name of "forensic ballistics. Actually, though, it is simplicity itself. Like the fingerprint system, it is based on the fact that no two things ever are exactly alike. A bullet fired through a pistol, revolver or rifle invariably bears certain distinctive marks or scratches - the "fingerprint" of that particular weapon's barrel. Even bullets fired from two weapons of exactly the same make and type and made by the same machine and tools, bear characteristic imprints which even untrained eyes can distinguish under the microscope.

Moreover, the shell from which a bullet is fired also bears individual marks made by the firing pin and breech block of the weapon. We have developed scientific methods of employing these marks to trace a bullet or shell to the weapon from which it came; and of proving whether a certain bullet could possibly have been fired from a given weapon.

Perhaps I can best give an idea of the methods by describing briefly my recent tests of the bullets, shells and pistol in evidence in the famous Sacco-Vanzetti murder case, in which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were put to deal for the murder of a factory paymaster and his guard at South Braintree, Mass., in 1920.

While the appeal from the sentence was under consideration by Governor Fuller last summer, I offered to make the tests. The pistol in question was a .32 caliber Colt automatic; Sacco had admitted its possession. While the prosecution and its experts had contended that at least one of six bullets from the bodies of the murdered men had issued from that weapon, the defense with equal vigor had denied this contention.

My sole purpose, in the interest of justice, was to establish the truth of the matter by the unbiased evidence of science. The offer was made first to the defense, which declined it; then to the prosecution, which accepted. Entirely irrespective of the guilt or innocence of the defendants, or whether they received fair trial, the test established beyond contradiction these two long-disputed points:

First, that the so-called fatal bullet, No. 3, one of four from the body of Berardelli, the paymaster's guard, was fired through the Colt automatic subsequently found in the possession of Sacco and could have been fired through none other.

Second, one of the six shells picked up at the scene of the murder and known as "Fraher shell No. 3." was fired in Sacco's pistol, and could have been fired in none other.

Those facts were revealed by the microscope so clearly that any layman might see them for himself, and so convincingly that an expert for the defense, in my presence, agreed in astonishment that they were beyond dispute.

In the Court House at Dedham Mass., I conducted the tests in the presence of a professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was an expert representing the defense; the Assistant District Attorney in charge of the case, a member of defense counsel, the Clerk of the Court, a stenographer and four newspaper men.

First I explained why every weapon leaves its own distinctive imprint on the projectiles it fires. In making a pistol or rifle barrel, the first step is to bore a hole through a cylindrical steel bar. Then a reamer smooths the rough inner surface. Next comes "rifling" - cutting a series of extremely shallow grooves, running spirally through the length of the barrel, to impart a spin to the bullet as it passes through. The surfaces between the grooves are known as the "lands." The grooves vary in different makes of weapons. In some there are five, for example; in others, six. In some they are arranged to give a right-hand twist; in others, left-hand.

In The barrel of the Sacco pistol, there are six grooves, with left-hand twist. Each spiral makes one turn in sixteen inches. The depth of the grooves is .0035 of an inch; their width, .108 of an inch; the width of each land is .051 of an inch.

Now, the marks by which any bullet may be identified are due largely to the tool called the rifling cutter, which cuts the grooves. To the unaided eye the sharp edge of this tool appears perfectly even; but actually, as in the case of a razor, the edge consists of a row of minute saw teeth, visible only under the microscope. These teeth leave microscopic scratches and ridges on the inner surface of the barrel. And when a bullet is fired through, these irregularities are impressed upon it in the form of very fine lines running parallel to the deeper lines cut by the groove edges.

Since no two rifling cutters can have little saw teeth exactly alike, no two pistol barrels can have exactly the same markings. Moreover, the edge of a cutter changes with every cut; hence, even if two barrels are rifled on the same machine and with the same tool, the markings they leave on bullets will differ.

A similar thing happens in the case of the breechblock and firing pin of a pistol. In filing down the breechblock the file invariably leaves distinction scratches, which are never the same on any two arms. Later, when a bullet fired, and the shell is hurled back against the breech with a force of some 10,000 pounds pressure to the square inch, the breech acts as a steel die, impressing its file pattern indelibly on the copper primer or cap of the shell. Thus the breech of every gun leaves its own distinct pattern.

Moreover, no two firing pins are ever the same in contour, even if made on the same machine. Consequently the dent made by the firing pin of a certain gun on the primer of a shell is an identity mark for that gun and no other. In short, every weapon in the world leaves its individual telltale fingerprints on every bullet and shell it fires.

In the Sacco-Vanzetti case there were four bullets from the body of Berardelli, the guard, and two from that of Parmenter, the paymaster. In the tests at Dedham the Berardelli bullets were the only ones in question. In addition there were six shells picked up at the scene of the murders. And, for comparison, a number of test bullets and shells subsequently fired from the Sacco pistol by representatives of both prosecution and defense. By comparing the murder bullets, one by one, with the test bullets, my object was to establish whether any of the former came from Sacco's weapon, and if so, which one or ones.

For this I used an instrument called a comparison microscope, invented by Philip O. Gravelle. This is really two microscopes in one, fitted with prisms so arranged that when two objects are placed beneath, the left half of one and the right half of the other are center in the single eyepiece. This has the effect of fusing the opposite sides of the two objects into a single image. The extent to which the two halves match is a measure of the similarity of the objects.

First I examined the shells. Under the microscope I placed one of the murder shells and one of the test shells, with the caps facing upward. Examination quickly showed that they could not have come from the same weapon, for the imprint of the firing pin was entirely different in the two halves. The substitution of a different test shell brought the same result.

Next I tried a second murder shell. This likewise was decidedly different from the test shell, both in the imprint of the firing pin and in the absence of certain ridges which appeared across the cap of the test shell. It was impossible to match the two halves.

But the third murder shell matched perfectly with the one known to have been fired from Sacco's automatic. There was no question that the two came out of the same gun. The firing pin imprints were of exactly the same diameter, and the markings imprinted by the breechblock were identical. Holding one of the shells stationary, I carefully turned the other until both were in the same phase, - that is, until the features of the opposite halves matched at the center line. The imprints - scratches and ridges - matched all the way across the face of the shell.

The identity of these "fingerprints" is revealed in the microscopic photographs of the two shells. At the right is the murder shell in evidence; at the left is the test shell fired in the Sacco pistol. If you look closely you will see the similarity of little V-shaped scratches on both primers. Then if you compare the other scratches and ridges you will see that in every case they are of the same dimensions and in the same relative positions.

The identity is equally clear in the imprints of the firing pin at the center, even though the test shell at the right bears the additional imprint of the trade mark "W'.' Observe especially the deep setback or indentation at the left of the firing pin imprint in each case. You will see, of course, that neither the firing pin marks nor the imprints of the breechblock as a Whole are in exactly the same relative position on the two shell caps. In any firearm there is a certain amount of play, and the shells do not always come back against the breech in exactly the same position; nor does the firing pin always strike the exact center of the primer. The positions of the individual markings in relation to the imprint as a whole are, however, identical.

Under the microscope I compared this murder shell with other test shells fired from the Sacco pistol. Although the latter were somewhat fouled and dirty, the identity was again evident; so evident in fact, that the defense expert, looking through the microscope exclaimed: "Well, what do you know about that!"

Finally I tested a fourth murder shell in the same manner. There was no similarity. Then I applied the tests to the four bullets from the body of Berardelli, comparing each with test bullets fired from the Sacco pistol into a box of sawdust. In each case the bullets were placed horizontally under the comparison microscope in little holders which enable them to be rotated.

The first one I examined, known in the evidence as fatal bullet No.3, was considerably fouled and corroded, but the microscope revealed beyond question that it had come from Sacco's weapon. First, the marks of the rifling grooves were of the same width and the same angle as those of the test bullets. In addition there appeared tiny scratches which were identical. In particular, the microscope revealed one very prominent gouge which matched perfectly. Rotating the bullets, I compared them groove by groove. I invited the defend expert to look into the microscope.

"That," he said, referring to fatal bullet No.3, "could not have come from any other gun."

None of the other body bullets matched. For example, one of them, bullet No.2, obviously, came through a right-hand twist pistol, where as Sacco's was left-band twist.

Returning again to fatal bullet No.3, at the defense expert's request I compared it with other test bullets, one by one. The marks of identity - tiny scratches and grooves - matched in every case.
Further evidence in corroboration was the fact that fatal bullet No.3 was of an obsolete type, manufactured with grooving near the bas known as the "cannelure" - a remnant of the old days of lead bullets. Three bullets of this type were found on Sacco's person.

No doubt many persons, including some officials, are skeptical of this sort of comparison evidence. "Guns leave their fingerprints Nonsense!" you may hear them say. Yet only twenty-five years ago everybody ridiculed Joseph A. Faurot, former deputy police commissioner of New York, for trying to secure recognition of human fingerprinting as a mean of identification. Faurot lived to see the fingerprint system adopted throughout the world, and also to say of the new method of identifying bullets and firearms:

"It is a science, in my opinion, as infallible, as practicable, as revolutionary, and as valuable in criminology as fingerprinting itself."

Today in our laboratories in New York City we have records of the shop standards entering into the manufacture of virtually every modern revolver and automatic pistol of both American and foreign makes, a collection of many hundreds of bullets of all calibers and types, fired through arms of nearly every make; and about five hundred revolvers and pistols from all parts of the globe. Given any bullet, we are ordinarily able to determine within a short time exactly what kind of weapon fired it; and if that weapon is eventually traced and found, we can identify it with scientific exactness.
With a remarkable instrument called a helixometer, designed by Mr. Fisher, we can examine the entire interior of the barrel of a weapon. It reveals every flaw, fouling deposit or rust spot that might be reproduced on a bullet fired through it. Moreover, by studying the deposits within the barrel we can determine the approximate time when the weapon was last fired, the kind of powder in the cartridge (black or smokeless), and sometimes the type of bullet.

Still another valuable instrument is a micrometer microscope with which we can measure the width of a riding groove to the ten thousandth of an inch. With the same accuracy we can measure the depth of the groove, its angle, and the pitch of the spiral.

We have collected specimens of the different kinds of powder grains used by virtually every manufacturer of projectiles. When a pistol is fired, usually some powder grains are discharged unburned. At close range some of these grains may lodge in the flesh of a victim. By examination and comparison with the specimen grains, we can determine the manufactures of the powder charge in the fatal cartridge.

By such methods we are supplanting "expert opinion" with facts. Our goal is that innocent men shall not be sent to their deaths, not guilty men acquitted, by testimony unsubstantiated by the facts of exact science.

Who is Calvin Goddard?

Calvin Goddard examining a revolver barrel with the crime laboratory's helixometer. Al Capone Museum

Colonel Calvin Hooker Goddard (1891 – 1955) was a forensic scientist, army officer,academic, researcher and a pioneer in forensic ballistics. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland. After graduating from the Boys' Latin School of Maryland in 1907, Goddard graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1911 from the Johns Hopkins University and then earned a medical degree and graduated in 1915.]

He joined the United States Army and became a Colonel. He was also a professor of police science at Northwestern University and the Military Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was also the editor of the American Journal of Police Science, America’s first scientific police journal. Colonel Goddard commanded the US Army Crime Laboratory in Japan for a number of years after World War II. Calvin Goddard brought professionalism, the use of the scientific method, and reliability to Forensic Firearm Identification, at a time when charlatanism was rampant in this field. His testimony in 1923 in the Frye case and others, paved the way for judicial acceptance of Firearms Identification. According to Goddard's grandson, he may have been the only army officer who served in four branches: Ordnance Corps, Military Police Corps,Medical Corps and became a Military Historian.
Forensic Ballistics

In 1925 Goddard wrote an article for the Army Ordnance titled "Forensic Ballistics" in which he described the use of the comparison microscope regarding firearms investigations. He is generally credited with the conception of the term "forensic ballistics", though he later admitted it to be an inadequate name for the science. In April 1925, Major [5] Goddard established the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics in New York City with C. E. Waite, Philip O. Gravelle and John H. Fisher. The Bureau was formed to provide firearms identification services throughout America. Goddard researched, authored and spoke extensively on the subject of forensic ballistics and firearms identification, becoming the internationally renowned pioneer in forensic ballistics. The Bureau of Forensic Ballistics, United States’ first independent criminological laboratory, which Goddard headed, and where ballistics, fingerprinting, blood analysis and trace evidence were brought under one roof. When the Lab began publishing the American Journal of Police Science, which was edited by Colonel Goddard, Hoover strongly encouraged his Special Agents in Charge to subscribe to it and he supplied articles on fingerprint issues and Bureau responsibilities to the journal. The following year the Bureau contributed three articles for the journal’s series entitled “Organized Protection Against Organized Crime.” Hoover also sent a number of representatives to a symposium that Goddard sponsored on scientific crime detection. He was also an advisor to FBI when they set up a similar Forensic Laboratory.

Comparison Microscope

Goddard with Comparison Microscope

Philip O. Gravelle, developed comparison microscope for the identification of fired bullets and cartridge cases with the support and guidance of Calvin Goddard. It was a giant leap in the science of firearms identification in forensic science. The firearm from which a bullet or cartridge case has been fired is identified by the comparison of the unique striae left on the bullet or cartridge case from the worn, machined metal of the barrel, breach block, extractor, or firing pin in thegun. It was Gravelle who mistrusted his memory. "As long as he could inspect only one bullet at a time with his microscope, and had to keep the picture of it in his memory until he placed the comparison bullet under the microscope, scientific precision could not be attained. He invented the comparison microscope and Goddard made it work." Sir Sydney Smith also appreciated the idea, emphasizing the importance of stereo-microscope in forensic science and firearms identification. He took the comparison microscope to Scotland and introduced it to the European scientists for firearms identification and other forensic uses.

Sacco and Vanzetti Case

Sacco and Vanzetti

Nicola Sacco and Bartolommeo Vanzetti were two Italian-born American anarchists, who were arrested for the murder of security guard Alessandro Berardelli and the robbery of US$15,766.51 from the factory's payroll in South Braintree, Massachusetts during the afternoon of April 15, 1920. During the trial a worldwide outcry arose, with the firm belief based on railroaded justice and racial prejudice. On April 8, 1927, their appeals exhausted, Sacco and Vanzetti were finally sentenced to death in the electric chair. A worldwide outcry arose and Governor Alvin T. Fuller finally agreed to postpone the executions and set up a committee to reconsider the case. By this time, firearms examination had improved considerably, and it was now known that an automatic pistol could be traced by several different methods if both bullet and casing were recovered from the scene.
Automatic pistols could now be traced by unique markings of the rifling on the bullet, by firing pin indentations on the fired primer, or by unique ejector and extractor marks on the casing. The committee appointed to review the case used the services of Calvin Goddard in 1927. Goddard used Philip Gravelle's newly-invented comparison microscope and helixometer, a hollow, lighted magnifier probe used to inspect gun barrels, to make an examination of Sacco’s .32 Colt, the bullet that killed Berardelli, and the spent casings recovered from the scene of the crime. In the presence of one of the defense experts, he fired a bullet from Sacco's gun into a wad of cotton and then put the ejected casing on the comparison microscope next to casings found at the scene. Then he analyzed them carefully. The first two casings from the robbery did not match Sacco’s gun, but the third one did. Even the defense expert agreed that the two cartridges had been fired from the same gun. The second original defense expert also concurred. The committee upheld the convictions. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were found guilty and executed via electrocution in Massachusetts on August 23, 1927.

What is a Comparison Microscope?

A comparison microscope is a device used to observe side-by-side specimens. It consists of two microscopes connected to an optical bridge, which results in a split view window. The comparison microscope is used in forensic sciences to compare microscopic patterns and identify or deny their common origin. Without this device, the identification of tool marks and firearms would be such a cumbersome process that it would be carried out on a very limited basis.
The idea behind the comparison microscope is simple. Two microscopes are placed next to each other and the optical paths of each microscope are connected together by the optical bridge. The optical bridge consists of a series of lenses and a mirror that brings the two images back together at the single eyepiece. The user looks through the eyepiece as with a regular microscope, except that a line in the middle separates the circular view field into two parts. The left side of the view field is the image produced by the left microscope, and the right side of the view field is the image produced by the right microscope. In some more modern or sophisticated comparison microscopes, it is also possible to super-impose the view fields generated by the two microscopes. This is particularly convenient when the forensic scientist compares impressed patterns rather than striated patterns. It is important that the two microscopes are identical. In order for a comparison to be valid, the two images produced in the circular view field needs to be at the same magnification and present the same lens distortion (if any). Comparison microscopes are mostly used in a reflected light setting, but a transmitted light setting is also available in some instances, and fluorescent light settings are found on higher-end models. This allows for comparison of more than just bullets and toolmarks.
Use of a comparison microscope is straightforward. The incriminated impression, typically a bullet or casing found at a crime scene or a toolmark's cast from a crime scene, is placed under the left microscope and thus, appears in the left part of the circular view field. A comparison impression, such as a bullet fired from a revolver found on a suspect, is placed under the right microscope and thus, appears in the right part of the view field. When comparing striations, the forensic scientist moves the comparison object until the striations match the ones present on the incriminated object. If the striations do not present similarities, then the two objects cannot be associated with a common origin. If the striations match, then a common source between the two objects is established. When comparing impression marks, the forensic scientist can use the superimposition option and, again, by moving the comparison object on the right, try to find common characteristics between the two objects.

The comparison microscope is used to compare impression evidence that requires a magnification ranging from 5× to approximately 100×. Items that are commonly observed under the comparison microscope are fired bullets, fired casings, and toolmarks. These items are observed under a reflected light setting. Other evidence, including impressions of serial numbers or characters from a typewriter, can also be compared using the comparison microscope. These are compared using a reflected light setting. This comparison might allow for the link between a stamped serial number and a die or between a sheet of paper bearing characters and the typewriter that was used to write it. The comparison microscope is also used to compare layers of a paint chip. This might allow for the identification of the vehicle from which the paint originated. Finally, when used in a transmitted light setting, hair, fibers, or the extruding striations of plastic bags can be compared. This allows the comparison of fibers found on a seat with the clothing of a suspect, for example. Plastic bag striations might establish links between different plastic bags and to demonstrate that they originate from the same batch. This is particularly useful with the small bags used to sell drugs. When dealing with fibers and plastic bags, the comparison microscope can also be used in an ultraviolet light setting or a polarized light setting.

A modern comparison microscope

The comparison microscope was invented in the 1920s by American Army Colonel Calvin Goddard (1891–1955) who was working for the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics of the City of New York. Goddard also benefited from the help of Colonel Charles Waite, Philip Gravelle, and John Fisher. At that time, the comparison microscope was used to compare fired bullets and casings. In the late 1920s, Swedish criminalist Harry Söderman (1902–1956) drastically improved the comparison microscope by inventing a system for rotating the bullets under the objectives. This allowed for a much faster comparison of lands of grooves of bullets by simultaneous rotation of both the suspect and comparison bullets. Söderman gave the name Hastoscope to his invention.

Friday, 9 June 2017

For 10 years, 'Jolly Jane' poured her poison

By Jennifer Myers, 

 "ANGEL OF DEATH": After her arrest in 1901, Jane Toppan admitted to 31 killings. She later said it may have over 100. 

The picnic along the Cape Cod shore started with cold corned beef and taffy.

It ended unexpectedly for one of the two revelers, with a cool summer tonic of mineral water and ... strychnine.

Three years later, in the summer of 1902, the killer confessed: "I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out."

Elizabeth Brigham was not her foster sister Jane Toppan's first victim and certainly not her last.

Toppan would later confess to killing at least 31 people, but she may have been responsible for as many as 100 deaths during a 10-year span.

While working as a nurse, Toppan experimented with drugs on her patients, leading her to be dubbed the "Angel of Death" by one newspaper.

Committed to Taunton State Hospital in 1902, she lived there for 36 years before dying at the age of 81 in August 1938.

Jane Toppan, one of this country's most prolific and rare female serial killers, grew up in the imposing gray house at the corner of Third and Vernon streets in Lowell's Centralville neighborhood.

She was born Honora Kelley in 1857, the daughter of Irish immigrants Peter and Bridget Kelley. Bridget died of tuberculosis when Honora, or "Nora," was very young. Peter, an abusive alcoholic, gave Nora, 6, and her older sister Delia, 8, to the Boston Female Asylum in 1863. Peter, who worked in a tailor's shop, later reportedly sewed his eyelids closed and was institutionalized.

In 1865, Nora was sent to Lowell as an indentured servant to the Toppan family of Centralville. Though never legally adopted, her name was changed to Jane Toppan.

'Brilliant and aggressive'

Jane was a mischievous child, prone to lying and petty theft, but very smart.

"In her school work, as in her profession in later years, she was one of the leaders of her class -- brilliant and aggressive in all things," read the Aug. 18, 1938 Sun story about her death.

When she turned 18 and graduated from Lowell High School, Jane was given $50 from the Toppans as per her indentured agreement. She stayed at the Toppan house for a decade, working for her foster sister Elizabeth (Toppan) Brigham and her husband Oramel, the deacon of a Lowell church.

It was reported that although Elizabeth always treated Jane well, Jane resented Elizabeth because she was beautiful and admired. Elizabeth's mother, Ann, was said to have verbally abused her foster daughter.

In 1885, Toppan left Lowell for Cambridge Hospital, where she trained to be a nurse. Popular with patients for her outgoing nature, she was dubbed "Jolly Jane." She soon began experimenting on patients, using varying doses of morphine and atropine to witness the effects on their nervous systems.

 The house at the corner of Third and Vernon Streets on Christian Hill in the city's Centralville neighborhood where serial killer Jane Toppan grew up

After her arrest, the nurse admitted deriving sexual pleasure from the control she held over life and death and often curled up in bed with her patients and held them as they died.

Once Toppan was captured, Amelia Phinney, who had been a patient at Cambridge Hospital in 1887, went public with her tale. She said nurse Toppan gave her some bitter-tasting medicine after her surgery and as she drifted into unconsciousness, Toppan climbed into bed with her and began kissing her all over her face.

Before Toppan had the chance to kill Phinney, someone entered the room. The next morning Phinney wrote the incident off as a dream, until she read of Toppan's arrest 14 years later.

In 1891 Toppan became a private nurse, having been dismissed from both Cambridge Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital amid allegations she was recklessly dispensing opiates.

In 1895, she killed her landlord, Israel Dunham. Two years later, she poisoned his wife, Lovey, with whom she lived.

Later that year, she poisoned a patient, Mary McNear, and a month later, killed old friend Myra Conners so she could take her job as the dining hall matron at The Theological School.

She was fired from the post due to financial irregularities in the office.

In 1899, Toppan killed Elizabeth Brigham and six months later killed her widower's housekeeper, Florence Calkins.

She poisoned new landlords Melvin and Eliza Beedle in early 1901, but only enough to make them ill. She then poisoned their housekeeper, Mary Sullivan, to make her appear drunk so she could steal her job.

One by one, family killed

Toppan's quiet reign of terror came to an end after she killed the entire Davis family during a two-month span in the summer of 1901.

The offer of a glass of Hunyadi mineral water was welcomed by Mattie Davis. The day was sweltering, she had traveled from Bourne to Cambridge and was parched.

She soon fell ill. Over the next seven days she was brought in and out of consciousness, dosed with morphine administered by Toppan. It was July 5, 1901.

By Aug. 12, Mattie's husband and two daughters also died at the hands of the murderess, who rented a summer home from the family at Cataumet, a village in Bourne. Mattie had visited Toppan at the Beedle house to collect $500 in rent she owed on the cottage.

Following Mattie's death, Toppan moved in with her widower, Alden. The Davis family were originally from Lowell. Alden was one of the principal workers who built the Ladd and Whitney monument in front of City Hall.

On July 26, 1901, Toppan killed the Davis' youngest daughter, Genevieve Gordon, and on Aug. 8 killed Alden Davis.

She then made a request of the last surviving member of the family, daughter Minnie Gibbs, to sign off the debt she owned the family. Gibbs refused. Toppan ended Minnie's life on Aug. 12, feeding her morphine tablets. As she lay dying, Toppan held the woman's 10-year-old son.

Two weeks later, Toppan returned to Lowell, hoping to marry Oramel Brigham. She quickly killed his 70-year-old sister, Edna Barrister, who she felt was an obstacle to her happiness. Toppan also poisoned Oramel and nursed him back to health to prove her worth.

Meanwhile, back on Cape Cod, Minnie Gibbs' father-in-law, Capt. Paul Gibbs, was suspicious. How did the entire Davis family, a seemingly healthy lot, die so suddenly? He called toxicologist Leonard Wood to investigate and exhume the Davis family's bodies.

In late September, distraught that her plan to marry Oramel was not coming to fruition, Toppan overdosed on morphine. Once she recovered, Oramel threw her out of his Lowell home. She went to Amherst, N.H., to visit an old friend, Sarah Nichols.

On Oct. 26, 1901, Toppan was arrested at the Nichols house for the murder of Minnie Gibbs.

"If all of the suspicions involving the operations of Jane Toppan could be substantiated in the opinion of men acquainted with the investigations in Cataumet, Cambidge and Lowell, the succession of murders will cover a wider range and be more astounding than any series of crimes perpetuated by one person in many years," read an article in the Nov. 1, 1901, edition of The Sun.

On June 23, 1902, in an eight-hour trial, Toppan was declared not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to Taunton State Hospital for life. The jury deliberated for 27 minutes.

She confessed to her attorney, James Stuart Murphy, of Lowell to killing 31 people, but later said it may have been as many as 100. In a confession printed as a supplement to the New York Journal, she claimed her murderous ways were sparked by being dumped when she was 16 years old. A woman scorned.

Toppan's love interest at the time, a Lowell office worker, gave her a promise ring engraved with the image of a bird. He then moved to Holyoke and fell in love with another woman.

"If I had been a married woman, I probably would not have killed all of those people," she said. "I would have had my husband, my children and my home to take up my mind."

Sunday, 4 June 2017

8 Unusual Deaths From the Victorian Era


The Victorians found many unusual ways to meet their demise. Consider Jane Goodwin, a 22-year-old who died in church from having her corset laced too tightly, or the young lady from Liverpool who died after eating too much of her own hair (the postmortem showed a two-pound hair ball inside her that had ulcerated her stomach). Then there’s the tragic case of poor Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist in London who died on January 24, 1863 of terrible injuries received when attempting—in a very flammable dress—to extinguish the flames that had enveloped another actress at Prince’s Theatre.

Along with such Gothic-sounding horrors were many disease names that are rarely seen today—cholera infantum, delirium tremens, phthisis—and causes of death that almost have an air of the poetic: opium inebriety of the heart, melancholia, “‘mental alienation,” or simply “tired of life.”

You can see many of these antiquated causes of death in the undertakers’ ledgers at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, established in 1838 as one of America’s first rural cemeteries. Each day, the Green-Wood undertakers recorded who they had buried, along with details such as where the deceased had lived, how old they were, where they died, and just how they came to meet their maker. Here are some particularly notable causes of death from the Green-Wood ledgers.


Paris Green was one of the most fashionable colors of the 19th century, a vivid blue-green that was used in many household paints, wallpapers, and fabrics. It was also highly toxic, being made with arsenic. (Some think that Napoleon may have been killed by the poisonous vapors emitted from the Paris Green wallpaper in his St. Helena home.) Widely available in hardware stores, it was also used as an insecticide and rat poison.

Paris Green also provided the means for a young Brooklyn girl to take her life in 1882. The New York Times told the tale under the headline “A Strange Suicide”: Louisa Cruikshank, aged just 18, and living “surrounded with every luxury” in her family home on Pacific Street, “frequently expressed a wish to die,” according to her mother’s later testimony. One February morning while walking with her sister to the Brooklyn Public Library, Louisa slipped into a hardware shop and bought some of the popular paint. The next day, Louisa was playing a waltz on the piano when she fell suddenly ill. Her last words were chillingly calm; “Mama I may as well tell you. I have taken Paris Green. I have done what I said I would do.”

Chris goulet via Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0


When 57-year-old Harriet Dillon passed away, her cause of death was recorded as “exhaustion and mental alienation.” During the Victorian era, mental anguish, melancholia, and exhaustion were terms sometimes used to describe what we now might call mental illness. Doctors who specialized in the study of mental pathology were often called “alienists,” studying those who were deemed “alienated from society.”


One of the more detailed deaths in the ledgers belonged to Thomas Hunter, who committed suicide in January 1892 by throwing himself in front of the Long Island Railroad at Sag Harbor. Hunter was from Milford, Pennsylvania, and left behind a wife and child. The record in Green-Wood is remarkable for its level of detail.


Overdoses of laudanum are a common occurrence in the undertakers' ledgers. The addictive tincture, with its high concentration of morphine, was widely available and used to treat all manner of Victorian ailments. Used as a cure-all pain suppressant for everything from coughs and cramps to sleep disorders, it was even given to teething children. Often cheaper than gin, laudanum addiction was rife in the Victorian era, and even first lady Mary Todd Lincoln was rumored to have suffered from it. But of all the laudanum overdose cases in the undertakers’ ledgers of Green-Wood Cemetery, none is more emblematic of the period than the death of one William J. Dryer, who died of “indiscreet use of laudanum” aged just 38. What is most remarkable about Dryer is that he overdosed at the headquarters of one of the most infamous and corrupt political organizations in New York, Tammany Hall.


The ledgers for the second week of December 1865 begin fairly routinely: congestion of the lungs, a case of debility of the heart, until one entry stands out—Horace Frederick Merwin’s cause of death simply says “killed by Indians.” Though native to Brooklyn, Merwin worked as an express messenger out of Atchinson, Kansas. Just one month short of his 21st birthday, Merwin was crossing the plains of the Colorado Territory in November 1865 when he was shot and instantly killed by a Cheyenne. His body was delivered from Monument Station to Brooklyn and his parents for burial at Green-Wood. His death was used to advertise for the Traveler’s Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut, with whom he had taken out a policy; upon his death a sum of $10,000 was paid out to Mrs. Lucy K. Merwin of Brooklyn.


Edward and Edna Price, a married couple in their mid-60s, were visiting Brooklyn from Somerville, New Jersey. Edward Price died in February 1892 of diabetes, and is recorded in the undertakers’ ledger as being buried in plot 3683. On the line immediately underneath Edward is entered the death of his wife, Edna, who is described as having died of “heart failure depending on shock of husband’s death.”


In July 1857, Brooklyn resident Robert McKnight left his home in the evening to go buy some groceries. A worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, he was walking down Lafayette Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood when he was caught in a thunderstorm. Taking shelter in a doorway, the unfortunate McKnight was struck by lightning.

While still a somewhat common way to go today (there are roughly 30 deaths each year by lightning in the US), McKnight’s sudden death is notable for showing the style of newspaper reporting at the time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported how the lightning struck the house, breaking out all the windows at the front before “entering the brain of the deceased over the left eye.” The occupants of the house were unscathed, and the owner, a Mr. Jackson, “went to the front door to look out when he discovered something in flames up on the sidewalk. He stooped down and discovered it to be a man.”

Strangely, for a Navy Yard worker running an evening errand to the corner store, McKnight was reported as carrying $101 in gold.


This French, and quite poetic-sounding, cause of death was used by the undertakers when the unfortunate victim had died of sunstroke. In the brutal heat of a New York summer, in overcrowded tenements without the luxury of air-conditioning, sunstroke could be as deadly a killer as outbreaks of cholera. In the space of just five days in 1866—between July 15 and 20—there were 32 burials at Green-Wood in which the deceased was recorded as having died of coup de soleil.

Three years earlier, 20 deaths from sunstroke—and 50 cases of those "prostrated by the intense heat" were recorded by New York’s police and coroner offices in a matter of days. As The New York Times reported, “the hospitals are rapidly filling up with men, women and children who are suffering from the effects of the exceedingly warm weather.” And during the height of summer in 1853, a decade prior, nearly 200 people succumbed to the searing heat in just three days. Under the headline “The Oppressive Heat—Awful Mortality,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “a continuous line of funerals traversed Hamilton Avenue to Greenwood during the whole of yesterday … the receptacle of an unusual number of dead. Such was the demand for funeral equipages, that nearly every livery stable in the city was exhausted of its stock of horses and carriages.”

Monday, 29 May 2017

Was Dr. Crippen Innocent After All? New Forensic Evidence 100 Years After his Execution


The past few decades have seen amazing advances in forensic science that are instrumental in analyzing DNA evidence to put perpetrators of crimes behind bars and exonerate people convicted of crimes that they did not commit. [Read William Dillon’s story of wrongful conviction].

Unfortunately for some people, these techniques were developed too late. One of those people was Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was accused and convicted of killing his wife Cora in 1910 using the forensic techniques available at the time. Until the very day of his execution, Dr. Crippen insisted that he was innocent, and now there is strong DNA evidence to support his claim. Recently, forensic scientists from Michigan State University analyzed DNA evidence in this case and published their results in the Journal of Forensic Science (1): The human remains that were so instrumental in Dr. Crippen’s conviction were not those of his wife.

The mild-mannered, hard-working Hawley Crippen married Cora (nee Turner) in 1892 in New Jersey and in 1900 moved to London, England, where he took a job at the Munyon Homeopathic Home Remedy Company. The flirtatious and often brash Cora was an aspiring theatrical performer and opera singer. There were many signs that the couple was not well matched and the marriage was not a happy one. Dr. Crippen had an ongoing affair with his office secretary, Ethel LeNeve, an intelligent, demure English woman. Cora was suspected of romantic relationships with several other men. So, when Cora Crippen was reported missing by her friends in February of 1910, her husband was a prime suspect. When questioned by investigators from the New Scotland Yard, Dr. Crippen explained his wife’s absence by relating an argument that he had with her on the night she was last seen alive and during which she said she was leaving him. Dr. Crippen believed that she had done just that: run off with another man.

However, Dr. Crippen’s behavior shortly after Cora’s disappearance might seem suspicious to some. He sold many of his wife’s possessions, and he and his mistress were regularly seen together in public, with Miss LeNeve often wearing Cora’s remaining jewelry and clothes. One day after the initial New Scotland Yard interrogation, the couple left London and traveled to Belgium with plans to go to Canada.

Soon thereafter, investigators discovered the Crippen’s home empty and searched the residence. Beneath some floor bricks in the coal cellar, they found an incomplete set of human remains, consisting mostly of internal organs but no head, limbs, bones or reproductive organs. Buried with the remains were some female clothing, a man’s pajama tops and bleached blond hair in curlers. Investigators assumed that the remains were those of Cora and issued a global alert to apprehend Dr. Crippen and his mistress.

The gruesome nature of the remains and the couple’s apparent attempt to flee made the story a media sensation, and the murderous tale and subsequent trial captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. With wireless communication, news of Cora’s disappearance and the discovery of human remains spread quickly. While in Belguim, Dr. Crippen learned of the alert and changed their travel plans to book an earlier steamship to Canada. However, the observant captain of the steamship recognized Dr. Crippen and his companion, even though LeNeve was disguised as a boy, and notified the lead investigator, who boarded a faster ship and arrived in Canada a day before the couple. Dr. Crippen and LeNeve were arrested for murder and returned to London for trial.

During the trial, the evidence seemed to support the hypothesis that Dr. Crippen had killed his wife. Toxicological analysis of the remains revealed a lethal dose of hyoscine hydrobromide (scopolamine), a drug that Dr. Crippen used in his homeopathic medicines. Identification of the remains was complicated by the fact that the most informative tissues were absent. However, pathologist Bernard Spilsbury testified that a scar found on the remains was consistent with an abdominal surgery scar that Cora was said to have. Finally, a date on the label of the pajama tops suggested that the garment was buried after the Crippens had moved into the home. The trial lasted only five days, and the jury deliberated for only 27 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty on October 22, 1910. On November 23, Hawley Crippen was hanged.

Now, a century later and armed with more advanced forensic technology, researchers at Michigan State University revisited the evidence in Dr. Crippen’s murder trial. They were able to procure one of Dr. Spilsbury’s histological slides of tissue found in the coal cellar, isolate DNA and perform DNA testing. Researchers analyzed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited through the maternal lineage only, of three of Cora’s maternal relatives. These three relatives had identical mtDNA haplotypes that differed from the Cambridge Reference Sequence at seven positions. The haplotype was unique in the FBI database, suggesting that the haplotype that Cora shared with these relatives is not a common one. Despite difficulties isolating and amplifying mtDNA from the remains, researchers were able to determine that mtDNA sequences of Cora and the remains differed at a minimum of five sites. Thus, the remains were not those of Cora Crippen.

Researchers also performed DNA testing to determine gender. When amplification of Amelogenin, the locus normally used for gender assignment, was unsuccessful, they turned to the Y-chromosome-specific DYZ1 locus. Surprisingly, researchers were able to amplify DYZ1, a result consistent with a male gender—further evidence that the remains were not those of Cora Crippen.

With this new evidence, it appears that Dr. Crippen did not murder his wife, and his statement before his execution that “some day evidence will be discovered to prove [my innocence]” was true. Unfortunately, the truth was revealed much too late.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

The Roman empress who used forensic science to identify her rival’s head


Image of Lollia Paulina from "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum" by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589).  From Wikipedia.

In 49 AD, a Roman soldier carried a decaying human head into Rome to present it to the wife of Emperor Claudius, Julia Agrippina.  Julia Agrippina, also known as Agrippina the Younger, had ordered the suicide of Lollia Paulina, her formal rival. She instructed a colonel in the Roman guard to supervise the suicide then bring back the head so she could verify Paulina’s demise.  But the head’s facial features were distorted, so Agrippina had to find another way to confirm death. When Agrippina remembered that Paulina had unique teeth, she opened the mouth and looked inside.  Sure enough, this woman’s head had the same dental features that Paulina was known to possess.  Agrippina’s rudimentary dental exam is the first known example of an identification using forensic dentistry.

Forensic dentists compare radiographs taken before death (antemortem) with radiographs taken of an unidentified body after death (postmortem) in order to ID human remains.  Forensic dentists also analyze bite-marks recovered in abuse cases and from crime scenes.  Rather than being fueled by a quest for scientific knowledge, this first, ancient forensic dental exam was triggered by Agrippina’s morbid need to know that she had permanently eliminated a perceived enemy, Lollia Paulina.

Lollia Paulina (15 AD-49 AD) was born into a wealthy Roman family in 15 AD.  She inherited a fortune from her paternal grandfather, Marcus Lollius, who served as a Roman senator and counsel.  She had one son with her first husband, Publius Memmius Regulus, who was prefect of Macedonia and a senator.

At the beginning of the reign of the infamous Emperor Caligula (12 AD-41 AD), Paulina lived in Macedonia with Publius Memmius Regulus.  But when Caligula heard about Lollia Paulina’s beauty in 38 AD he commanded her to immediately divorce Regulus and become his third wife.  But fickle Caligula divorced her six months later and decreed that she could never remarry.

Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD and was succeeded by his uncle Claudius (10 BC-54 AD).  In 48 AD, Emperor Claudius was in the market for his fourth wife.  The search came down to Lollia Paulina and Julia Agrippina, Caligula’s sister and Nero’s mother.  According to Tacitus (58 AD-117 AD), a Roman historian, Agrippina was eventually chosen because the marriage would, among other things, unite the two branches of the Julio-Claudian family.

Marble head of Julia Agrippina from the Getty Villa Collection. Image credit: Dave & Margie Hill via Wikipedia

Ancient historians describe Agrippina like a power-hungry femme fatale and have implicated her in the deaths of about ten people, including Claudius.  In keeping with this archetype, Tacitus writes that, despite being empress, Agrippina still felt threatened by Paulina so she plotted to eliminate her permanently.

She found someone to accuse Paulina of sorcery then had Claudius charge and put her on trial.  Tacitus reports that Claudius argued that Lollia Paulina’s actions constituted a ‘national danger’ and her tendency for causing trouble had to be stopped.

Paulina was ultimately found guilty of the charges. She was banished from Italy, her property was confiscated, and most of her fortune was taken away.  But this was not enough for the empress.  She ordered Lollia Paulina to commit suicide in 49 AD.  This order was enforced and supervised by a colonel of the Roman guard.  To confirm Paulina’s death, the solider was told to carry Paulina’s head back to Rome to be examined by Agrippina.

But Cassius Dio (ca. 155 AD-235 AD), a Roman historian of Greek ancestry, reported, in his 80 volume Roman History, that when the soldier returned to Rome with the head, Agrippina did not recognize its facial features, Cassius doesn’t say why that was.  My guess is that Paulina’s facial features were distorted by decay.  It’s unclear where Paulina was exiled to, just that it was outside of Italy.  So it could have taken days or weeks for the soldier to return with the head and decomposition would have bloated and twisted the soft tissues of the face.

While studying the decomposing head, the empress remembered that Lollia Paulina had a unique set of teeth.  Cassius wrote “she opened the mouth with her own hand and inspected the teeth, which had certain peculiarities.” After this analysis, Agrippina was satisfied that Paulina was dead.

Although this ancient forensic analysis was very simple, Agrippina understood a basic forensic principle that people have unique characteristics, other than facial features, that can be used for positive identification.

Lollia Paulina was got given proper burial until the reign of Emperor Nero.  Nero allowed Paulina’s ashes to be returned to Rome and had a special sepulcher built for them.