Stranger Than Fiction

January 2019

PearsonA 1938 edition of Edmund Pearson’s Studies in Murder

Revisiting Classic True Crime

By Dean Jobb

What do a New York City librarian, an Oxford-trained chemist, a former British policeman, and a German journalist who produced Nazi propaganda have in common? All four wrote accounts of murders, forensic breakthroughs, and feats of detection—little-known classics that would be great additions to the bookshelves of any crime-writing enthusiast.

The librarian is Edmund Pearson. Born in 1880, he is considered one of the first American writers to treat crime and criminals as a subject worthy of serious study (one of his editors credited him with establishing “what has become a school, if not an industry, of criminological literature”). He was director of publications for the New York Public Library from 1914 to 1927 and published several books related to his day job—among them Queer Books and The Librarian at Play—until his selection for a grand jury investigating racketeering piqued his interest in crime.

 

  Borden-Verdict

The Boston Daily Globe’s coverage of Borden’s acquittal

Studies in Murder, first published in 1924, is his first collection of crime essays and contains his postmortem on the infamous 1893 trial of Lizzie Borden for the axe murders of her parents in Fall River, Massachusetts. “It is one of the great sensational moments in our civilization: the trial of a woman for her life,” he writes. Gender and social standing, not a lack of evidence, he argues, saved her from the gallows. “To suggest that a woman of good family, of blameless life and hitherto unimpeachable character, could possibly commit two such murders,” as the prosecution contended, “is to suggest something so rare as to be almost unknown to criminology.” Nevertheless, his account leaves little doubt that Borden was the only logical suspect and had the motive—money and an intense dislike of her stepmother—for murder.

Pearson was born in Massachusetts and several other cases in the book have New England connections. Among them is the 1896 murder of the captain and two others aboard the sailing vessel Herbert Fuller that was as sensational in its day as the Borden case. Pearson reviews the conflicting evidence of the survivors of this attempted mutiny and emerges confident the authorities charged and convicted the right man—the first mate, a slippery character named Thomas Bram.

Studies in Murder is deeply researched. Pearson interviewed some of the lawyers involved in these cases and had access to the personal files of others. The writing is brisk, engaging, and peppered with literary allusions. He has a dry sense of humor and takes few prisoners, skewering the “mawkish and sentimental” newspapers that convinced “semi-intelligent” readers to regard murderers as the victims of persecution. Deathbed confessions? A “perpetual fairy-tale of criminology,” he sniffs, as credible as tales of sea serpents.

Pearson tends to side with the prosecution and mounts a strong defence of convictions based on circumstantial evidence—few killers have “the forethought to ask reporters or cameramen to attend the murder,” he notes. His surprising contention that not a single person was wrongly convicted of murder and executed in nineteenth-century America, however, has not stood the test of time. As DNA analysis and other modern forensic innovations have proven, time and again, the justice system Pearson so steadfastly defends can get it wrong.

 

While Pearson focused on trials, George Dilnot was more interested in dissecting the investigations that brought offenders to justice. A former police officer, he documented the exploits of Britain’s best sleuths in his 1928 book Triumphs of Detection: A Book About Detectives.

Dilnot traces the history of detection to the heyday of London’s Bow Street Runners in the mid-1700s but his focus is on the great cases solved by the Metropolitan Police, founded in 1829 and known as Scotland Yard, after the site of its original headquarters. “There were astute detectives and cunning criminals,” he reminds readers, “long before Sherlock Holmes.”

Scotland-YardScotland Yard’s headquarters in the 1890s (Author collection)

He’s best known for a series of crime novels and Triumphs of Detection is filled with dialogue that feels embellished, if not outright invented. But Dilnot knew many of the Scotland Yard detectives he features, and fills the book with anecdotes revealing their personalities and methods. Inspector Frederick Smith Jarvis, for one, who specialized in hunting down suspects who had fled Britain during the 1880s and 1890s, once found himself at the mercy of a murder suspect, with a pistol held to his head. Jarvis coolly closed his hand on the weapon and slipped it from his assailant’s grasp. “An earthquake,” claims Dilnot, “would not have jarred his self-possession.”

The book offers many other insights. He tells the astonishing story of how two inspectors from the Yard tracked down a murderer who had sought refuge in Britain; all they knew was the man was German and had stolen an expensive watch. In another chapter, we learn that murder suspects Albert and Alfred Stratton laughed as they were fingerprinted in 1905. “Crooks had not yet appreciated the formidable menace of the system,” Dilnot notes. They soon did. Alfred’s thumbprint matched one found on a cashbox left at the scene, and the Stratton brothers became the first offenders convicted and hanged for murder in Britain based in part on fingerprint evidence.

Fingerprinting and other modern forensic tools were well established by Dilnot’s time, but he was confident that medical and other scientific specialists would never supersede the role of the streetwise detective. “A bloodstain by itself may not convict a man,” he writes—someone has to assess the experts’ findings and assemble the pieces of the forensic puzzle. “The main business of the detective is to catch criminals, and he does it because he knows criminals and their methods, not because he knows anything of chemistry or toxicology.”

 

The development of the scientific side of crime detection is the focus of a pioneering study published in Britain in 1923, with the unwieldly title The Expert Witness and the Applications of Science and of Art to Human Identification, Criminal Investigation, Civil Actions and History. Author C. Ainsworth Mitchell, an Oxford-trained chemist, did work for Scotland Yard in the First World War era and often appeared in court as an expert on the chemical composition of inks, which could verify whether documents were genuine.

The Expert Witness offers insights into the origins of an array of tools adapted to rooting out crime, from early lab tests for the presence of arsenic and other poisons to detecting forged paintings using what was then a new technology—x-rays. Facial reconstruction of a skull, it turns out, was first used in 1895 to identify the disinterred remains of composer Johann Sebastian Bach. And while Czech scientist Johannes Purkinje did not see the forensic value of the “marvelous grouping and curvings of the minute furrows associated with the organ of touch,” his 1823 thesis was a milestone in the development of fingerprinting.

Mitchell
Early fingerprints, from C. Ainsworth Mitchell’s The Expert Witness

The book is illustrated with mug shots, microscope slides, and other trial exhibits. Mitchell notes the reluctance of the courts to accept some innovations, including an early test to verify the presence of bloodstains that one judge dismissed as “scientific speculation.” Perhaps the scepticism was justified—the author notes that the supposed expertise of seventeenth-century doctors was used to support charges of witchcraft and, as late as the 1800s, medical men were insisting people could die from spontaneous combustion.

Mitchell’s knowledge of how lemon juice can be used as an invisible ink helped to prosecute a German spy in 1915, and he includes fascinating chapters on handwriting and document analysis. He also explores how forensic methods can solve historical mysteries, including his own efforts to authenticate a letter attributed to Mary Queen of Scots.

Four decades later, Jürgen Thorwald’s Crime and Science: The New Frontier in Criminology focused on the twentieth-century scientific breakthroughs into the analysis of blood, hair, soil, cloth fibers, plant specimens, and explosives residue—evidence that could conclusively link suspects to crime scenes. The book, first published in the U.S. in 1967, marshals a succession of murder cases to trace the development of these key branches of forensic investigation before the advent of DNA testing.

 

Thorwald
An illustrations page from Jürgen Thorwald’s Crime and Science, showing forensic tests of bloodstains found at crime scenes

Born Heinz Bongartz, Thorwald was a German journalist who produced Nazi propaganda (his first book, on the Luftwaffe, included a preface by war criminal Hermann Göring). After the Second World War, with a new name to shake off his past, he published a number of titles on military history, medicine, and forensic science.

Crime and Science is meticulously researched, elegantly written, and offers a step-by-step reconstruction of landmark cases—American, British, European, Canadian, and Australian, many of them obscure or forgotten—that tested the limits of scientific analysis of crime-scene evidence. Thorwald examines the failures as well, as detectives, lawyers, and juries struggled to grasp and trust the clues scientists were discovering in their labs.  

When a child’s dismembered body was pulled from a river in Berlin in 1904, a new lab test to differentiate between human and animal blood helped to convict the assailant. But another innovation, determining blood type from a saliva sample, failed to convince a British jury in 1939 and a murder suspect was acquitted (the man later confessed his guilt to a journalist). After a Quebec man blew up a plane in 1949, killing his wife and twenty-two others on board in one of the first attacks on a commercial airliner, Canadian scientists who scoured the wreckage were able to pinpoint where the explosion occurred and the type of dynamite used. By the 1960s, scientists were using radioactivity to detect trace elements in human hair and link suspects to crimes, prompting the press to hail the debut of “the atom as detective.” 

These books will appeal to fans of true crime and crime fiction alike. Each author published other titles on murder, detection, and forensic science. Check out a local library or used bookstore, or head online to track down vintage and reprinted copies of their works. You don’t have to be a detective or a scientist to find them.

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Dean Jobb teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His latest book, Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), recreates the exploits of a 1920s Chicago swindler who pioneered the Ponzi scheme. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

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