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Crippen’s nemesis: The father of forensics

11 Dec, 2008

By Mike Findlay

Detail from Bernard Spilsbury by George Belcher, 1928

Detail from Bernard Spilsbury by George Belcher, 1928

Dusty old index cards may be a far cry from the glamorous TV world of CSI, but when they shed new light on one of the first and most controversial figures in forensic science, it’s enough to make Mike Findlay drop the remote control and head to the Wellcome Library.

In August 2008, the Wellcome Library’s Senior Archivist Chris Hilton secured at auction the last remaining index cards of the late Sir Bernard Spilsbury, known as ‘the father of modern forensics’.

Spilsbury was a famous figure in forensic medicine in the early 20th century. He appeared as a prosecution witness in many high-profile murder trials, including the notorious Dr Crippen case. He also performed autopsies in many other cases of accidental or unexpected death or suicide, which form the basis of the material purchased by the Wellcome Library. Over the course of his career he undertook more than 25 000 post mortems – between 750 and 1000 per year.

Spilsbury was born in Bath in 1877. He gained entry to Magdalen College, Oxford, to study natural science with the intention of going into medicine. With his father’s gift of a microscope, the impressionable young man took an interest in pathology.

Spilsbury shot to fame during the highly publicised 1910 trial of Dr Hawley Crippen, an American physician who was hanged in London for his wife’s murder. When Mrs Crippen disappeared, two letters signed by her announced her resignation from the Music Hall Ladies Guild, saying she had been summoned to the USA on a family matter. The letters were not, however, in her writing.

Dr Crippen told a family friend that his wife had been taken ill in the USA and was not expected to live. A little later, this friend received a telegraph stating that Mrs Crippen had indeed died. Friends of the Crippens, alarmed, approached Scotland Yard to investigate. Panicked, Crippen and his mistress fled to Canada. Chief Inspector Walter Dew searched the Crippen household to discover human remains buried in lime in the coal cellar; he boarded a faster ship and arrested the pair at sea.

At trial, Spilsbury argued that a scar on a small piece of skin from the remains pointed to their being Mrs Crippen’s. Despite the defence stating that no link could be proven, Spilsbury was insistent. Crippen was convicted and hanged.

The case set the tone for a colourful career in forensic medicine. Spilsbury gave evidence in numerous other high-profile trials, including the ‘Brides in the Bath’ murders, where three women were drowned in their baths – each had been married to George Joseph Smith. In a theatrical display, Spilsbury laid out a bathtub in the Old Bailey courtroom and explained how Smith could have whipped each woman under the water, causing them to pass out and drown.

Forensic medicine was often frowned upon by the medical and legal professions, but Spilsbury was instrumental in changing its perceptions for generations to follow. His presentational skills brought a star quality to the courtroom. According to Colin Evans, author of ‘The Father of Forensics’, he was “toweringly handsome, immaculately turned out, with a fresh red carnation on his buttonhole”.

Critics of Spilsbury cast doubt over his ability, particularly given his lack of academic attainment. He has been accused of being behind several miscarriages of justice. The recent Channel Five documentary Dr Crippen explored how the case has recently been reopened, speculating that his wife’s death was an accident or that the body discovered in the coal cellar was that of a man – calling Spilsbury’s method into question.

In later life, Spilsbury was estranged from his wife and in poor health. In 1947, following the deaths of two of his sons, he committed suicide in his laboratory by coal-gas poisoning, a method he had often encountered in his work.

Despite this bleak and dramatic end, there is no doubt that Spilsbury paved the way for modern CSI. Although his official career is well documented in materials at the National Archives and in the press, no significant collections of personal papers, apart from these handwritten cards, are known to have survived. Discovered in a lost cabinet, they may help to explain the father of forensics – so maybe it is time to swap the sofa for the filing cabinet.

This article first appeared in Wellcome News 57.
Image credit: Wellcome Images.
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