The Victorians invented crime-solving methods that are still used today. D.E. Meredith tracks down the 19th-century detectives
A steel gurney is wheeled along a corridor into a sterile room lit by the blue glare of halogen lamps. A woman wearing a mask and latex gloves, her fit body disguised in shapeless scrubs, zips open a body bag. A young police officer begs to leave the room, his hand over his mouth. Maggots squirm in the cadaver’s glistening cavity. A scalpel glints, is silent against the low drone of the high tech scientific instruments. The scene is hard, muscular, cutting edge. A world of DNA, blood spatters; of life and death. An LA cop, with broad shoulders and a peach of a butt, whose wife doesn’t love him anymore, is standing in a corner waiting for the staccato words of the pathologist who - let’s call her Rachel – lives alone. A beat, then the camera looms in on the star of the scene – a pornographic close up of our silent witness – a waxy, mutilated girl.
CSI. Silent Witness. Waking the Dead. Dr Temperence Brennan. The roll-call for our much-loved fictional forensic “detectives” goes on and on. It seems we can’t get enough of these men and women who are work-obsessed, medical clue-hunters, solving gruesome murders in the lab by analysing skin samples, blood spatters, hairs and tiny shreds of materials left on the corpse. But have you ever wondered how it all began?
The beginnings of forensics
Forensics, as we know them, actually emerged in the 19th century, the era when scientific and technological ideas exploded. Progress was being made at a voracious pace in engineering, chemistry, physics, medicine and anatomy. The Victorians discovered the practical application of electricity, the steam-powered engine, pain relief for surgery and photography to name just a few things. Meanwhile, experiments were being carried out in hospital laboratories involving microscopes, tissue samples and chemical compounds, which in turn formed the basis of what we now call forensics.
Historians argue that the science wasn’t properly embraced until the turn of the century, but many of the methods were being used by scientists by the mid-1850s. The Marsh test, for example, was invented in 1836 for detecting arsenic in tissue samples and is still used today. Workable methods for finger-printing were established by 1858, Tardieu spots to identify strangulation by 1855 and improvements to the microscope (clearer glass, a better understanding of fibre optics) meant that even the tiniest traces of hair samples, grass stains, semen and blood smears were beginning to give up their secrets.
Careful observation at a crime scene and systematic thinking were starting to become the methods adopted by the new policemen known as “detectives” who were established within the Met by the early 1840s. And these detectives continued to grow in numbers and sophistication throughout the rest of the Victorian age. Meanwhile, an understanding of pathology was on the march and by the 1850s identifying the “cause of death” in relation to a crime had an official name: "medical jurisprudence".
But in many people’s eyes, these new CSI methods were deeply un-Christian and the brave men who carried out this work regarded by others with a mixture of contempt, loathing and suspicion. Dead bodies were supposed to be left in the ground and mourned, not dug up in the name of science. However, for a small but growing number of admirers from the medical and law-enforcement circles, the possibilities of the forensics were just beginning to be understood. And this is the point where the Hatton and Roumande Mysteries begin.
In my novels, Devoured and The Devil’s Ribbon, we meet St Bart’s pathologist Professor Hatton and his morgue assistant, Monsieur Albert Roumande, at the very dawn of forensic science. We learn about these new methods as they go about their work, lit by the flickering glow of a gas lamp, as they attempt to catch killers using early forensics.
Hatton has to prove his science actually works, at the same time as trying to catch violent criminals on the mean streets of London. Roumande is a self-taught French man who works as Hatton’s morgue assistant – or diener, as he prefers to be called. But Roumande is so much more than just an “assistant” – he understands ballistics, he can preserve a body to perfection, he subscribes to The Lancet - and as a true Victorian, he above all relishes innovation.
From the upper-class drawing rooms of Highgate and Chelsea and the jungles of Borneo, to the murky world of London’s notorious rookeries with its taverns, brothels and sweat shops, Hatton and Roumande set out, against all odds, to catch killers using their forensics. They make their way through the foggy streets of London’s underbelly searching for clues and on the way tackle the murkiest of relationships and the cruellest of murderers. Their world is a simmering pool of radical ideas and dangerous thinking fuelled by Darwinism and Fenian politics, prostitution and corruption, bomb-blasts and silent killers. I hope my readers will enjoy these labyrinthine stories and also learning about early forensics along the way just as much as I have.
The Devil's Ribbon and Devoured by D.E. Meredith is published by Allison & Busby.