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Body of Evidence: The History of Forensic Medicine

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A century after the execution of Dr Crippen for the murder of his wife, Fraser Joyce argues that, in cases hingeing on identification, histories of forensic medicine need to consider the roles played by the public as well as by experts.

Dr Crippen and Ethel Le Neve on trial at the Old Bailey

Traditionally the history of forensic medicine in murder cases focuses on the ‘experts’ in the field, such as toxicologists, psychologists and pathologists. It often neglects the ordinary people to whom the body in question has profound personal meaning and whose contribution to the investigation is more peripheral but nevertheless significant. 

The infamous murder of Cora Crippen presents an ideal opportunity to redress the balance. When human remains were discovered at 39 Hilldrop Crescent on July 13th, 1910, Cora Crippen had been missing since February 1st. The lumps of flesh discovered beneath the cellar that constituted ‘the body’ had been buried for between four and eight months, making them unsuitable for a direct formal identification. Consequently identification of the corpse depended on the relationship between experts and laymen and the construction and comparison of two apparently incompatible images: the concrete evidence of the dead body reconstructed through its examination by doctors and the more abstract picture of the missing woman built from physical descriptions of her while alive and gathered from those who knew her. This story of cooperation between the two groups that helped to establish the identity of the remains in the cellar is rarely heard.

In traditional histories of the case, the identification of the body was achieved by the young and brilliant doctor Bernard Spilsbury, armed with his microscope. By identifying a mark found on the remains as an old operating scar on the abdomen that Cora was known to have had Spilsbury’s reputation was assured, but his celebrity has since eclipsed the work of two other doctors, as well as the role of those who knew the missing woman personally.

On discovery of the body Dr Thomas Marshall, a police surgeon, was called to the scene followed by a consulting surgeon, Mr Augustus Pepper. Their preliminary examination revealed that the remains were composed of a mass of flesh and viscera covered in lime; the body was missing its head, limbs, genital organs and every single one of its bones. In the absence of firm anatomical evidence the only clues to the gender of the remains were a few long bleached hairs still in hairpins, which had clearly belonged to a woman (only these hairs were shown to witnesses; they were recognised as Cora’s). This, then, was the ‘medico-legal’ image of the body.

The next step was to construct the ‘lay’ image of the missing woman. On July 18th, the first day of the inquest, Cora’s friend Maud Burroughs gave this description:

She was about 34 years of age, height 5ft 4in or 5in, complexion fair, hair dyed auburn, but naturally dark, very beautiful brown eyes, stout build, good teeth, one or more crowned with gold, good looking, smartly dressed, and always wore a large quantity of jewellery.

As well as permitting a physical comparison between the human remains and Cora the person, descriptions such as this allowed doctors to search for more distinguishing marks that may have been overlooked during the preliminary examination.

Later that day another of Cora’s friends, Clara Martinetti, was unexpectedly overheard discussing a scar on Cora’s abdomen that she had seen in 1901: ‘a mark of an old cut a little darker than the rest of the flesh. It was about 6 inches long ... from the lower part of the stomach upwards up to the navel,’ about which the police had not previously been informed.

The doctors were quickly notified and a second, more detailed examination was made on August 8th in the presence of toxicologist Dr William Willcox. Discovered on a piece of folded flesh was a 4½ inch mark which under a magnifying glass appeared to the three men to be an old and stretched operation scar from the abdomen, probably from an ovario-hysterectomy (indirectly indicating the sex of the body).

Cora’s friends were consulted to establish as accurate a picture of the scar as possible. Her sister, Teresa Hunn, confirmed that Cora had undergone an operation in Philadelphia around 1892 to remove her womb and ovaries and that, although she had only seen the scar on two occasions, she was sure she could still identify it. The women also identified as Cora’s some female undergarments buried with the corpse. At this stage the law had sufficient evidence to conclude that the doctors’ medico-legal image of the remains matched the descriptions of the missing woman: a positive identification despite the condition of the body.

Dr Crippen’s defence counsel was clearly concerned and dispatched two experts – Doctors Turnbull and Wall, ‘medical men of good standing and the highest qualifications’ – to examine the scar on Crippen’s behalf. After a brief inspection they requested that it undergo examination under a microscope, something Pepper had hitherto deemed unnecessary. Only then, on September 9th after five weeks and three postmortem examinations, was Spilsbury finally called in.

The young doctor made 10 slides from three specimens and confirmed what Pepper, Marshall and Willcox had concluded in early August: the mark was an old operation scar located low on the abdomen and his colleagues agreed. Turnbull and Wall concluded, however, that it was the mark of a fold in the skin from the thigh. On the witness stand in November Spilsbury presented his evidence succinctly and underwent only a brief cross-examination, but the scar earned its reputation, in the words of the Lord Chief Justice Alverstone, as ‘the battleground of the case’, after Turnbull and Wall underwent a merciless cross-examination from the Crown, during which they were forced to concede they had made changes to their original report (having originally stated the flesh came from the thigh, they retrospectively admitted it came from the abdomen).

The emphasis on experts and expertise in the history of forensic medicine has meant that histories of this case centre on Spilsbury, the scar and the courtroom battle between the experts for the Crown and defence. The earlier work on the body by Pepper and Marshall is seldom mentioned, while the role of Cora’s friends in providing descriptions of the missing woman almost never. Spilsbury’s subsequent reputation as the enfant terrible of British forensic medicine from the mid-1920s has done little to help matters.

The history of identification in investigations such as the Crippen case is a useful focal point for historians wishing to understand the relationship between ‘experts,’ the police and ordinary people who knew the deceased. Historically, in similar cases it has been near-impossible to succeed in identification in the absence of any one of these groups.

More recently, a new challenge to the identification of Cora’s body and to our understanding of the Crippen case has arisen. Under Professor David Foran, a team of forensic scientists at the University of Michigan has analysed the DNA from a sample of skin still preserved under glass in one of Spilsbury’s microscope slides. Sensationally, they have concluded that the skin was that of a man.

It is the task of the lawyer to reconsider this new evidence in the light of a criminal investigation, but it is the role of the historian to point out that the scientific power of DNA technology must be considered within the context of the wider body of pathological and personal evidence assembled from doctors, the police and Cora’s friends at the time. If the results of the two investigations oppose each other so strongly, then a hundred years after the conviction of Crippen for the murder of his wife we may well witness a battle between traditional forensic medicine and modern forensic science from opposite ends of the century.

Fraser Joyce is writing his PhD thesis, Naming the Dead: Establishing the Identity of the Unknown Body in England and Wales, 1800-1934, at Oxford Brookes University and is sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.



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