Body of Evidence: The History of Forensic Medicine

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.

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