Medical Detectives: The Lives & Cases of Britain's Forensic Five

Medical Detectives: The Lives & Cases of Britain's Forensic Five

by Robin Odell


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752464497
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 05/01/2013
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Robin Odell has been writing books on true crime since the 1960s and is the author or coauthor of more than 20 books, including The Mammoth Book of Bizarre Crimes, Murderer's Row, and Ripperology.

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Medical Detectives

The Lives & Cases of Britain's Forensic Five

By Robin Odell

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Robin Odell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8930-8



Sir Bernard Spilsbury

THE THIRTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD MAN who stood in the witness box at the Old Bailey on 18 October 1910 was tall, good-looking and self-assured. He was well-dressed, sporting a red carnation in his buttonhole, and spoke clearly and calmly when addressed by counsel for the Crown. 'I am a Bachelor of Surgery of Oxford University and I hold the position of pathologist at St Mary's Hospital,' he told the court. The man was Bernard Spilsbury, whose name would become a household term epitomising the ascendancy of the medical detective, and the occasion was the trial for murder of Hawley Harvey Crippen whose name gained notoriety as a fashionable expletive.

Dr Spilsbury was the most junior of the four experts called by the prosecution to present the medical evidence against Crippen. His appearance was brief, decisive and memorable. From his high perch in the wood-panelled courtroom, the Lord Chief Justice, bewigged and swathed in scarlet, questioned the young pathologist about his opinion. Spilsbury, unintimidated, replied, 'I have an independent position of my own, and I am responsible for my own opinion, which has been formed on my own scientific knowledge ...'. Those present who understood the workings of the medico-legal world realised at once that they were witnessing something important. A young law student at the time, who would later achieve fame as a coroner, Bentley Purchase, remembered people leaving the court and saying of Spilsbury, 'There is a coming man.'

* * *

Crippen was the inoffensive-looking husband of Kunigunde Mackamotski, a stage-struck woman better known as Cora or by her stage name, Belle Elmore. The couple settled in England in 1900 after Crippen was appointed to run the London office of the Munyon Company, a Philadelphia-based patent medicine firm. Crippen's medical qualifications, described as obscure and probably acquired through the post, nevertheless allowed him to use the title of 'Dr'. It is doubtful, though, that he would have been allowed by the General Medical Council to practise in England. His success as a sales representative was matched by that of his wife as a stage artiste; he presided over dwindling fortunes selling quack medicine and she obtained minor parts in the music halls. Neighbours observed that he always appeared to be subservient to her wishes. Small in stature and mild in manner, his demeanour contrasted sharply with Cora's music-hall persona.

The Crippens lived at 39 Hilldrop Crescent in Camden Town in a gloomy house with a cellar. In January 1910, Crippen parted company with Munyons and began to run into debt. By this time, the little doctor was also running a double life with his teenage mistress, Ethel le Neve. They met secretly and shared warm embraces in the privacy of hotel bedrooms.

On 2 February 1910, Crippen told Ethel le Neve that his wife had gone to America. Ethel joined him at 39 Hilldrop Crescent and a couple of weeks later appeared at a charity ball wearing a brooch belonging to Cora Crippen. The doctor let it be known that he had heard his wife was seriously ill and he was planning to travel to the USA to be by her side. He then announced that she had died and, on the day that her obituary was published in the theatrical newspaper, Era, he and Ethel le Neve left England for a honeymoon in Dieppe. On 31 March, one of Cora's friends at the Music Hall Ladies' Group reported certain suspicions to Scotland Yard.

When Crippen and le Neve returned to Hilldrop Crescent it was to face visits from several of Cora's friends asking embarrassing questions and, finally, from Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard. This occurred at the beginning of July, weeks after Cora had disappeared. Crippen was disarmingly frank; 'The stories I have told about my wife's death are untrue,' he declared. He said that as far as he knew she was still alive and had gone to America to join her lover. He had lied, he explained, to hide his shame.

The policeman was thus put off the scent and Crippen, alerted to the danger he was in, prepared for flight. On 11 July, when Dew sought to question Crippen further, he found both the doctor's office and 39 Hilldrop Crescent unoccupied. The house was thoroughly searched and human remains were found buried in the cellar. The experts were called in and Dew took passage across the Atlantic in a ship fast enough to overhaul the SS Montrose, whose passengers included Crippen and le Neve dressed as a boy. An alert had been broadcast by wireless from the ship's captain to the owners in Liverpool. In an historic radio message, he said, 'Have strong suspicion that Crippen London Cellar Murderer and Accomplice are among saloon passengers ...'.

Under the brick floor of the cellar at the Crippen home, Dew and his Sergeant discovered the stinking remains of a human torso wrapped in a man's pyjama top. Augustus J. Pepper, consulting surgeon at St Mary's Hospital and a leading medico-legal authority, examined the cellar remains and reported that without question they were human. He called in his assistant, Dr Bernard Spilsbury, who sacrificed a holiday with his wife and son in Somerset for the doubtful privilege of evaluating the remains found at Hilldrop Crescent. Spilsbury's rising reputation had already been noted and it was said that Richard Muir, who prosecuted Crippen at his trial, especially asked for Spilsbury to work on the case.

The pathologist wrote out a summary of his initial findings on one of his famous record cards. Throughout his career he pursued the meticulous habit of recording the details of all his cases on record filing cards which at the end of his professional life numbered some 6,000. The discovery in the cellar amounted to a heap of putrefying flesh and organs; there was no head and no bones. When he was called to the scene, Sir Melville McNaghten, the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, had the foresight, as he recorded in his memoirs; 'to put a handful of cigars in my pocket; I thought they might be needed by the officers and they were!'

The sex of this grisly discovery was not apparent, for the genitalia were missing. All the organs of the chest and abdomen were accounted for with the exception of the reproductive organs. Later, on a section of skin measuring seven inches by six, which he thought came from the lower part of the abdomen, Pepper's experienced eye spotted a mark which he thought was a scar. This blemish was the cue for Spilsbury to step into the public arena.

The young Demonstrator of Pathology left his family to start their holiday without him while he remained in London and joined a forensic quartet at St Mary's Hospital – he and Pepper worked on the physical aspects of the remains while Dr William Willcox and Dr Arthur Luff carried out analyses for toxic substances. One of Spilsbury's three filing cards on Crippen recorded the essential information concerning the discovery in the cellar:

Human remains found July 13 ... Medical organs of the chest and abdomen. Removed in one mass. Four large pieces of skin and muscle, one from the lower abdomen with old operation scar 4 in. long – broader at lower end. Impossible to identify sex. Hyoscine found 2.2 grains. Hair in Hinde's curler – roots present. Hair 6 in. long. Man's pyjama jacket, Jones Bros., Holloway, and odd pair of pyjama trousers.

Examined by Travers Humphreys, Spilsbury told the court how he had examined a piece of skin and flesh with a mark on it. 'I have formed the opinion,' he said, 'that it comes from the lower part of the wall of the abdomen, near the middle – I base that opinion upon the presence and arrangement of certain muscles.' Of the mark on the skin, he said, 'As the result of my microscopical examination I say that that mark is undoubtedly an old operation scar.' Knowing that Crippen's wife had undergone an ovarotomy in 1892 or '93, the identification of an abdominal surgical scar by the pathologist was an important plank in the prosecution's argument.

The thrust of Spilsbury's case was that the absence of hair follicles and sebaceous glands in the mark on the skin made it certain that it was a scar. He was at pains to point out that although he had been a student of Augustus Pepper, his opinions were entirely his own. He repeated, 'I think there is no room for doubt as to its being a scar,' and, as a final challenge, he declared, 'I have my microscope slides here and I shall send for a microscope in case it should be wanted.' Muir was no doubt very pleased with his protégé and took one of the defence's expert witnesses to task for daring to suggest that a mistake might have been made over interpretation of the microscopic evidence. 'We are not talking about people unaccustomed to the microscope,' declared counsel, 'we are talking about people like Mr Spilsbury.'

The sliver of tissue bearing the scar preserved in formalin in a glass dish was handed round among the members of the jury and, finally, in an adjoining room, Spilsbury set up his microscope so that any jurors who might have entertained lingering doubts could see his slides for themselves. The defence argument that the mark was merely a surface crease in the unbroken skin was weakened by the appearance of epithelium – the outermost layer of the skin – which had become folded into the scar as a result of the operation for ovarotomy.

Traces of hyoscine were found in the remains by Dr William Willcox; the presence of the drug linked to Crippen's known purchases of hyoscine hydrobromide from a chemist in New Oxford Street established cause of death and completed the chain of evidence. Willcox and Spilsbury were destined to work together on other important criminal cases; they made a formidable pair. The jury believed the remains found in the cellar at Hilldrop Crescent were those of Cora Crippen who had been poisoned by her husband. They took just half an hour to find him guilty of murder.

* * *

Spilsbury's precisely ordered mind was possibly a characteristic inherited from his father, an analytical and manufacturing chemist. James Spilsbury had wanted to train as a doctor but his mother was against the idea and urged him into a trade. The closest he could aspire to his real ambition was as a maker of pills and potions. James left his native Staffordshire in the 1870s and loosed the bonds of parental control. He set up in business in Leamington Spa where he married a local girl. In May 1877, James and Marion Spilsbury had the first of their four children, whom they named Bernard Henry.

Bernard was considered a handsome child, as photographs of the period testified, and he was cheerful and good-natured. The family home was comfortable and his father, who had suffered disappointment at not being allowed to follow the career of his own choosing, determined that, within reason, his children would be permitted to fulfil their particular talents and ambitions. Until he was ten years of age Bernard was tutored at home and, in 1888, enrolled as a pupil at Leamington College. He soon became a boarder for his father decided to shake the dust of the provinces from his feet and move to London. While James Spilsbury searched for a house in the metropolis that would be convenient for his new employment as consulting chemist to a number of large firms, he moved the rest of his family to his parents' home in Stafford.

A new family home was eventually found at Crouch End in north London and Bernard was reunited with his parents. But the move had no permanence, for Spilsbury senior's restlessness and quick business brain pinpointed an opportunity in Manchester and there the family moved at the end of 1891. Bernard attended Manchester Grammar School where, to his father's frustration, he performed only to a dull average but, with the benefits of hindsight, showed the languor and exasperating talent of a late developer. In 1893, he moved to Owens College where his career prospects began to come into focus.

He had decided he would like to train as a doctor and, two years later, took a step down that path when he passed his London University Matriculation. He subsequently gained entrance to Oxford University as a medical student.

His teachers at Owens College saw Bernard Spilsbury as something of a loner. He liked the solitude of long walks and preferred individual to team sports. The characteristic of the loner, tempered with a gritty determination, would stamp the young Spilsbury's future career.

The young man graduated with a BA degree from Oxford in 1899 after studying for three years at Magdalen College. With general practice in mind, he entered St Mary's Hospital Medical School at Paddington, London which would be a second home to him for twenty years. He at once came under the spell of two outstanding teachers, Arthur Luff and Augustus Pepper. He also fell in love with the microscope given to him by his father which became as indispensable to the large-as-life Spilsbury as the magnifying glass was to the mythical Sherlock Holmes.

Luff and Pepper have been described as the founders of modern forensic medicine but they had inherited a somewhat tarnished tradition owing to the fiasco created by the Smethurst trial in 1859. Dr Thomas Smethurst was charged with fatally poisoning Isabella Bankes, a spinster with whom he went to live after deserting his invalid wife. She left everything to Smethurst, whom she described as 'my sincere and beloved friend'.

Dr Alfred Swaine Taylor, the government analyst and a leading toxicologist, had found arsenic in the dead woman's body and also in a medicine bottle taken from the sickroom. On the basis of this evidence, Smethurst was sent for trial at the Old Bailey. Sensation occurred when Dr Taylor admitted that arsenical impurities in his test reagents invalidated his discovery of poison. Smethurst was nevertheless found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged. Because of the controversy over the toxicological analysis, the Home Office ordered an inquiry which resulted in Smethurst being pardoned and Taylor suffering the ignominy of an expert made fallible. In consequence, the standing of forensic medicine was severely dented and the Dublin Medical Journal wrote of poor Taylor that he had 'brought an amount of disrepute upon his branch of the profession that years will not remove'.

Following this debacle, the role of the expert witness was held in some suspicion and it fell to St Mary's Hospital to reinstate what some called a 'beastly science' to its rightful place. Spilsbury's tutors encouraged their student's enthusiasm for microscopy, perhaps seeing his potential for enhancing their calling. Spilsbury's natural aloofness and liking for solitary working predisposed him to the pursuit of pathology. At any rate, he chose that calling and, as his contemporaries all observed, devoted himself diligently to his studies. This decision had the effect of concentrating the young man's individualistic tendencies and he was drawn to the professional company of older men. His fellow students doubtless thought he had a high opinion of himself.

The late developer found that some of those medical students who had started their studies after him qualified before he did. But in 1905, at the age of twenty-eight, he graduated from Oxford with his medical degree. In the same year, he became engaged to Edith Horton whom he had met in Birmingham four years earlier while visiting his itinerant parents. In October 1905, Dr Bernard Spilsbury was appointed Resident Assistant Pathologist at St Mary's under Augustus Pepper. His appointment completed a formidable team; Pepper was the Home Office pathologist and Arthur Luff was joint toxicologist to the Home Office with William Willcox, a man only a few years older than Spilsbury and a natural ally. They were to become good friends and worked together professionally on many important cases.

Spilsbury, now earning a salary of £200 a year, was thus put into the arena where the reputation of modern forensic pathology would be moulded. He had access not only to the best knowledge and experience available but also to those meticulous working disciplines so vital in the medico-legal world. Within six years, he would come to the forefront of the national scene, his name a public property, while many of those who outshone him as students remained in respectable obscurity.

He was able to augment his salary with earnings from coroners' fees which, in those days, ran to two guineas for a post-mortem examination. His first fee-earning post-mortem was performed in March 1906. It rated an entry on one of his famous record cards which, together with his notebooks, were maintained as material for an eventual text-book on forensic medicine.

Spilsbury lived at rooms in Cambridge Terrace, Paddington, not quite 'over the shop' but within easy reach of St Mary's. By 1908, the demand for his services outside the hospital was so great that he was serving several coroners' courts in London and earning fees which doubled his salary. He managed his income carefully, having decided to marry Edith Horton when he had settled into his professional career. He judged that moment to have arrived in 1908 and in September the couple were married at Moseley. They rented a house at Harrowon-the-Hill in north London and Spilsbury commuted to Paddington each day on the newly electrified Metropolitan Railway. The following year, he succeeded Augustus Pepper as Pathologist at St Mary's when his friend and tutor retired. His rise had been fast by any standard and then came the Crippen trial.


Excerpted from Medical Detectives by Robin Odell. Copyright © 2013 Robin Odell. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Professor Bernard Knight CBE,
1 The Coming Man: Sir Bernard Spilsbury,
2 The Patriarch: Sir Sydney Smith,
3 The Professor: John Glaister,
4 The Mentor: Francis Camps,
5 The Teacher: Keith Simpson,
About the Author,

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