Silent Witnesses: The Often Gruesome but Always Fascinating History of Forensic Science

Silent Witnesses: The Often Gruesome but Always Fascinating History of Forensic Science

by Nigel McCrery

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A crime scene. A murder. A mystery. The most important person on the scene? The forensic scientist. And yet the intricate details of criminal forensics work remain a mystery to most of us. In a book that is by turns fascinating and chilling, Nigel McCrery leads readers around the world and through two centuries to relate the history of forensics in accessible and entertaining prose. He introduces such colorful characters as Dr. Edmond Locard, the “French Sherlock Holmes”; and Edward Heinrich, the “Wizard of Berkeley,” who is credited with having solved over 2,000 crimes.

All the major areas of forensics, including ballistics, fiber analysis, and genetic fingerprinting, are explained with reference to the landmark cases in which they proved their worth, allowing readers to solve the crimes along with the experts. Whether detailing the identification of a severed head preserved in gin, the first murder solved because of a fingerprint, or the first time DNA evidence was used to bring a sadistic killer to justice, Silent Witnesses provides dramatic practical demonstrations of scientific principles and demonstrates a truth known by all forensic scientists: people still have a story to tell long after they are dead.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613730058
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 587,470
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Nigel McCrery was a police officer before he joined the BBC in 1990. There he has worked on a number of documentaries and created various series, including the crime/forensics drama Silent Witness. He is the author of several crime novels, including Still Waters.

Read an Excerpt

Silent Witnesses

The Often Gruesome but Always Fascinating History of Forensic Science

By Nigel McCrery

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2014 Chicago Review Press Incorporated
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-005-8



Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.

Margaret Mead, anthropologist (1901–78)

Forensic investigation is concerned primarily with piecing together the disparate clues left at a scene in order to form a coherent picture of events and, crucially, to establish the identities of those involved or — equally importantly — those who were not. However, it wasn't until the nineteenth century that the need for a reliable, systematized method of identifying the people involved in a crime was recognized. Prior to then, the most common ways of doing so were eyewitness accounts and information extracted by torture. Needless to say, both could easily provide a faulty account; as this was recognized, various experts rose to the challenge of improving matters. The pioneering French forensics expert Edmond Locard (1877–1966) once said that "to write a history of identification is to write the history of criminality," and of course most forensic science is concerned either with establishing identity or with linking an individual to a crime scene. This chapter looks at the first, most basic steps in this direction — the early attempts to define and catalog a person's physical characteristics. There was a pressing need to formalize methods of identification, as the case of Lesurques and Dubosq in France showed.

On April 27, 1796, the Lyon mail coach failed to arrive in Melun, a small hamlet south of Paris. Concerned, the people of Melun assembled a search party. It did not take them long to discover the coach, and the sight that greeted them was a gruesome one. Both the driver and the postboy had been hacked to death and their bodies badly mutilated. The apparent motive for the crime became clear when it was found that more than five million francs had been stolen from the coach. One of the horses had also been taken.

Since the coach's only passenger was not among the dead and had, in fact, completely vanished, it seemed pretty clear to the authorities that he had been part of the gang that had committed the murderous robbery. He had claimed to be a wine merchant, but in fact must have been acting as the gang's inside man all along. It also came to light that he had been seen prior to boarding the coach carrying a large cavalry sword; given the condition of the bodies, it seemed that this might very well have been used as one of the murder weapons. After a short investigation, it was established that the gang likely comprised four other members, who had also been heavily armed — a gang of four such men had eaten in the nearby village of Montgeron a few hours before the coach was due to arrive there and had been acting suspiciously.

The police quickly picked up the gang's scent. The missing horse, which had been taken from the coach, was discovered in Paris the following day, and not long afterward a stable keeper reported that four sweating horses had been returned to his stable during the early hours of the morning by a man who gave his name as Couriol. Couriol was eventually traced to a village just north of Paris and arrested. Both he and his premises were searched, and over a million francs were recovered. The police were convinced that they had their man, and he was taken to Paris to answer further questions and be put before the Palais de Justice. The case then took an unusual turn.

A man by the name of Charles Guenot had been found in the same house as Couriol. Although after questioning him they had decided he was not a suspect, the police had taken some papers from him. As a result, Guenot was forced to go to Paris the following day in order to retrieve them. On his way he bumped into an old friend by the name of Joseph Lesurques, a rich businessman from Douai in northern France. Guenot explained what had happened, and Lesurques, sympathizing with his situation, agreed to go with him. By a strange coincidence, the two barmaids from Montgeron who had served the gang their meal on the fateful day were also there, helping with the inquiry. When they saw Guenot and Lesurques together, they pointed at them and denounced them, convinced that they recognized them both as members of the group.

Guenot and Lesurques were immediately arrested on the basis of this evidence. Despite fervently protesting their innocence, they were tried along with Couriol and three other men who were accused of being accomplices. Guenot was acquitted, but all the other men, including the hapless Lesurques, were found guilty and sentenced to death. The conviction of Lesurques seemed especially bizarre considering that no fewer than fifteen witnesses provided him with an alibi, while a further eighty-three spoke highly of his character and respectability. For some reason all this evidence was ignored by the court and the evidence of the two women, who never wavered in their account and their identification of Lesurques as one of the men who had attacked the coach, carried the day.

On hearing himself condemned, Lesurques, who had remained confident and assured throughout the trial, finally lost his self-control. Raising his hands to the heavens he declared: "The crime which is imputed to me is indeed atrocious and deserves death; but if it is horrible to murder on the high road it is no less so to abuse the law and convict an innocent man. A day will come when my innocence will be recognized, and then may my blood fall upon the jurors who have so lightly convicted me, and on the judges who have influenced their decision."

Immediately after the trial in an act of contrition, Couriol, who was indeed guilty, made it clear that Lesurques really was completely innocent and had taken no part whatsoever in the crime. The judge who had ordered Lesurques's arrest, a man by the name of Daubanton, was so disturbed by this revelation that he went to see Couriol in prison to speak to him personally. Couriol stuck to his story, explaining that the waitresses were wrong and had mistaken Lesurques for the real culprit, a man by the name of Dubosq who looked similar. The major difference between the two men was that Dubosq, unlike Lesurques, had dark hair. However, at the time of the robbery (and for some time beforehand), Dubosq had worn a blond wig in order to disguise himself.

To his credit, Daubanton had the case reopened and a commission was established to reexamine the evidence against Lesurques. It was pointed out to them that Lesurques had no possible motive to get involved in highway robbery, as he was already rich. He was also, as we have already noted, very respectable — not the kind of man likely to carry a heavy sword around with him, or to have any idea how to use it if he did. However, in an extraordinary piece of deduction, the commission decided that perhaps Lesurques's relatives had bribed Couriol's relatives in order to persuade him to declare Lesurques innocent. Despite there being no evidence whatsoever to support this ridiculous theory, the Minister of Justice agreed and the sentence of death was upheld. Given the insanity of this decision, I for one have often wondered whether there wasn't more to this case than has ever been revealed — but then perhaps it was just stupidity on a grand scale.

On October 30, 1796, the members of the gang, along with the unfortunate Lesurques, were taken from their prison cells and prepared for execution. The twenty-minute journey from the Conciergerie to the Place de Grève where the guillotining was to take place was the most moving anyone present could remember. As the wagon rolled through the streets, Couriol, standing at the front, repeated over and over to the crowd, "I am guilty, Lesurques is innocent!" People were horrified. Even on the scaffold, moments before the blade silenced him forever, Couriol screamed, "Lesurques is innocent!"

It made no difference; after hugging his wife and children, a tearful Lesurques went to his death.

Dubosq, the man named by Couriol, was finally captured. He did indeed bear a remarkable likeness to Lesurques. He was eventually tried and executed, four years after Lesurques had answered for the same crime. To this day, despite a general acceptance that he was innocent, Lesurques has never been reprieved.

In many cases victims of a crime might need to be identified too, particularly when that crime is murder. The earlier case of Catherine and John Hayes provides a grisly example of this.

At around dawn on March 2, 1725, a watchman discovered the severed head of a man lying on the muddy foreshore of the River Thames at Westminster in London. It had obviously not been there very long, as decomposition was yet to really set in. The facial features were still intact, meaning that with luck someone might recognize the unfortunate individual. The head was presented to local magistrates, who ordered that it should be cleaned up and its hair combed. After it had been prepared in this way, it was taken to St. Margaret's Parish Church and stuck on a pole for all to see. The queue to view the remains was apparently so long that vendors worked the crowd selling food and water. Parish constables were stationed near the head and around the graveyard, the idea being that the guilty party would surely react in some way if they saw the head. There was also an age-old belief that if a murderer touched the corpse of their victim, it would bleed. Therefore anyone who seemed particularly upset at seeing the head was forced by the constables to touch it so that they could observe whether blood oozed forth from it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach failed to produce a suspect, and it was not long before the head began to decay and to be pecked at by the local birds. Fearful of it becoming unrecognizable, the magistrates ordered that it be immersed in a large jar of gin to preserve it, then taken inside the church. This was duly done and that, for the time being, was that.

Catherine Hall was a dominant, attractive woman who drew admirers easily. She was born near Birmingham, England, in 1690, the daughter of a pauper, and left home at the age of fifteen to seek her fortune in London. On her way she fell in with several military officers, who took a shine to her and brought her with them to their billets at Ombersley, Worcestershire, where she stayed with them for some time. She eventually left them and was next picked up by a respectable farmer called Hayes. He was much older than she, and she quickly formed a relationship with his son John instead. The two were married in secret. When John's father found out, seeing that it was too late to do anything about the relationship, he set up his son in business as a carpenter. However, the rural life wasn't enough for Catherine — she wanted more. She wanted London and all that it had to offer her. After putting considerable pressure on her new husband, she finally convinced him to move there. The pair established a lodging house and soon also became successful coal merchants, moneylenders, and pawnbrokers. They quickly amassed considerable savings. Later, Catherine took in two young lodgers called Thomas Wood and Thomas Billings.

An organ-builder's apprentice by the name of Bennet had by now seen the head on display in St. Margaret's. Having done so, he felt compelled to call on Catherine at her residence on Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street), to tell her that he believed the head to be that of her husband, John, with whom he had once worked. Catherine was incensed. She assured Bennet that John was quite well and warned him that if he continued to spread such nasty false rumors, she would have to ask the police to arrest him.

But one Samuel Patrick had also been to see the head, and he too felt certain that he recognized it. Later that day, he told anyone in the Dog and Dial pub who would listen that the head bore a striking resemblance to John Hayes of Tyburn Road. Thomas Billings, one of Catherine's lodgers, happened to be drinking in the pub at the same time. He assured the company that all was well and that he had left John Hayes sleeping soundly when he set out from home that morning. Despite this reassurance, several of Hayes's friends remained suspicious. Eventually, a man by the name of Ashby asked Catherine about her husband to her face. She came up with a most bizarre explanation, telling him that John had been forced to flee to Portugal, having killed a man during a quarrel. Ashby was quite rightly unconvinced by this explanation, especially since Billings had completely failed to mention this rather dramatic occurrence. Another friend of Hayes, a Mr. Longmore, also questioned Catherine on the matter and similarly felt sure that she was not telling the truth. As a result the two men went to see a magistrate, who agreed with them that it all seemed rather suspicious and issued a warrant for Catherine's arrest. She was found in bed with Billings. Both were promptly arrested, as were two other lodgers, Thomas Wood and a Mrs. Springate.

Catherine now asked to see the head and was taken to it. On being shown the pickled remains, she snatched the jar up in her arms and screamed dramatically, "Oh, it is my dear husband's head!" and kissed the jar. Clearly this was not a sufficient display of her feelings, for then, in one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of forensic detection, she lifted the now seriously decomposed head from the jar by its hair and kissed it passionately on the lips. She then asked for a lock of her dead husband's hair. The constable refused, telling her the head was bloody and that she already had enough blood on her hands. Perhaps realizing that her dramatic display had not fooled anyone, Catherine then passed out.

Thomas Wood proved to be the weak link in the group. When questioned he quickly broke and confessed that he and Thomas Billings had both been Catherine's lovers. Tired of her husband's "mean spirits," Catherine had persuaded the two men to murder him. They got him drunk on six pints of wine so that he fell asleep, at which point Billings hit him over the head with a pickaxe. Wood was then handed the hatchet and told to finish the job, thus ensuring that he was fully involved in the murder. He struck John Hayes across the head several times, until they were sure he was dead. They then put his head above a bucket and sawed it from his shoulders using a sharp carving knife. Catherine wanted to boil the head in order to destroy its features, but this was deemed a step too far by Wood and Billings and they refused to do it. Instead they took it away in a bucket and threw it onto the foreshore of the River Thames. They then returned home and dismembered the rest of the body before throwing the bits into a pond in Marylebone. When the pond was dredged, the rest of the body was indeed discovered.

Catherine Hayes was not to be charged with murder but rather "petty treason" — her husband was supposed to be her lord and master, and she had rebelled against him. The penalty for this was not hanging but the far worse fate of being burnt at the stake. On learning this, Catherine finally confessed her part in events while trying to pin the crime on Wood and Billings. However, this made little difference and she was condemned to be burnt.

While being held in prison, Catherine attempted to poison herself, no doubt hoping for a less painful end. The attempt, however, failed, and on May 9, 1726, she was duly burnt alive at Tyburn, where the Marble Arch now stands. It was normal practice to strangle the condemned before the flames reached them, an act of mercy, but in Catherine's case the executioner burnt his hands while throttling her and so was unable to complete the work. She survived the flames for longer than anyone could have imagined. It was said that her screams could be heard all over London. She was the last woman in England to be burnt alive for petty treason (although the bodies of women were burnt after execution until 1790).

As for the amorous, murderous lodgers: Thomas Billings was hanged in chains in Marylebone Fields, close to the pond where he had dumped John Hayes's body. Thomas Wood avoided the gallows by dying of fever in prison.

In this case the correct identity of the victim was established serendipitously by a few people who knew him seeing the severed head while it was on display. However, we can well imagine that without this good luck, the culprits might have escaped punishment for their crime. Equally, if the head had been boiled as Catherine Hayes had wished, then even those who knew him well would almost certainly not have been able to make an identification. Better methods were needed, though their development would take more than a hundred years.


Excerpted from Silent Witnesses by Nigel McCrery. Copyright © 2014 Chicago Review Press Incorporated. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents


Author's Note,
1 Identity,
2 Ballistics,
3 Blood,
4 Trace Evidence,
5 The Body,
6 Poisons,
7 DNA,

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