10 Things About the History of Forensics

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Crime shows and mystery novels have been popular since probably sometime around the dawn of entertainment itself. Before I finished middle school I had read almost every crime novel in the library. These days I mostly read in other genres, but I still love a good whodunit now and again. I’m not a scientist. The hand-waving that some authors do doesn’t phase me most of the time. I repeat *most* of the time. I do have friends and family members who are in various scientific fields and have learned enough just from talking to them over the years that sometimes the hand-waving (term meaning to gloss over the how something is done in favor of the fact that it was done and in whatever fictional world is possible. Think of a Jedi waving his hand and saying, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”) leaves a little to be desired.

A lot of the downfalls of mystery novels and crime shows come down to the realities of forensics. DNA evidence is not proof, it is evidence which reveals probability. Most crime cases, even the “straight forward” ones, can take months or years to investigate and prosecute–and that’s if either one is ever fully accomplished. So your favorite forty-five minute television show that has your larger than life detective solving a complicated murder case in less than a week? Not so much. But we wouldn’t watch a show or read a series that took 3-5 years for the killer to go to trial only to have it all be postponed over and over for several more years. We willingly suspend our disbelief of the timeline. But if the audience is already willing to suspend disbelief over a few details for the sake of a satisfying conclusion, the least the creators can do is to make as many of the other details as plausible as possible.

Recently, I have read two books and watched two television series that were based in eastern Asia and involved crime solving in antiquity. I do not know what forensic procedures were like during the time periods covered, or if such procedures even really existed. But the creators made sure to make it so believable that I didn’t question it. The writer of the books (both were by the same and were consumed in less than a week), even included some historical information at the end of the book to explain why she used certain techniques and what the research supports from the time period. I loved that.

Clearly, forensics have been on the brain based on my media consumption lately. So, naturally, since I have ADHD, access to the internet, and general lack of impulse control, I fell down the rabbit hole of research. I’m not even sorry. You get to enjoy the fruits of my hyper-fixation as I tell you 10 things you might not know about the history of forensics.

  1. For over a thousand years before fingerprint evidence was ever considered in the West, Eastern cultures were using fingerprints as form of signature on important documents since they could be matched to a specific individual. Fingerprint matching was recorded in ancient Babylon before the time of Christ. However, when the practice was brought to the West it was through a British Officer who served quite some time in India–one of the countries where fingerprints had been used for centuries already. And yet, many sources credit the British officer with creating the concept of fingerprint analysis.
  2. The first procedural manual of forensics and etymology is believed to be Xi Yuan Lu (Translated: The Washing Away of Wrongs) by Song Ci, a director of justice, jail, and supervision, in 1248 during the Song Dynasty. It included notes about the importance of impartiality, respecting the dead even as you examine them and a legend about the original use of forensics being to solve the case of a murdered farmer using a type of fly to locate the bloody scythe of the neighboring farmer, though the tool had been washed clean to the naked human eye. Personal note: I could have researched this one legend for a long time all by itself if I hadn’t been quite so exhausted.
  3. There are three ancient precursors to the Polygraph test. Much like a polygraph test can’t determine guilt or innocence, but instead tests bodily reactions to verbal stimuli to check for evidence of falsehood, these tests had similar goals. And just like a polygraph, their validity is questionable, but still believable (and very convincing to many for a long time). In ancient India, they would make a suspect put a large handful of uncooked rice in their mouth. When they spit it back out, if too much of it stuck to their mouth and tongue, it suggested a dry mouth, a common sign of nervousness and therefore of a possible lie. Similarly, in ancient China, they used rice powder to run such a test. Neither of those seem quite as painful, though, as the ancient Middle East (or Western Asia) procedure of making the suspect lick a hot metal rod. The prevailing theory being that if you had a healthy layer of saliva, it wouldn’t burn you too much, but if you were telling a lie and were dry mouthed, it would burn much more severely. Yikes.
  4. Forensic dentistry, aka forensic odontology, was in use at least as early as 1692 in the West. During the Salem Witch Trials, Rev. George Burroughs was made to show his teeth in court to compare it to the bite marks on his victims who he was accused of coercing into witchcraft through biting. The Rev was convicted and hanged when the teeth marks matched his own teeth. However, many–if not most–forensic dentistry has since been largely discredited.
  5. The modern stethoscope was invented, more or less, in 1816 when an ear trumpet (precursor to a hearing aid) was used to listen to a victim’s chest for the sound of breathing or a heartbeat to determine if they were actually dead. Rene Laennec saved a lot of people quite a lot of trouble. Before using his new contraption, people had to either sit with a relative for a few days to make sure they actually started decomposing, or inject them with painful stimuli (even enemas) to double check for signs of life before declaring the person truly dead. And with the number of “dead ringer” stories, myths, and legends out there, such a device helped ease the mind of the public who greatly feared being buried alive by mistake.
  6. Dr. Edmond Locard (1877-1966), remembered as the “Sherlock Holmes of France” is responsible for Locard’s Exchange Principle, which underpins much of the theory of forensic science. “Every contact leaves a trace.” Paint chips, wheat chaff, hair, clothing fibers, etc mean that everyone you come into physical contact with leaves some small trace on you just as you do on them.
  7. Modern forensic pathology practices are commonly traced back to 16th century mainland Europe where Army surgeons would test and observe the effects of disease on human flesh and record the differences between different diseases and the body’s reaction. I would like to note here that there is good reason to believe that some of the same types of observations and tests were performed in the East, but were outlawed or the records destroyed or damaged enough to leave some doubt in following centuries.
  8. The concept of fingerprint analysis first came to the United States via the World’s Fair in 1904. Scotland Yard had been using it for decades, and sent a representative to demonstrate it at the St. Louis Fair. Just a few years later, in 1911, it was first used in a US court case in Illinois to get a conviction.
  9. Forensic science is used for a lot more than just solving crimes, however. The Red Cross and the International Committee on Missing Persons both use DNA to help identify missing persons after conflicts, disasters, or migration. They have even been able to reunite families who have been separated during such events, or give closure to those who would otherwise be left wondering about the fate of their family members.
  10. Bad science does exist and there have been, over the centuries, several forensic practices used to rationalize or “justify” racism. All the ones I read about have been discredited, but I hesitate to say that all such practices have been discredited because I am not a scientist but I do know human nature and hate.

It is interesting to note that there is an acknowledged difference between forensic science and litigation science. The former is mainly concerning observation and information gathering. The latter concerns data collected or sought for the sole purpose of being presented in a court of law.

While I find this topic rather fascinating, I’ve seen enough crime scene photos and example illustrations that I’m going to need a palate cleanser now. Someone turn on a silly (in the best sense) Rom-Com STAT!

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