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Murder and the making of English CSI

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17/10/2016

By | The Researcher’s View

Several years ago my colleague Neil Pemberton asked me when police started using tape to mark out and protect crime scenes. Though I had written extensively on the history of forensics I had no ready answer. As we talked it through we realized that the history of crime scene investigation (CSI) as a technique had not been seriously studied, and that it opened up a rich vein of questions about forensic theory and practice that could form the subject of a fascinating book.

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Our research has now been written up in ‘Murder and the Making of English CSI‘, published with the Johns Hopkins University Press. Focused on the investigation of murder in the first half of the twentieth century, it traces the evolution and interactions between the century’s two principal regimes for producing forensic evidence. The first is a body-centered forensics, associated with the lone, ‘celebrity’ pathologist, his scalpel and the mortuary slab, in which the skilled observer autopsied a dead body. The second is a ‘forensics of things,’ focused on the analysis of trace evidence (hair, blood, fibers) harvested from meticulously managed crime scenes.

The book analyzes the shifting landscape of twentieth-century murder investigation by following the historical interplay between these two powerful forensic models. It highlights their developing relationship as they interacted at four principal sites: the mortuary, the laboratory, the crime scene and the courtroom.

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The Emily Kaye case reported in the Daily Mirror newspaper, 1924. Copyright Daily Mirror.

With no systematic map to guide our research, we adopted the image of lightning bolts brightly but only briefly illuminating an otherwise darkened terrain. Our ‘flash moments’ were two iconic 20th century murder investigations: the 1924 case, handled by forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, of Emily Kaye, who was beaten and dismembered by her lover at a lonely beachfront holiday cottage, and the 1953 investigation into John Christie’s serial murders in his dingy terraced flat in London’s West End.

John Christie - Daily Mirror

The John Christie case reported in the Daily Mirror, 1953. Copyright Daily Mirror.

These are both well-known cases that superficially look the same: chilling murders, bodies to be interpreted and scenes to be searched by detectives, medics and scientists whose actions were eagerly followed by journalists. Yet by focusing on the details of the investigations themselves, and how they were represented and understood, the book reveals how investigative theory and practice had subtly, but profoundly, shifted between the two cases.

The primary aim of our book is deceptively simple – to show readers that crime scenes have a history. This is not as straightforward as it seems because in a sense they have always been there: crimes, after all, have to occur somewhere. But it was only over the course of the last hundred years or so that the crime scene came to be understood as a new space, governed by explicit rules of practice and recognized as such by forensic investigators and the broader public alike.

Our further aim is to invite readers to take this recognition of CSI as a product of history as an opportunity to reflect on their understandings of how forensic investigation appears today. The high-tech world of modern forensics has captured the public imagination. With complex homicide investigations undertaken by crime scene officers and lab scientists as regular features of newspapers and highly-rated television dramas, forensic detection has never been as visible – or compelling. These images are so familiar that it is easy to dismiss as wrong or uninteresting past forms of forensic practice. ‘Murder and the Making of English CSI’ challenges this assumption, by exploring earlier methods on their own terms, examining how they operated and their impact on how crime was investigated and evidence judged.

B0007100 Forensics Credit: Alex Williamson. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Illustration showing the white outline of a body, as per one at a crime scene. Also in the illustration is a fingerprint, the words "blue" and "blonde" which could refer to eye and hair colour, an eye and some numbers. Digital artwork/Computer graphic Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 4.0, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Forensics. Digital artwork by Alex Williamson. Wellcome Images reference: B0007100.

Drawing on material ranging from how-to investigator handbooks and detective novels to crime journalism, police case reports, and courtroom transcripts, the book shows readers how, over time, the focus of murder inquiries shifted from a primarily medical and autopsy-based interest in the victim’s body to one dominated by laboratory technicians labouring over minute trace evidence. In doing so, ‘Murder and the Making of English CSI’ reveals the compelling and untold story of how one of the best recognised features of our present-day forensic landscape came into being.

Authors

Professor Ian Burney and Dr Neil Pemberton from the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, University of Manchester.

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