Conference Sessions

I. Techniques of Detection

Projit Mukharji (University of Pennsylvania), A Cheechee Science: Race and Forensic Graphology in the British Imperium

A famous Anglo-Indian dictionary defined ‘cheechee’ as a disparaging term used by the British to refer both to people of mixed race as well as the hybrid language these Eurasians spoke. In many ways it is an apt adjective for the science of forensic graphology. Not only were all early colonial practitioners of forensic graphology men of mixed race, these Eurasian men also cleverly deployed their racial identity in crafting out a professional space for their new science. Taking advantage of a culture where racial anxieties were pervasive, but also polyvalent, unstable and open to constant situational elaborations, these Eurasian scientists subtly but creatively wove together apparent opposites like claims about innate skills and technical knowledge, connoisseurship and technicality, shrewdness and moral transparency, European-ness and Indian-ness. Behind their success lay the subtle positioning of their own racialized identities in the pursuit of scientific respectability.  Forensic graphology in colonial India therefore came to embody all the complex anxieties, derisions, possibilities and instabilities built into the liminal sounds of the cheechee lexicon. By startling contrast, the demise of forensic graphology in metropolitan Britain happened precisely because it became embroiled in a racialized controversy against an Anglo-Indian doctor. Ironically, even as the Calcutta Police successfully institutionalized forensic graphology by creating a new professional space for a series of Eurasian graphologists, forensic graphology lost all credibility in Britain for trying to use its authority against the racialized figure of the Anglo-Indian. Moreover both developments, in Calcutta and in London, happened in precisely the same decade. In their very different fates in two distinct locations within the British imperium then forensic graphology remained a cheechee science.

Teresa Castro (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle), Mapping the crime scene: Alphonse Bertillon and ‘metric photography’

Though less known than Alphonse Bertillon’s famous anthropometric portraits, ‘metric photographs’ are an equally important part of the so-called Bertillon system. Documenting – and mapping – the crime scene as anthropometrics proposed to map out the surface of the criminal face and the criminal body, these photographs rely on measuring scales, wide-angle lenses and the over-head point of view in order to create images that can be converted onto a plan, from which one can determine the dimensions and distances of different objects. Their status is complex: if their depiction of violent crime scenes is inextricable from a scientific rationality whose paradigms are objectivity and trace analysis, these images also have the power to arouse strong reactions and emotions, evoking the strong relationship between death and photography. This paper will explore some of these contradictions, while proposing that ‘mapping’ is more than just a metaphor in order to understand the rationale of metric photography. 

Mitra Sharafi (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Blood Testing and Fear of the False in British India

The detection of dissimulation was a special preoccupation for British India’s criminal justice system. Reflecting cultural stereotypes about ‘native mendacity,’ the Indian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure included extensive provisions on perjury, forgery and malicious prosecution, for instance. This talk focuses on another area in which fear of the false took on a distinctly colonial form during the first half of the twentieth century: blood testing. Complementing Projit Mukharji’s characterization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as the age of ‘serotropicality’ in the British Empire, I examine precipitin testing, a form of blood analysis that identified the species of origin of a blood sample.  Forensic experts in the imperial metropole expressed doubts about the viability of this technique. In India, however, it received unusual endorsement, reflecting distinctly colonial concerns with fabricated charges.

Empire became a testing ground for this method, a story told by Binyamin Blum for other forensic techniques like ‘dog science’ and ballistics. Empire was also essential for the development of the leading treatise on precipitin testing. George Nuttall’s Blood Immunity and Blood Relationships: The Precipitin Test for Blood (1904) could not have been written without a vast ‘reference library’ of animal blood samples from across the empire.

There was also the Imperial Serologist, a figure unique to British India who applied the precipitin test to blood samples from across the colony on behalf of the criminal justice system. The office of the Imperial Serologist was created in 1916 in Calcutta out of the efforts of Lt.-Col. W. D. Sutherland to promote precipitin testing. The method could determine that a blood stain (on the clothing of a murder suspect, for example) was human, not animal, thus providing powerful evidence against the suspect. It could also detect attempts to plant false evidence—where a blood sample on a murder suspect’s clothing purported to be human, but was in fact animal. Colonial forensic experts were preoccupied with the possibility of fabricated evidence in cases between South Asians, particularly in the context of feuds. Sutherland’s writings on precipitin testing published in India focused on fabricated evidence in a way that his writings published in Britain did not, for instance. Unexpectedly, then, the belief in ‘native mendacity’ produced heightened awareness of the possibility of false convictions, at least in cases among South Asians. The talk explores the ways in which this institution was shaped by the perceived imperatives of colonial rule.

II. Tracking and Traces 

Neil Pemberton (University of Manchester), Blood Matters: Paul Kirk and the Performance of Blood Spatter Analysis in Modern American Forensic Culture

This paper examines the status and epistemology of blood spatter analysis – that is, the interpretation of bloodstains at a crime scene in order to re-create the actions that caused the bloodshed. Focusing on the Berkeley-based forensic scientist Paul Kirk, singularly identified as the founding father of modern bloodstain pattern analysis, this paper will analyse the knowledge-making practices that transforms drops of blood into identifiable, predictable and readable patterns. Spatter analysis combined labour intensive crime scene practice, involving searching and recording, with an equally labour intensive laboratory-based practice, focusing on the reconstruction and performance of the blood event in order to identify the nature of its convergence.

I will do this by focusing on Kirk’s blood work in one of the controversial and enduring murder cases in post-war America – the trial and retrials of Sam Sheppard for the murder of his wife. Following the conviction of Dr Sheppard in 1954, Kirk examined the crime scene in January 1955, and through a spectacular demonstration of the reconstructive powers of blood spatter analysis, showed that the previously ignored crime scene blood revealed a different story -- one that suggested Sheppard's innocence. Kirk’s blood reading powers, however, failed to persuade the Ohio judicial authorities to re-open the case. By examining these judicial reactions and the later retrials of Sheppard in 1964 and in 2000, I will examine how Kirk’s blood spatter analysis was comprehended, contested  and re-evaluated by lawyers, journalists, spectators, and even by the retrospective and reconfiguring powers of our modern-day genomic forensic world.

Gagan Preet Singh (Jawaharlal Nehru University), The Strange Science: Tracking and detection in the late nineteenth-century Punjab

The science of tracking, although it had been among the most popular sciences of detection of the past, remains unfamiliar to us. In this paper, I would like to explore the role of tracking in the detection of crime in the late nineteenth century Punjab, when it was under the British rule. The British rule introduced in Punjab the modern scientific notions of evidence, evidence-based detective policing, and the modern scientific techniques like anthropometry and fingerprinting. Above all, the British perceptions were charged with the western science. In this context, I would like to explore how tracking was understood, which was rooted in the local knowledge. I wish to explain the role and importance of tracking in the native society. How tracking was different from the modern sciences of detection? How the British colonial officers interacted with trackers and how they understood tracking? How the native trackers perceived the modern policing? What was the importance of tracking for colonial policing? These are some of the questions which I wish to answer in my paper. I believe that the history of tracking would help us in understanding the nature and limitations of the modern forensic science. For this paper, I have relied on the vernacular sources, the government records, the contemporary periodicals, and the memoirs and private papers of colonial officers.

Binyamin Blum (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Breeding Injustice: The Rise of Dog Tracking as Forensic Evidence in the British Empire, 1909-1945

Though rejected in Victorian England on both scientific and moral grounds, dog tracking emerged in the early twentieth century in Britain’s colonies as a method of policing and forensic proof. Tracing the history of canine tracking in England, South Africa and Palestine, this paper analyzes colonialism’s role in advancing this particular method, and in the development of modern forensic culture more generally. The Article explores the necessities – real or perceived – that justified forensic innovation in the colonies, and the opportunities the empire offered for experimentation with novel and often controversial modes of policing and proof.  The challenges inherent in investigating particular kinds of crime, especially those committed against European settlers or colonial governments, coupled with fears of native mendacity or non-cooperation especially during times of insurrection, converged to make this method imaginable. While constructing dog tracking as ‘scientific’ seemed consistent with Britain’s ‘civilising mission,’ colonial administrators also celebrated its psychological effects, tapping into indigenous superstition to deter and subdue colonized populations. This despite colonialism’s purported mission of eradicating superstition and replacing it with science and reason. Beyond the degrading effect of using hounds to track indigenous populations, the replacement of indigenous trackers with canines represented an additional aspect of colonialism’s dehumanization. 

III. Experts, Institutions and Networks

Ian Burney (University of Manchester), Institutionalizing English CSI

This paper considers the relationship between ‘body’ and ‘trace’ centered forensics in twentieth-century England, by focusing on the shifting practical and conceptual role of forensic pathologists at crime scenes. In the interwar period, the English forensic landscape was dominated by the figure of the ‘celebrity pathologist,’ exemplified by Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury is often regarded as the ‘inventor’ of English crime scene investigation (CSI), but his relationship to the crime scene, I will argue, is far from straightforward. His epistemic authority was rooted in the mortuary rather than the crime scene, and his engagement with the latter was restricted to specific circumstances of a homicide investigation which mitigated against his mortuary-based practice.

Spilsbury’s distanced approach to the crime scene was challenged during the interwar period by advocates of a Continental-inspired model of CSI, which placed greater emphasis on the disciplined search for and preservation of trace-evidence which displaced the body as the core object of scrutiny. The success of these reformers in elevating the epistemic status of the crime scene stimulated a new generation of practitioners to repudiate Spilsbury’s model, and to embrace the crime scene as an essential domain of forensic pathological expertise.  In so doing, rather than repudiating the cult of the celebrity pathologist, they deepened and extended the pathologist’s public image by becoming prominent figures not merely at the mortuary but at crime scenes. By making attendance at the crime scene an essential feature of the peculiar heroics of forensic pathology, Spilsbury’s successors sought to adapt their practices in order to maintain their relevance to, and status within, a modern regime of homicide investigation.

Heather Wolffram (University of Canterbury), Forensic Knowledge and Forensic Networks in Britain’s Empire

The challenges of colonial administration in Britain’s Empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including those around identification of the individual and the investigation of crime, led not just to the adaptation of British institutions and bureaucratic techniques to local conditions, but also inspired a range of creative solutions, which were developed in-situ, in order to solve the colony’s peculiar problems. Indeed, as a number of historians of Empire have demonstrated, institutional, bureaucratic and technical knowledge was not unidirectional, flowing simply from Britain to its colonies; knowledge created at the so-called periphery could be tried and tested in the ‘colonial laboratory’ before adaptation and implementation at home. In the realm of forensics, the development of fingerprinting in British India is a case in point, as historians, including Simon Cole and Chandak Sengoopta, have shown. But, while forensic knowledge created in Britain’s colonies undoubtedly found its way back to and influenced the shape of forensic science and forensic medicine in the metropole, it would be wrong to imagine that such knowledge travelled solely in a linear fashion between centre and periphery- periphery and centre. The knowledge that was shared between colonies as well as between the colonies and the centre is clear evidence of the existence of forensic networks within the British Empire that brought to bear expertise, forged in a wide array of colonial contexts, on both universal forensic questions and the conduct and administration of forensic science.  In this paper, I will explore a small number of examples of these networks in action, focussing, in particular, on Egypt and Ceylon.

José Ramón Bertomeu-Sánchez (University of Valencia), Fingerprints and the Politics of Scientific Policing in twentieth-century Spain

Fingerprinting practices emerged in early twentieth-century Spain from the confluence of interests of a large group of scientists, professional policemen and liberal-minded politicians. The main outcome was the emergence of what was dubbed ‘scientific police’. The protagonists played different, but sometimes overlapping, roles in this process. On the one hand, university professors of medicine such as Federico Olóriz Aguilera and Antonio Lecha Marzo pursued new research on fingerprinting and anthropometry providing new technologies of identification and classification of criminal records. From the other hand, politicians, policemen and prison employees implemented new spaces, practices and regulations in order to adapt the new technologies for a broad range of purposes, from the control of recidivists to the prosecution of crime and political dissidence. They also published textbooks on methods of identification, detailed guidelines and even research papers on fingerprinting, suggesting new methods, solving technical problems or refining the classifications. In this paper, I pay attention to the interactions, tensions and uneven exchanges between these forensic cultures in early twentieth-century Spain. I discuss how the nineteenth-century legal medicine tradition, university-based and performed by well-known physicians such as Olóriz o Lecha Marzo, encountered the new emerging culture of the scientific police, which was developed in cabinets of identification and police departments, employing the new technologies of trace analysis, including fingerprinting. 

After a brief survey of the methods of identification, I will summarize the main features of the work on the so-called ‘Spanish fingerprinting’ developed by Olóriz, in particular his work on classification. My focus will be on the journal Policía Científica (‘Scientific Police’) which was published between 1913 and 1914 and included many papers on fingerprinting published physicians, policemen and prison employees. The journal is a good example of the hybrid space constructed by the mentioned group of doctors, policemen prison employees, lawyers and liberal politicians, in which fingerprinting emerged in early twentieth-century Spain. 

IV. Poisons and Proofs

David Arnold (University of Warwick), Arsenic, Toxicology and Medical Jurisprudence in nineteenth-century India

Although an array of indigenous organic poisons initially attracted more attention from toxicologists in British India, arsenic, in its pure form a largely imported substance, increasingly became seen as the greatest poison threat to human life and to the cattle that were also killed with it. Arsenic featured prominently, but contentiously, in several of the major trials of the period. This paper considers the reasons why arsenic came to command such prominence in toxicology and in the law (being the main impetus behind the Indian Poisons Act of 1904). Arsenic further illustrates the limitations of medical jurisprudence in India (given the widespread practice of cremation and the manner in which suspected poison cases were investigated), and the measures taken to try to overcome this deficiency, though after 1904 the use of arsenic for homicide and cattle-killing was, anyway, in marked decline.

Bettina Wahrig (Braunschweig University), ‘Carmen's Dirty Siblings’: Toxicology on Trial in nineteenth-century France

The 1840s were marked by substantial progress regarding chemical proofs procedures regarding poisons and poisonings. There was a high degree of public attention devoted towards criminal poisonings and the corresponding courtroom trials, not only by the general public, but also by scientific and forensic experts. After 1815, a large European public discussed the pros and cons of the different forms of courtroom procedures in England, Germany and France. Within this larger setting, the roles were contested - of the jurors, on the one hand and of the corpus delicti or chemical proof of a poisoning, on the other. In all three countries, chemical proofs were considered to pay a key role in proving the poisoning of the victim and the guilt of the presumed poisoner.

In France, the roles of the jurors and of the juge d'instruction were contested, since the role of the latter was thought to produce a procedural bias against the defendant, and the jury was often criticized as unable to ponder impartially whether the evidence against the defendant was sufficient.  Forensic experts boasted that after the discoveries of Marsh, Orfila and Stas, perpetrators were being more and more deterred from committing a poison murder.  The reality of many court cases however that chemical evidence did not play a crucial role -- either because the poisoning had not been suspected from the beginning and chemical evidence could not be achieved, or because the circumstantial evidence was thought to be so convincing that a material proof could be neglected. In other cases, it could be proved that the alleged poisoner had acquired poisons, but it could not be established whether the quantity and quality of the poisoning was sufficient. Was the substance administered really a poison? Was it poisonous enough to kill someone? Had the victim grown accustomed to the poison? Was French poppy as poisonous as Indian poppy? Did a popular sorcerer in Marseille hide arsenic behind the counter?

I will present two poisoning cases from the ‘Factum’ collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, dating from the 1860s, which show how complex these questions became when they were negotiated in the courtroom.

Marcus Carrier (University of Bielefeld), The Value(s) of Methods in the Courtroom: Epistemic Values for Method Selection in Forensic Toxicology in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century

The selection of appropriate analytical methods was (and still is) essential to the legitimacy of toxicological expert testimony in poisoning cases. The question I attempt to answer in my talk is what counted as an ‘appropriate’ method and why in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. In doing so, I draw on the concept of ‘epistemic’ or ‘cognitive values’ based on Thomas Kuhn’s Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice and understand method selection as a value judgment rather than the outcome of pure reason and hard criteria. These values are the product and the subject of discourses in the scientific community. Thus, values are understood as being dependent on culture and social context. In the context of the courtroom, non-scientific actors – in particular judges and juries – took part in these discourses. Accordingly, I argue that the set of values applied to expert testimony in the courtroom differed from the set of values used by the scientific community itself for judging methods and theories. The two sets could contain different values, or the same values could be assessed differently. Appropriate methods in the laboratory were not – or at least not automatically and for the same reasons – appropriate methods in poisoning cases. Using textbooks, articles, and written expert testimonies from Germany in the second half of the 19th century as sources, I attempt to shed light on the specific values at work – such as ‘simplicity,’ ‘parsimony,’ ‘redundancy,’ or ‘intuitive appeal’ – and the process of their production.

V. Bodies of Evidence

Daniel Asen (Rutgers University), Forensic Modernities and the Body in early twentieth-century China

The knowledge and institutions associated with the modern forensic sciences were introduced to China in the early twentieth century under the country’s unequal engagements with Western countries and Japan and the new imperatives of modern state-building which resulted. By the 1930s, medico-legal institutes had been established in Beijing and Shanghai and these formed the basis for a growing community of professional scientists who were dedicated to reforming the Chinese judiciary’s forensic investigation practices. While the Chinese experience of modern forensic reform has parallels with those of other contemporary societies – for example, in medical reformers’ attempts to expand the role of physicians in the law – it also took place within a unique context shaped by China’s early modern tradition of forensic techniques for examining the body. These older practices had developed under the Qing empire (1644-1911) on the basis of even earlier precedents. In the 1920s and 1930s, this ‘alternative’ forensic science continued to inform judicial authorities’ engagements with physical evidence in legal cases. In fact, one could characterize the forensic scene in early twentieth-century China as fundamentally pluralistic: the examination of body evidence in homicide investigations was routinely carried out by different kinds of forensic experts relying on different sources of bodily knowledge and standards of proof.

This paper investigates the question of what it meant to practice legal medicine as a globalizing field of modern science within this unique context. It focuses, specifically, on one area of forensic practice and research: ‘cadaveric phenomena’ (shiti xianxiang), the physical and chemical changes which bodies undergo following death. Much as in England and continental Europe, studying putrefaction, insect activity, and other aspects of the changing corpse constituted an important part of Chinese forensic scientists’ claims to specialized knowledge and expertise. At the same time, the authors of Chinese forensic texts had for many centuries addressed the ways in which bodies change over time and in different environments while providing practical techniques for distinguishing wounds and other signs from post-mortem changes. While the first members of China’s legal medicine profession were aware of this older tradition of body knowledge – indeed, their own laboratory practice was shaped by it in numerous ways – their attempts to make sense of it involved a complex process of distancing, if not forgetting, as older forms of knowledge were reinterpreted through the particular epistemic values of modern laboratory science. This paper suggests other, more symmetrical ways of understanding these different traditions of bodily knowledge, both as historically-comparable responses to the physically-changing dead body and as knowledge-practices which were linked historically in the process of implementing modern science in China.

Jeffrey Jentzen (University of Michigan), Death and Empire: Medico-legal institutions and medico-legal practice across the British Empire 

This paper will discuss the unique practice of English colonial legal medicine from the early nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. In addition to the common law, British colonial administrators transported the coroner’s inquest and death investigative practices both to protect and govern their colonial empire.  English physicians, recruited from the ‘Celtic fringe’ and trained in medico-legal matters in Scotland, were well-suited to perform forensic death investigations in the colonies.   Although therapeutic medical practices in the colonies were indistinct from those of the metropole, the practice of forensic medicine in the colonies constituted a unique form of colonial legal medicine.  British colonial legal medicine was highly influenced by cultural and racial bias, investigative methods, indigenous environments, local medical practices in treating disease and diverse legal applications. 

The pluralistic judicial system of extraterritorial laws and local justice was often influenced by traditional and religious practices. Indigenous peoples used the British system of death investigation to protect themselves from colonial oppression and local criminals. Legal authorities often portrayed native witnesses as untruthful and unreliable and as a result considered demonstrative, scientific evidence more reliable in courts of law.  As a result, the colonies provided a more receptive environment for developing scientific investigation practices such as fingerprints, toxicology and ballistic testing.  Medical evidence could be more easily admitted into a colonial courtroom than in England.

Colonial physicians were encouraged to acquaint themselves with local traditions, culture and the environment in order to properly investigate deaths.  In some cases, endemic diseases such as the splenomegaly induced by malaria, allowed foreign defendants to use the ‘boot and spleen’ legal defense as protection from prosecution.  Religious requirements for rapid burials by Islamic religious law often complicated death investigations.  Legal protection afforded perpetrators of ‘honor crimes’ and the physical environment of the colonies required physicians to become more empirical in their practice and provided more opportunities for experimentation in death investigations.  Bodies often had to be transported over long distances and the unbearable heat and conditions caused corpses to decompose quickly. The environment also provides a unique array of flora and fauna, presenting colonial physicians with a myriad of indigenous poisonous drugs.  Away from the influence of the English church, autopsies could be more commonly undertaken to determine the cause and manner of death and investigate disease.

Bruno Bertherat (University of Avignon), Cleaning out the mortuary and the medico-legal text: Ambroise Tardieu’s modernizing enterprise

In the preface of his Étude médico-légale sur l’infanticide, edited in 1868, the renowned forensic doctor Ambroise Tardieu, bases his scientific approach on his own experience and refusing to draw on the heritage coming from the same old and usual literature on the topic. This paper’s aim is to ponder the possible reasons for this refusal: Tardieu’s status, his true contributions to the difficult issue of infanticide, and forensic practice based on the anatomo-clinical method. This paper will also discuss the limits of Tardieu’s refusal in the light of controversies and the actual diffusion of knowledge throughout Europe.