Unspeakable Crimes Fascinating Victorian Attempts At Forensic Investigation  

Elle Tharp
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The Victorian Era, which spanned from 1837 to 1901, was a great time for not only industrialization, science, and economic prosperity, but also for the development of crime-solving techniques. While police tactics of the 1800s left much to be desired, the 19th century saw many important discoveries and developments in the world of criminal forensics that created a blueprint for modern day investigations. From fingerprinting to the development of crime scene photography, Victorian era detective work made considerable progress over 60 years.

Fingerprint Analysis


Fingerprint Analysis is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Fascinating Victorian Attempts At Forensic Investigation
Photo:  The Principles and Practices of Medical Jurisprudence/Internet Archive/Public Domain

While the discovery that fingerprints are unique to each individual occurred before the Victorian era, it wasn't until the late 19th century that fingerprint analysis was applied to criminal investigations.

In 1880, physician Henry Faulds published a paper in the scientific journal Nature, suggesting that fingerprints left at crime scenes could be used for "the scientific identification of criminals." The matter wasn't seriously considered by police, however, until the 1890s, when Sir Francis Galton developed a classification of fingerprint patterns for police analysis. 

Fingerprints were then adopted as a means to identify criminals. In 1902 Harry Jackson, who stole a set of billiard balls, was the first man in the UK convicted on fingerprint evidence (Francisca Rojas, who killed her two children in Argentina, was the first in the world).

Criminal Profiling


Criminal Profiling is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Fascinating Victorian Attempts At Forensic Investigation
Photo: Jack the Ripper/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Prior to Jack The Ripper, crime in the Victorian era was mostly petty offenses or revenge crimes. Robberies, garrotting, prostitution, and drunk and disorderly charges were common.

Criminals of the time were often seen as lazy, lower class citizens looking to make a quick buck. Sadistic serial killers weren't even on the cultural radar. It wasn't until Jack the Ripper began brutally murdering his victims that police created the first criminal profile in an attempt to understand this new and foreign type of monster.

Dr. Thomas Bond, a surgeon with the Metropolitan police, was the first to profile a criminal. He described Jack the Ripper as "a man subject to periodical attacks of Homicidal and erotic mania... quite likely to be a quiet inoffensive looking man probably middle aged and neatly and respectably dressed... he would probably be solitary and eccentric in his habits, also he is most likely to be a man without regular occupation, but with some small income or pension."

Matching Hairs and Fibers


Matching Hairs and Fibers is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Fascinating Victorian Attempts At Forensic Investigation
Photo:  The Principles and Practices of Medical Jurisprudence/Internet Archives/Public Domain

Authorities once used microscopic analysis to study hairs and fibers left at crime scenes. Rudolf Virchow conducted the first forensic human hair comparison in 1861, finding that the hairs on the case's defendant matched, by all examination, the hair of the victim. Yet the hairs could never be considered unique to the individual victim.

Forensic hair analysis in the Victorian era followed that understanding. Microscopic examination of hairs and fibers were often used in criminal proceedings. Comparative evidence of hairs, however, had limited use. While hair could be used as circumstantial evidence, or to give further information on the criminal's age or sex, the hair could never be considered an absolute, definitive match.

In the case of Reg. v. Steed (1863) the perpetrator stomped on the victim's head, killing him. There were hairs lodged on the bottom of the boot of the accused, which matched hairs from the deceased. The victim was wearing a red neck scarf, and investigators also found red fibers on the bottom of the perpetrators boot. The hair and fiber comparison helped convict the victim.

Rudimentary Ballistic Analysis


Rudimentary Ballistic Analysis is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Fascinating Victorian Attempts At Forensic Investigation
Photo:  The Illustrated Police News/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Early analysis of bullets was rudimentary, as guns were not yet mass-produced. In 1835, Henry Goddard, a member of the London Bow Street Runners was able to identify a gun used in a murder based on a slight defect in the discharged bullet.

As the mass production of firearms began to take off, however, identifying bullets with the naked eye was no longer a feasible option. Investigators began using microscopes to see the bullets more clearly. They also rolled them onto inked paper to search for any identifying marks.