I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of Victorian forensic investigation. It’s easy enough to trace this back to two important influences on my childhood: Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. I must have been about ten years old when I saw the centenary documentary about the Ripper killings. I remember being utterly fascinated by the show but then rather disappointed at the end when the panel of experts didn’t actually tell you who Jack the Ripper was; they didn’t even agree on which of the several most popular theories was most likely.
This experience formed a slightly weird distinction in my mind between real and fictional murders. I wasn’t mature enough to empathise with the actual horror of real crimes happening to real people as opposed made-up characters, especially not historical crimes, comfortably distanced from my own life by time. As a child, I considered that real crimes were only different to the fantastic mysteries of detective stories by the fact that they often weren’t solved and therefore had the potential to be much less satisfying.
Sherlock Holmes was always a huge source of delight to me. Like Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes ran around the gas-lit streets of Victorian London, but to this gloriously romantic image, he also brought the thrill of the genius detective who solved perplexing crimes through his legendary powers of observation and logical deduction. Fortunately, there was a cornucopia of different Holmes stories, an endless variety of adaptations for TV and film so that a hungry fan could guzzle their way though a satisfying quantity of Sherlock Holmes material. I particularly loved the BBC TV version with Jeremy Brett and can now still fondly recall watching one of the episodes as a child in a suitably creepy old B&B in London with my family.
For me, Sherlock Holmes embodied perfection as a detective. He combined a thorough understanding of scientific principles with exhaustive knowledge, a firm grasp of human nature, acute perspicacity and a tireless energy for investigations. Thanks to the many TV/film presentations of the character, donning a deer-stalker and pipe fixed itself in my mind as the foremost image of a detective, and running around with a magnifying glass was pretty much my childhood definition of how to investigate a crime scene.
Of course it’s different from the image of murder investigation presented in modern procedural shows. The model of the CSI type show is one of high-tech labs and investigators collecting samples from crime scenes in bags. We still have the other type of detective show, the Midsomer Murders and so forth, where murders are investigated by a clever detective who largely solves the mystery by questioning the suspects, figuring out the motive and opportunity. I tend to think of the Taggart, Inspector Morse and now Lewis TV shows, as following on from the Agatha Christie tradition of murder mystery rather than the Conan Doyle one. Pathologists and other forensics experts are consulted but the bulk of the investigation, and the solution of the mystery, stems from conversations with witnesses/suspects. Poirot and Miss Marple were both ingenious detectives but their style of investigating was different to that of Sherlock Holmes. Christie’s detectives understood people. They also were capable of seeing how pieces of physical evidence fitted into the jigsaw puzzle of the mystery but it was supplementary to their investigation of the people involved.
Sherlock was the inverse of Christie’s detectives. He understood how people thought and deduced motives from their actions, but his conversations with people were always as brief and to the point as possible. People weren’t the primary source of his investigation, merely a necessary way of gathering evidence if he couldn’t directly observe himself. The mystery was always best solved by observation of physical evidence, collecting clues, deducing their meaning and logically ordering them into a mental picture of the overall puzzle. For him, the process was scientific, methodical and logical, and it was the process that was instrumental to solving the case, not an insightful understanding of people or the human drama surrounding them.
Poirot found the murderer; Holmes solved the mystery.
I find that now, I tend to prefer the mysteries that focus on the human drama aspect, the Christie-style detective story where the murder investigation is really a mystery about people and the things that drive them. I don’t enjoy the procedural CSI style shows much at all, and I find that I’m not particularly fond of reading mysteries that are heavily-focussed on the forensic and grizzly details of the murders. I’m very much a fan of the other type of mystery. The one where crimes are solved by uncovering the truth behind the characters, where the murderer is found out though investigation of people more than anything else.
However, I still find that I’m fascinated by the forensics of the Victorian era. One of the aspects that I think is most intriguing is the Victorian attitude towards the potential applications for new scientific discoveries. They thought a lot about the potential use and abuse of emerging investigative technologies (the fact that thieves starting wearing gloves after an understanding of fingerprinting became public knowledge meant that some argued police shouldn’t reveal their forensic techniques), but also they speculated about the forensic applications of sceientific discoveries that might soon be developed.
One of the most interesting of these is optography. More modern thinkers can be quite sneering of the Victorian fascination with the idea that a ‘death image’ would be left on a person’s retina when they died. However, given the popularity of photography since the recent invention of the camera, and the similarity between how the eye and a camera operate, it wasn’t really that unreasonable for the Victorians to hope for a method for developing a picture of the final image seen by a person. Certainly, the concept of optography captured the imagination of several writers such as Jules Verne and Kipling. With Wilhelm Kühne’s experiment successfully making an optogram of dark and light lines in the retina of an unfortunately decapitated albino rabbit, it perhaps didn’t seem such a far-fetched idea as it appears to us now. The notion that a killer’s identity would be recorded in the eye of their victim is one that seems so useful that it easy enough to understand how wanting it to be possible makes you more inclined to believe that it is.
Indeed, the enthusiasm for optography was so popular that Dr Phillips was even asked during Annie Chapman’s inquest (one of the Ripper victims), “Was any photograph of the eyes of the deceased taken, in case they should retain any impression of the murderer?”
Sadly no photographs of the eyes of a dead person have ever shown any vaguely useful image. Light causes the retinal substance rhodopsin to bleach even after death so it's hard to imagine how any image would ever remain on the retina to be conveniently developed post mortem. Indeed the only human optogram that I’ve ever heard of is Erhard Gustav Reif, a man who was executed by guillotine and then his left eye was extracted within ten minutes of his death. The story was not exactly convincing. Some claimed that the optogram resembled the blade of a guillotine, but given that his eyes were bandaged before the execution, that seems unlikely.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had successfully taken an optogram from one of the Ripper’s victims. Perhaps the truth would utterly shatter the image of Jack the Ripper that survives through to this day…
Sergeant: We’ve got a successful death image off the victim, sir. Look, there you see as clear as any photograph, an image of Jack the Ripper.
Chief Inspector: This can’t be! This man is wearing an amusing bonnet with flowers attached to the front.
Sergeant: Yes, I know it is a rather unfortunate choice of headwear, sir.
Chief Inspector: That won’t do at all. Do you have any idea how many films and books over the next 122 years are going to rely on the image of a shadowy figure dressed in a frock coat, stalking the streets of Whitechapel?
Sergeant: Quite a few, sir?
Chief Inspector: Yes, quite a few, indeed. We can’t allow this picture to get out. Do you think anyone will respect a notorious serial killer who butchers women whilst wearing a lady’s hat with daffodils attached to it?
Sergeant: Er, I think they’re chrysanthemums, sir.
Chief Inspector: Do you think I care what kind of flowers they are? The point is we cannot let it be discovered that the brutal killer who has eluded us for months likes to wear lady’s bonnets. We’d be a laughing stock.
Sergeant: Should I destroy the picture then, sir?
Chief Inspector: Yes, I think you better had. We’ll just tell everyone this optography business didn’t work out...