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Digging Up the Bodies

The skeleton of convicted murderer William Burke exhibited in the Anatomy Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School. Wikimedia Commons.

The skeleton of convicted murderer William Burke exhibited in the Anatomy Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School. Wikimedia Commons.

Crime? It’s as old as history. Detecting crime? Only as old as science. And when it comes to poison most foul, the 19th century is when you want to go. Real forensics began during that century, and much of the credit belongs to a transplanted Spaniard. Mateu Orfila created the first work of forensic toxicology, Traité des Poisons, which was first published in 1814 (and is now living a blameless life in CHF’s rare books collection). Orfila’s pursuit of justice through forensics made corpses of many animals. Orfila fed his lab animals different poisons, watched the often painful results, and then dissected the bodies to find out how the poisons killed. Other scientists built on this early work, including chemist James Marsh, creator of a test for arsenic that bears his name.

Apart from deliberate poisonings, there were also the inadvertent self-poisonings, in which Victorians again took the lead. James C. Whorton describes the many ways that arsenic entered and occasionally ended the lives of adults and children in 19th-century Britain. On the plus side, arsenic may well have given rise to the first environmental health and safety movement.

But detection is more difficult and less certain than all the CSI shows would have us believe. We expect certainty from our experts and their science. But if there’s one thing that history repeatedly tells us, it is that evidence is not always as solid as it seems, even when it comes to arsenic. Prefiguring the Arsenic Wars shows how tricky proof could be in early 19th-century America.

Poisoning isn’t the only way to kill. And sometimes questions of guilt or innocence go deeper than science can reach, as in a famous 19th-century bombing case that set the course for organized labor in the United States.

Back in England, history provides tales as outlandish as any found in fiction. William Palmer is a case in point, and a defendant in a case that riveted the British public. In 1856 Palmer, a doctor, was accused of poisoning in succession his mother-in-law, his wife, his brother, and finishing off with his betting partner. (So much for do no harm.) More about Palmer can be found in our crime podcast, which also looks at the biggest serial murder case in U.S. history.

Poison is a hidden weapon, often mistaken for natural causes, and requires an expert to uncover. All of which make poison perfect for crime fiction. In this video Lee Berry talks about the golden age of British crime fiction.

Perhaps we like crime stories and CSI shows so much because the case is always solved. But remember, certainty is only guaranteed in fiction.

Watch our #HistChem episode on forensics, “Digging up the Bodies: Debunking CSI and Other Forensic Myths.”

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