When arsenic has closed your eyes

Posted by in March's Magazine

Kennedy Wilson hails a founding father of forensic science 

It was not the invention of transatlantic radio wireless that captured Doctor Crippen but the painstaking work of the Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. Almost forgotten now, in his day he was as famous as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. 


At the height of Spilsbury’s fame a cartoon appeared in Punch accompanied by the lines: 

When arsenic has closed your eyes,

This certain hope your corpse may rest in:

Sir B will kindly analyse

The contents of your large intestine.

Thanks to TV everyone is familiar with blood spatter patterns and the police’s use of ultrasound, DNA fingerprinting and the computerised reconstruction of faces from skulls. But they are techniques that Spilsbury could only have dreamed of.

Through hard work and fierce dedication to what was once derisively called ‘this beastly science’ Spilsbury was instrumental in lifting a cloud from forensic pathology and helping to raise it to the stature it holds today. He was proud of his record of a lifetime of 25,000 post-mortems.

Spilsbury worked on some of the most famous cases of last century including that of the wife killer Dr Crippen. During the First World War he was called on to give evidence at the trial of the would-be assassins of Lloyd George. In the early decades of the 20th century forensic science was rudimentary and some poisons were very difficult to detect. Murderers convinced themselves that they could get away with it. Many did.

Spilsbury made his courtroom debut at the trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen, a name that has taken on almost legendary significance since. Crippen, a quack doctor, sought release from his marital woes with his typist Ethel Le Neve. When Mrs Crippen found out about the affair and threatened to move out taking the joint savings with her. Crippen poisoned her with hyoscine hydrobromide, and eviscerated and dismembered the body, burying it in the cellar using quicklime to speed up decomposition.

Crippen might have evaded detection – an elaborate story of Mrs C returning to America and dying while she was away was initially accepted by relatives and police – but rather than staying put Crippen got cold feet and fled with his mistress, who dressed as a boy. His pursuit across the Atlantic and the first-ever use of transatlantic wireless in facilitating his arrest obscured the fact that it was the pioneering science of forensics that secured his conviction.

Crippen had the best defence a newspaper could buy (in return for the exclusive story of course). His solicitor tried to argue that the body in the basement was not that of Mrs Crippen but had been buried there before the Crippens had moved into the house. It was up to the pathologists, working on the case, to show that what was found had once been Cora Crippen.

Crippen and Ethel Le Neve at their arraignment

Much of the trial was spent on scientific evidence extracted from Mrs Crippen’s headless remains, which proved to be impossible to identify conclusively. Even the sex of the body was difficult to establish. A scar on the remains matched an operation Mrs Crippen had once had (a piece of skin preserved in formalin was produced for the jury to inspect at the trial). A hair was found dyed auburn, just as Cora Crippen had dyed hers.

Yet more incriminating was a fragment of a pyjama jacket which matched pyjamas owned by Crippen – one set of which was missing its jacket. More than this, the jacket bore a label bearing the words: ‘Jones Bros Ltd’. This was important because it made it impossible for the defence to claim that the remains dated before the Crippens lived at this address. Jones Brothers only became a limited company in 1906, just after the Crippens moved in.

Dr Crippen was finally found guilty and hanged on October 23, 1910. Ethel Le Neve was acquitted.

Not only was Spilsbury a good scientist but he also had an exacting detective’s mind. In the press of the time his powers of detection and observation were often likened to those of Sherlock Holmes.

A colleague, WB Purchase, wrote in the foreword of Spilsbury’s 1951 biography: ‘In the course of his work my colleagues, myself, and many relatives of deceased persons heard Spilsbury give evidence. He was kind to us and them. He used simple phrases that all (including jurors, counsel, and the occupant of the Bench) could understand.’

” Much of the trial was spent on scientific evidence extracted from Mrs Crippen’s headless remains, which proved to be impossible to identify conclusively

Born in 1877, Bernard Henry Spilsbury had a childhood skating accident to his right hand which forced him to use his left and he became ambidextrous. Throughout his career he seemed to relish painstaking work and his attention to detail was renowned.

Judges in particular had a high opinion of Spilsbury, who would laboriously establish the facts and was famed for his exhaustive, no-stone-unturned post-mortems, which often sought out previous evidence of attempts to kill by other means.

His biographer wrote: ‘[Spilsbury] found the science of pathology an empirical one and left it a precise one, and, forensically, it has been said that he raised the giving of professional medical evidence from a suspect and controversial status to an honourable and exact plane.’ ν

Twitter: @KenWilson84

Info: Further reading, The Father of Forensics: How Sir Bernard Spilsbury Invented Modern CSI by Colin Evans (2008) 

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