Dirty Truth

The Godfather of CSI: How Forensics Changed Crime-Solving

It all seems so exciting on ‘CSI,’ the sleuths glamorous in Armani suits. But real forensics is messy and intricate, as its French inventor, Edmond Locard, showed in the early 1900s.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

LONDON — Edmond Locard wasn’t just an artist, a lawyer, a violin virtuoso, a botanist, a linguist and medical doctor. He was also the founder of modern forensic science.

He persuaded the city of Lyons in southern France to establish the world’s first CSI laboratory—it would change the face of crime fighting for ever.

Like Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective who inspired him, he was a genius.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had created Holmes in 1886, was among the admirers of Locard who thronged to see the forensic lab in operation.

“They had great mutual respect for each others’ work,” said Lucy Shanahan, curator of “Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime,” which opened in London on Thursday. The show, at the Wellcome Collection, finally restores Locard to the centre stage in a world still obsessed with the work of detectives.

Locard’s lab opened in 1910 and there he would go on to formulate the central theory of forensics that underpins thousands of murder investigations launched every year, from Baltimore to Cape Town.

His theory determined that “every contact leaves a trace.” He pointed to fingerprints, hair, blood and bodily fluids. The intervening decades have seen ever more fiendish techniques add smaller and more obscure clues to the list of potential traces that could link a killer to the scene of his crime.

“It’s called the exchange principle, which means it’s about what the perpetrator takes away with them as well, so there are two layers of trace evidence to be explored,” Shanahan told The Daily Beast. “He was very much at the forefront of the developments we’ve seen throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century.”

Locard may have been largely forgotten but his renown quickly spread at the start of the 20th century. The Kansas City Journal-Post sent a writer to describe his exploits. His dispatch appeared on March 19, 1933; this was how it began:

A scientific super-sleuth, whistling a Shubert sonata, sits in the laboratory of the Lyons police headquarters.

An assistant hurries in with a bundle of photographs, still dripping wet. “I have been able to bring out the fingerprints on every one of those anonymous letters,” he reports briskly. “They were invisible, of course, but the new apparatus is a wonder. The prints are all made by the same woman’s hand.”

Locard then picked up the phone and let a bewildered but grateful police detective know that the author of a clutch of poison pen letters was no longer a mystery.

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What appeared almost mystical was, of course, purely science. Locard didn’t just ponder, close his eyes and tell Dr. Watson he’d solved it. He employed a set of rigorous scientific tests.

“There were specific practitioners who Conan Doyle was directly inspired by but they wouldn’t have conducted themselves in the way Sherlock Holmes did any more than you would find a forensic pathologist chasing after criminals in the way that you see on TV today,” said Shanahan.

CSI is grounded in a certain amount of science and reality that underlines the stories they are telling, but the glamour and the high-tech set ups of these temples of forensic science are quite far removed from the sorts of situations that most of the experts are used to working in…. Not to mention the white Armani suits for attending the crime scene.”

The exhibition in London charts the rise of forensic science from Locard’s principle into a high-tech industry that makes it virtually impossible to plot a “perfect” undetectable crime.

The latest revolution in crime solving has come in the field of the autopsy. Examinations of the deceased for clues that might explain their demise have been going on since at least the 13th century. Swiss scientists have recently overturned eight centuries of manual intervention by developing the Virtopsy, an autopsy carried out by computers.

MRI and CT scans are among the imaging techniques that allow a body to be examined in more precise detail than a practitioner with a scalpel could ever achieve.

As part of a video exhibit, Michael Thali, of the University of Zurich, explained that it was now possible, for example, to accurately measure the length of a blade that had entered the body or detect metal fragments and even gas distribution inside the corpse.

“At the moment we cannot replace in every case the autopsy, that’s absolutely clear, but to be honest we have to say that the autopsy is not any more the gold standard in the field. Some image techniques are better to see some findings in the body than the classical autopsy,” he said.

Other more traditional fields of science have simultaneously improved methods of crime scene investigation beyond recognition. Dr Martin Hall, head of the Entomology Division at the Natural History Museum, has been leading the way in determining the time of death by examining insects that move into a dead body.

It’s long been known that the age of the oldest insect living in the body tells you the minimum time since John Doe croaked, but the science behind those measurements keeps improving.

Hall’s latest experiments have addressed whether the popular murderer’s technique of stuffing the corpse into a suitcase would prevent insects leaving their telltale ‘time of death’ clues.

The answer is that they will not. “By using pig heads as surrogate bodies—just pop them into a normal carry-on suitcase—we found it delays the arrival of the flies by 1-3 days depending on the temperature. However, the flies will arrive at the suitcase and they know that there’s a body through there.”

Experiments done in front of powerful cameras show that when blowflies cannot penetrate the sealed bag, they are able to lay their eggs through the teeth of the zipper so they drip through onto the body.

Even those larvae that are left on the surface of the suitcase will burrow in through the zip. The same homing technique means the best place to look for clues on how long a corpse has been decomposing is to check the anal and genital cavities, which provide optimum larva conditions. A half-inch larvae in the ass means the body was dumped several days ago. Forensic science: as intensely fascinating as it is gross.