Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Matter of Life and Death

I've been watching Ripper Street lately, a crime drama set in the Whitechapel area of east London, set post Jack-the-Ripper days, around the late 1800's. Great costuming, great set design, and extremely interesting, rather complex stories of what goes on in the underground, the seedy area of this neighborhood, where people are suspicious and scared of the Ripper's return while trying to make their daily way. The first episode dealt with a copy-cat killer of sorts, but then moved on to other noteworthy plots of intrigue and suspense. I just love it, and the character of Homer Jackson, an American, a Pinkerton, with a mysterious, shady past (below, left). He is the surgeon and forensic pathologist for the precinct who has bodies brought to his "dead" room for analysis.

This stuff is so interesting, so I decided to look further into forensics in the 18th Century. The word itself is derived from the Latin word "forensis" meaning "before the forum". These scientific methods of examination were gathered in order to solve questions, thereby helping the legal system to find the truth.

Though forensics go back to ancient China, the 18th Century saw much progress in Europe. In 1775, a German, Karl Wilhelm Scheele, discovered he could change arsenious oxide into arsenious acid, which in contact with zinc reveals arsine. This played a great part in the forensic detection of arsenic poisoning.

One of the first recorded applications of forensics came with a legal case in 1784 in England, when a torn piece of paper recovered from a bullet wound in a victim's head matched another piece of paper from John Tom's pocket. Tom was the assailant, found and later convicted!

In 1800, Thomas Bewick, English naturalist, used engravings of his own finger prints to identify books he published.

Of course, the interest in all of this scientific evidence gathering was done without benefit of the germ-free, hermetically-sealed environment in which they take place today. But, all in all, the beginnings of this very important science made great strides in the 1700's. Imagine if there had been the technology to apprehend the Ripper?

And by the way, though we have these technologies toady, we still sometimes are looking for a needle in the haystack. Just as we endured another terrorist attack (or so it seems) yesterday in Boston, it will not be an easy task to find the perpetrators. The police are even asking the public this day for their photos, videos, etc in order to check out the surrounds. Amazing!


No comments:

Post a Comment