Great Moments in Forensics History
Or, This DNA stuff ain't making things any easier for us criminals, y'know
Criminal forensics (as opposed to regular forensics, which deals with speech and debate, and so also trades in lethality) has been a developing science for over two millenia, creating not only more things for law enforcement types to do at work, but a more intelligent brand of criminal as well. I don't know if you've ever tried to plot the perfect crime, but it seems like a good first step is to go back in time. You want to do so much as knock over a bank these days, you've really got to plan ahead, and collect all those bits of your hair, skin, and fingernails you dropped on the way in.
Of course, as long as there has been crime, there's been someone trying to figure out how to stop it. Here's a chronological list of what the traps have come up with over the last two thousand years. It starts, and goes on for quite a while, with those annoying little giveaways, the fingerprints:
- The Years BCE (That non-Christian talk for 'Before the Common Era'): People found fingerprints left on rock paintings and carvings by prehistoric folks. Were left in place when prehistoric thieves discovered they could not steal the walls.
- 2nd Century ACE (Guess): the Roman attorney Quintillian proves in court that a handprint made in blood was used to frame a blind man of matricide. If it doesn't fit...
- 1248: A Chinese book called The Washing Away of Wrongs describes how to tell drowning from strangulation. Turns out there's more to it than the drowning victim just being wet. It's the first application of medical knowledge to detective work, but the title suggests it may have been written by the criminal, doesn't it?
- 1784: Physical matching was used for the first time when John Toms, Englishman, neglected to get rid of the newspaper he had on him whilst committing a murder. They found a corner of it on the pistol he used.
- 1813: The Spaniard Mathiew Orfila, professor of medicinal and forensic chemistry at the University of Paris, releases Traites de Poisons Tires des Regnes Mineral, Vegetal, et Animal, ou Toxicologie General I . Great things, these Romance languages. That pretty much translates itself. The good professor is also credited with being the first to set a microscope to the analysis of blood and that other tell-all bodily fluid, semen.
- 1880: Henry Faulds, Scotsman, uses fingerprints to eliminate an innocent suspect and point the finger at someone else. This was in Tokyo. What does Japanese sound like in a Scottish brogue?
- 1900: Big year. Basically the beginning of real bloodwork, when Karl Landsteiner develops methods for grouping and classifying the human blood groups. Criminals advised not to bleed when wounded.
- 1918: Edmond Locard comes up with the 12 points of a fingerprint by which to match. Glove stocks skyrocket.
- 1941: OK, now the future's coming. Murray Hill initiates voiceprint identification studies at Bell Labs. People begin to wonder if that isn't a little creepy.
- 1986: The first use of DNA evidence in a crime. An once again, it's England. Colin Pitchfork is convicted of murdering two girls in the Midlands. Pitchfork. The guy's name was Pitchfork.
- 1991: Get ballistics on this. The Integrated Ballistics Imaging System, IBIS, by Walsh Automation, takes a lot of guesswork out of shellcase and bullet matching.
Since then, it's mainly been improvements in software, storage, and image recognition software. There have been countless other developments throughout the history of the field, but that still doesn't change the fact that if someone takes your wallet, that's pretty much it.