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Science as a Way to Understand Crime :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

Science as a Way to Understand Crime

The belief that science could help track criminals emerged in the Victorian era and led to the detective becoming a powerful source of knowledge.  Before the 19th century, courts could not accurately pinpoint the perpetrators of crime.  In the case of Martin Guerre, the courts relied heavily on “tests of memory, evaluations of dialect, and the confused and divided recollections of eyewitnesses” in order to determine whether the individual calling himself Guerre was actually an impostor (Cole 6).  Identifying criminals was difficult and often led to misaccusations or crimes that were never solved.  The problem of identification posed a serious threat to social stability, because many people were able to get away with the crimes they committed.  Industrialization and urbanization contributed to this growing problem as populations of cities grew dramatically and “the informal system of personal acquaintance and collective memory began to collapse” (Cole 8).  An influx of immigrants and increased social mobility concerned jurists who were responsible for identifying increasing numbers of people who passed through their criminal justice systems (Cole 13).  The need for identification increased demand for more reliable, scientific methods of detection.

The British were the first to move towards solving the indexing problem, which was the issue of tracking criminals especially those who were repeat offenders.  Photography emerged as “a means of communicating a representation of the human body” (Cole 20).  Police found photographs especially helpful, because previously they had to rely on rough sketches or written descriptions to identify criminals.  British statistician Francis Galton later developed a technique called “composite photography,” which isolated the criminal physiognomy, or study of facial features.  After layering multiple exposures of a group of criminals, the resulting “composite” image revealed “the physiognomic attributes common to that set of criminals, thus allowing authorities and researchers to ‘see’ the criminal type” (Cole 24).  Authorities believed that a set of common features were distinct to the criminal types.  Simon A. Cole declares, “The era of photographic identification coincided with the rise of ‘criminal anthropology,’ the earliest fully articulated attempt to turn the study of the criminal into a ‘scientific’ discipline, complete with theories, skills, and methodologies, and the prototype for the field of criminology” (23).  People recognized the advantages that scientific detection offered, especially with regard to identifying the increasing number of criminals in London.

Later, in the 1870’s, the British created the Distinctive Marks Register, which was the first criminal identification register indexed according to the criminal body itself, and not according to names (Cole 27).  Although this register underwent many changes over the years, Cole asserts, “the very fact that the British instituted a scheme as labor-intensive as the Register of Distinctive Marks signaled their desperate need for any kind of identification system” (Cole 29).  The British government and its police forces recognized that criminal behavior would continue to spiral out of control if no measures were taken to identify criminals and put them behind bars.

Our reliance on basic scientific techniques surfaced around the same time as detective fiction in the Victorian era (Delamater and Prigozy 1).  According to Ronald Thomas, “the systematic medicalization of crime in criminological discourse […] corresponded to the literary detective’s development into a kind of master diagnostician, an expert capable of reading the symptoms of criminal pathology in the individual body and the social body as well” (3).  Society began to view the literary and scientific detective as a source of intellectual and social power (Priestman 46).  In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. Mortimer describes the scene where Sir Charles Baskerville mysteriously dies.  Detective Sherlock Holmes asks a series of about twenty questions after which he declares, “It is evidently a case of extraordinary interest, and one which presented immense opportunities to the scientific expert” (Doyle 795).  Characteristics of the scene, such as the setting, Sir Charles’s body, and the ground upon which he lay, could all be interpreted through scientific examination.  Although police could exercise physical force in controlling crime, detectives were able to give the public something new: reason and scientific proof behind the crimes that they found so fascinating.

The late Victorian period was characterized by an intellectual climate obsessed with scientific rationalism.  Men of science, such as Dr. Mortimer, wanted to maintain their reliance on the absolute truth and empirical data.  After presenting the “private facts” of the case to Holmes, Dr. Mortimer admits, “my motive for withholding it from the coroner’s inquiry is that a man of science shrinks from placing himself in the public position of seeming to indorse a popular superstition” (Doyle 792).  Using science as a means to solve crime was a delicate task, due to the public’s increasing fascination with crime and their desire to know all of the gory details.  Dr. Watson continuously attempts to show Holmes’s “complete dedication to the scientific and rational pursuit of crime, his total indifference to anything that did not serve that end, and his rejection of any emotion that might hinder his objectives” (Paul 53).  In Chapter IV, Sir Henry Baskerville presents a cryptic letter to Holmes, who not only recognizes that the pasted words are from the Times, but from a specific article within the newspaper.  Upon this revelation, Dr. Mortimer exclaims, “I could understand anyone saying that the words were from a newspaper; but that you should name which, and add that it came from the leading article, is really one of the most remarkable things which I have ever known” (Doyle 803).  Nonchalantly, Holmes replies, “The detection of types is one of the most elementary branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime” (Doyle 803).  From his deductions, Holmes identifies the composer and his intentions, where the words came from, how the words were cut out of the paper, and how the message was pasted.  Readers, and even other detectives, marveled at how Holmes was able to deduce so much from so little.

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