LURID: Autopsy Moxie

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.


Death is the ultimate transformation, one we will all experience. It is final, complete, and comes in infinite colors.  Sometimes death is a whisper, a silent, subtle shift from one mode of existence to another.  Sometimes it’s a roar, a bloody explosion of consciousness and matter.  We all have a death coming to us, but until the moment occurs, we have no way of knowing if we will flatline peacefully on a white-sheeted hospital bed, or end as unrecognizable entrails smeared across the tarmac after a RTA. 

I touched my first dead body when I was seven years old and have been fascinated by corpses ever since.  Not fascinated enough to become an undertaker, or a career killer, so in the absence of contact with actual dead bodies, I - like so many other consumers of popular culture - need my fictional fix.

It’s easy to find.  Try as we might, our primal fascination with sudden death won’t fade.  As with any other repressed instinct, it manifests in our shared dreams – TV, movies and popular fiction.  There’s no more useful or more used plot device than the presence of a corpse.  Even if we don’t touch, we never tire of looking.

Perversely, because we shrink from physical contact with corpses ourselves, we lionize those who spend their working days gloved, scrubbed and elbow deep in the dead; the more authentic the descriptions, the more gruesome the fatalities, the higher these Bad Books rise on the bestseller lists. We demand veracity, need to know that the gory details are real.  Kay Scarpetta (created by Patricia Cornwell, technical writer and computer analyst for the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia), Temperance Brennan (created by Kathy Reichs, professor of anthropology), and Sir John de Wolfe (created by Home Office pathologist, Sir Bernard Knight) all come from authors who had successful careers in forensic fields before turning to fiction. Thanks to their dissections, both on and off the page, we know more about the dead than we ever did.

How did the pathologist, carving up (or piecing together) human remains on a mortuary slab, become our go-to gatekeeper, our Minister of Death, taking on the duties once performed by a priest?  Our questions about the afterlife now take second place to those about cause of death – as if by knowing what makes people take a dirt nap, we could avoid that fate ourselves.  Rather than treating death as sacred, we demand autopsy as entertainment, nightly, on prime time TV or in airport paperbacks.  We’re armchair pathologists, overly familiar with the Y-incision, estimating time of death through liver temperature, extracting and weighing internal organs, and the use of a bone saw and chisel to pry the skull cap off:  Death demystified with every kind of indignity.  If the representation of death is unrealistic, we know.  That’s how we like it in 2012, but it’s not always been this way.

It’s taken almost two centuries for death to move its dominion from the temple to the lab.  The shift has occurred through a confluence of medico-legal advances, fictional trends, and that perpetual nexus of the two, tabloid journalism.  Once, violent death was cause for confusion and fear.  The only way to identify an unknown corpse was to stick the head on a pike in a marketplace, in the hope someone would recognize it before it fell to pieces.  The only way to convict a killer was via his or her confession.  The only remedy the living could offer the victim was prayer.  Now, forensic science provides us with both understanding and restitution in cases of violent death.

 Once, violent death was cause for confusion and fear.  The only way to identify an unknown corpse was to stick the head on a pike in a marketplace, in the hope someone would recognize it before it fell to pieces.  The only way to convict a killer was via his or her confession.  The only remedy the living could offer the victim was prayer.  Now, forensic science provides us with both understanding and restitution in cases of violent death.

“The slightest clue”

Edgar Allan Poe triggered the shift by inventing the forensic detective in his short story, The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1841).  His hero, C. Auguste Dupin, is unfazed by carnage, even when it involves one mutilated female corpse stuffed up a chimney, and another, decapitated, in the yard.  He sees past the bloodshed of the crime scene and conducts a thorough analysis of the evidence, reconstructing events via Occam’s Razor.  His deductive breakthrough comes from a “tuft of tawny hair” disentangled “from the rigidly clutched fingers” of one of the victims, and he is able to identify the killer, and explain how the women died.  His calm powers of reasoning remove any trace of horror from the tragedy.  He reclaims the deaths of the L’Espanaye women as an unfortunate event, rather than the rampage of a madman. 

In 1841, this was revolutionary.  It was decades before police forces – led by the French, in Paris, making Poe very prescient – adopted the systematic analysis of crime scene evidence, and started developing the investigation techniques (fingerprinting, blood grouping) familiar today.  Dupin also offers emotional comfort to those who’ve been traumatized by the murder, more than any priest could hope to do.  A logical explanation of the violent deaths as a one-off accident means that terror over, the citizens of Paris can go about their day – the ministry of Dupin is much more effective than any reassuring homily from the pulpit.

“You know my methods. Apply them.”

The trend towards science as succor continued with Sherlock Holmes.  In the late 1870s, Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student at Edinburgh University, fascinated by the deductive thought processes of one of his professors, Dr. Joseph Bell.  Bell impressed his students with his “almost uncanny gift of diagnosing not only disease but occupation and even character from a patient’s appearance”[1], and by telling them that his deductive processes were “really quite elementary.”  A few years later, when Conan Doyle’s medical practice was slow and he turned to writing detective stories, he drew on his memories of Bell. 

Sherlock Holmes is a much more flawed and complex creation than Dupin, and much more recognizably rooted within a scientific tradition.  Readers are drawn to Holmes because of his quirks; his eccentricities involving hoarding and tobacco consumption, the supernatural aura that surrounds some of his exploits, to the ongoing questions about his mental health (was he manic depressive? Did he have Asperger’s syndrome?).  Nonetheless, he wields the same kind of authority over death, thanks to his faith in detection as “an exact science”.  Holmes, who we first meet working in a chemical laboratory at a hospital, is well versed in forensic techniques of the 1880s and 1890s (trace evidence, fingerprints, bullet comparison, toxicology, phrenology) and subjects the corpses that cross his path to close scrutiny. Even the most baffling murder holds no mystery for him, and he can be relied on, every time, to use science to unravel the intricacies of the crime and bring the perpetrator to justice.  In 2002, the Royal Society of Chemistry made him an Honorary Fellow, acknowledging him as “a great man who selflessly pursued bad people on behalf of the good, using science, courage and crystal clear thought processes to achieve his goals.”  He’s the only fictional character ever to receive this accolade.

“I had no idea that such individuals exist outside of stories”

Any kind of ongoing good vs. evil narrative needs this kind of knight in shining armor.  In the pitched battle between Crime and Civilization, the public likes to believe there are real-life Holmeses out there, ready to ride to the rescue.  And, in October 1910, such a man strode into view across the Old Bailey steps.  Tall, handsome, articulate, patrician, pathologist Bernard Spilsbury was about to redefine the term “expert witness”, and usher in a new era of the forensic scientist as pop culture icon.

Born in Leamington Spa (the Spilsbury house was just under a mile from the Crowley residence – their infamous son was born two years earlier), educated at Oxford, Spilsbury never qualified as a general medical practitioner and focused from the beginning of his career on pathology.  He spent over a decade laboring in the mortuary at St. Mary’s Hospital in London before stepping into the limelight as a witness for the Crown.

In the dock for this first case was American dentist Hawley Harvey Crippen, accused of murdering his wife, failed musical hall singer Belle Elmore, and burying her remains in a North London cellar.  After Scotland Yard started asking questions about Belle’s whereabouts, Crippen fled to the US on board the S.S. Montrose accompanied by his mistress, Ethel LeNeve, who disguised herself in boys’ clothing.  They earned the dubious distinction of being the first criminals ever to be arrested by telegram.  When Captain Henry Kendall radioed his suspicions back to England that a “Mr. Robinson and Son” fitted the description of the fugitive couple, Chief Inspector Dew hopped on a faster vessel and was waiting for the Montrose when it docked in Quebec.

This trans-Atlantic chase was catnip to Fleet Street and the tabloid press in the USA and Canada, and their reports fuelled a frenzy of public interest in the trial.  Although Crippen had fled, the case against him was by no means open-and-shut.  All the prosecution had were the soupy remains of the human torso from Crippen’s cellar (basically a few flaps of skin, half-dissolved flesh, and a few tufts of hair); no bones, no head, no genitalia.  It was going to be hard work to prove that this was all that was left of the missing Belle.

Like Dupin before him, all Spilsbury needed was a tuft of hair.  When his turn came to take the stand, he testified that one of the flaps of skin came from Belle’s pubic area, and showed markings consistent with her hysterectomy scar.  He had a microscope brought into the court and showed the thrilled jury members how the hair follicles and sebaceous glands couldn’t have come from any other part of the body.  This grand gesture, along with his good looks, his clear, authoritative voice, and his absolute self-confidence made him an instant tabloid favorite.  Newspaper reporters dubbed him “the People’s Pathologist” and the “real life Sherlock Holmes”.  A star was born.

Crippen, of course, didn’t stand a chance and was sent to the gallows that November.  His conviction marked the end of an era when British juries were largely skeptical of scientific evidence and heralded in a new age of deferment to experts – especially the expert, Spilsbury, who chimed absolutely with the reading public’s idea of what a forensic detective should be.  Spilsbury furthered his reputation with another headline-grabbing case in 1915.  

Brides In The Bath

The police knew that three of George Joseph Smith’s wives drowned in their bathtubs in identical circumstances between 1910 and 1913, and that Smith benefited financially from their deaths. Unfortunately, none of the bodies showed any trace of a struggle; there was no evidence to show that anyone else had been in the room when death occurred.  At that time under British law, Smith could only be tried for one murder, and evidence from the others could not be admitted into court.  Individually, each case looked like a tragic accident.  It was only when the pattern emerged that Smith’s guilt became obvious.  It looked like he might walk free. 

Enter Spilsbury, who, in true Holmesian tradition, had the bathtubs in which the women died brought to Kentish Town police station and spent weeks testing different scenarios.  He finally hit on the idea that a sudden rush of water into the nose would inhibit the vagus nerve and cause loss of consciousness – the victim would drown without a struggle.  Spilsbury was then able to deduce Smith’s technique.  His courtroom appearance was certainly dramatic.  With the actual bathtub beside him, Spilsbury demonstrated how the kneeling Smith was able to push his bride suddenly back and down into the water, causing an instant blackout, drowning, and the kind of muscular spasm that explained why the victim was found with a piece of soap still clutched in her dead hand.

Smith, like Crippen, was convicted outright, and Spilsbury became the undisputed authority on cause of death.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he lived up to his reputation as the real life Sherlock Holmes by bringing clarity and reason to a plethora of messy murders, making sense of senseless acts and bringing justice for the dead and their relatives.  Fellow pathologist Keith Simpson described him as showing

…an aptitude for seeing criminal investigations with the eye of the police, meticulous for detail, a patient investigator with a logical mind for deduction and a gift for picking out the important factors in a case… he was undoubtedly the authority in his subject and an unchallenged expert of the greatest integrity, pretty well unchallengeable.  Tall and good-looking, courteous, a lucid but firm witness using as few words as were necessary, he had for twenty years been head and shoulders above anyone in the country in this branch of pathology.  His services were called for, and promptly given, in any important crime anywhere in England.[2]

He was a popular public figure, and interest in his activities meant he was followed around by reporters and paparazzi.  Unlike his Victorian predecessors, he felt that his duties were not confined to laboratory work, and he attended crime scenes in person, no matter how muddy, wet, cold or foul-smelling the location.  He was outraged by the way evidence could be destroyed by the clumsiness of the local plod, and helped develop many of the crime scene procedures that are still with us today.

Like Holmes, he wasn’t infallible, although he believed he was, and there were a number of occasions when he crossed swords with his colleagues, most notably with Sydney Smith over the case of Sidney Fox, tried in 1930 for the murder of his mother by asphyxiation.  Spilsbury’s reputation went before him, and juries believed him over any other witness, much to the chagrin of other forensic experts.  Not only did he have the power to elucidate causes of death, he also wielded the actual power of life and death over the suspect in the dock: his testimony sent many men to their deaths, as surely as if he had fitted the noose and pulled the trapdoor lever himself. 

By the 1940s, Spilsbury found his once-superlative faculties failing.  Beset by arthritis, strokes, and devastated by the deaths of close family members, he also feared the onset of dementia.  Unlike Holmes, he couldn’t countenance a peaceful retirement keeping bees in Sussex.  Methodical to the end, he gassed himself in his laboratory in December 1947.

Although he defined public perception of forensic science for the first half of the twentieth century, Spilsbury left no autobiography or textbook.  Nonetheless, he cast a long shadow across the memoirs of his contemporaries, two of which are must-reads for anyone interested in the genesis of modern forensic science and its place in popular culture, or those who are fond of lurid true crime compendiums.   

Mostly Murder

Sir Sydney Smith was a New Zealander who did his medical training in Edinburgh and, like Arthur Conan Doyle before him, witnessed Dr. Joseph Bell’s deductive powers first hand.  Unlike Spilsbury, Smith was a man of Empire, a global traveler, and his entertaining autobiography, Mostly Murder, incorporates accounts of colonial as well as Scottish and English jurisprudence.  Smith took the lessons of Dr. Bell to Egypt in 1917, overseeing forensic investigation for the Parquet, a branch of the Ministry of Justice.  He was employed by the British protectorate through the years of revolution (dealing with the victims of terrorist activity), and had the honor of being re-employed by the Egyptians after independence, retaining their trust “perhaps because they had the idea that New Zealand was another country under the iron heel of England.”  He wrote the first textbook on forensic medicine in Arabic, published in 1924, followed by an English edition a year later.  After eleven years in Egypt he returned to Edinburgh University to take the Regius Chair of Forensic Medicine, and was often called on as an expert witness in English and Scottish trials, and sparred with Spilsbury on a number of occasions.  Although he had just as keen and analytical a mind as Spilsbury, he never quite achieved the public recognition of his rival (he was overseas when Spilsbury was establishing himself center stage at the Old Bailey), but he was widely respected by those in his profession as a “a brilliant and colorful teacher” with “tolerance of the human nature and pathos of crime and killing”.[3]

Forty Years of Murder

One of Smith’s protégés, Sir Keith Simpson, was a rising star just about the same time as Spilsbury was fading.  His autobiography, Forty Years of Murder, is witty, insightful, and, as well as illuminating notorious British murder cases from the 1930s to the 1970s, provides plenty of revelations about the kind of doctors who prefer their patients to remain silent and be incapable of bleeding.  Although Simpson was aware of Spilsbury’s strengths (see above), he wastes no opportunity to snipe at the great man.  He relishes the anecdote about the Southwark Coroner, Douglas Cowburn, who

“…had once paid Spilsbury a single post-mortem fee for examining conjoined twins! Spilsbury fumed. There were two bodies and he’d examined both, but Cowburn was adamant.”

In his opening chapter, Simpson ponders what might attract a young doctor “to take up the study of the diseased, mutilated, sometimes even dismembered dead, whose bodies seem to come to light in such odd hours and in such queer places?”  He dismisses the care of the living as dull and predictable in comparison, lacking

“…the inconvenience of calls to derelict premises, dells in Epping Forest, ponds, prostitutes’ bedrooms, at all hours; of sudden challenge, hard duels with lawyers, pompous old judges, and obtuse juries…”

Simpson demonstrates a clear sense of what the public find fascinating about his job – and what would come, forty years later, to drive countless episodes of primetime TV.   His memoir also has many introspective moments, and Simpson has an eye for the unique details only a pathologist invading the privacy of the grave might legitimately see.  During one 5.30am exhumation, he notices “a whitish mold hung down in stalactites from the inside of the coffin lid.  The shroud was overgrown with the same mould, but the bodies were clearly outlined underneath.”  Amid the courtroom bombast and ballistic comparisons there are plenty of chilling touches.  It’s a cracking read.

Modern forensic investigation is compartmentalized, even fragmentary.  There are no interdisciplinary Holmeses deducting on a dime.  Instead, teams of specialists labor in laboratories, physically remote from one another, dealing with backed-up requests for DNA analysis, fingerprints that don’t match, bullets from guns that are never found.  The cool-headed geniuses on the page and screen, our modern Ministers of Death, are throwbacks to the era of Spilsbury, Simpson and Smith, who played up to the perception that they should act like Sherlock Holmes, who was based on forensic professor, Dr. Joseph Bell, who made his name teaching the logical analysis dreamed up by Poe.

Life, Art and Death.  Funny how that goes.


[1] p. 29 Mostly Murder (Dorset Press, 1959) – Sir Sydney Smith

[2] p.29 Forty Years of Murder – Sir Keith Simpson

[3] p. 28, Ibid

Photo via KDMC

Image of Mostly Murder
Author: Sydney Smith
Price: $23.96
Publisher: Hippocrene Books (1989)
Binding: Hardcover, 352 pages
Image of Forty Years of Murder
Author: PROF. KEITH SIMPSON
Price:
Publisher: HARPER COLLINS (2008)
Binding: Paperback, pages
Karina Wilson

Column by Karina Wilson

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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