AN ELEMENTARY INVESTIGATION
Jeff wins 4th Sigerson
(Minneapolis, 12/2/2021) -- For the fourth year in a row, Jeff Falkingham has earned a coveted Sigerson Award (for creative writing) from the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota. His latest prize-winning essay appears below.
Holmes & the Birth of American CSI
“There was something about the sharp angles of his face that made him magnetic … a confidence in his eyes as he cleaned a revolver … the way he squinted as he adjusted the focus knob on his favorite microscope … the way his teeth gripped the bit of a straight-stemmed pipe as a small stream of smoke billowed from its bowl … the way his forehead wrinkled as he hunched over evidence …”
Do you recognize these as the words of Dr. John Watson, describing Sherlock Holmes, in one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about his Great Detective?
Sorry, but you would be wrong.
Actually, they are the words of another writer, perusing old photographs of Edward Oscar Heinrich.
“WHO?” you might ask. Exactly. According to author Kate Winsler Dawson, E. O. Heinrich is “the most famous criminalist you’ve likely never heard of.” Dawson may rectify that situation with her book, American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI (Putnam, 2020).
The son of German immigrants, Oscar Heinrich was born in Wisconsin in 1881 and died in California in 1953. In between, he solved more than 2,000 cases in a 40-year career that led newspapers of the early 1920s (and beyond) to dub him “America’s Sherlock Holmes.”
As one of the past century’s earliest criminologists, Heinrich is credited with developing many of the crime scene investigation (CSI) methods still in use today. Prior to Heinrich, Dawson points out, police of the 1920s still used “archaic methods of crime fighting … depending on hunches and weak circumstantial evidence.” Through his innovative use of forensic science, she says, Oscar, in a nutshell, “changed how crimes are solved.”
Dawson’s book consists of 11 chapters, covering eight of Heinrich’s most famous cases (three of the cases take two chapters apiece to cover). Each chapter begins with a brief excerpt from Doyle’s Sherlockian Canon.
For example, take The Case of the Baker’s Handwriting, involving the 1921 kidnapping and eventual murder of a Catholic priest. The first of two chapters begins with this observation from Sherlock Holmes:
“There can be no question as to the authorship. See how the irrepressible Greek ‘e’ will break out, and see the twirl of the final ‘s’. They are undoubtedly by the same person.” The Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)
In the real-life crime story that follows, a 600-word ransom note, partially typed, partially handwritten, sparks a debate. One expert said the note was written by a military typist. A second said the block printing was that of a deranged or demented person. Oscar Heinrich suggested that the handwriting was that of someone who worked in a bakery, likely a cake decorator.
“Examine closely the concave uprights of the A and the H, the down curving crosses of the T, the square bottom of the U,” Heinrich said. “That’s the style bakers use in writing on cakes. Look at the frosted lettering on your next birthday cake.” Sure enough, it turns out that the kidnapper (and killer) was a master baker!
The Case of the Star’s Fingerprints, in which the prosecution’s evidence relied in great part on fingerprints that Heinrich found at the scene of the crime, opens with this excerpt from the Canon:
As he held the waxen print close to the bloodstain, it did not take a magnifying glass to see that the two were undoubtedly from the same thumb. It was evident to me that our unfortunate client was lost. “It is final,” said Holmes. The Case of the Norwood Builder, ACD (1903)
Of course, Sherlockians know that the thumbprint in NORW was a red herring—a wax reproduction, planted to lead our Great Detective astray. That makes it a bit of a stretch to link this lead-in with the chapter/story that follows; but most of the lead-ins are spot-on.
With many of Heinrich’s cases involving blood, blood spatter and blood pattern analysis, it should come as no surprise that excerpts from Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet precede four of the book’s chapters. Some of the Canonical excerpts are more generic than case specific (see below for Major cases). Examples of this include familiar Holmes quotes about excluding the impossible and theorizing before one has data.
Dawson, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, goes to great lengths to find parallels between Holmes and E.O. Heinrich. For example, away from work, they had similarly eclectic hobbies: Heinrich sang solos in his church choir, studied jujitsu, and kept a large flower garden; Holmes played the violin, studied baritsu, and raised bees. Oscar ended each evening with “a night-night pipe.” Sherlock … well, we’re all familiar with his smoking habits.
The author further notes that Heinrich had “his own personal LeStrade” as well as “his own Dr. Watson.” The former was a cop named August Vollmer, later known as “the father of modern policing.” The latter was reference librarian John Boynton Kaiser, an outstanding researcher and published author who served as Heinrich’s “sounding board, adviser and confidante” most of their lives.
It was Kaiser who supplied Heinrich with many of the books and pamphlets that lined the walls of his office. Their titles included Arsenic in Papers and Fabrics and Blood, Urine, Feces and Moisture: A Book of Tests, as well as texts on analytic geometry, applied mechanics, fingerprinting, powdered vegetable drugs, even a dictionary of slang used by criminals. (Compare these with the reference materials, many penned by Holmes himself, on the bookshelves at 221B Baker Street.)
Heinrich also had his Moriarty in Chauncey McGovern, an “expert witness” who offered opposing testimony in dozens of Heinrich’s court cases, and a Sebastian Moran in German pathologist Frederick Proescher, who took up the battle after McGovern was finally vanquished (and deceased).
Mrs. Hudson would be Marion Allen, a co-ed that Oscar Heinrich met in chemistry class at the University of California in Berkeley. They were married at her parents’ home in San Francisco after he graduated in 1908. She gave him two sons and was a devoted and supportive homemaker – though her husband often tried to shield her from the details of his more horrible cases, affectionately labeling her “the nervous-type.”
If there was such a thing as “the woman” in E.O Heinrich’s life, it would have been his mother, Albertine. She was his “moral compass” after his father, August, died of suicide. Responding to his mother’s shrieks upon finding her husband hanging from a beam in their backyard woodshed, it was 16-year-old Oscar who phoned the police, then climbed on a stool to cut the cord around his father’s neck. The memory of that moment would haunt him the rest of his life.
A career is born
Two years before his father’s death, his family’s financial struggles forced Oscar to drop out of school at the age of 14 and take a job as janitor and stock boy at a local drug store. That entry-level position turned out to be the foundation of his illustrious career.
Intrigued by the knowledge and skill of the local druggist, Oscar continued to study math and chemistry on his own. By the time he was 18, the self-trained student was able to pass the state pharmacy exam and begin a required one-year apprenticeship under a licensed pharmacist. In addition to learning how to decipher the scribbled medical prescriptions of physicians (excellent training in the field of handwriting analysis!), Oscar studied drugs, poisons, chemicals -- and human nature. “A drugstore is a veritable laboratory in human psychology,” he claimed.
By the time he was 23, the high school dropout got into a special program at Cal Berkeley as a chemical engineering student. He soon became a laboratory assistant, and eventually an instructor in physics and mechanics. He studied law, medicine, and sanitary engineering, with a focus on safe, potable water.
His Bachelor of Science degree led to a position as city chemist, where he began working with the coroner and police on deaths involving chemicals. He soon opened his own lab, where he began studying fingerprinting, geology, and botany, then ballistics and trajectory. Eventually, he and Vollmer started a “cop college” where Oscar designed and taught classes in chemical jurisprudence, judicial photography, applied optics, handwriting analysis, the use of physics and chemistry as evidence in court -- and the study of human behavior.
With the encouragement of Vollmer, who was an early advocate for police reform, Heinrich helped detectives develop their powers of perception, memory and (shades of Sherlock!) deductive reasoning – which Heinrich called “ratiocination.”
“NOT Sherlock Holmes!”
Though initially flattered by comparisons to The Great Detective, Oscar grew to resent them.
“Not Sherlock Holmes,” he bristled to one reporter. “Holmes acted on hunches. And hunches play no part in my crime laboratory.” Oscar disliked the media and (again, shades of Sherlock?) treated them as a tool rather than an ally.
Still, his approach to solving crimes echoed that of the fictional Holmes in many ways. Both men were familiar with the work of French criminologist Edmond Locard. Locard’s Principle on contact trace evidence holds that “the perpetrator of a crime will bring something into a crime scene and leave with something from it,” and further, that “both can be used as forensic evidence.”
Consider this Heinrich quote from Dawson’s chapter on The Case of the Great Train Heist:
“Every individual, especially a man, accumulates dust and dirt typical of his occupation, at various points about his clothing, particularly the pockets. Careful research of a suit of clothes will almost invariably reveal head and body hair.”
Compare that with this Holmes quote, from STUD:
“By a man’s fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed.”
Both Holmes and Heinrich also recognized the importance of negative evidence – that is, something that is conspicuously missing, or did not occur, at the scene of a crime.
Sherlockians are familiar with “the curious incident of the dog in the night” from The Adventure of Silver Blaze. In The Case of the Calculating Chemist, Heinrich noted two things that seemed odd. First, the lack of chemical equipment in the victim’s “laboratory” led Oscar to believe that the chemist was a fraud, a con-man involved in a Ponzi scheme to dupe his investors. Second, the fact that there was NO evidence of a well-documented “final meal” in the victim’s stomach led Oscar to another startling conclusion (a twist to the story that I will not spoil by revealing here).
One of Oscar Heinrich’s most famous (and frustrating) cases involved silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. In 1921, a 26-year-old Hollywood actress named Virginia Rappe died (of “alcohol poisoning”) in Arbuckle’s hotel room. The actor/comedian was eventually accused of assaulting the starlet and crushing her to death under his 266-pound body.
Key to the prosecution’s case were two latent handprints that Oscar Heinrich discovered above the doorknob in Arbuckle’s room. The prints, a man’s over a woman’s, were elongated, as if dragged. The prosecution said it showed signs of a struggle, with the man attempting to keep the woman from leaving the room. Oscar went to court with 10 enlarged photos, explaining in great detail how the arches, loops and whorls proved that the fingerprints belonged to the victim, and to the actor.
In the case of the murdered priest, in addition to his handwriting, evidence that Oscar filed against the master baker included grains of sand found on his pocketknife, his hat and his tent. Using enlarged photographs taken through a high-intensity microscope, Oscar testified that their color, texture, size and grain showed that the tiny sand particles all came from the same rock – a rock on the beach where the body had been buried.
The Case of Bessie Ferguson’s Ear began with the discovery of just the ear of a young woman. Eventually, bits and pieces of her body were found at several other locations. Oscar used fly larvae in the fatty tissue of her severed ear to determine time of death. A petrographic microscope helped him examine debris (clamshells, backwater, soil, sand, etc.) on the scattered body parts and bits of clothing. That led him to a geological survey that pinpointed where the body had been hidden before it was severed. Only after it was all put together were detectives finally able to identify the victim—and eventually her killer.
In the case of the train heist, three men tried to rob a train carrying half a million in gold through the Siskiyou Mountains on the Oregon/California border. Though they got away with nothing, they killed four people in the process. Evidence found nearby included a discarded pair of denim overalls. A “grease” stain on the breast of the overalls led detectives to suspect the mechanic at a nearby auto repair shop. Oscar determined that the stain was, in fact, resin from a Douglas fir tree.
Closer examination of the overalls gave Oscar several more clues. In the pockets and cuffs, he found earth and botanical debris, specific to western Oregon. On a suspender buckle, he found light brown hairs. He also used the adjustable suspenders to determine the height and weight of the suspect. The way that the pant legs were turned up at the bottom to make room for logging boots completed the profile. Oscar told detectives to look for a brown-haired white male lumberjack, under 5-10 and less than 165 pounds. Bingo! A search of nearby fir logging camps led them to 23-year-old twins and their 19-year-old brother. All eventually pleaded guilty to first degree murder and were given life sentences.
From failure to success
Not all of Heinrich’s crime scene investigations produced the results he sought. In the Arbuckle case, many jurors were not swayed by Oscar’s huge handprint photos. After deadlocked juries resulted in two mistrials, the actor was acquitted on his third try. The Case of Allene Lamson’s Bath, in which Oscar’s testimony focused on blood pattern analysis (BPA), first went to jury in 1933. It was finally dismissed in 1936, after four mistrials for hung juries. “What jurists do not easily understand, they reject,” a frustrated Oscar later explained.
Oscar’s problem was two-fold. First, Dawson points out, forensic science itself was far from accepted in court. Many of the methods that Heinrich employed were brand new to the public. An innovator of criminal profiling, he also was among the first to use a polygraph (lie detector test), an ultraviolet light to reveal blood and blood spatter patterns, high-intensity petrographic microscopes, plus many other new investigative methods and technological advances. All were initially greeted with much skepticism (some rightly so, Dawson adds).
Secondly, Dawson explains, Oscar often “touted his scientific degree at the expense of clarity,” giving far too complex, technical, exhaustive explanations that went over the heads of jurors. It was during a murder by gunshot case that his “Watson” (Kaiser) convinced Heinrich that rather than trying to EXPLAIN science to the jury, it is better to simply SHOW them. So, Oscar did just that. A side-by-side comparison microscope (“one of the greatest contributions to the development of firearms identification”) just recently invented by chemist Philip Gravelle let him SHOW the jury how the strafing marks on two bullets were identical. It was an epiphany that made the rest of his career much more successful.
Though Dawson doesn’t mention this, I couldn’t help thinking that, in this sense, Heinrich’s career paralleled the career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After all, Doyle’s Sherlockian fandom didn’t really take off until the author ditched lengthy, complex novels in favor of simple short stories that were much more palatable to his audience.
Despite what appears to be a bit of poetic license with some of the Sherlockian similarities, Dawson’s book is labeled “nonfiction.” Indeed, the 325-page paperback includes 35 pages of Notes (nearly 600 in all) citing the source of virtually every detail of her text. In addition to being a savvy storyteller, she’s clearly a very thorough and meticulous researcher! Her investigation in this case was aided by the fact that Heinrich was, in Dawson’s words, “a productive hoarder,” whose hundreds of cartons of evidence files were donated to U Cal Berkeley.
After months of sorting through thousands of pieces of evidence, Dawson finally came to the conclusion that E. O. Heinrich “most likely had an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.” She notes that people who suffer from OCPD have “a preoccupation with perfectionism, control, order—a neat life,” and further, that “because their rigidity can manifest itself in righteousness,” their “personal relationships often suffer.”
Yet another similarity between Oscar Heinrich and Sherlock Holmes, eh, Watson?
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NOTE: If you enjoyed this article, you can read Jeff's three earlier award-winning essays -- plus 10 more! -- in Focusing the Lens on Doyle and Holmes. This anthology is available in eBook form for just $2.99, or a photo-packed paperback for $6.99!
For your copy of Focusing the Lens, click HERE