CSI 1881: The Birth of Forensics

In 19th century France, one medical researcher learned to read the stories told by stab wounds, bullets, and even human excrement.

By Douglas Starr
Feb 28, 2011 11:00 AMApr 18, 2023 6:19 PM
Forensic science words typed on a vintage typewriter. Close up


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This is an excerpt from the new book The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, by Douglas Starr.

When Alexandre Lacassagne arrived at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Lyon in 1881, he set about bringing the study of forensics into the modern era. It would be a new kind of practice, based on practical training, extensive research and translating that research into standardized procedures. It did not carry the glory of Pasteur’s discoveries or the history-changing paradigms of Darwin’s. Perhaps for those reasons his name is forgotten. But in terms of human benefits—villains brought to justice, innocent people freed, the overall civilizing affect on society—the impact of Lacassagne’s work was immense.

Lacassagne believed medical students' education was overly theoretical and lecture-based; he felt that what students really needed was practical experience. Under his tutelage, students assisted in eighty or more criminal autopsies every year. Each session followed a rigid protocol. Lacassagne or his lab chief would start by describing the known facts of the case—where and when the body was found, whether authorities suspected foul play and what they assumed to be the cause of death. Then he would distribute “observation pages”—charts that laid out the procedures they planned to employ. Designed as a kind of flow sheet, these pages would proscribe the steps that Lacassagne, his lab chief and students would follow in investigating each possible cause of death, with a series of observations to check off along the way. Each series of observations would lead to the next... and so on, until they arrived at a conclusion.

To do such exacting work required a well-equipped facility, and Lacassagne created one of the world’s most advanced criminal laboratories. The ground floor housed a modern amphitheater for dissections, with a rotating table in the center and semi-circular galleries that could hold up to 100 observers. An elevator brought corpses up from the basement and lowered the remains after the dissections. Adjacent to the operating theater was a laboratory containing microscopes and spectroscopic equipment.

To assist in an autopsy with Dr. Lacassagne was to participate in a memorable educational experience. Medical students would have seen hospital autopsies before, but forensic dissections were something quite different. Here they saw tableaus of violent death, displayed in a medium of shredded tissue and broken bone. Death leaves a signature, and they would learn to read the meaning: a peaceful death versus a violent one; a death by accident, suicide or crime.They would learn to determine whether the baby had been still-born or had lived long enough to take its first breath, by removing the lungs and seeing if they floated. They would learn that a frothy liquid in the airways indicated drowning; that a furrow around the neck pointed to a rope-hanging; that break-points in opposite sides of the larynx showed that the victim had been strangled with two hands. They would use the angle of a stab wound to determine the trajectory of the arm that held the knife, and the pathway of a bullet to deduce the location of the gun. They would employ chemical reagents to identify stains from blood, semen, fecal matter and rust (often mistaken for blood).“The students all flocked to him,” remembered Dr. Edmond Locard, a student who himself became a prominent criminologist. And so, several times a month for the thirty-three years that Dr. Lacassagne taught at the medical faculty of Lyon, students would cluster around their beloved professor who, with no mask on his face and no gloves on his hands, would slice into a cadaver to reveal the mysteries of the last moments of the deceased.

Upstairs from the laboratory was a large criminal museum that served as a reference base. There, students, colleagues and magistrates could wander among the exhibit cases and study the variety of natural, accidental and purposeful deaths, to inform their own investigations. One display case, for example, held everything related to fetuses and newborns: embryonic skeletons, bones with fractures typical of infanticide, instruments used for illegal abortions, and the heads of infants at several stages of development. Enormous glass cylinders held bodies of still-born infants, suspended in clear liquid as though in an eternal womb. Two glass cases were devoted to skulls and their fractures—broken from accidental deaths, suicides and crimes, including falls from high places, hammer blows and bullets. One cabinet contained projectiles and cartridges of every known firearm. One cabinet was stocked with vials of poisons, drawers filled with microscopic preparations of human and animal hair, and fabrics stained with blood, sperm and pus. There was a collection of various ropes and chords used in hangings and Lacassagne’s collection of 4,000 tattoos.

Next page: stabbing and shooting cadavers in the name of science

The largest and most important collection exhibited body parts collected from crime scenes—some conserved in alcohol or dried, others rendered in plaster reproductions, photographs or anatomical sketches. “One finds there wounds created by instruments sharp and blunt, wounds of all sorts: of the skin, heart, lungs, head, liver, kidneys,” according to an article in the Archives of Criminal Anthropology. The most useful part of this exhibit was one in which various weapons were placed alongside organs with the wounds they created. “Weapons” was quite a broad category, including revolvers, pistols, pocket knives, swords, hammers, shovels, hatchets, and other improvised implements of destruction. With cause and effect visually reunited, medical examiners could work backwards from a cadaver to the weapon that might have caused the damage.

All these resources gave Lacassagne the opportunity to expand the study of forensic medicine beyond the realm of ordinary investigations. He helped create a field called medical archeology, in which he used the tools of modern forensics to explore the lives and deaths of historic characters. In one study, he and a colleague recreated the 1793 assassination of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, who was stabbed by Charlotte Corday as he soaked in his bathtub. There had always been questions about the nature of the fatal wound. In order to re-create those final moments, Lacassagne and a colleague obtained a cadaver the same size and build as Marat, positioned it as he had been in his tub and stabbed it several times with a table knife at the same angle as recorded by the original physician. When they autopsied the cadaver they found that Corday, educated in a convent with no history of violence, had struck an exceedingly precise and lucky blow. (Indeed, it took Lacassagne and his colleagues several strikes to duplicate it.) The blade of her knife had slipped between Marat’s first and second ribs, a space no wider that a twentieth of an inch, clipped the aorta, passed under the pulmonary artery and entered the left atrium of the heart. If she held the knife at any other angle or rotation, the ribs or sternum would have deflected it.

How Bullets Tell the Tale

The third part of Laccasagne’s mission, after teaching and research, involved developing reliable and standard methodologies that ordinary doctors could use. Whenever possible he would bring evidence from a crime scene back to the lab, engage his students in investigating the larger issue that case represented, and tabulate the results in a way that would add to the arsenal of medical expertise.

Anotable example of this process was Lacassagne’s discovery that bullets were marked by grooves, known as “rifling marks,” that could link a crime to a particular gun. He had been called to a crime scene in 1888 where a seventy-eight-year-old man named Claude Moiroud had been shot dead. Lacassagne conducted the autopsy on-site and found three bullets lodged in the body: One had stopped in the soft tissue of the larynx, one lodged up against the shoulder bone and one passed through the abdominal cavity, drilled through a kidney and lodged near the spine. Examining the bullets, he found something that surprised him: even though each bullet had passed through a different part of the body, and only one hit solid bone, all had identical markings. “It was extraordinary,” he wrote. “The bullet found in the larynx, which had not collided with anything hard, was creased along its axis with the same kind of furrow as the bullet that was lodged in the shoulder.... It seemed to be a kind of marking or sign of identity of the revolver.”

A witness had said that the girlfriend of a young man named Echallier was hiding his gun at her home. Police seized the weapon and gave it to Lacassagne. He contacted the venerable arms manufacturer Maison Verney-Carrons, who sent an expert, Charles Jeandet, to the crime scene. He explained to Lacassagne that gunmakers cut helical grooves in the barrels to cause bullets to spin,increasing their accuracy. Those grooves left characteristic markings on the projectiles—something that was common knowledge in the arms industry but not to medical professionals.

Lacassagnere turned to his lab in Lyon with Jeandet, the gun and several more bullets. He obtained the cadaver of an eighty-year-old man from the hospital, dressed it in the same kind of clothing as the victim was wearing and fired two shots—one into the shoulder bone and the other into the soft tissue of the abdomen. When he retrieved the bullets he noted that they showed identical markings to each other and to the bullets he had recovered from the victim. “The formations are so identical that they must have come out of the same revolver,” he concluded.

Echallier was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, Lacassagne, knowing he had stumbled upon a new vein of inquiry, assigned one of his students to research the phenomenon. After months of research and testing, Lacassagne and his student published an article in the Archives of Criminal Anthropology, accompanied by a chart listing twenty-six common bullets from French, American and British pistols, along with their weight, shape and predominant groove patterns. More comprehensive charts would follow, until identifying the markings on a bullet became standard practice in criminal science.

Next page: A criminal is convicted, and impressed

A Conviction and a Souvenir

One of Lacassagne’s treasured artifacts was the skeleton of a young man hanging in a display case, its head re-attached after an encounter with the guillotine. On the inner surface of the right pelvis the name “Gaumet” was inscribed in inch-high letters. It served as a reminder of a brutal crime and the power of science to use even the tiniest traces of evidence to solve it.

Annet Gaumet was a hardened criminal, with fourteen convictions by the age of twenty-four. On the night of December 21, 1898 he and several gang members broke into the apartment of the widow Foucherand above her bistro on Rue de la Villette in Lyon. They strangled her, clubbed her to death and stole her money. The police had been well-versed in the management of crime scenes, so when Lacassagne arrived the next morning with the prosecuting attorney and the commissioner of police he found the scene undisturbed. They found the woman’s body on her back on the floor—legs splayed, skirts hiked, her right arm in a defensive position across her chest, her left extended outward, bruises on her throat and a gaping wound on the right side of her head. Next to the body was a blood-covered wine bottle. Furniture had been turned over; drawers had been emptied.

The investigators proceeded carefully from room to room, carefully noting the position of the furniture, blood stains and artifacts. Yet this scene seemed abnormally free of telltale traces. The bloody bottle may have been used in the attack, but it turned out to be free of handprint and finger-marks. No footprints marked the scene, despite the apparent chaos. There was no clothing that did not belong to the victim and no bits of foreign hair.The one thing that struck Lacassagne as unusual was a lump of human fecal matter on the bed. He had no idea why someone would do such a thing, or if it would prove useful in the investigation. He had it brought back to the Institute, along with the body and bottle.

At the crime scene Lacassagne had noted blood stains to a height of more than five feet on the door frame and on a newspaper on top of the bar. The shape and location of the splashes told Lacassagne that the body had not been killed elsewhere and dragged, but struck by a blunt instrument with such violence that the blood droplets had been splashed to their current locations.

The examination of the body in his lab told him that at least two people took part in the murder. Lividity stains showed she had been killed and left on her back on the ground. He found extensive bruising on her wrists, stomach and rib cage. Internal examinations showed that the wounds penetrated deeply, with bleeding into the muscles and organs and breaks in several ribs. All these signs indicated that an assailant violently held the victim to the floor while kneeling on her rib cage. At one point he must have strangled her: the hyoid bone above the larynx had been broken, the thyroid cartilage had been broken at its base and mid-section; and the ring-like cricoid cartilage had been broken as well. To Lacassagne this indicated the presence of two killers—there were too many breaks to be accomplished by the same pair of hands that was holding her down. He found no evidence of a sex crime. The right side of the head was one enormous concavity, which Lacassagne attributed to strikes from the bottle.The left side of the head showed several reciprocal fractures, indicating that the left side of her face was against the ground when she was struck. The bottle, more bloody on one side than the other, probably was the murder weapon, but it bore no hand-prints or finger-marks.

Lacassagne still had no evidence to tie any specific person to the crime. When he examined the fecal matter, however, he saw something threadlike, white and about half an inch long. He dissolved the fecal mass and a dozen more appeared. A Professor Lortet, an expert in parasitology, identified the creature as pinworm, a fairly common intestinal parasite.

The authorities, meanwhile, had detained six suspects, members of a gang who operated in the Madame Foucherand’s neighborhood. Lacassagne gained permission to examine their waste buckets. “These observations gave no results,” he reported, because the suspects had contaminated the contents by throwing in bread and other bits of food. He went back to the prison. Using a long swab, he took samples directly from the suspects, which he mounted on slides and examined microscopically. In the swab from one suspect, Annet Gaumet, Lacassagne noticed microscopic translucent disks, which Lortet identified as pinworm eggs.

Confronted by the evidence, all six prisoners admitted to breaking into the apartment with the intention of robbing Madame Foucherand. Things got out of hand when she resisted, and theystarted to beat her. Gaumet and the gang’s leader, Émile Nouguier, got particularly out of control: Gaumet threw her down and started strangling her, while Nouguier grabbed another part of her throat. Finally, he finished the job by clubbing her with a bottle. Nouguier and Gaumet were sent to the guillotine.The other four received life sentences.

On the morning of his execution Gaumet conveyed a message to Lacassagne. He was so impressed with the power of science, he said, that he wished to donate his skeleton to the professor’s laboratory. It has been hanging in the display case ever since.

Douglas Starr is co-director of the Programin Science Journalism at Boston University. His previous book, BLOOD: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, won the Los Angeles Times book award. The book from which this excerpt is drawn, The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, tells the story of a serial killer and the forensic scientists who brought him to justice. Additional excerpts and a photo gallery can be found at his website: www.douglasstarr.com

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