Criminal Forensic Science in The Victorian Era

The Victorian Period lasted from 1837 until Queen Victoria's death in January 1901. The most famous crime committed during this time was of course the Jack The Ripper murders of 1888 in which 5 prostitutes were brutally murdered. Unlike today, the police of Victorian London did not have access to the type of criminal forensic investigative techniques we are used to. Instead they had to rely on simple clues, circumstantial evidence, and their past experience to solve a crime.

This index has therefore been created as a reference point of which techniques can and can't be used during the course of your investigation. If a technique can't be used then it is because it was not available to use at the time. If you know of a technique which has not been included here, but which you would like to use, please memo Data (GM) about it.

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  Ballistic Fingerprinting/Identification This is the identification of a gun from the analysis of the unique marks left on a fired bullet by said gun as it travels through the barrel. This was not available as a deductive technique at the time.

In 1889, Alexandre Lacassagne, a Professor at the University of Lyons, France, published the article La Deformation des Balles de Revolver, in the Archive de Antropologie Criminelle et des Sciences Penales, outlining his findings regarding bullet markings. He was the first scientist to try and match an individual bullet to a gun barrel by examining the bullet's striations and counting & comparing the number of lands and grooves. The first court case in which a criminal was convicted using ballistic fingerprinting/identification did not occur until 1902 though.
  Blood Groups Blood Group testing was not available as a technique. The Blood Grouping systems which we use today were not created until after the end of the Victorian Period in 1901 and 1937.
  Blood Splatter Analysis Although not an official science at the time, Blood Splatter Analysis may be used to determine how much force was used, the nature of the weapon and in which direction it was swung, etc.
  Botany This is the analysis of any seeds, leaves, pollen etc found on a body or at a crime scene to determine the timescales of a crime. It can also be used to find out whether or not a body has been moved between one or more locations. The forensic study of pollen specifically is called palynology. This can help you be very precise about a particular location or time of year when investigating a crime.

The science of botany was present during the Victorian Period so you may analyze seeds, leaves, plants etc to discover things like whether or not a body has been moved, or to prove that a suspect was at a particular place.

The technology available to analyze such things would have been quite primitive compared to today's standards though. Your character therefore would only be able to identify particular types of plants and their superficial characteristics in order to compare them to those found at a scene of crime. During the Victorian Period, such evidence would not be admissible in a court of law either, but you may still use it in the course of your investigations if you wish provided you bare these facts in mind.
CC Crime Scene Photography Photography was available during the Victorian Period and crime scenes were photographed as part of evidence gathering. The cameras used were cumbersome though so only photographs of the whole scene from one viewpoint were taken. There was not the level of detailed photographs taken like we use today and rulers (for proportion purposes) were not included either.
  Dactyloscopy (Fingerprints) and Podiatry (Footprints) Surprisingly finger and footprint analysis (in terms of comparing ridges) was not available as a deductive technique.

The first thesis describing fingerprint patterns was published in 1823 by Jan Evangelista Purkyne, a Czech Physiologist and Profesor of Anatomy at the University of Breslau. The Metropolitan Police of London were then offered the concept of Fingerprint Identification in 1886 by Dr Henry Faulds but they dismissed the idea. It was therefore not until 1901 that the first United Kingdom Fingerprint Bureau was set up and not until 1902 that the first identification, arrest and conviction of a murderer based on fingerprint evidence occurred.

Even though you cannot analyze the ridges left by a finger or footprint you may still compare footprints in terms of their size and depth of the impression (when left in a material such as mud). The length of stride between footprints may also be analyzed to give the height of the individual. Handprints may also be analyzed in terms of their size. If it is a whole handprint one may identify whether the criminal was left or right handed (depending on location of the print).
  DNA DNA testing was not available as a technique. In fact its existence was not discovered until the second half of the 20th Century. If a strand of hair is found therefore, its follicle may not be analyzed for DNA but its color may be compared against a suspect.
  Entomology (Analysis of Insects) This was not available in its current form as an investigative technique during the Victorian Period. Nowadays scientists are able to analyse insects such as maggots to help determine the time of death and, in some cases of poisoning, the cause of death. This was not possible during the Victorian Period simply due to the fact that there was still a lot to be discovered about insects and their life cycles.
  Hair & Synthetic Fiber Analysis This was not available as a deductive technique in the form we know today.

One of the first scientific papers on the subject was published in France in 1857 but it was not until the 20th century that it became widely used.

If a hair or synthetic fiber is found either at a crime scene or on victim then, you may only compare the length and color in the case of a hair fiber, or the length, color and texture in the case of a synthetic fiber.
  Odontology (Analysis of Teeth) Nowadays, this is used as a means of identifying either one or multiple victims though analysis of the actual teeth, and as a means of identifying perpetrators through the analysis of bite marks. These are both possible due to the use of dental records such as radiographs, post-mortem photographs and DNA.

During the late Victorian Period though the use of forensic odeontology was still a relatively new science. Without the luxury of DNA, and the teeth of individuals rarely being recorded, identification of victims through the analysis of what was in their mouth was impossible.

A crude form of bite mark analysis though was accepted as evidence from 1870 onwards. The first criminal conviction using this science did not occur until the 1940s, but the early beginnings of this type of analysis would be used as part of circumstantial evidence during the late Victorian Era. It could be as simple as looking in a suspect's mouth and seeing, by the naked eye, whether or not their teeth matched the marks left on a victim.
  Pathology (Autopsies) These were conducted at the time by medical doctors and were used by the police as a means of clarifying the cause of death, time of death and general health of the victim before they died. Autopsy reports would usually be requested by the investigating officer. Members of the public would not be able to request them though.
  Psychology This is the analysis of a perpetrator's state of mind at the time of committing a crime for the purposes of establishing whether or not they were 'sane', as well as the analysis of a criminal's general state of mind and behavior.

For most of the Victorian Era, Psychology was seen as a lesser science if not a pseudoscience. Between judging an individual's personality based on the lumps on their head and attributing the majority of female ailments to 'hysteria', this particular form of analysis had very little credibility.

If a particularly heinous crime was committed, there was no real effort to try and analyze a criminal's pattern of behavior through logical deduction, rather it was assumed they were 'mad'. Both the mind and the causes of mental illness were still unknown territories to the Victorians. It was not until the 20th Century that Psychology finally became legitimized as a worthwhile science.
  Questioned Document Examination This technique was available at the time but was not firmly established. It would therefore only be accepted as a piece of evidence by a court of law in extreme cases. Yet, like with other techniques on this list, this does not prevent you from using it as part of your investigations.

Questioned Document Examination is, as the title suggests, an analysis of documents which are considered to be forged in order to disprove, or prove, their authenticity. The specific parts of a document which may have been analyzed during the Victorian Period would be:

  • Handwriting (cursive/printing)
  • Signatures
  • Ink, pencil, type of paper
  • Printing Processes
  • Alterations, additions, erasures and obliterations
  • Indentation detection and/or decipherment
  • Sequence of Strokes
  • Physical Matching
      Toxicology (Detection of Poisons & Drugs) Forensic Toxicology refers to the analysis of bodily tissue and fluids to discover possible poisoning due to self-medicating, drug overdose, murder by poisoning, etc.

    Until the 1700s convictions associated with homicidal poisoning were based solely on circumstantial evidence rather than the identification of the actual toxicant within the victim.

    In 1781, Joseph Plenic stated that the detection and identification of the poison in the organ tissue of the deceased was the only true sign of poisoning. Years later, in 1813, Mathieiv Orfila (considered the father of toxicology) published the first complete work on the subject of poisons and legal medicine. By 1836, James M. Marsh developed a test for the presence of arsenic in tissue and 3 years later, in 1839, Orfila successfully used Marsh's test to identify arsenic extracted from human tissues.

    This particular test may therefore be used as part of any forensic investigation you may conduct into a death involving a suspected poisoning.