A Nineteenth Century Scene of a Crime – A Look Back in Timeby Sandra Lee
Crime scene evidence is that which serves to provide clues about the series of events surrounding the commission of a crime. While evidence recovered at crime scenes varies in nature, amounts and probative value, it is all essential to the practice of solving the mysteries at hand. Time has no bearing on the vitality of crime scene evidence, and it is that vitality which commands the use of great care during evidence identification, documentation, collection, analysis and preservation.
During the nineteenth century these functions were all performed locally, and crime scene evidence consisted of whatever the responding authorities decided it should.
Great advancements in sciences and technology during this era granted much efficiency to the processing of crime scenes and even expanded the scope of acceptable forms of evidence. While investigators and scientists in some states fully embraced these innovations, such as the new and evolving arts of fingerprinting and ABO blood-typing, others presented barriers of prejudice and bias, and continued practicing with methods “tried and true”.
Investigators and scientists throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts fell into the latter category, due in part to the state’s conservative nature. Other contributing factors toward the resistance of these individuals to be forward-thinking, open-minded and highly-motivated were found on local levels and included low-paying salaries and deficiencies in education and training.
All things considered, one might best define the methods of identifying and collecting crime scene evidence in Massachusetts cities and towns during the nineteenth century as primitive. The 1892 gruesome crime scene at the Borden home in Fall River might best exemplify how the application of aged practices might generate unfavorable results.
In the Borden case a skeleton crew of underpaid, poorly-skilled sleuths failed to immediately secure the scene and a head-to-toe search of the premises wasn’t conducted for days to follow. This ineptitude left much room for the contamination, destruction and/or removal of any evidence not yet collected.
Body temperatures, levels of food digestion and stages of blood drying and coagulation were used to determine the times of death of the victims. This data was gathered with the use of nothing more than human hands and the findings were applied to an ancient suggested set of standards. Clearly, a clinical thermometer would have provided more accurate readings of the body temperatures while the knowledge of, or willingness to recognize new literature available at the time would have altered other findings. The latest studies showed that each of these postmortem events would occur on different levels depending upon human individuality and upon circumstances. Also based on the results of these studies were newly introduced numbers proven to be the standard.
Performances in the lab at a local medical school demonstrated an even broader scope of deficiency in crime scene investigating. Among the evidence ultimately collected were the stomachs of the victims and a hatchet. The stomach linings were searched for scar tissue caused by poisoning because the victims were allegedly ill prior to the murders. Because the hatchet was believed to have caused the fractures in the victims’ skulls, it was studied for the presence of blood. The single instrument used to perform these searches, a magnifying glass, detected no scar tissue, nor did it determine whether a substance found on the hatchet was rust or blood. Some innovative technological and scientific alternatives might have provided more certainty about the evidentiary findings. The spectroscope would have offered significantly more magnification while the introduction of certain metals and minerals to the stomach contents may have detected the presence of poison. Similarly, the simple act of infusing water or fire with the matter on the hatchet would have proven the nature of the substance.
The discounted evidence in the Borden case arguably contained the most probative value. It consisted of the prime suspect, Lizzie’s own damning words. Spoken to a rookie investigator who failed to inform Lizzie of her rights before tuning in, the evidence was deemed inadmissible by the court based on constitutional grounds. Had a more seasoned, forward-thinking investigator interviewed Lizzie, she might have been informed of her rights.
Additionally, the court excluded a local druggist’s statement that Lizzie attempted to buy poison in his store on the day before the murders occurred. Lizzie’s counsel argued that the idea of poisoning was unrelated to the nature of the crimes actually committed. Had the scientist at the lab possessed the knowledge of and willingness to rely upon modern techniques, the druggist’s statement may have been utilized, and Lizzie’s intentions revealed.
Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother in June of 1893 after just over an hour of deliberation by a twelve-man jury.
Lizzie was exonerated of the crimes based on the evidence both presented and not presented at trial. All evidence in this case was a product of contemporary practices which consisted of widely varying and inconsistent crime scene investigation methods. Many believe a lack of application of common standards based on the best of accepted practices at the time in the gathering and processing of crime scene evidence may have contributed to a guilty person getting away with murder.