Sherlock Holmes, Murder, and the North London Line
At first it was only the blood I was after.
I was hard at work on “The Science of Sherlock Holmes”, my book about Mr. Holmes and the birth of forensic science. The project, of course, provided a glorious excuse for a fan like me to re-read in detail all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. A firm believer that Holmes was sharply ahead of his time in his use of science, I was startled when I stumbled upon what appeared to be a hole in the Great Detective’s prodigious knowledge of chemistry.
In the “Study In Scarlet”, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, Holmes is intensely excited by his discovery of a re agent which is precipitated only by hemoglobin. Holmes believes this to be the first truly accurate test for the presence of blood.
But somewhere in the margin of my magpie mind lurked a memory of another accurate test for blood-a test, that, I was pretty sure, was in use well before 1887, the year “Scarlet” was published. It was called “spectrum analysis”.
I proudly reported this nugget to my editor with the enthusiasm of a Labrador presenting a duck. But as editors are wont to do, he complicated things, asking not only for a firm scientific/historical cite, but an account of a true murder case in which spectrum analysis evidence was used in court before 1887.
He also suggested that a lucid explanation of how the test worked would be helpful, and that I incorporate the material in the chapter called “A Voice in the Blood”. He finished with a flourish by reminding me that my deadline was approaching “like a speeding train”.
The answers, I speculated, could be found somewhere in my study, an intricately book cluttered place a friend very charitably described as “Holmesian”.
I started with Chapman’s “ Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology”, which clearly stated spectral analysis was in use in court cases and explained how it worked. But Chapman was published in 1895. I needed something earlier. I checked the internet, but at the time, it produced nothing useful about the use of spectral analysis in early criminal trials .
I paced back and forth in front of my glass fronted bookcases filled with ancient medical and legal books, with no idea of where to start. “The deadline’s coming like a speeding train” kept running through my head..
Suddenly I remembered very clearly sitting in a terminal at Heathrow a few years before, waiting for a flight back to New York. I was clutching a pile of antiquarian books I’d bought at Charing Cross, and I was on edge, as airports and train stations always feel threatening to me.
I dearly love exploring strange places, but I loathe the process by which one travels to them. The crowds, the security requirements that you submit to being either radiated or felt up, and in particular, the incessant, echoing, and incomprehensible speaker announcements give me instant anxiety.
I seem to hear “Important announcement at gate blurble. All passengers blurble. Blurble EJ Wagner. Especially EJ Wagner. If not at gate blurble, blurble, will be shot blurble. This is last blurble before blurble”
It was felt just like that at Heathrow that day-and I recalled opening the package of books, and selecting one to distract me.
It was Charles Meymott Tidy’s “Legal Medicine”. I remembered reading something about spectral analysis in it. “like a speeding train..” Of course! The famous train case!
I grabbed Tidy from the bottom shelf, (redolent of ancient pipe tobacco and with interesting old stains on the margins) and checked the section on “Illustrative Cases” and found my bloody murder.
The first time spectral blood analysis was used in court, Tidy wrote, was in 1864,by a Dr. Henry Letherby. It was a murder case, Regina V Mueller, and the victim was killed aboard the North London line in a first class compartment. Blood -like substance was found in the carriage at the Hackney Station along with a hat and walking stick, but the body of the victim was discovered near the tracks some miles back between Hackney Wick and Bow Stations.
In those days, train carriages had no connecting corridors or windows between them, so a murderous act in one could be carried out unseen by passengers in neighboring compartments.
Letherby testified in court that the substance found in the compartment was blood, and that he had determined this by use of a spectroscope.
The hat proved to be not that of the victim, but of the absent minded assailant, who had left his identifiable headgear behind, and taken the victim’s instead. This was part of the hefty evidence used to convict and hang Franz Mueller. The design of trains changed because of this case, and small windows were cut in the back of carriages so that they could be observed from other compartments. These windows were known as “Mueller Lights”.
I had found my murder on a train. It had both blood and science. The details fit nicely into the “Voice In the Blood “ chapter of the book. My editor was happy.
But somehow, this has done nothing to alleviate my anxiety about travel.
(A version of this article appeared in the fall issue of the Mystery Reader’s Journal)
EJ Wagner is a crime historian and author of the Edgar winning “The Science of Sherlock Holmes”. She has written for Ellery Queen, The NY Times, Lancet, and Smithsonian Magazine, among others.
She is currently working on a novel and the traveling Museum exhibit “Sherlock Holmes: The International Exhibit” which will open in October at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Among the artifacts displayed will be a spectroscope.
Her website is http://www.ejwagner-crimehistorian.com/
She blogs at ejdissectingroom.wordspress.com