Digging Up Dead Doctors

February 18, 2014

                          Digging Up Dead Doctors

 

                                                 By  E.J. Wagner

 

My assignment is clear-800 words, more or less, about murder and medicine for  “The Lancet”, the venerable British medical journal.  

 

I’m on deadline, I need to gather and organize material, and so I should be in Long Island, at my desk, surrounded by notes, constructing deathless prose.

 So why am I instead in a coastal Connecticut bookshop which specializes in nautical history?

 

Because deadlines have a perverse effect on me. Tell me I have to write about murderous physicians and I suddenly develop an intense curiosity about the golden age of piracy.

I have never missed a deadline-but I inevitably procrastinate until pushed by panic.

 

So here I am, in a maritime book market, browsing through shelves of volumes on navigation and sea battles.  

 

And then the bookseller beckons me to the back room.

 

“I picked up something interesting but a bit off-topic for me” he says- “Old ship’s doctor passed on a few months ago- and I bought his book collection from the heirs. Some of the stuff is purely medical-not for my clients. Know you write about that kind of thing sometimes-I’ll sell you the carton as is for $125..you have any interest?”

He indicates a carton of roughly ten books. There is a strong smell of mold and old cigar smoke wafting from it-not a really good sign.

 I peer at the top layer and see a battered book with a peeling cover. “The Report of the Case of John W. Webster: indicted for the murder of George Parkman”. The flyleaf informs me the publication date was 1850.  I recognize this at once- this was the homicide which electrified 19th century Boston-the killing of a prominent physician /businessman by a well-known professor of chemistry in the sacred precincts of Harvard Medical School itself. The very first criminal case to provide a firm definition of legally acceptable  circumstantial evidence in America.

 

“I’ll take it” I cry. Clutching the carton to my bosom, I head for the Long Island ferry.

When I arrive home and examine the goods, I discover that the crumbling carton also contains “The Medical Register of New York of  1865”,  which includes an eye witness account of the famous Doctors Riot  of 1778, as well as an original copy of John Bell’s “Anatomy”, dated 1775. There’s a copy of “The Trial of Burke and Hare”-the legal proceedings against the notorious duo who provided unusually fresh corpses to anatomists in 1828 Edinburgh. Also an1825 copy of Beck’s  Medical Jurisprudence”. Evidently the old ship’s doctor had a taste for crime.

 (There are less appropriate contents too- World War 1 directions on constructing latrines and a 1923 pamphlet on dog training.  I put these aside, but I don’t discard them. I  never know when I will need that sort of thing)

 

Leafing through my find, I discover a bonus. Old doctors take notes, often in the margins of books. This lowers the books’ value to a dealer, but not to a researcher. I read the cramped handwriting to find odd bits of sanguinary information- a reported “accident” suspected by the writer to be homicide, a peculiar poison discovered at autopsy.

I find notes on an 18th medical discussion on whether or not a woman can become pregnant from rape. (One side argues that “pleasure” on the woman’s part is required for conception. The  opposing physician points out that women have become impregnated while drugged and unconscious, and clearly not having an enjoyable time. It sounds amazingly like a 21st century political debate).

I’m fascinated to read that on the Isle of Man in the same period  if a “maid” (a single woman)  was raped she  was presented by the ‘deemsters” (court officials) with a rope, a sword, and a ring. She would then decide if her assailant should be beheaded, hanged, or married-to her.

There are notes about how bodies were illegally “resurrected” for dissection in medical schools-the techniques used, the prices paid.

The engravings in “Bell’s Anatomy” show not only the organ systems of dissected subjects, but their faces, their flayed corpses hung on ropes  or slumped over  short tables, the legs dangling. The grim images force us to remember that these subjects were once living, feeling beings, and inexorably makes us consider how malodorous  18th century medical education must have been.

 

In the texts on Medical Jurisprudence, as forensic pathology was formerly called, there is a panoply of “illustrative cases” at the end of each chapter. Many of these involve “death by doctors”, either by deliberate homicide or by spectacular inattention.

 The predations of Dr Pritchard, poisoning his way through his domestic circle,  the machinations of Dr Warren Waite arranging death as well as teeth.. The physician who suspected Dr Smethurst, a fellow doctor, of poisoning Smethurst’s wife, but who didn’t report this before the lady succumbed , for fear of annoying a colleague..

I know nothing about the dead ship’s doctor whose notes I dig up and  study-but he has left me an embarrassment of historical riches.

In the ‘Adventure of the Speckled Band” Sherlock Holmes says;

 

“When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.

True-and has so very many opportunities.

 

I am now working on a novel about a medical murder in 19th century Salem. So, of course,(the procrastination thing again) I am leaving for London. Who knows what I will discover there? How many long dead doctor’s notes I will dig up?

                 

                   The End

 

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  is currently at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and soon to open in Ohio.
Her website is http://www.ejwagner-crimehistorian.com/‎
 Her Lancet article on medical murders, History, Homicide, and the Healing Hand may be found on her blog,here http://ejdissectingroom.wordpress.com/2009/11/27/history-homicide-and-the-healing-hand/

 

 

 

 

 

                          Digging Up Dead Doctors

 

                                                 By  E.J. Wagner

 

My assignment is clear-800 words, more or less, about murder and medicine for  “The Lancet”, the venerable British medical journal.  

 

I’m on deadline, I need to gather and organize material, and so I should be in Long Island, at my desk, surrounded by notes, constructing deathless prose.

 So why am I instead in a coastal Connecticut bookshop which specializes in nautical history?

 

Because deadlines have a perverse effect on me. Tell me I have to write about murderous physicians and I suddenly develop an intense curiosity about the golden age of piracy.

I have never missed a deadline-but I inevitably procrastinate until pushed by panic.

 

So here I am, in a maritime book market, browsing through shelves of volumes on navigation and sea battles.  

 

And then the bookseller beckons me to the back room.

 

“I picked up something interesting but a bit off-topic for me” he says- “Old ship’s doctor passed on a few months ago- and I bought his book collection from the heirs. Some of the stuff is purely medical-not for my clients. Know you write about that kind of thing sometimes-I’ll sell you the carton as is for $125..you have any interest?”

He indicates a carton of roughly ten books. There is a strong smell of mold and old cigar smoke wafting from it-not a really good sign.

 I peer at the top layer and see a battered book with a peeling cover. “The Report of the Case of John W. Webster: indicted for the murder of George Parkman”. The flyleaf informs me the publication date was 1850.  I recognize this at once- this was the homicide which electrified 19th century Boston-the killing of a prominent physician /businessman by a well-known professor of chemistry in the sacred precincts of Harvard Medical School itself. The very first criminal case to provide a firm definition of legally acceptable  circumstantial evidence in America.

 

“I’ll take it” I cry. Clutching the carton to my bosom, I head for the Long Island ferry.

When I arrive home and examine the goods, I discover that the crumbling carton also contains “The Medical Register of New York of  1865”,  which includes an eye witness account of the famous Doctors Riot  of 1778, as well as an original copy of John Bell’s “Anatomy”, dated 1775. There’s a copy of “The Trial of Burke and Hare”-the legal proceedings against the notorious duo who provided unusually fresh corpses to anatomists in 1828 Edinburgh. Also an1825 copy of Beck’s  Medical Jurisprudence”. Evidently the old ship’s doctor had a taste for crime.

 (There are less appropriate contents too- World War 1 directions on constructing latrines and a 1923 pamphlet on dog training.  I put these aside, but I don’t discard them. I  never know when I will need that sort of thing)

 

Leafing through my find, I discover a bonus. Old doctors take notes, often in the margins of books. This lowers the books’ value to a dealer, but not to a researcher. I read the cramped handwriting to find odd bits of sanguinary information- a reported “accident” suspected by the writer to be homicide, a peculiar poison discovered at autopsy.

I find notes on an 18th medical discussion on whether or not a woman can become pregnant from rape. (One side argues that “pleasure” on the woman’s part is required for conception. The  opposing physician points out that women have become impregnated while drugged and unconscious, and clearly not having an enjoyable time. It sounds amazingly like a 21st century political debate).

I’m fascinated to read that on the Isle of Man in the same period  if a “maid” (a single woman)  was raped she  was presented by the ‘deemsters” (court officials) with a rope, a sword, and a ring. She would then decide if her assailant should be beheaded, hanged, or married-to her.

There are notes about how bodies were illegally “resurrected” for dissection in medical schools-the techniques used, the prices paid.

The engravings in “Bell’s Anatomy” show not only the organ systems of dissected subjects, but their faces, their flayed corpses hung on ropes  or slumped over  short tables, the legs dangling. The grim images force us to remember that these subjects were once living, feeling beings, and inexorably makes us consider how malodorous  18th century medical education must have been.

 

In the texts on Medical Jurisprudence, as forensic pathology was formerly called, there is a panoply of “illustrative cases” at the end of each chapter. Many of these involve “death by doctors”, either by deliberate homicide or by spectacular inattention.

 The predations of Dr Pritchard, poisoning his way through his domestic circle,  the machinations of Dr Warren Waite arranging death as well as teeth.. The physician who suspected Dr Smethurst, a fellow doctor, of poisoning Smethurst’s wife, but who didn’t report this before the lady succumbed , for fear of annoying a colleague..

I know nothing about the dead ship’s doctor whose notes I dig up and  study-but he has left me an embarrassment of historical riches.

In the ‘Adventure of the Speckled Band” Sherlock Holmes says;

 

“When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.

True-and has so very many opportunities.

 

I am now working on a novel about a medical murder in 19th century Salem. So, of course,(the procrastination thing again) I am leaving for London. Who knows what I will discover there? How many long dead doctor’s notes I will dig up?

                 

                   The End

 

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  is currently at the Columbus Ohio Center of Science and Industry and s.
Her website is http://www.ejwagner-crimehistorian.com/‎
 Her Lancet article on medical murders, History, Homicide, and the Healing Hand may be found on her blog,here http://ejdissectingroom.wordpress.com/2009/11/27/history-homicide-and-the-healing-hand/

Image 

 THese are images from the Bell’s anatomy described in the article.

EJW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NY TImes and Holmes Exhibition

February 18, 2014

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/15/arts/design/a-sherlock-holmes-exhibition-stops-in-ohio.html?_r=0

Sherlock Holmes In Columbus!

February 10, 2014

Sherlock Holmes,The International Exhibition, has opened in Columbus Ohio. I was most pleased to serve as forensic history consultant on this project
Video here :

EJ hoping to go to Ohio

Neat Sherlockian video

December 23, 2013

Having spent a year working on “Sherlock Holmes;The International Exhibition” now at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, I was delighted to see this video about it;

http://bit.ly/JSPt5M

The show moves to Ohio next-stay tuned for further plans
EJ

Sherlock, Murder, and the North London Line

November 24, 2013

Sherlock Holmes, Murder, and the North London Line
E.J. Wagner

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.

End
(A version of this article appeared in the fall issue of the Mystery Reader’s Journal)Microscope

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

Sherlock Holmes International Exhibition

November 10, 2013

Sherlock Holmes:The International Exhibition ,is now at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It will tour venues in the US before heading to Europe.
I was very pleased to serve as consultant in forensic history on this project. See details and videos here

http://sherlockholmesexhibition.com/footsteps-of-holmes/

EJImage 1

Celebrating Sherlock’s Birthday,or Travels With Hamlet

November 7, 2013

Travels With Hamlet

To go, or not to go: that is the question
And if to go-to London or New York?
Or both?

And if to both, upon which airline?
To fly: to sleep no more , at least in economy
Ay there’s the rub
And is it nobler in the mind to suffer body search or radiation?
And what if snow in Minneapolis cancels flights?

And then if to both, to which festive gatherings?
And once that decision made, to order fish or chicken?
And which hotel will give us shelter
And will it have an iron?
These thoughts must give us pause
Thus thinking does make cowards of us all
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lost the name of action

Image 6

Sherlock by Wishnia-Part 2

August 10, 2013

Here’s the link to the second part of Ken Wishnia’s erudite exploration of Mr Holmes

http://somethingisgoingtohappen.net/2013/08/07/a-little-amusement-at-his-expense-conan-doyles-sly-subversion-of-english-society-part-2-by-dr-kenneth-wishnia/

Mr Holmes By Mr Wishnia

August 1, 2013

Try this link for a novel view of Sherlock Holmes by KJA Wishnia, a fine writer as well as( full disclosure) a pal.
: somethingisgoingtohappen.net/2013/07/31/barbaric-kings-and-plodding-imbeciles-conan-doyles-sly-subversion-of-english-society-part-1%E2%80%A8%E2%80%A8-by-dr-kenneth-wishnia/
I blogged about his historical novel “The Fifth Servant awhile back.The Fifth Servant cover
>

Sherlock Holmes French Connection

June 5, 2013

Dr Edmond Locard was a great supporter of Sherlock Holmes. Smithsonian Channel has included one of Locard’s Holmesian cases in the Forensic First Series. You can see a clip here-the female narrator seems to me me

http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/sc/web/series/1003122/catching-killers/3375550/trace-evidence

EJ Wagner-Pursuing VerityPursuingVerity05


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