William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes

January 27, 2015

Here is William Gillette’s short  audio  clip max Sherlock Holmes

If on;y there were more..(sigh)


Murder Between the Lines

November 22, 2014

SOSH Mr. Turkey Boston HandwritingMURDER BETWEEN THE LINES E.J. Wagner ( A version of this article appeared in the fall issue of Mystery Readers Journal)

Frankly,the shiny, hard slick ones that can be picked up anywhere don t excite me very much. I like them mature. I nurse a serious fondness for the crinkles of experience. And I have no objection to a bit of slackness in the spine or softening in the middle.
If they exude a slight aroma of old tobacco or brandy that ‘s fine with me. I positively appreciate deep lines.
And what s written between them.
I dig old books.

I ‘m a crime historian; researching ,writing and lecturing about old crimes is my job. That makes old books my necessary and loved accomplices. Mostly I m enamored of antiquarian medical books, law books, and cookery books as they abound with subtle hints of ancient criminal events. Especially cookery books. It was common in the past for readers to write in the margins and between the lines of their books, to enclose notes between the leaves. Officially known as marginalia, and traditionally frowned on by parents and librarians, these often provide me with signs of the sinister. For instance, in an 19th century book on cooking I find a note that water hemlock looks remarkably like parsnips, but smells like very much like carrots. (The note is written , of course,in a delicate, ornate hand) It is tucked cozily next to a recipe for parsnip and carrot soup. The directions say to cook the vegetables in broth until soft ,to puree the soup, and then pass it through a sieve lined with cloth. Finish by dusting with grated nutmeg.
Was this written by a careful, good cook, or a clever homicidal one? A few pages later, a note in the same hand appears in the margin . It is for a tea to cure croup. It includes hollyhock blossoms, sassafras, and 4 grams of lobelia. The directions say to administer a large spoon every fifteen minutes until the symptoms abate . Considering that lobelia, also known in the vernacular as “puke weed ” and “vomit wort” is toxic at that dose, I figure that the symptoms abated pretty quickly. Old medical books frequently close with a section entitled “llustrative cases” . These are often a wonderful source of macabre anecdotes, and as they are annotated, easy to trace back to the original source and authenticate.
In C.M Tidy s 1882 text on Medical Jurisprudence, for instance, there is a tale from the Annals d Hygiene,1847, of a mother who was accused of pouring melted pewter, (tin 3 parts, lead 7 parts,melting point, 350 F) into the right ear of her “idiot son” while he slept. Amazingly, the child recovered. The fate of the mother was not stated, giving us latitude to imagine. Where does one find such historical riches? The internet, it s true, has a lot of offerings, but that seems to me sort of like cheating. Anyway, it spoils the fun of a hunt. Antiquarian book shops and plain old “used book stores” are rapidly disappearing , to my great sorrow. In the past I spent many happy dust covered hours in “Good Times Book Shop” in Port Jefferson Long Island, and the many shops on Charing Cross in London. But there are still a few left, and there are book fairs where the old time dealers gather. I always ask for reader ‘s copies, as I am a not a collector but a researcher. Reader ‘s copies are a lot cheaper and more apt to have interesting marginalia. Some “bookies” work out of their homes, where books are often stacked on every reachable surface.One of my most intriguing finds was stored under the dealer s bed-he ‘d run out of space elsewhere. There between the dealer’ s bedroom slippers and the mother of all dust mice, I discovered ” The Champion Text on Embalming” published in 1900. Along with fascinating information on the techniques of the funerary arts in the 19th century, it contained a compelling photograph . Labeled “Injecting the arterial system through the radial artery” , the picture shows a corpse flanked by two suspended articulated skeletons -and a few professorial looking bearded men. The deceased, who also sports a beard, is modestly covered by a sheet up to his neck. His face is as peaceful as that of a chap having a manicure.

Seated by the body,apparently injecting the embalming fluid, is a woman, elegantly attired in a mutton sleeved embroidered dress, accessorized by a pearl necklace. A wide brimmed, light colored hat adorned with flowers and leaves perches on her head-.(A dove may be involved in the hat-the photo isn’t clear enough to be sure) A large light colored cloth carefully covers her lap, evidently to prevent staining. Who says women didn t have professional opportunities in the Victorian age?

With such treasures available, is it any wonder I am dedicated to searching for them-reading between the lines, finding murder in the margins?

The End

EJ Wagner is the author of the Edgar winning “The Science of Sherlock Holmes”Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen, The Lancet, and Smithsonian Magazine among others. She frequently consults for television on criminal history.
Web site: http://www.ejwagner-crimehistorian.com/
Blog: https://ejdissectingroom.wordpress.com/

EJ’s Prose ‘N Cons Mystery Offer

October 2, 2014

The new  mystery magazine “Prose ‘N Cons” is now launched-and and editor Stephanie Hoover is allowing me  to  offer free digital copies of  the Fall /Winter  issue  to the first fifty  people who respond to this post. Use subject line  “EJ’s Prose ‘N Cons Mystery Offer”, and send to ProseNConsMag@gmail.com

The debut issue includes articles on well known hangmen, serial murder, Sherlock Holmes, and  EJ Wagner’s views on forensic science. It’s really cool.

Sherlock Holmes Contest

August 15, 2014

A new offering, ‘Prose N’Cons Mystery Magazine will debut in October, and a contest regarding Sherlock Holmes is part of the coming attractions.

I did an interview for this issue-so I’m eager to see it:)
Here’s the link-test your Sherlockian knowledgeImage 3


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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 https://ejdissectingroom.wordpress.com/2009/11/27/history-homicide-and-the-healing-hand/


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


NY TImes and Holmes Exhibition

February 18, 2014


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;


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

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.

(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


EJImage 1


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