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Outdated Forensic Techniques and Criminal Science Ideas

Guilherme Radaeli is a lawyer, writer and blogger born in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Part-time techie and overall mad lad.

The Victorian era marked a great spurt in the growth of criminal forensics. Read on to learn about some of the misconceptions and outlandishness that plagued the field's growth. Such scientific progress is often marked by mistakes.

The Victorian era marked a great spurt in the growth of criminal forensics. Read on to learn about some of the misconceptions and outlandishness that plagued the field's growth. Such scientific progress is often marked by mistakes.

The Evolution of Criminal Justice

Investigations have always been an essential part of law enforcement and criminal justice due to the simple fact that most crimes don't happen in the clear view of society but instead are committed in relative secret by criminals seeking to avoid retribution.

As society evolved and abandoned old feudal systems in favor of modern organizations that recognized the fundamental rights of human beings, a necessity for a proper judiciary system arose. This included a crime investigation system that employed appropriate methods of collecting proof.

Verdicts based only on witness accounts and often arbitrary assessments of the accused's conduct by judges were no longer acceptable in such a society. Creating a better alternative would require a system that allowed for producing and collecting tangible or so-called "hard" evidence.

Thus, forensic science was brought about to provide material and impartial proof of a crime, using the scientific method to eliminate any partiality and assure a fair trial of any accused.

A post-mortem analysis kit from the 1800s

A post-mortem analysis kit from the 1800s

Like all scientific development, however, the history of forensics is marked by many misconceptions and strange assumptions, often based on what was considered medical science at the time.

From weird ideas regarding how human physiology works to quasi-magical methods, many things were tried in the name of criminal justice, and here we will analyse a few of the more interesting examples. This article covers the following three interesting moments in the development of modern criminal justice and forensics:

  1. Optography
  2. Anthropological Criminology
  3. The Polygraph
Optography was one of the most peculiar pseudo-scientific ideas of of the 19th century

Optography was one of the most peculiar pseudo-scientific ideas of of the 19th century

1. Optography

In 19th century Europe, especially in England, there was a widespread belief that people's eyes somehow recorded the last thing seen before their death. It is unknown where this belief came from, but it was probably an old superstition enhanced in popularity by literary works.

Being easily the most important organs of a human's sensory system, it makes sense that people would put great importance in the eyes, to the point of giving them near-supernatural powers.

Optography, in short, is the pseudo-scientific belief that the eyes of a person or an animal are capable of somehow storing the image imprint of the last thing that was seen by a living right at the moment of their death.

This belief gained traction in the 19th century due to the work of a German physiologist named Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne. Having graduated in Berlin in 1856, Kühne wrote great works on muscle and nerve structures, but he is known chiefly for his studies on the chemical biology of the eyes.

Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne (28 March 1837 – 10 June 1900), german physiologist.

Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne (28 March 1837 – 10 June 1900), german physiologist.

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Kühne came to develop studies on the light-sensitive protein named rhodopsin (also known as "visual purple"). He discovered that not only was rhodopsin extremely sensitive to light but, under certain ideal circumstances, would act very much like a photography negative, "fixing" an image on whatever support it was currently in.

After performing some rather gruesome experiments on rabbits (which involved having a rabbit face a barred window with light shining through it for several minutes, decapitating said rabbit, and treating its eyes with a chemical solution of alum) he was able to extract an image depicting the clear outline of the last thing said rabbit saw before its death: the barred window of Kühne's lab.

This discovery created a fervor in forensic science and influenced many criminal investigations of the time. Regaled with the fanciful proposition of being the first to extract the image of a murderer from a victim's eyes, police officers and medical professionals alike repeatedly tried to extract such images from many a victim's eyes to no success.

Famously, optography was used as a last-ditch effort to identify no other than Jack the Ripper, the method being tried with the eyes of Mary Jane Kelly, the supposed final victim of the famous serial killer, with no good results. Walter Dew, one of the policemen who worked on the cases attributed to Jack the Ripper, is famously quoted referring to the attempt resulting from his "forlorn hope" of identifying the killer.

Sadly, "Jack the Ripper" was never properly identified or caught

Sadly, "Jack the Ripper" was never properly identified or caught

Despite no clear success in its application, optography was actually admitted as evidence in the 1924 investigation of the murder of a merchant's family and staff in Germany. The merchant Fritz Heinrich Angerstein was convicted of the murder of eight people in his home in the town of Haiger partly due to a few optograms collected from the retinas of two of the victims.

According to a University of Cologne professor (who was responsible for their collection), the retinas depicted Angerstein's face and axe. After hearing about the optograms, Angerstein confessed to having committed the murders.

Opgraphy was eventually dropped entirely as a forensic method due to its dubious applicability after scientists concluded that the conditions for forming an optogram are so rare that it cannot be considered a reliable method for collecting evidence. That didn't stop its use in fiction, however, as it was famously depicted in Jules Verne's novel The Kip Brothers, where it is a major plot point.

Cesare Lombroso - (6 November 1835 – 19 October 1909)

Cesare Lombroso - (6 November 1835 – 19 October 1909)

2. Anthropological Criminology

Criminology and forensic science are two different things, but they deal with the same phenomenon, which is crime.

Criminology is a rather recent field of social science that intends to study the origin of crime, the criminal, the victim, and the crime's object.

While criminology nowadays is considered almost exclusively a social science, there was a period in history in which it was connected to anthropology and medical science due to the work of many academics, among them many medical professionals, with Cesare Lombroso being the most prominent among them.

Cesare Lombroso (born Ezechia Marco Lombroso) was an Italian physician and famous criminologist who rejected what came to be called the classical school of criminology. By classical school, he referred to the works of the enlightenment era philosophers Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham.

In their works, both classical criminologists described crime as a purely social phenomenon caused by social problems that brought certain individuals to commit crimes to right a wrong resulting from said social imbalance. As such, classical criminology focused almost entirely on the social causes of crime, rather than the personal motivations of the criminal or the characteristics of the victim.

Classical Criminology Under Beccaria’s View

As already stated, Lombroso rejected this view. While he admitted that social phenomena could influence the occurrence of crimes, he argued that the factors that determined criminal behavior were largely biological and anthropological in origin.

Lombroso, a physician, had the opportunity to analyze hundreds of criminals. After many studies that largely focused on anthropometry (the measurement of the proportions of a human being's body), he concluded that there were clear physical distinctions between criminals and noncriminals.

Lombroso pointed to a series of physical traits which he deemed "atavistic," which represented a kind of involution, that is, a reversion to the physical traits of primates. Lombroso argued that individuals who showed traits similar to large primates, such as large ears, sloping foreheads, wide and flat noses, long arms, etc., were clearly "less evolved" than the rest of humanity, and thus less able to cope with social norms and more prone to criminal behavior.

Thus, Lombroso deemed such individuals "born criminals" and proposed that the solution to crime would come from eugenics and separating such individuals from society altogether.

Imagens from Lombroso's book "L’Uomo Delinquente", depicting the heads of several criminals he studied

Imagens from Lombroso's book "L’Uomo Delinquente", depicting the heads of several criminals he studied

These ideas were published in what is considered his most important work, the book L'Uomo Delinquente (Criminal Man), in which Lombroso uses a very clinical tone to describe his ideas and the criminals he examined.

However, even at the time of its publication, many an academic put Lombroso's work into question. French physician and criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne became his most ardent rival, pointing out many inconsistencies in Lombroso's work.

Lacassagne would point out that Lombroso's idea of women being mentally inferior to men contradicted his overall theories of criminals being physically less evolved and mentally inferior, as statistical analysis showed that women committed much fewer crimes than men in general.

He would also point out that Lombroso's work was mostly based on a small poll of individual studies and was contradicted by criminal statistics, as there were too many crimes committed by people who did not show the physical characteristics of Lombroso's "born criminal."

Lombroso's work eventually fell into discredit but came to be remembered as a cautionary tale of how improper use of the scientific method can lead to terrible errors, even by people as intelligent as Lombroso.

The validity of results of polygraph tests have always been controversial

The validity of results of polygraph tests have always been controversial

3. The Polygraph

Now here's a staple of CSI-esque crime series and an integral part of the popular mindscape when it comes to criminal investigations. You'd be surprised with how many people actually believe polygraphs (or "lie detectors") are a scientifically proven and reliable way to detect when a person is lying.

While polygraphs have been used in criminal investigations and admitted as proof in many cases in the United States and many other places, actual scientific analysis tells us a much different story regarding the polygraph's value to detect lies and changes in a person's behavior.

You'll likely be surprised to hear when you find out that the guy who created the DC Superhero Wonder Woman, psychologist William Moulton Marston, is the inventor of the systolic blood pressure test, the entire basis of how the polygraph works.

In a study published in the early 1920s, Marston proposed that detecting the ways a person's blood pressure changes can indicate changes in a person's mood and even show when a person is lying. Using said study, a California police officer named John Larson designed and built a machine to do just that, aiming to reduce police brutality and give the police an impartial way of measuring a person's character.

After the creation and application of the device by Larson and other police officers, it became an object of much excitement until the 1923 Supreme Court case Frye v. United States, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the use of the device could only be accepted as evidence when it gained wide approval of the American scientific community, something which unfortunately never happened.

A diagram from a polygraph with descriptions showing the different measurements

A diagram from a polygraph with descriptions showing the different measurements

The polygraph incorporates three tests in one:

  1. Monitoring cardiovascular blood pressure (through cuff monitors);
  2. Respiratory variations (through rubber tubes placed on the chest and abdomen) and
  3. Electrodermal outputs (through conductive plates applied to your fingers);

The problem with polygraphs isn't with the device itself, as polygraphs are very useful to detect health problems related to blood pressure, breathing and other things. The problem is using them as "lie detectors." You see, there is no actual study or technique that proves that polygraphs are infallible or even reliable in detecting whether or not a person is lying.

In short, the measurements presented by the polygraph are both accurate and useful for many things, but their interpretation to determine whether someone is lying or not is essentially a misuse of the device, even if it was originally created for that purpose.

Leaping from what amounts to physical biometric data to a psychological motive is a huge leap of logic that often fails. John Synnott, a famous lecturer in investigative and forensic psychology at the University of Huddersfield, has been quoted as saying the following:

So, what about when polygraphs appear to work?

The explanation for that is simply an elaborate placebo effect. Suppose you committed a crime and you are submitted to a polygraph test. In that case, you'll likely get very anxious because you may actually believe the polygraph to be an effective way to discern lies from truths, and your readings will be greatly altered.

Additionally, many of the people who question people with the polygraph are very experienced interrogators who by virtue of their skills, can cause the person subjected to the test to get anxious and even contradict themselves, causing their readings to go haywire.

You can read the full paper by John Synnott here:

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Guilherme Radaeli

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