Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Book Review: American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI by Kate Winkler Dawson (audio)

Oscar Heinrich opened the first forensic laboratory in the United States. He pioneered dozens of new techniques and processes in forensic science. He was quite famous in his day, but is now mostly forgotten outside of forensics historians.

He grew up poor, the child of German immigrants, and when his father committed suicide, he had to drop out of school at 16 and support his family. Despite not having finished high school, he became a licenses pharmacist, but he always wanted to be a chemist. He found a loophole to attend college, and he became a water engineer. But his home lab took more and more of his attention and he started consulting for police departments and being an expert witness in trials ranging from Fatty Arbuckle's murder case to the case that inspired the movie The Great Train Robbery. In between he worked on more run-of-the-mill cases from forgeries to murder, many of which were scandalous for a moment but were quickly forgotten.

He developed new ways to consider blood spatter, new ways to analyze sand particles to determine their origins, and his notes were so detailed they were used as examples for decades in forensic classes. He was so meticulous that he'd actually calculate a person's height from their clothes, instead of eyeballing it and guessing as the police were doing, and he'd find loads of evidence that was overlooked, from hair and minute particles, to missed pockets. On the stand, he was hit and miss, as the scientific understanding of juries was so far behind the science he was presenting, it was often confusing--kind of the opposite of today's courtroom CSI problems.

A fascinating biography of a real forward-thinking scientist who was never satisfied with anything but perfection. Oh, and he didn't really like Sherlock Holmes (although he did like being compared to him) as he said Holmes relied too much on guesswork, even if it was usually correct.

I listened to this digital audiobook on Libby/Overdrive via my local library.

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