Body of Evidence: A Century after the Execution of Dr Crippen for the Murder of His Wife, Fraser Joyce Argues That, in Cases Hingeing on Identification, Histories of Forensic Medicine Need to Consider the Roles Played by the Public as Well as by Experts

Article excerpt

Traditionally the history of forensic medicine in murder cases focuses on the 'experts' in the field, such as toxicologists, psychologists and pathologists. It often neglects the ordinary people to whom the body in question has profound personal meaning and whose contribution to the investigation is more peripheral but nevertheless significant.

The infamous murder of Cora Crippen presents an ideal opportunity to redress the balance. When human remains were discovered at 39 Hilldrop Crescent on July 13th, 1910, Cora Crippen had been missing since February 1st. The lumps of flesh discovered beneath the cellar that constituted 'the body' had been buried for between four and eight months, making them unsuitable for a direct formal identification. Consequently identification of the corpse depended on the relationship between experts and laymen and the construction and comparison of two apparently incompatible images: the concrete evidence of the dead body reconstructed through its examination by doctors and the more abstract picture of the missing woman built from physical descriptions of her while alive and gathered from those who knew her. This story of cooperation between the two groups that helped to establish the identity of the remains in the cellar is rarely heard.

In traditional histories of the case, the identification of the body was achieved by the young and brilliant doctor Bernard Spilsbury, armed with his microscope. By identifying a mark found on the remains as an old operating scar on the abdomen that Cora was known to have had Spilsbury's reputation was assured, but his celebrity has since eclipsed the work of t two other doctors, as well as the role of those who knew the missing woman personally.

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On discovery of the body Dr Thomas Marshall, a police surgeon, was called to the scene followed by a consulting surgeon, Mr Augustus Pepper. Their preliminary examination revealed that the remains were composed of a mass of flesh and viscera covered in lime; the body was missing its head, limbs, genital organs and every single one of its bones. In the absence of firm anatomical evidence the only clues to the gender of the remains were a few long bleached hairs still in hairpins, which had clearly belonged to a woman (only these hairs were shown to witnesses; they were recognised as Cora's). This, then, was the 'medico-legal' image of the body.

The next step was to construct the 'lay' image of the missing woman. On July 18th, the first day of the inquest, Cora's friend Maud Burroughs gave this description:

She was about 34 years of age, height 5ft 4in or 5in, complexion fair, hair dyed auburn, but naturally dark, very beautiful brown eyes, stout build, good teeth, one or more crowned with gold, good looking, smartly dressed, and always wore a large quantity of jewellery.

As well as permitting a physical comparison between the human remains and Cora the person, descriptions such as this allowed doctors to search for more distinguishing marks that may have been overlooked during the preliminary examination.

Later that day another of Cora's friends, Clara Martinetti, was unexpectedly overheard discussing a scar on Cora's abdomen that she had seen in 1901: 'a mark of an old cut a little darker than the rest of the flesh. It was about 6 inches long ... from the lower part of the stomach upwards up to the navel" about which the police had not previously been informed. The doctors were quickly notified and a second, more detailed examination was made on August 8th in the presence of toxicologist Dr William Willcox. Discovered on a piece of folded flesh was a 4 1/2 inch mark which under a magnifying glass appeared to the three men to be an old and stretched operation scar from the abdomen, probably from an ovario-hysterectomy (indirectly indicating the sex of the body).

Cora's friends were consulted to establish as accurate a picture of the scar as possible. …