In 1859, workers at a dock in New York City noticed that a barrel that had been shipped into town smelled particularly foul and decided to open it up. The first thing that they saw when they pried the barrel open was a woman’s face, detached from the body parts beneath, but still recognizably a face and, in some accounts, even still beautiful, despite the fact that the woman had been dead for several weeks.
The barrel was traced back to Henry Jumpertz, a barber in Chicago, and the body proved to be that of his girlfriend, Sophie Werner. In Jumpertz’s own account, he had come home from his barbershop and found that Sophie had hanged herself. Fearful that he, as a Prussian immigrant, would be accused of murdering her, Jumpertz had dismembered the body, buried some of the innards on the nearby beach, and sealed the rest into a barrel that he kept next to his bed for the following two weeks. As he had been trained as a doctor in his home country, Jumpertz would have been reasonably accustomed to working with dead bodies. However, after a couple of weeks the general creepiness (and probably the smell) became too much for him, and he posted the barrel to New York.
An age-old proverb holds that “murder will out.” The phrase appears in print, twice, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century, but it is probably much older. Simply put, the proverb cautions that no one can get away with covering up a murder. The crime will always be discovered. A person might steal something and have the owner never realize it is gone, or tell a lie and never have it exposed, but the laws of nature dictate that a violation as abominable as murder cannot go undetected.
This seems like quaint and superstitious thinking today, when the news feeds us a steady diet of true crime stories, and even casual TV viewers can list any number of ways to dispose of a body. But the proverb was common well into the 19th century, when reporters would still ask investigators and criminals alike if they believed that “murder will out.” By then, though, responses tended to be skeptical. Due to news traveling faster, stories spreading further, and the emphasis on rationality and reason ushered in by the Enlightenment, people no longer believed that a supernatural law would ensure that murder, of all crimes, was impossible to get away with.
By the late 19th century, advances in policing and criminology around the world were, in fact, bringing the proverb closer to truth than ever. However, progress was slow, as authorities seemed reluctant to bring in experts and scientists to help investigate crimes. In as late as 1895, as authorities dug up the basement of the self-proclaimed serial killer H. H. Holmes’s “Murder Castle” in Chicago, they were working blind. One witness described seeing police officers comparing bone fragments they had found to pictures in an anatomy book, desperately hoping to find a way to identify them as human remains. There were plenty of anthropologists in the city, but the police seemed to prefer to consult reporters. Experts were more apt to let facts get in the way of a good story. Police officers of the era still occasionally scoffed at “the theory of deduction” and held it cheap compared to “the plain methods of police work,” which were often centered on beating suspects with a billy club until they confessed.
Police agencies in general hardly existed before the 19th century. Fifty years before the Holmes case, Chicago’s police force consisted of a sheriff and two or three deputies. Moreover, in those days, city mayors only served a single-year term and each new mayor shook the department up. Allan Pinkerton formed his famed private detective service in the 1850s largely because he realized that local law enforcement was too subject to political influence.
In the same city, and in the same decade, a new form of forensics emerged: handwriting analysis. This turned out to be the saving grace for Henry Jumpertz, whom the press had labeled the “barrel murderer” (though he was one of countless people to earn that title over the years). Just as Jumpertz had expected, nearly everyone assumed that he had murdered Sophie, and probably would have made the same assumption even if he had not dismembered and concealed the body. The story became a sensation. A full book on Jumpertz was published—one of the young city’s first true crime publications. Reporters flocked to watch as Jumpertz was convicted, sentenced to hang, and sent to prison to await his fate. A model prisoner, he even helped design the gallows on which he would be hanged.
However, the state supreme court ruled that there had been an error in the trial, and he was given a re-trial. In the first trial, Jumpertz claimed that he had lost a suicide note Sophie had written, but he was able to produce some letters in which she spoke of “renouncing the world,” making it clear that she was suicidal. But the prosecution had argued that they were forgeries written by Henry himself.
During the second trial, though, the court decided that the handwriting really was Sophie’s, and Jumpertz was acquitted.
Neither side at the time offered any expert analysis of the handwriting, as such expertise barely existed. And, in any case, introducing expert forensic analysis of any sort in court was not normal practice. However, witnesses were brought to testify to the letters’ authenticity, and documents written in both Sophie and Henry’s hand admitted for comparison. People were beginning to understand that handwriting was unique, and could be used as evidence.
In the decades following the Jumpertz affair, forensic sciences began to advance at a rapid pace, as did the new field of “criminology.”
The term “criminology” was first coined in 1885, and early texts on the discipline seem at best laughable, and at worst racist, when read now. Great emphasis was put on physical features and race. Arthur MacDonald, one of the earliest noted criminologists, invented a device called the kymographion, a sort of early polygraph that measured changes in physiological responses. His other gadgets measured things such as pain sensitivity in given body parts. These innovations were driven by the belief that minute analysis of the body could determine whether someone was a “criminal type.” For instance, MacDonald believed that criminals were more sensitive to pain in their left hands than in their right.
As ridiculous as this all sounds today, beneath it was the revolutionary concept that science could fight crime. Though nearly everything that MacDonald wrote would soon be outdated, it was a step towards making the proverb “murder will out” closer to the truth.
For a criminal to disappear was, of course, far easier in those days. Changing one’s name was a straightforward affair, and if one moved to another city, one could easily go undetected. Though photographs were common by the 1850s, it was not until the late 1880s that detectives began to use them in earnest.
Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer born in 1853, is best remembered today for popularizing the use of what we now call “mugshots,” though in this arena his main contribution was really just helping to standardize the process and style of photographs taken of criminals. His most important contribution was the development of anthropometry, the science of measuring the human body. As a young copyist in the Paris police department, Bertillon was frustrated by the casual approach of officers to making identifications based on the physical similarities of suspects compared to available photographs. Bertillon worked to supplement the photographic records by including measurements such as the length of the head, the size of the foot, the length of the middle finger, and other attributes that he insisted remained constant throughout a person’s adult life. Though neither the police nor the prisoners he measured thought much of the idea at the time, and his method was only designed to work on men who had short hair and had reached full maturity, it became common practice throughout the Western world by the 20th century.
But even as his ideas became mainstream, Bertillon himself was working on the field that would render his facial measurements largely obsolete: fingerprints.
Of course, it had been known for centuries that humans had differing fingerprint patterns, but people were slow to realize just how different they were. In 1823, the Czech scientist Jan Evangelista Purkyně posited that there were nine different fingerprint patterns. Over the course of the following century, researchers became aware that within those pattens were countless minute differences that were nearly unique to the individual. In 1892 Francis Galton, a British statistician, suggested that the likelihood of two people having exactly the same prints was one in sixty-four billion.
To call Galton—later Sir Francis Galton—a statistician is perhaps to short-change him. Besides his work in statistics, he was noted for his studies in psychology, geology, meteorology, anthropology, and, like so many scientists of his era, eugenics. But his true passion was measuring things, and he put this to use with his study of fingerprints, not only studying them but devising a means of both classifying and analyzing them. Some of his ideas and concepts are still in use today.
The use of fingerprints as evidence remains controversial today, particularly now that DNA can be tested more reliably. However, at that time people interested in the developing science of criminology (and not trying to rival Galton and gain fame for their own theories) were electrified by these new ideas. That fingerprints could be recovered at a crime scene, and make a positive match to a suspect beyond all doubt, was as major an advance as could be imagined at the time.
It was some time before the technique made its way to the United States. The independent American detective Mary E. Holland studied the technique at Scotland Yard, London, and put it to use in the United States, where it helped her to solve cases even if it would not be considered conclusive evidence in court. But when a chauffeur was murdered in an automobile in 1904, the police had Holland examine the prints and bloodstains in the car. The evidence that she found led her to conclude that there must have been a third person on the scene. This did not help solve the crime in the end—it was never solved—but the fact that police took her findings seriously shows that the concept was gaining acceptance.
Six years later, a man named Thomas Jennings was arrested for murder in Chicago, and the police matched a fingerprint found near the scene to Jennings’s own prints. Holland was among a handful of experts who testified that a match in prints was as good as gold, and Jennings was convicted. A new era in forensics had arrived. Newspapers were shocked; one editorial asked, “Will the criminal of tomorrow be forced to wear gloves as he commits his crimes?” Barely fifteen years had passed since the days when hapless policemen pored over anatomy books, but to investigators, those days must have seemed a lifetime ago. In 1897, successful forensic analysis of bone fragments made the national news for the first time.
In that year, neighbors had noticed that Louisa Luetgert, the wife of a local sausage dealer, had gone missing. Though her husband’s factory was closed for repairs and cleaning, strange smoke was seen coming from the chimney around the time she had last been seen. Her husband, Adolph, insisted that his wife was away on a trip, but the police began to investigate the factory. A janitor told them that shortly after Louisa had disappeared he had been asked to stir up a mysterious mixture in one of the sausage curing vats. Though rumors would persist for decades that Louisa had been made into sausages and sold to unsuspecting customers, the police believed that her body had been dissolved in the caustic mixture. On inspecting the vats, a ring was found bearing Louisa’s initials, and various fragments of bone were uncovered.
Rather than scrutinizing anatomy books, the police submitted the bone fragments to Dr. George Dorsey, an anthropologist at the Field Columbian Museum, Chicago, who established that in addition to a large piece of thigh bone, the fragments included pieces of human metatarsal, toe, and rib bones, as well as traces of nerves and blood vessels. At the trial he took the stand and asserted to everyone’s satisfaction that the bones were human.
Dr. Dorsey and other experts had been working in the days of the Holmes investigation, and if the case had ever come to trial in Chicago, perhaps they would have been called. But by the end of the 19th century expert testimony was far more common, and, given the advances in science, the days when a murderer might walk free because there was not enough of the victim left had come to an end.
In 1913 Victor Balthazard published Identification of Revolver Projectiles of Plain Lead, a study that demonstrated that every bullet fired was just as uniquely marked as fingerprints. Using these new ballistic techniques, detectives were often able to trace a bullet back to the gun that fired it. Meanwhile, more and more cities across the United States were switching from untrained coroners to medical examiners to determine the cause of death. To the public, it must have seemed as through the career criminal’s days were numbered. How could murderers continue to operate with so many ways for evidence to be traced back to them?
It is difficult not to notice how many of these developments first attracted attention in Chicago. Indeed, it may be that the city’s reputation as a “wicked town” is due partly to how often the forensic developments there made national news. It is also because Chicago was a breeding ground for one of the biggest problems that would plague 20th-century policing: corrupt and inefficient local forces.
Being a police officer was hardly a profession in the early 20th century; there was no academy, no civil service exam, and no real formal training process. In 1904, a private investigator hired to look into the activity of the Chicago police force wrote that the men he studied were “Piano movers, bumps, cripples, janitors, ward heelers—anything but policemen.” He further noted that “They have no respect for the law, and depend upon their pull with the alderman to get them out of trouble. Out of all the precincts we have watched, we have found but two patrolmen who did their duty. They sleep when they should be on their rounds. They play the slot machines and drink with anyone who asks them.” These revelations would hardly have been surprising to anyone who read the news. Though, then as now, people often made a vocal point of supporting their local officers, believing that this support was a matter of principle, not to necessarily be based on merits.
Though civil service reforms were made to make police more reliable in the first two decades of the 20th century, the launch of Prohibition in 1920 set progress back considerably. The manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol became illegal, but the public appetite for it did not diminish. Indeed, by many metrics, it only increased. Breweries had three options: switch to brewing non-alcoholic beer, shut down altogether, or sell out to criminals. A great many chose the latter. The gangsters and racketeers who took over the nation’s liquor services were far more apt to shoot anyone who got in their way than the brewers had been, and it was easier for them to bribe the police. Many officers did not particularly care to enforce Prohibition laws to begin with, and now they had more opportunities for corruption than ever.
When Prohibition ended in the 1930s, policing found itself at an interesting crossroads. The public was fascinated with the new technologies that had emerged, making police and detectives more advanced and efficient than ever. At the same time, they had experienced more than a decade of stories about corruption within the ranks. After so many of those stories, though, President Hoover had taken action: in 1929, he appointed George Wickersham, a former Attorney General, to form the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, a committee to investigate every aspect of the criminal justice system and make recommendations for improvements. Among its findings were that police were in desperate need of professionalization: for the first time, police officers would be required to take tests and graduate from a police academy before taking on their jobs. It was an improvement, but even to some observers in the 1930s, there were glaring omissions in the report. Some noted that the recommendations seemed to focus entirely on how the police could better protect working-class white people. Many noted that while the commission detailed many examples of police brutality against African Americans and urged the end of “third degree” methods of interrogation, it did not address the widespread problem of racism within the police, an issue that would continue to plague policing nationwide even as the police became better equipped with the tools to make their investigations more efficient.
The stories in this book take place across this fascinating period in history, when forensic techniques, theories of deduction, and criminological processes were changing so rapidly. Drawn from states across the union between 1865 and 1939, the stories taken as a whole trace the progress of criminology from the lawless days of the Wild West to the modern era. With all the advances made since then, it can seem as though these stories take place in the Dark Ages. And yet, even today, you would have to be awfully naive to believe the old proverb that “murder will out.”