the 'golden age' of murder and forensic detection


It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?


Naturally, about a murder. But what kind of murder? If one examines the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public, the murders whose story is known in its general outline to almost everyone and which have been made into novels and re-hashed over and over again by the Sunday papers, one finds a fairly strong family resemblance running through the greater number of them. Our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period, so to speak, seems to have been between roughly 1850 and 1925, and the murderers whose reputation has stood the test of time are the following: Dr. Palmer of Rugely, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs. Maybrick, Dr. Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson. In addition, in 1919 or thereabouts, there was another very celebrated case which fits into the general pattern but which I had better not mention by name, because the accused man was acquitted.


Edwin W. Teale, "Now Real Detectives Beat Sherlock Holmes," Popular Science Monthly, August 1931

Time4Media. National Library of Medicine






R. Austin Freeman, John Thorndyke's Cases, London, 1909
Kent State University Libraries, Department of Special Collections and Archives






A delightful potion of chemical erudition, forgotten science history and ghastly murder schemes.... Reading The Elements of Murder is like watching a hundred episodes of CSI, but without having to sit through the tedious personal relationships of the characters.... Along the way the bodies pile up as Emsley relates spectacular case histories of poisonings, accidental and criminal.... Emsley mines what he calls 'the darker side of the periodic table' with consumate skill."

Dick Teresi, The New York Times Book Review

John Emsley has crafted this clever book about murder by poisoning with the intention of serving two audiences – those fascinated by crime and by science. He deals with each poison with a detailed description of its properties, and as such it sometimes reads like a chemistry textbook. However, this heaviness of scientific description is alleviated by the detail about the precise use of the poisons in real life.

Emsley says there are, thankfully, few poisons available to the assassins and murderers of the 21st century that are not fully understood. So perhaps the days of murder by poisoning are coming to a close.

Steve Conner, The Independent (read the full review here)



Six spectacular murders of the past century have been reported by the author with literary skill that will entice almost any palate. But the lack of psychological skill sets up a counter-irritation that only a complete reinterpretation of the cases can assuage. The author undoubtedly does know the "reader interest" of lewd women and inadequate men, and just as undoubtedly does [he] know only the most superficial of motives for murder.

Donald Laird. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 1926; 20(4):447 (read his full review here)


It has been observed, with some truth, that everyone loves a good murder. The person to whom the very word 'murder' does not give a certain not unpleasing thrill is so rare that he may be ruled out for the purpose of discussion and the rest of the world may be divided into two classes - that in which people frankly admit a vivid interest in murder as the most curious of the phenomena of human nature, and that in which are those who, secretely thrilled, disclaim any such interest and condemn it as 'morbid'. To the student of the way of humanity, nothing is morbid, as long as due balance and proportion be kept in the studying of it, and anyone who eliminates as an object of interest the most strange of all the phenomena of social life is ruling out his chance of developing a comprehensive view of life.

Tennyson Jesse. Introduction to 'Murder and its motives'.




  • Notable British Trials series (William Hodge and Company Ltd) - 1954 Pamphlet detailing each title in the series




The title derives from William Roughead and he would have enjoyed this undertaking -- a collection of ""crhymes"" from broadsheet ballads and the popular literature of the limes or from just some nameless poetaster. The circumstances which provoked them are presented by Mr. Goodman; the misdemeanors are categorized (blunt instruments; poisons; knives; etc.); there are illustrations -- facsimiles of posters and contemporary drawings; and while most of these are drawn from that old Baileywick, they range to the lynching lament -- ""Strange Fruit"" -- or the Hauptman kidnapping -- ""You deserve all you've got/ For stealing the baby from its cot."" An eclectic entertainment; you might want to give it forty licks. 

Editorial review for Bloody versicles.



Blum's extraordinary narrative alchemy fuses Gettler and Norris's painstaking, laborious undertakings with the birth of safety measures (the Food and Drug Administration wasn't much of one until the 1930s), the scandal surrounding workers' exposure to radium, and many other measures that bring home how volatile the transformation from prosperity to struggle really was. A few things get lost, like what debt both Norris and Gettler owed to colleagues in other cities and countries (Blum, to her credit, makes a note of this in supplementary material) or what clashes they had with law enforcement (though the ones with government are well-documented.) But these flaws don't diminish The Poisoner's Handbook's glorious depictions of the "coming-of-age party for forensic toxicology." The book is an unexpected yet appropriate open-sesame into a world that was planting seeds for the world -- with lethal toxins and cutting-edge tools -- that would later, darkly bloom.

Weinman S (2010) The Criminalist - Barnes and Noble Review


Dynamic Detective, July 1937 Kent State University Libraries,
Department of Special Collections and Archives. National Library of Medicine


Inkless Stainless G-Men Fingerprint Set. No. 110, New York Toy & Game Mfg. Co., 1937



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Trial of Madeleine Smith

Trial of the Seddons

Trial of Oscar Slater

Trial of Burke and Hare

Trial of Dr Pritchard

Trial of Eugene Marie Chantrell

Trial of the Wainwrights

Trial of William Palmer


Photography of a corpse - Alphonse Bertillon 1900 (Corbis)

You can lead a jury to the truth but you can't make them believe it. Physical evidence cannot be intimidated. It does not forget. It doesn't get excited at the moment something is happening - like people do. It sits there and waits to be detected, preserved, evaluated, and explained. This is what physical evidence is all about. In the course of a trial, defense and prosecuting attorneys may lie, witnesses may lie, the defendent certainly may lie. Even the judge may lie. Only the evidence never lies.

Herbert leon MacDonell. The Evidence Never Lies - The Casebook of a modern Sherlock Holmes (1984)

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