In 1911 the practice of Forensic Science was all but non-existent. Both fingerprinting and blood typing were still in their criminological infancy and modern detection methods were completely unknown. Crippen’s case was historic in many ways, not least because for the first time practical forensic techniques were applied in a keystone manner and presented as evidence in court. It was however by any one’s honest standards a rather slim and unprepossessing entrance on the judicial scene.
Lacking everything but circumstantial evidence the case against Crippen was based almost entirely upon prejudice formed from the media frenzy and insecure suspicion. The remains unearthed in Hilldrop Crescent were the only hope of conclusively linking him with his wife’s disappearance. Onto the seen came Professor Bernard Spillsbury, later Knight and already something of an evangelist for criminal Pathology. His was the job to apply the emergent science and provide useful evidence in court. His aim was namely to prove the corpse belonged to Belle Elmore and ascertain cause of death. Give the lack of head, hands, feet or any bones his work was made extremely hard. The flesh, preserved in lime offered the only hope for identification.
The presence of Hyoscine was immediately discovered in fatal concentration and obviously connected as cause of death. Identity was much harder to ascertain however – especially in such a way as to be useable evidence in a court of law. Finally the remains of a long scar were discovered on a scrap of flesh. When newly married, illness had forced Belle Elmore to undergo hysterectomy. The scar left behind from this operation was suspected to be the same as that on the filleted remains. Beyond this and a roughly estimated height, weight and race there was nothing else of any value to be determined. Only in the earth nearby was there discovered a length of torn out, died golden hair still wound around its night-curler. Armed with these most flimsy pieces of evidence Sir Bernard went to court.
In common with the almost side-show nature of the entire trial the presentation of Forensic fact was undergone in a fashion more akin to entertainment than jurisprudence. Trooping the twelve members out in single file, the jury were invited to stare through a series of microscopes at samples of scar tissue from the corpse. Most important was the determination of hairs found on the flesh to be pubic in nature – and therefore of an appropriate anatomical positioning to match with Belle’s scar. Either by Sir Bernard’s talents as a showman, or merely an expression of the awe in which the religion of Science was held by common man the jury’s approval was earned. On the basis of scientific evidence the identity of Belle Elmore had been proven. It was to be the single piece of testimony that swayed the court and assured Crippen of a guilty verdict.
Today the most straightforward method of ascertaining identity would be DNA. From amongst the mass of tissue left behind it would be easy to extract a sample and match it against something known to be Belle. The strands of hair on the roller would also have provided evidence towards identification. Even in Crippen’s time it would have been possible to try matching the corpse’s blood type. Although Hyoscine was identified, it would now be possible with IR and UV spectroscopy to identify the actual batch used and even when it was made. 39 Hilldrop Crescent itself could have offered opportunities for modern investigation, many more pertinent and convincing of actual guilt. The locale of Belle’s dismemberment could also be found fairly easily, uncovering blood traces with ultraviolet illumination or bone fragments lodged in the drains. It would also be possible to examine the remains and find an actual time of death, possibly the most damning evidence that could have been set.
In comparison to present day techniques, Sir Bernard’s argument was almost the most crude and unconvincing imaginable. It did however set a precedent, displaying potential and earning the respect of the judiciary. In Crippen’s sentencing the science of Forensics had earned a first battle honour and won its future place in court.