The Forensics Challenge

This post was written by contributors Leigh Ann Brewington (MC’21) and Carrie Mitchell (MC ’23) and edited by N. Locklin.

Today, there is a long list of things that must be done before a murder trial can begin. This includes things such as gathering evidence, having witnesses give statements, deciding which charges to go for, and setting a court date for the trial. One important part of having a strong trial and argument against a person is having evidence from a forensics department. This could be fingerprints, blood spatter, DNA, or even could come from an autopsy or toxicology report. However, if we look back 100 years ago at what tools and techniques were available, we can see that there was hardly any forensic science to fall back on during a trial. Modern day technology would have helped solve a lot of cases from the 1920’s, as an estimated two thirds to three fourths of all murders during this period went unsolved, including the Night Marauder Case in Maryville and Knoxville Tennessee.

Before the 1920s, forensic science was still an up-and-coming field. In 1892, Sir Francis Galton of England had popularized a method of fingerprinting, which is still used to this day. Galton set about to categorize different types of fingerprint patterns into broad classifications: the plain arch; the simple loop; the central pocket loop; the double loop; the lateral pocket loop; the plain whorl; and the accidental.At the beginning of the 20th century, Scotland Yard adopted the system of fingerprint identification called the Henry System. By 1903, most European countries had begun to make their own versions of fingerprint identification, which eventually spread to the United States as the use for I.D. began to be used in prisons. Modern forensic science was introduced at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, paving the way for new ideas and discoveries. However, fingerprinting was not common practice in many parts of America until well into the 1920’s.

In 1901, Austrian born scientist Karl Landsteiner began to publish his work on human blood groups, which allowed investigators to determine if a sample of blood did or did not match a suspect. Landsteiner identified the four basic blood types: A, B, AB, O. Blood typing was not used as a law enforcement tool until 1923, when it started being used in West Germany and Italy. In America, it would be as late as 1934 before the first police chemical and toxicological laboratory would be established in New York. Even so, DNA was not even properly discovered until the 1950’s. This eliminates the ability to cross reference DNA samples from different crime scenes.

Without reliable evidence in the form of fingerprints, blood samples, or DNA, police depended on an outdated system referred to as either anthropometry or Bertillonage, a system which used a set of eleven body measurements to identify a person. These measurements in turn depended on reliable eye-witness accounts. So, investigations in the Night Marauder case made use of such things as the suspect’s physical build and way of movement. Race was of course a seemingly simple factor in identification, but the presence of soot on the bedding of some attack victims suggests a white man could hide his race by blackening his face.

Other than fingerprinting and DNA, the identification of firearms could have also really benefitted law enforcement in the Night Marauder case. The identification of firearms was developed and expanded during the 1920s by American ballistics expert Calvin Goddard. Each firearm is known to leave individual markings on a bullet and case when it is loaded and fired. Goddard used his passion for ballistics and justice to create his most famous invention, the comparison microscope. This microscope allows scientists to compare specimens side by side under one device. By 1924, the first American police crime lab was built in Los Angeles, California and began to publicize microscopic comparisons of bullets. However, Goddard’s microscope was not popularized until 1927, after the end of the Night Marauder case.

Another method that would have been useful during these murders is photographing the crime scene. Crime scene photography or “forensic photography” has been around as long as the camera. The use of popularized forensic photography was created in the 19th century by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon. Forensic photography includes taking photographs of the crime scene at different angles. This can be used to refer to the crime scene, but it leaves room for creative interpretation for what happened at the scene. Even though there is not any evidence that crime scene photos were taken during this time, it would be interesting to see if there were. If crime scene pictures were available in the Night Marauder case, it would make it easier to look back and interpret what happened based on the modern forensics we have now. What were the steps Maryville or Knoxville police took to secure the crime scenes? Are there pictures somewhere out there that depicts the gruesome scenes of the Night Marauder victims?

Knoxville and Maryville are small areas. Even Knoxville, which is today considered a decent sized city, pales in comparison to cities such as New York and Los Angeles. This often leads to quite large differences in the technology used between the largely populated cities and the smaller and rural areas. New technology starts in larger cities and trickles down into the smallest towns. This tends to be true even today. Forensics is no exception to this. Los Angeles was the first American city to have a crime lab but not many others followed in the footsteps of Los Angeles until later. New York, along with some other major cities, did not have any crime labs set up until around the mid 1930’s. This leaves no likelihood that the Knoxville or Maryville area would have had a crime lab to even collect and analyze evidence that would be at a crime scene. This means that any forensic science would not have been happening at all. Even if it had been, different police departments were not always communicating with each other, allowing for more criminals to get away with their crimes. The Night Marauder case relies solely on the statements and testimonies of victims.

Throughout all these witness’ statements, there are references to multiple things that would make the case easier to solve today. For one, now it is standard for houses to have electricity. The Night Marauder would have had much a harder time in preventing the residents from seeing his face, as he would need knowledge of where the breaker for the house is to be able to turn off all the lights. There is also security footage everywhere. In a number of cases, law enforcement pursued a suspect on foot or in their cars. Today the cars would have dash cameras and uniforms would have also had a body camera. Streets are covered from multiple angles by traffic, business, and home security cameras. Bystanders have cameras in their phones. Technology is something that has made it much harder to get away with crimes of this kind so easily.

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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