forensic pathology in history


Popular interest in forensic pathology - 'the beastly science' - coincided with the appearance of forensic experts giving evidence in sensational murder trials that received widespread attention in the press.

Sir Bernard Spilsbury epitomised the forensic expert in the early 20th Century, a man whose reputation has suffered somewhat through comparison with qualities required of the modern expert witness.


Read more about Spilsbury, and other well-known forensic pathologists and their most famous cases here ...



Sir Bernard Spilsbury's case cards - The Wellcome Collection


A selection of Spilsbury's case cards which can be viewed in the Wellcome Library (digitised versions no longer appear online).

forensic pathology history - selected references


Forensic scientist at work

Source: Vivianho


The Brides in the Bath murders - George Joseph Smith


the 'golden age of murder'?

the decline of the English murder - George Orwell essay ( (buy it here)

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.



urban decay in Detroit (photograph by Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre)

mortuaries in history


Image: Paris Morgue 1883 (Squirm)


Images- Corbis


The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.

Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had been burnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

Therese Raquin. Emile Zola (Chapter 13)

The Paris morgue

Read about this 'tourist attraction' in the late 19th Century at Morbid Anatomy

Bellevue mortuary 1890 - New York City (Corbis)



Hackney public mortuary, London (Sarflondondunc Flickr & Hackney Lookout)



classic crime radio programmes


Black Museum episodes:


Secrets of Scotland Yard (1949-1957) (download the radio episodes here)


Crime Classics (CBS radio shows 1953) (download the episodes here)

murder in history - murder and its motives


Murder and its motives, F Tennyson Jesse (1924)


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'.


Murder the Result of Various Injuries (1898) Eduard Ritter von Hofmann, M.D., Atlas of Legal Medicine, Philadelphia, chromolithograph; Artist A. Schmitson
National Library of Medicine

English legal system - historical film from the British Council (1946)



murder in contemporary culture - Cluedo boardgame


Cluedo characters (1949)

Source: The art of murder

forensic pathology in the stone ages



That Mitchell and Webb Look - Series 1 Episode 6 - Forensic pathologist Ursula and a stone age murder investigation

urban decay - Cane Hill mortuary

Cane Hill Asylum mortuary in decay (photographs via Hypotype)

More photographs at 'Abandoned Britain' project

Similar photographic projects have been undertaken elsewhere, for example in the USA (at, with the morgue at the Mayflower Hospital receiving the same treatment as Cane Hill.






Hear Robert Glenister read an abridged version of 'The Invention of murder', on Judith Flander's website

Buy it here ...

recently published


The magnificent Spilsbury and the case of the brides in the bath. Robins J. John Murray Publishers 2010

Buy it here ...


Jane Robins tackles the case with gusto, linking it with the genesis of forensic science and casting Spilsbury as her hero. But her title is misleading, as the pathologist doesn't take centre-stage. Instead we have a gripping retelling of the crime against a backdrop of the Titanic, Suffragettes and the First World War, highlighting the social context that allowed a psychopath to manipulate eight women, wed seven, defraud six and kill three.

Marianne Brace 2010 (Read the rest of her review here)


Source: Wikimedia

Search site

© 2020 All rights reserved.

Powered by Webnode