We've seen not one but two modern reinterpretations of Sherlock Holmes in the last couple of years, plus countless procedural dramas, including forensic-themed shows like Bones and CSI. Meanwhile, TV audiences are utterly charmed by historical dramas like Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire. And just this summer, ABC announced plans to develop a steampunk detective series starring Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
But history is filled with real detectives, including those who used their knowledge of chemistry, anatomy, and even entomology to solve mysteries. Why not take one of those real forensic detectives and build a procedural costume drama around them? Here are six historical forensic experts who could carry their own shows, including a couple who have already debuted on the small screen.
All images by Lauren Davis.
Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler
Charles Norris was New York City's first chief medical examiner and Alexander Gettler was toxicologist who worked under him. As soon as he was hired, Norris began overhauling his department and he and Gettler pioneered many forensic techniques, notably those related to deliberate and accidental poisonings. Together they solved many a chemical mystery, a special challenge during the era of American Prohibition when cases of wood alcohol poisoning flooded the morgues.
The Pitch: Deborah Blum's book The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (which recently made our list of science books that read like genre fiction) has plenty of material for a Jazz Age procedural. The pair used their chemistry knowledge to catch poisoners, identify toxic products, and solve cases of chemical negligence. And the dynamic of the lab and their personal lives would have been quite interesting as well. Norris had to contend with bureaucratic opposition and a lack of department funding. (He developed a rather antagonistic relationship with Mayor John F. Hylan.) Gettler was a jovial gambler, card player, and competitive bowler, who charmed the pants off his Catholic in-laws, who were initially dismayed that their daughter had married a Jewish immigrant. (Gettler even lived on the top floor of their home.) And the two lobbied tirelessly against Prohibition—and we know how obsessed pop culture is with the 1920s these days.
19th-century French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne was actually a great fan of Sir Conan Arthur Doyle's tales of detective Sherlock Holmes, but he worried about that the stories left the public with a mistaken impression of the science of crime-solving. Lacassagne did not believe in immediate certainty or working alone; he believed in running exhaustive scientific tests with a team of experts. He pioneered many of the areas of criminal detection we so enjoy watching on television, commissioning catalogs of bone measurements, studying blood spatter patterns, and determining methods for matching ballistics to their origin weapons. He was also a noted alienist, famously evaluating the sanity of serial killer Joseph Vacher.
Lacassagne was also known for his warm personality and offbeat sense of humor. One of his most colorful publications was an anthropological study of criminals' and soldiers' tattoos. Lacassagne commissioned dinnerware based on some of his favorite tattoos, so that guests might find the words "Death to Unfaithful Women" or "Child of Misfortune" stenciled at the bottom of their meal.
The Pitch: In Douglas Starr's book about the Vacher murders, The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, Starr notes that Lacassagne solved real-life mysteries that were not unlike the fictional ones Sherlock Holmes solved—poisonings, crimes of passion, even an assassination. He was also a keen observer of details and a remarkable collector of useful information, making a series of Holmesian mysteries a perfect match for Lacassagne. But as in real life, TV Lacassagne would solve his Holmes-like cases not just with intuition, but with careful scientific investigation. And Lacassagne founded a school to pass on his forensic techniques, giving him his very own CSI team. Lacassagne even comes with a built-in rival: fellow criminologist Cesare Lombroso. While Lacassagne came to believe that social environment was primarily responsible for criminal behavior, Lombroso believed that criminality was congenital, and that criminals possessed certain distinguishing physical characteristics.
Traveling several centuries back in time and to the other side of the world, we come to Song Ci (sometimes Romanized as Sung Tz'u or Sung Chee), a criminal court judge active in the Hunan province in the 13th century. Song collected historical and modern cases as well as his own experiences to write Xi Yuan Ji Lu (Collected Writings on the Washing Away of Wrongs), which is often cited as the first monographic work on forensic sciences. The book includes instructions for performing autopsies (including that suspects should be present, just in case they are moved to confess during the autopsy), information on determining time and cause of death (for example, how to distinguish suicide by hanging from strangulation), identifying postmortem phenomena, and more. It also includes some anecdotes about forensic ingenuity that wouldn't be out of place in Bones. In one famous incident, a bureaucrat (whom some identify as Song) was sent to investigate a brutal death in which a man had been slashed to death by a scythe or sickle. To determine which scythe was used in the murder, the bureaucrat gathered all of the scythes and simply waited to see which one attracted blowflies, reasoning that this was the tool that was covered in blood. The owner of the fly-covered scythe quickly confessed.
The Pitch: There's already a TV model for this: Hong Kong's costume drama Witness to a Prosecution, which dramatized the life of Song Ci as a crime-solving coroner. Another well executed TV drama could offer an insight into life during the Song Dynasty through the myriad deaths identified in Song's texts, with special attention paid to how anatomical knowledge of the era helped solve mysteries.
Frances Glessner Lee
Heiress Frances Glessner Lee considered herself little more than a hobbyist in the realm of forensic science, but one of her students reportedly called her "one of the world's most astute criminologists." Forbidden from receiving a higher education by parents who didn't believe that ladies should attend college, Lee nonetheless developed a keen interest in forensic science thanks to her friendship with esteemed pathologist George Burgess Magrath (who was himself sometimes termed "the American Sherlock Holmes"). Magrath taught Lee a great deal about forensic investigation and impressed upon her that many criminals went free because of inept medical investigation. After coming into her inheritance, Lee endowed Harvard's department of legal medicine and, with Magrath, helped ensure that Boston employed professional medical examiners as coroners.
She consulted on criminal investigations herself, but Lee is probably best remembered for her The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Each Nutshell Study was a dollhouse-scale crime scene, packed with miniature details. Lee used these dioramas to train criminal investigators, and they are still in use as a training tool today.
The Pitch: Guillermo Del Toro is reportedly developing a Nutshell Studies show for HBO. However, this show centers on a 1950s housewife, not Lee. (By the 1950s, Lee was already a respected member of the forensic community.) A show centering on Lee could feature Lee as a consulting forensic expert (she was, by some reports, the inspiration for Murder She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher). Or it could be an anthology series, with Lee presenting a Nutshell to a class of criminal investigators during each episode and flashing back and forth between the live action crime scene and the students studying the dollhouse scene in the classroom.
Sir Bernard Spilsbury
In early 20th century Britain, Bernard Spilsbury was a celebrity pathologist, one whose forensic deductions captured the public imagination and whose testimony was much in demand by the Crown prosecution. Her performed some 20,000 post-mortem examinations, was a media darling, and charmed dozens of juries. (It didn't hurt that he was handsome and always well dressed.) He made his reputation on such dramatic cases as the Hawley Harvey Crippen murder, the Brides in the Bath, and the Brighton trunk murders. He was knighted in 1923 and served as Honorary Pathologist to the Home Office. He was a key player in the World War II plan Operation Mincemeat.
But more recently, Spilsbury's reputation has been called into question. Even during his own time, he was criticized for working alone, not training students, and not submitting to peer review. Beyond that, though, historical reassessments of Spilsbury's cases have found that his testimony sometimes led to innocent people being convicted of murder. On the one hand, Spilsbury did much to popularize forensic science; on the other, he sometime embellished evidence and put his own spin on the facts in order to guarantee a conviction.
The Pitch: Spilsbury has appeared in his share of television shows, notably the the 1980s series Lady Killers. But in light of works like Andrew Rose's Lethal Witness: Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Honorary Pathologist, it may be worth taking a more dramatic, critical look at Spilsbury. He was brilliant, but also worked to the bone. He thrived on his celebrity, but in the 1930s, the legal tide began to turn against him as defense attorneys began calling his methods and conclusions into question. It would be interesting to see a series explore Spilsbury's rise and fall, bringing us to a time when people started to see beyond the flash and into the science.