The Hideous Rise and Fall of Celebrity, Murderous Pathology

The Hideous Rise and Fall of Celebrity, Murderous Pathology
© Photograph by Kathy Chareun

Celebrity pathology was born in England one hundred years ago, when Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s identification of scar tissue on a fragment of putrefied flesh found in the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent secured the conviction of Hawley Harvey Crippen for the murder of his wife. Exactly a century later, the same case that witnessed the rise of this new star in the forensic firmament is engulfed in a controversy that suggests his time has passed.

According to a multi-authored research paper recently published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, the key to the 21st-century version of Crippen’s story does not lie in rotting remains interpreted by a publicly celebrated master of the mortuary. Instead, it is to be found in sanitised biomatter abstracted from the body and analysed in a high tech genetics laboratory. “DNA testing of remains, such as those found in Crippen’s cellar”, the article insists, provides “far more objective results […] than interpretation of small physical abnormalities in highly decayed flesh.”

The paper, ‘The conviction of Dr Crippen’: new forensic findings in a century-old murder by Foran and colleagues represents a marker of the boundaries of the celebrity pathologist’s century-long reign. Before the Crippen case, there was no such forensic being. Of course, the postmortem encounter with the corpse for medicolegal purposes has a long historical pedigree, but it was only in the first decades of the 20th-century, in England, that the encounter between the body and the pathologist became a high profile and personalised practice.

Even in the most widely publicised of Victorian homicide investigations, like the Ripper murders, victims’ bodies were examined by faceless investigators, often local practitioners with no claims to forensic expertise. In fact, it was the toxicologist waging war on the dreaded secret poisoner, not the pathologist, that captured the Victorian forensic imagination.

The Crippen case launched Spilsbury on a career spanning four decades that was continuously marked by high profile cases involving exhumed, decomposed, and mutilated cadavers. The discovery of a mass of confused flesh began a familiar drama in which Spilsbury single-handedly assembled a story about the body from within the enclosed space of the mortuary, and then emerged to defend it in the public and contested space of the courtroom.

The mortuary was the site for his deployment of a unique, highly individualised and embodied set of skills (smell, touch, sight, physical strength, patience) that transformed the raw material before him first into a postmortem report and then into polished courtroom performances, where Spilsbury spoke in easily accessible language about the ultimate decipherability of the chaos that had initially confronted him.

His case file is littered with examples of his extraordinary powers: in the Crippen case, an unremarkable crease on one piece of flesh, a mark that others considered an artefact of burial, became evidence of a hysterectomy. In the Patrick Mahon case (1924) and the Toni Mancini case, the second of the so-called Brighton trunk murders (1934), he was confronted with a riot of body parts that he painstakingly and convincingly reassembled. In the trial of Norman Thorne in 1925 and the case of Sidney Fox (1930), Spilsbury confounded lay expectations about the relation between bruising, putrefaction, and violence to send the accused to the scaffold.

As contemporaries and his numerous biographers have noted, however, the very virtuosity of Spilsbury’s mortuary and courtroom performances threatened to undermine the foundations of forensic pathology as a modern and objective specialism. Spilsbury acted as a lone figure, often insisting on the accuracy of observations that could not easily be verified by his peers, and his commanding presence lent him an aura of infallibility that for many raised concerns that it was his celebrity rather than his science that persuaded juries to credit his evidence over all others.

Following Spilsbury’s suicide in 1947, a younger generation of forensic pathologists sought to distance themselves from his legacy, and in so doing carve out a more “modern” public image for their art. Led by Keith Simpson and Francis Camps, they criticised Spilsbury’s provincialism, his lack of interest in academic research and dialogue, and his refusal to train students. They sought to counter this limiting and risky insular virtuosity by embracing (in principle if not always in practice) the ideals of consultative exchange more in keeping with the norms of contemporary science.

Yet the cult of the celebrity pathologist did not die with Spilsbury. If anything, Simpson, Camps, and their contemporaries deepened and extended the pathologist’s public image by becoming prominent figures not merely in the mortuary and the courtroom but at crime scenes — a space that Spilsbury was not publicly identified with.

Newspaper photographs of the celebrity pathologist captured in action in the field became a stock feature of any high profile case from mid-century onwards. These public glimpses of their work also served to intensify their standing as so-called personalities: both Simpson and Camps, for example, were regularly photographed with their secretaries at the scene, lending human interest, by contrast with Spilsbury’s isolated figure.

Indeed, attendance at the crime scene became written into the peculiar heroics of the celebrity pathologist. From the 1960s onwards, in the context of chronic complaints about the decline of forensic pathology in England, the fact that they were willing to be called out at all hours to a scene of horror, smell, and intense labour was identified as the distinctive contribution of the forensic pathologist to a homicide investigation.

It was at the crime scene, in his cooperative interaction with the police and scientific investigators, and his willingness to extend his deductive powers beyond the body and into a world of traces, that, in Simpson’s view, the forensic pathologist practised his singular art.

Camps and Simpson translated their intimate contact with the murderous side of human nature into forms of popular entertainment. Both consulted on crime shows, were featured in documentaries on their work, and participated in broadcast interviews in which their views, not merely on their work but on wider social issues, were sought. Both also wrote about their work in the burgeoning market for true crime literature — Simpson, most successfully in his best selling 1978 memoir, ‘Forty Years of Murder’.

Such developments indicate that Spilsbury’s successors had to adapt the model of celebrity pathology in order to maintain their relevance to, and status within, a modern regime of the homicide investigation. When Spilsbury was at his peak, the seemingly scientific analysis of crime scenes, and the organic and inorganic traces they contained was in its infancy, and homicide investigation — as public drama — began at the mortuary.

But from the 1930s onwards this model was challenged by an increasingly scientised and specialised approach to investigation, with the detection and collection of traces in crime scenes becoming routine. The growing complexity of trace analysis, in turn, demanded knowledge and equipment beyond conventional autopsy practices at the mortuary slab, and this, in principle, threatened forensic pathologists with relegation to the role of harvesting material from the body for analysis by other experts in other domains.

However, by extending the professional and public facets of their work, as they did at crime scenes, mid-century pathologists managed to maintain overall command of this expanding investigative regime. The case of John Reginald Halliday Christie (1953) provided the most spectacular platform for dramatising this new interdisciplinary forensics. The meticulous and patient excavation of 10 Rillington Place led by Francis Camps enabled experts to make sense of the profusion of objects, traces, and bodies retrieved from Christie’s infamous house of horror.

Despite these efforts, the days of the celebrity pathologist were numbered. Multidisciplinary, team-based, and technologically mediated and standardised protocols of homicide investigation increasingly threatened to marginalise the lone pathologist’s art. Indeed, as practitioners themselves acknowledged, it was not only the pathologist, but forensics itself as a publicly celebrated activity, that was being dislodged.

A 1964 editorial in the Journal of the Forensic Science Society captures this sense of decline. Forensic experts, it observed, were once “men of character, personality and renown,” who “descended as from Olympus.” At present, it continued, it was still possible to conjure an “aura of hushed respect about the doings of one of the most eminent whose thoughtful, bowler-hatted figure is to be seen, sometimes even on television, perambulating the scene of some murder or the gruesome remains of a sudden tragedy.” Yet this was fast becoming a relic from a by-gone age: “The complexity of the science, the sweep of its interests, the Babel of its languages seldom fully permeate public consciousness. It is easy to venerate the wisdom of a greybeard, but the anonymous toiler at his laboratory bench stirs little applause. And those faceless individuals among whom the great man’s interests are fragmented seldom communicate with one another and may soon find it impossible to do so.”

But why, if the era of celebrity pathology is dead, are we now awash with biographies and television dramas that draw on the exploits of its most famous exponent? Perhaps the answer lies in the very power of the modern forensics of DNA.

In one sense genomic forensics obliterates — figuratively and, through reviews of iconic cases like Crippen, literally — the synoptic art of the celebrity pathologist. Yet at the same time it invites a form of nostalgia for Spilsbury’s brilliant and idiosyncratic performances.

Spilsbury represents an era when crime mysteries could be unravelled by the heroic encounter of a solitary medical expert with the corpse. This contrasts with contemporary crime scene investigation, where evidence is first collected by a team of Scenes of Crime Officers (SOCOs), identities hidden by white suits and masks, and is then stored, classified, and analysed by laboratory technicians, who are themselves concealed within a highly bureaucratised landscape of the modern-day institutions of forensic science.

As a result, we are at once intrigued and repulsed by Spilsbury — a spectacular, but fallible, artist of battered flesh. Abstracted, disembodied, and sanitised, genetic forensics, though undoubtedly a source of public fascination, speaks to an entirely different register of wonderment.

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