The Man Who’s Forensic Science’s Best Kept Secret

Book review: American Sherlock, by Kate Winkler Dawson (Amazon / Book Depository)

Innocent men were being hanged while criminals escaped justice. The complicated crimes of the 1920s demanded a special type of sleuth — an expert with the instincts of a detective in the field, the analytical skills of a forensic scientist in the lab, and the ability to translate that knowledge to a general audience in a courtroom. Edward Oscar Heinrich became the nation’s first unique crime scene investigator — one of America’s greatest forensic scientists, a criminalist who cracked some of the country’s most baffling cases.

Kate Winkler Dawson, author of one of my recent favorite true crime / narrative nonfiction mashups Death in the Air, returns to true crime in her second book, this time with a lesser known stateside story — that of Edward Oscar Heinrich, a Gilded Age-criminologist and incomparable pioneer among multiple disciplines within forensic science, regarded by some experts today as “America’s greatest forensic scientist of the early twentieth century.”

He pioneered countless methods that we take for granted as part of the crime-fighting arsenal — techniques like blood-spatter analysis, ballistics, and latent fingerprint retrieval and analysis. It’s safe to say Oscar Heinrich shaped modern criminal investigation techniques as much as any other scientist in the twentieth century.

He was also an early adopter of victim profiling, and victimology has taken on an increasingly important role in identifying unknown killers. He used photomicrographs –magnified photos taken through microscopes — and turned them into comparison shots to be used in court to depict significant differences to juries, a method still used today. He demonstrated impressive analysis of trace evidence, pioneered forensic geology and used handwriting analysis and forensic entomology, the latter being another field still widely in use.

As Dawson rightly observes, “Rarely now is there an investigator with his expertise in so many disciplines — someone who can synthesize those skills with outstanding fieldwork and deductive reasoning in the laboratory.”

And yet he isn’t a household name. Heinrich, along with most of the cases he worked, which Dawson points out were “front-page news at the time,” has fallen into obscurity. He didn’t seek the spotlight for his work although his cases drew it on their own. The media dubbed him “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” and unlike others who earned a nickname inspired by the famous fictional detective, it was “a moniker that privately pleased him.”

Why his reputation didn’t have sticking power is still something of a mystery by the end. But perhaps some reticence to celebrate his career too much is because despite the importance of many of his developments and techniques, a few have turned more controversial: “He also pioneered some significant mistakes — problems that law enforcement is still grappling with today.” Like blood spatter analysis.

Each chapter covers a different case and the scientific innovation it led to. They’re all a little brief, however, which is the book’s biggest drawback. I’m not sure if this is the result of details lost to time, poor recordkeeping, not enough direct material from those involved or what, really. There was actually a lot of material to draw on, but the stories themselves come across a bit thin and lacking in potentially helpful detail. Dawson is a fantastic writer, however — she easily engages the reader, even in a structure like this that changes topics so frequently. She also makes the science accessible and very fun reading, especially as the significance of each technique begins to come into focus as Heinrich’s investigation progresses.

The narrative is bookended by the strange case of Allene Lamson, the affluent wife of a Stanford University employee. She was found dead in her bathtub with a nasty head wound and her husband quickly became the prime suspect. Whether her death was a murder or an accident underscores the complications faced by the developing discipline of forensic science, not unlike its state today despite technology’s leaps and bounds, where uncertainties and surprisingly different interpretations still abound. Dawson puts some focus on the difficulties inherent in this science, despite how far it’s come since Heinrich blazed trails:

Much of forensic science was developed within law enforcement agencies, and the techniques are not subjected to the rigorous, systematic tests and peer reviews like other scientific techniques. That has to change to maintain the integrity of the criminal justice system.

The case studies are interspersed with biographical elements from Heinrich’s life, and these were on the dry side, as I never got a clearer picture of who he was or why he did this work. He remained enigmatic despite having a lot of his own personal writings excerpted. It gives more of an overall impression but not anything that feels like a satisfying biographical experience. Dawson proved herself immensely capable with Death in the Air, so I’m convinced she did the best with what she had here. And it’s certainly a fun read, if an ultimately slightly underwhelming one. 3.5/5

American Sherlock:
Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI

by Kate Winkler Dawson
published February 11, 2020 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

12 thoughts on “The Man Who’s Forensic Science’s Best Kept Secret

Add yours

  1. I just finished a book about the American legal forensic growth…the story of Frances Lee glassner . It was fascinating! I’m trying to frame the review now..i think you’d like 18tiny deaths

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Am currently glued to Manhunter on Netflix so this is right up my street. Have also developed a guilty addiction to Ann Rule’s true crime books

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you loved it too!! I think it got my expectations just a tad too high for this one though. It’s still a fun and informative read, just wasn’t quite to the standard that one set, in my opinion 🙂

      Like

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