Birth of the “Forensic Kit” or “Murder Bag”
Sherlock Holmes had his magnifying glass. A modern detective will bring things like evidence tags, fingerprint kits, and latent bloodstain reagents.
What did a 19th-century detective pack into his forensic kit to bring to a crime scene?
Let’s ask Hanns Gross (1847-1915), an Austrian who established forensic science as an academic discipline. Gross studied law and worked as a detective (Untersuchungsrichter) before founding the first university institute of criminology. His Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Handbook for Criminal Investigation), a field book for criminal investigators that was published in 1893, caused a global tsunami in police work, washing away outdated techniques. Gross integrated science and psychology into criminal investigations. He also developed the field of crime scene photography. In translated form, the Handbook became a standard work worldwide.
In the Handbook, Gross lists the items a detective should keep packed in his forensic kit in order to be ready to process a crime scene at a moment’s notice. The list is long, but here are some of the important contents:
- paper for taking notes
- pen and pencil, ink
- ruler or measuring tape
- pair of compasses for measuring minute distances
- pedometer for measuring distance in paces
- transparent paper for tracing outlines, drawings, and blood splatter
- plaster to make casts
- test tubes for samples of stomach contents of dead bodies to test for arsenic
- candles for illumination during nighttime investigation
- crucifix for the purposes of putting a dying witness under oath for a statement
- directional compass to provide orientation for the detective’s sketch of the crime
- bars of soap, not only for washing, but for taking impressions of small items like keys
- brush for cleaning debris out of a footprint before taking a cast
- magnifying glass
- tape, to which small traces of evidence adhere
- candy for calming children and inducing them to make statements
- first-aid kit, for victims or the detective himself
Which of these items seem old-fashioned? And which were ahead of their time? Do you think anything’s missing?
Because Hanns Gross developed criminal investigation photography, I was surprised not to see a camera on his list. He might have included that in later editions of his book.
(c) Text Ann Marie Ackermann 2014
Literature on point:
Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (Graz, Austria: Leuschner & Lubensky’s Universitäts-Buchhandlung 1899)