Cadaver Dogs in the 19th Century

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A landscape of odors….

Compared to canines, humans smell in black and white. We live in a world of sight and sound, words and letters. If you wrote a novel for dogs, you’d have to use smells – it would be a scratch-and-sniff book. Dogs find their literature on the ground, on trees, and under bushes; a stroll in the woods is to browse through a library. They “see” the world as an aromatic landscape colored with scents we can’t even imagine.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

It’s precisely that facility that makes dogs so useful to law enforcement. Their olfactory perception complements a detective’s visual perception and can offer critical clues in a criminal investigation.

Cadaver dogs begin their careers

Father of the murder bag.

Hanns Gross, father of forensic science in Austria. Public domain.

Systematic training for cadaver dogs began in the 1970s. Modern human remains detection dogs learn to distinguish the odors of human decomposition from those of animal decomposition and track them through varied terrains. But that doesn’t mean that no one ever used dogs for finding dead bodies before the 1970s. One of the first recorded instances of a court purposely using a dog to search for a murder victim occurred during the investigation of the Bavarian Ripper in 1809.

Hanns Gross, an Austrian criminologist and the father of modern forensic science, wrote about the need for cadaver dog searches as early as 1899:

Hanns Gross recommended this breed as a cadaver dog

Johann Elias Ridinger, Leithund, 18th c.; public domain

“Undertaking outdoor [searches] is difficult under any circumstances. Systematic searching is almost always impossible due to the size of the territory; success is due to chance. Only in one circumstance is outside assistance advisable: searching for a human body. For that purpose, a good tracking dog can be used. Not every bloodhound or Leithund [a 19th c. German breed similar to the Weimaraner] can be used, however; only a few dogs possess the right facilities for the task. But if the investigating magistrate needs help in such a case, it won’t suffice if he just orders: “Get me a tracking dog.” He most certainly won’t obtain any help in this manner. He must, as discussed above, prepare for war during peacetime. This is all the more necessary because you often find such dogs in completely unexpected places, and can’t find one on the spot when you need one.”

A watchdog breaks the case

Gross managed to find a good dog and described how it found a body quickly enough to exculpate the suspect:

William Henry Jackson, "Seek Dead," 1902; public domain. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

William Henry Jackson, “Seek Dead,” 1902; public domain. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

“A tanner in my district had a garden-variety watchdog that didn’t have a bit of hunting dog in him, but (I think it merely due to his voraciousness) could find every single piece of carrion within a huge perimeter. For that reason, the local hunters borrowed him to find all the game they shot that their hunting dogs couldn’t find. The tanner’s dog found everything that was animal and dead. He would come to a standstill for wounded deer as well as a long-dead cat, but he found both. Once, when we needed to search for a missing cretin, presumed to have been murdered by his brother-in-law, this dog found the cretin’s body deep in the woods. At that point it was still possible to determine that the cretin had died as a result of an epileptic seizure, but a few days later, it might not have been possible to make a postmortem finding that no violence had occurred, and the suspicion would have followed the brother-in-law for the rest of his life.”

A landscape of scent. Morguefile photos.

A landscape of scent. Morguefile photos.

The dogs in this case and the Bavarian Ripper investigation proved their worth. One discovered the bodies, providing the crucial piece of evidence to convict a murderer, and the other found the body quickly for investigators to prove there was no murder, and exonerated an innocent suspect. Hats off to cadaver dogs and their forerunners in the 19th century!

What are some of the unusual things your dog has found with its nose?

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) pp. 122-124 (translation mine).

Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows (New York: Touchstone 2013)

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Cadaver Dogs: Aiding Law Enforcement throughout History

Portrait of Working Police Dog, Rob Hainer,

Many cadaver dogs are German Shepherds. Portrait of Working Police Dog by Rob Hainer,

Dogs love stench. They are attracted to different fragrances than we are. They poke in garbage, sniff rear ends, and flop down on the beach to roll in dead fish. So it is not surprising that incidents of dogs discovering homicide victims sprinkle the history of criminal investigations. Most of those discoveries are accidental. Dogs out on walks led their unsuspecting owners to gruesome finds. But they are finds that aid investigators.

The first cadaver dog successfully used in a homicide investigation was a yellow lab, like the dog pictured here.

The first cadaver dog successfully used in a homicide investigation in the USA was a Yellow Labrador Retriever like Frank, the dog pictured here.

People have long used dogs for search and rescue or for tracking live criminals. Why not also the dead? Training of cadaver dogs began in the 1970s. Handlers hid objects that smell like death, such as chemicals or pulled teeth. They taught the dogs to track those odors in various kinds of weather and in different terrains. The dogs also had to distinguish between human and animal remains. The first police dog in the United States exclusively trained for cadaver searches started working in 1974. “Pearl,” a yellow lab, made her first find in New York State. She found the clandestine grave of a Syracuse College student, buried four feet deep.

Schiller Feuerbach 038Purposeful use of dogs to search for murder victims might be much older. In 1809, a court clerk used his dog to perform a cadaver search in a German murder investigation. The case was of serial killer Andreas Bichel, known as the Bavarian Ripper (or Mädchenschlächter in German). Two girls disappeared mysteriously in 1806 and 1808 in Bavaria. One had disappeared after visiting Andreas Bichel, but he claimed she had left his home with another man. In May, 1809, one of the girl’s sisters visited a tailor and recognized part of the missing girl’s skirt in his workshop. She contacted the police, who questioned the tailor. He said Andreas Bichel had given him the material to make him a vest.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

The court opened its investigation the following day and searched Bichel’s house, finding more clothing from the missing girls, but no bodies. Two days later, the court clerk decided to take his dog for a walk past Bichel’s house. This dog most certainly did not have the training of a modern cadaver dog. Nevertheless, it alerted repeatedly at a wood shed. This led to a search of the shed, the discovery of the victims buried behind the shed, and Bichel’s confession and conviction. He had lured the girls into his house with the promise of a magic mirror that would show them their future husbands. Then he killed them for their clothing. Bichel was executed on June 9, 1809.

No where in the case report did the dog receive special credit. But the Bichel case might be the first recorded instance of forensic use of a dog to search for a cadaver. And for the history of cadaver dogs’ work in law enforcement, we can all express our thanks.

What are some of the unusual things your dog has found using its sense of smell?


Some literature on point:

Paul Johann Anselm von Feuerbach, Andreas Bichel, der Mädchenschlächter. In: Altenmäßige Darstellung merkwürdiger Verbrechen (3rd ed. Aalen: Scientia 1984;  1st ed.Geißen: Müller 1811).

Andrew Rebmann, Edward David & Marcella H. Sorg, Forensic Training and Tactics for the Recovery of Human Remains (Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press: 2000)

Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows (New York: Touchstone: 2013)

(c) 2014 Ann Marie Ackermann

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