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48 The Albany Law Journal 529
December 30, 1893
(Originally published in Chambers's Journal)

    Detection of Crime by Photography.

  1. The detection of crime is a matter of fascinating interest to all but those who, unhappily for themselves, have to pay the penalty of wrong-doing. The novelist, as well as the dramatist, knows well that a crime round which a mystery hangs, or which involves the detection or pursuit of a suspected individual, is a theme which will at once secure the attention of those for whom he caters. In one respect it is a misfortune that that should be so; for there has arisen a copious supply of gutter literature, which, by its stories of wonderful escapes and lawless doings of notorious thieves and other vagabonds, arouses the emulation of youthful renders, and often, as the records of our police courts too frequently prove, tempts them to go and do likewise. On the other hand, we cannot look without admiration at such a wonderful word-pictures as that given us in "Oliver Twist," where the wretched Sykes wanders with the brand of Cain upon him, haunted by the visionary form of his victim.

  2. Both novelists and playwrights have many clever ways of tracking their puppets and hounding them to death. Some of these are hackneyed enough—such as the footmark in the soil, the dirty thumb-mark on the paper, paper, and he who can conceive a new way of bringing about the inevitable detection is surely half-way toward success.

  3. Once again has romance been beaten by reality. In this matter of the detection of criminals the photographic camera has lately performed such novel feats that quite a fresh set of ideas is placed at the disposal of fiction-mongers. The subject recently came before the Photographic Society of Great Britain, in the form of a paper by Dr. Paul Jeserich of Berlin, a chemist, who has devoted his attention for many years to the detection of crime by scientific means, and more especially by the means of photography. This paper was illustrated by a remarkable collection of photographs, which were projected by means of an optical lantern. Some of the wonderful results obtained by this indefatigable worker we will now briefly place before out readers.

  4. Most persons are aware that for many years it has been the practice in this and many countries to take the portraits of criminals when they become the unwilling tenants of the State, and such portraits have proved most useful in subsequent identification. There is little doubt, thinks Dr. Jeserich, that this system might with advantage be extended to the photographing of the scene of the crime; for the camera will faithfully record little details, at the time considered to be unimportant, but which may supply a valuable link in the chain of evidence later on. Thus he refers to a case of murder, when, in the course of a terrible struggle, the contents of a room were upturned—a clock, among other things, being hurled from its place and stopped. A photograph would have shown the hour at which the deed was done—a fact of first importance, as every prisoner who has endeavored to establish an alibi knows well enough. But it is in microscopical examination, and in the subsequent photographing of the object examined in much magnified form, that Dr. Jeserich has done his most noteworthy, work. Such a photograph will often afford evidence of the most positive kind, which can be readily comprehended and duly appraised by judge and jury alike. Let us now see, by a few examples, how the method works out

  5. The first criminal case brought forward by Dr. Jeserich was one in which the liberty of a suspected man literally "hung upon a hair;" for by a single hair was he tracked. The case was one of assault, and two men were suspected of the deed. A single hair was found upon the clothing of the victim, and this hair was duly pictured in the form of a photo-micrograph. (It may be as well perhaps to point out here that by this term is meant the enlarged image of a microscopic object, the term "micro-photograph" being applied to those tiny specks of pictures which can only be seen when magnified with a microscope.) A., one of the suspected men, had a gray beard; and a hair from his chin was photographed and compared with the first picture taken. The difference in structure, tint and general appearance was so marked that the man was at once liberated. The hair of the other man, B., was also examined, and bore little resemblance to that found on the victim. The latter was now more carefully scrutinized, and compared with other specimens. The photograph clearly showed, for one thing, that the hair was pointed—it had never been out. Gradually the conclusion was arrived at that it belonged to a dog—"an old yellow, smooth-haired and comparatively short-haired dog." Further inquiry revealed the fact that B. owned such a dog, a fresh hair from which agreed in every detail with the original photograph, and the man was convicted. He subsequently confessed that he alone committed the crime.

  6. In the identification of blood-stains several difficulties crop up. As every one knows, blood when magnified is found to contain myriads of little globules, or corpuscles, as they are commonly called. Some of these are colorless; by t the others are red, and give to blood its well-known red color. The microscopist can tell whether the blood he submits to examination is that of a mammal, of a bird, or of a fish: for the corpuscles of each have distinct characteristics. But when we ask him to differentiate between the blood-corpuscles of different kinds of mammals, he is somewhat at a loss, because his only guide is that of size. Thus the blood-corpuscles of the elephant are, as might be expected, larger than those of any of the other mammalia; but they are in other respects like those of his brother mammal, man—round in outline, and looking like so many coins carelessly thrown together. A dog or a pig possesses corpuscles of smaller size, while those of goat are very much smaller still. Here is a case in which these differences witnessed with terrible effect against a man suspected of a serious crime. A murder had been committed, and D. was the man suspected; suspicion being strengthened by the circumstance that an axe belonging to him was found smeared with blood, which had been partly wiped off. The man denied his guilt, and accounted for the blood-stained weapon, which he declared he had not taken the trouble to wipe, by saying that he had that day killed a goat with it. The blood was examined microscopically, and the size of the corpuscles proved his statement to be false. A photo-micrograph of it, as well as of goat's blood, was prepared for comparison by the judge and jury. Another photo-micrograph was also made from part of the blade of the axe, which showed very clearly by unmistakable streaks, that the murderer had done his best to remove the traces of his crime. It is certain that these photographs must be far more useful for purposes of detection than the original microscopic preparations from which they are taken; for it requires a certain education of the eye to see through a microscope properly, and still more to estimate the value of the evidence it offers. It is certain too that counsel on either side would see through the microscope with very different eyes.

  7. We now come to a very important section of Dr. Jeserich's work—the detection of falsification of handwriting and figures by means of photography. Crimes of this nature are far more common than deeds of violence; and judging by the heavy punishment meted out to the offenders, in comparison to the mild sentences often passed upon men whom to call brutes would be base flattery, the law would seem to consider such sins worse than those committed against the person. However this may be, it is a most important thing that this very dangerous class of crime should be subject to ready detection. The microscope alone will not aid us much, although we can detect by its aid places in paper where erasures have been made. If any one will take the trouble to examine microscopically the paper on which these words are printed, using quite a low-power object-glass, he will note that its smooth surface altogether disappears, and that it seems to be as coarse as a blanket. This being the case, it will be readily understood that an erasure with a knife, which, would be, imperceptible to the unaided eye, becomes so exaggerated when viewed with the microscope that there can be no mistake about it. In examining writing by this searching aid to vision the finest lines appear thick and coarse. It is also possible to ascertain whether an alteration has been made in a work before the ink first applied has become dry, or whether the amendment has been an afterthought. In the former case the previously applied ink will more or less amalgamate with and run into the other, as will be clearly seen under the microscope; while in the latter case each ink-mark will preserve its own unbroken outline. The use of this observation in cases of suspected wrong-doing is obvious. Dr. Jeserich shows two photographs which illustrate these differences. In the first, a document dated early in January is marked 1884—the four having been altered into a five as soon as written, so as to correct a mistake which most of us make a dozen times or more at the beginning of each new year. In the other picture the date had been altered fraudulently, and long after the original words had been traced, in order to gain some unworthy advantage.

  8. The photographic plates by which these records have been accomplished are the ordinary gelatine plates which are being used in the present day by thousands of amateur workers. By special preparation these plates can be made to afford evidence of a far more wonderful kind, and can in certain cases be made to yield a clear image of writing which has been completely covered with fresh characters by the hand of the forger. In this way the true and the false are distinctly revealed, together with the peculiarities belonging to each, clearly defined.

  9. The word "ordinary" has a special significance to photographers, and is used by them in contradistinction to a color-sensitive (orthochromatic) plate. This second kind of sensitive surface is of comparatively recent date, and the great advantage in its use is that it renders colors more according to their relative brightness—just in fact as an engraver would express them by different depths of tints. These plates are especially useful in photographing colored objects, such as paintings in oil or water color. Dr. Jeserich has however pointed out alt entirely new use for them, and has shown that they will differentiate between black inks of different composition.

  10. The oft-quoted line: "Things are not always as they seems" is very true of what we call black ink. It is generally not black, although it assumes that appearance on paper. Taking, for experiment, the black inks made by three different manufacturers, and dropping a little of each into a test-tube half full of water, the writer found that one was distinctly blue, another red, and the third brown. Each was an excellent writing fluid, and looked as black as night when applied to paper. Now Dr. Jeserich prepares his color-sensitive plates in such a way that they will reveal a difference in tone between inks of this description, while an ordinary plate is powerless to do any thing of the kind. Among other examples, he shows the photograph of a certain bill of exchange, whereon the date of payment is written April. The drawer of this bill had declared that it was not payable until May; whereupon Dr. Jeserich photographed it a second time with a color-sensitive plate. The new photograph gives a revelation of the true state of affairs. The word "Mai" had been altered to "April" by a little clever manipulation of the pen, and the fraud was not evident to the eye, to the microscope or to the ordinary photographic process. But the color-sensitive film tells us that the ink with which the original word "Mai" was written was of a different black hue from that employed by the forger when he wrote over it, and partly formed out of it the word "April." The consequence is that one word is much fainter than the other, each stroke of alteration being plainly discernible, and detecting the forgery. Another case is presented where a bill already paid, let us say, in favor of one Schmidt, is again presented with the signature Fabian. Here again the photographic evidence shows in the most conclusive manner that the first word is still readable under the altered conditions. In this case, when the accused was told that by scientific treatment the first name had been thus revealed he confessed to the fraud, and was duly punished.

  11. Alterations in figures have naturally come under Jeserich's observation; figures being, as a rule, far more easy to tamper with than words—especially where careless writers of checks leave blank spaces in front of numerals, to tempt the skill of those whose ways are crooked. Dr. Jeserich shows a document which is drawn apparently for a sum of money represented by the figures 20,200. The amount was disputed by the payer, and hence the document was submitted to the photographic test. As a result it was found that the original figures had been 1,200, and that the payee had altered the first figure to 0, and had placed a 2 in front of it. The result to him was four years penal servitude; and it is satisfactory to note that after sentence had been passed upon him, he confessed that the photograph had revealed the truth.

  12. Two cases in which fabrication of documents was rendered evident by the camera are of a somewhat amusing nature, although one might think it difficult to find matter for mirth out of these mendacious doings. Two citizens of Berlin had been summoned for non-payment of taxes, and had quite forgotten the day upon which the summonses were returnable—thus rendering themselves liable to increased expenses. It was a comparatively easy matter, and one which did not lie very heavily on their consciences, to alter the 24 which denoted the day of the month into 26. But that terrible photographic plate found them out; and the small fine which they hoped to evade was superseded in favor of imprisonment for the grave offense of falsifying an official document. In another case, a receipt for debts contracted up to 1881 was altered to 1884, by the simple addition of two strokes in an ink which was of a different photographic value from the ink which had been used by the author of the document.

  13. Many cases like these, relating to falsifications of wills, postal orders, permits and other documents, have come under the official notice of Dr. Jeserich. One of these is especially noteworthy, because the accused was made to give evidence against himself in a novel manner. He was a cattle-dealer, and had altered a permit for passing animals across the Austrian frontier at a time when the prevalence of disease necessitated a certain period of quarantine.

  14. The photographic evidence showed that a 3 had been added to the original figures, and it was necessary to ascertain whether the prisoner had inserted this numeral. To do this he was made to write several 3's, and these were photographed on a film of gelatine. This transparent film was now placed over the impounded document, and it was found that any of the images of the newly written figures would very nicely fit over the disputed 3 on the paper. Such a test as this, it is obvious, is far more conclusive and satisfactory in every way than the somewhat doubtful testimony of experts in handwriting—the actual value of whose evidence was so clearly set forth during the celebrated Parnell inquiry.

  15. It is refreshing to turn to an instance in which the photographic evidence had the effect, not of convicting a person, but of clearing him from suspicion. The dead body of a man was found near the outskirts of a wood, and appearances indicated that he had been the victim of foul play. An acquaintance of his had been arrested on suspicion, and a vulcanite match-box believed to belong to the accused—an assertion which however he denied—seemed to strengthen the case against him. The box was then subjected to careful examination. It was certainly the worse for wear, for its lid was covered with innumerable scratches. Amid these makings it was thought that there were traces of a name; but what the name was it was quite impossible to guess. Dr. Jeserich now took the matter in hand, and rubbed the box with a fine, impalpable powder, which insinuated itself into every crevice. He next photographed the box, while a strong side-light was thrown upon its surface, so as to show up every depression—when the name of the owner stood plainly revealed. This was not that of the prisoner, but belonged to a man who had dropped the box near the spot where it was found many weeks before the suspected crime had been committed. The accused was at once released.

  16. In conclusion, we may quote one more case of identification, which, although it does not depend upon the camera, is full of interest, and is associated with that other wonderful instrument known as the spectroscope. Solutions of logwood, carmine and blood have to the eye exactly the same appearance; but when the liquids are examined by the spectroscope, absorption bands are shown, which have for each liquid a characteristic form. In the case of blood the character of the absorption bands alters if the liquid be associated with certain gases, such as those which are given off during the combustion of carbonaceous material. Now let us see how this knowledge was applied in a case which came under Dr. Jeserich's official scrutiny. A cottage was burned down, and the body of its owner was found in the ruins in such a charred condition that he was hardly recognizable. A relative was in consequence of certain incriminating circumstances suspected of having murdered the man, and then set fire to the building in order to hide every trace of his crime—thinking, no doubt, that the conflagration would be ascribed to accident. The dead body was removed, and a drop or two of blood was taken from the lungs and examined spectroscopically, with a view to finding out whether death had been caused by suffocation, or had taken place, as was believed, before the house was set on fire.

  17. The absorption spectrum was found to be that of normal blood, and the suspicion against the accused was thus strengthened. He ultimately confessed to having first committed the murder and then set fire to the building, according to the theory adopted by the prosecution The proverb tells us that "the way of transgressors is hard." The thanks of the law-abiding are due to Dr. Jeserich for making it harder still.—Chambers's Journal.