Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Andrew Rose and Bernard Spilsbury

I've mentioned a couple of times Andrew Rose's interesting biography of Bernard Spilsbury, the forensic pathologist whose career was launched by his performance as expert witness in the Crippen case. I invited Andrew to say a bit more about the background to his book, by way of a guest blog, and here it is:

' I decided to write a biography of Sir Bernard Spilsbury after learning about the extraordinary ‘disappearing bruise’, which convicted Sydney Fox of matricide in 1930. Spilsbury’s superb performance at trial, dismissing a strong defence case by the use of restrained and deadly testimony, gave lethal substance to the legend of the ‘incomparable witness’. Research impelled me to the view that the ‘Honorary Pathologist to the Home Office’ had feet of clay. The more I delved, often assisted by official records opened up at my request, the worse things became. I’m now convinced that several defendants were convicted of murder and hanged on flawed evidence.

Although Spilsbury was - as lawyers sometimes say – a ‘naughty’ witness, I’ve a sneaking admiration for his style. Handsome, tall, elegant, immaculately-dressed – a Fred Astaire of the courtroom – his practised act for years held policemen, press reporters, jurors, judges, and Home Secretaries helpless and spellbound. Then came the Fall – and a supremely nihilistic suicide, almost blowing up University College Hospital in the process.

Spilsbury, of course, made his name in the Crippen trial, with his firm declaration that scar tissue – consistent with an abdominal operation undergone by Mrs Crippen – had been found in the body parts. In Lethal Witness, I describe how Spilsbury’s findings on this highly contentious issue have been discredited by modern expert evidence.

Martin’s latest novel, Dancing for the Hangman, is a sharp new take on the Crippen affair and a welcome contribution to the debate, not least because we’re approaching the centenary of Belle Elmore’s disappearance at the end of January 1910.

What do we make of new DNA evidence, resulting from the examination of a microscopic section taken by Spilsbury from “the remains” (wonderful expression!) found at Hilldrop Crescent? The University of Michigan’s Dr Foran has claimed that this was not a slice of tissue from Mrs C, but rather from the body of an unknown man. Presumably Foran and his team were aware of the possibility that the sample might unwittingly have been contaminated when Spilsbury prepared his slides in September 1910, but I’ve yet to see an academic paper setting out a detailed account of Foran’s methodology and conclusions.

The Crippen case certainly has some odd features, not least the absence of any physical indication of gender in the filleted remains, which nonetheless were accompanied by items clearly used by the missing woman. It’s also curious that Crippen, Le Neve, their French maid, plus a domestic animal or two, should have been able to occupy Hilldrop Crescent, apparently without problems, for several months while gently decaying body parts lay only five inches below the brick surface of a room (not really a cellar) at the back of the house. And, for the record, I don’t repose much confidence in either the integrity or the ability of Chief Inspector Walter Dew. Was he Clouseau or Challenor? Discuss…

On the other hand (along with Dorothy L Sayers) perhaps we should always prefer the probable impossible to the improbable possible. Anybody seen Belle lately? 2010 looks like being a vintage year for Crippenistas.

Andrew Rose is the author of Lethal Witness: Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Honorary Pathologist, which was published in 2007. Copies - signed if required - can be obtained directly from the author for a special price of £12.50 (including p & p). Contact andrewroseauthor@googlemail.com '

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