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Meet 'America's Sherlock Holmes,' The Guy Who Developed And Honed Most Modern CSI Techniques

 Edward Oscar Heinrich working with a skull.
University of California, Berkeley
Edward Oscar Heinrich working with a skull. He drew upon his background in pharmacy, chemical engineering, chemistry and sanitation engineering to become a pioneer in forensics. During his career, he was sometimes referred to in the press as "America's Sherlock Holmes."

A lot of crime scene investigation practices can be traced back to one guy.

Edward Oscar Heinrich worked about 100 years ago and developed many forensics techniques still used today. He's not very well known, but when Kate Winkler Dawson ran across him in an encyclopedia about crime, she was intrigued.

Dawson is a senior lecturer in broadcast journalism at UT Austin and host and creator of the historical true crime podcast Tenfold More Wicked. Her book about Heinrich, American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI, is now out in paperback.

Dawson says Heinrich was the first to bring geology and entomology — the study of insects — to the investigation of criminal cases. And ballistics was "really kind of where he put his stamp."

But, Dawson says, Heinrich also embraced some techniques that later proved less reliable, including fingerprint, blood spatter and handwriting analysis.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about Heinrich's innovations.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT's Jennifer Stayton: How did you first hear about Edward Oscar Heinrich? He doesn’t have a very high profile in history.

Kate Winkler Dawson: At about page 100 of this massive 800-page book [an encyclopedia about crime], there was this great picture of this train that had been blown to smithereens by too much dynamite. It was this botched train robbery in 1923 in Oregon. But I just started skimming the story, and I found in there a line about Edward Oscar Heinrich, who was this forensic scientist.

This was the case that gave him the nickname “America's Sherlock Holmes.” It described these techniques that he used — which just seemed like a never-ending list of disciplines that he used in forensics — to take one pair of overalls found at the scene of this deadly train robbery and pick off 20 to 25 different clues, whereas the federal agents who had looked at the overalls before found one clue and that was it.

He had, I think in some ways inadvertently, acquired all of these skills. He was a chemistry major in college. He learned about all kinds of sciences. And so all of this came together to sort of make him realize that he really could help this field that was really emerging at the time.

What are some of the things that he did and practices that he established that are still used today?

Forensic geology was introduced by him in a criminal case in America in 1929. He also introduced forensic entomology, which is the way little bugs arrive to a corpse. Blow flies come first and then beetles — without getting too graphic.

He also helped develop ballistics. And this was really kind of where he put his stamp. There's a case where he has invented this technique to photograph two bullets side by side.

When you fire a bullet through a gun, the barrel of the gun leaves a marking on the bullet that is unique to that gun. It's almost like a bullet fingerprint. A forensic scientist will take a bullet from a victim or from the wall, something that they know happened during the crime, and then they can fire a bullet through the suspect's gun and compare the markings.

We could see the two bullets side by side through one microscope because the comparison microscope had just been invented, but you couldn't photograph it.

So when he developed this photograph, which was the first of its kind, it sort of stunned the jury. And it's a technique that's still used today that seems simple, but he was able to alter it for other microscope companies and really move this along. And it's been very important ever since.

There were some practices, though, that kind of fell out of favor, that did not endure, that did not prove to be as useful. Talk about some of those.

He was a big fan of fingerprints. And as you'll see in the Fatty Arbuckle case, which is the silent film star who went on trial for manslaughter and assault for supposedly killing an actress who was at a party of his in 1921, Heinrich used Fatty Arbuckle’s fingerprint in order to try to prove that he was guilty.

Fingerprinting is not considered accurate unless you have a really, really clean print. And even then, it has variables that you can't control.

But I think blood spatter is probably one of his biggest — what I would consider a failure. He introduced the first case in 1925. And in the big case you see in the book, the story of David Lamson, who went on trial for killing his wife. You see that blood spatter played a huge role. It is just too squishy as a science.

He also loved handwriting analysis, which is also considered a junk science. Your handwriting can change based on medication you're taking. So, being able to predict somebody's handwriting and match it is something that is less than reliable.

Tell us a little bit about his personality. What kind of guy was he?

His public persona was arrogant, very confident, very controlled, sort of “my way or the highway.” Not a jerk, except to arrogant competitors who were constantly trying to steal work from him or undermine him on the stand. He did not like uneducated police officers. He felt like all police officers should have, at a minimum, a college education. And so he would frequently scoff at cops and not really care what their opinion was.

He would speak like a chemist would speak to a colleague to the jury, and the jury just was clueless. They had no idea what he was talking about. And that made him less credible at the beginning of his career.

When he would then start solving these incredible cases, he started gaining notoriety because he was getting results, and so cops believed him more; juries believed him more. But juries still just seem flummoxed with whatever his explanation was. But because it was Edward Oscar Heinrich they would side with him, but they still looked confused.

And so privately, this just tortured him. He felt like he was being misunderstood. He felt like he wasn't doing a good job translating what he spent so much time in the lab doing.

He in his private life was as meticulous, if not more meticulous and quite frankly, controlling. As his sons got older, he became more controlling of their lives. He didn't seem to be particularly controlling over his wife. But in these letters, he would dictate to his sons the kind of jobs they should have, the kind of women they should marry.

All of this adds up to a man who is personally insecure because sometimes in the press, he's sort of called out. He was such a controlled person in his public life and in his personal life, and it really affected his relationships.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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