The air of expectation is almost palpable as a tall, handsome and immaculately dressed young pathologist takes his place in the witness box. He carries with him a briefcase containing specimens that he will later display to illustrate the points he makes in his evidence. The year is 1910, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen is on trial for the murder of his wife Cora, and the name of the expert witness is Bernard Spilsbury, who will go on to become one of Leamington Spa’s most famous sons.
Bernard Henry Spilsbury was born in Bath Street, Leamington Spa on 16th May 1877, the eldest of the three children of a manufacturing chemist. He wasn’t particularly gifted academically but he worked hard and gained a place at Magdalen College, Oxford to study natural sciences. His ultimate goal was to practice medicine and in 1899 he moved to London to train at St Mary’s Hospital, but he became fascinated by pathology and microscopy. A future treating the living was forgotten – he had found his niche in forensic science.
At that time forensic medicine had a bad reputation. Some high profile cases had been handled incompetently, with “expert” opinions being clearly anything but, and it wasn’t a popular field for a young man to join, but Spilsbury wasn’t deterred. He began to earn a living from performing autopsies, the first of over 25,000 that he carried out during his career – that’s equivalent to half the population of Banbury! Most of these of course, were routine post mortems and only a small number would relate to possible murder, but it was these few that gained Spilsbury his fame.
He assisted senior colleagues in preparing cases for the prosecution before the notorious Crippen case of 1910, but that was the one that established his reputation. He was an excellent witness, apparently unruffled by court procedure, and spoke in a calm and confident manner giving a clear indication of the thoroughness of his investigation. What’s more he could explain his findings in a language that judge and jury could understand, without distorting the meaning or the facts. He would, for instance, say “bruise” rather than “contusion”, and “blood spots” rather than “petechiae”, so people listened and took note.
It was probably his courtroom presence, more than the long hours he spent in the dissecting room or poring over a microscope, that earned him the almost god-like respect he enjoyed in his heyday. People hung on his words because they understood them. Although they’d never ventured into a mortuary or looked at tissue sections, they could picture the findings as if they had. Unfortunately this ability to inspire didn’t translate to the lecture theatre. Spilsbury was apparently a fairly dull tutor outside of the lab.
Following an impressive performance in the witness box that led to Crippen’s conviction, Spilsbury was promoted to the post of Home Office pathologist when he was only thirty-three. He virtually lived in his laboratory, and his wife and three children saw little of him. His workload increased after the outbreak of war in 1914 when some of his colleagues were deployed to military service.
Over the next decade he would be involved in cases of unexplained death by shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning, fire, poisoning and drowning. He gained experience of them all and was able to speak authoritatively and convincingly about his findings both at the potential crime scene and in the lab. One needs to remember that this was a time before the high tech crime scene investigations that, thanks to a plethora of TV CSIs we are all now familiar with. In Spilsbury’s day for instance, finger printing was a new science, and it was only just possible to distinguish human blood from animal blood, and even that required a fair sized sample. A tiny spot or smear wouldn’t do. Inevitably a deal of conjecture crept in.
Spilsbury was one of the first forensic scientists to appreciate how important a thorough examination of the crime scene is. This was not always possible because he was often called in to give a second opinion long after a death had occurred. On many occasions he was required to perform autopsies on exhumed corpses. This was the case with the so-called “brides in the bath” murders in 1915.
By the time George Joseph Smith, confidence trickster, thief, fraudster and six times bigamist was suspected of involvement in the deaths of three women who had all drowned in their baths, inspection of their bathrooms was impossible. The baths, however, were available and were seized by the police and Spilsbury and his colleagues conducted experiments with the help of a volunteer nurse, as to how the murders might have been committed. The jury was impressed with the findings and Smith was convicted of three murders and hanged. It was a headline case and by now Bernard Spilsbury had become a celebrity of international standing.
Many high profile murder cases followed, and such was the esteem in which Dr Spilsbury was held by the judiciary and the general public alike, that sometimes it seemed that the mere fact that he had been consulted went a long way to sealing a suspect’s fate, even before the trial. It wasn’t unknown for defence counsel who had the temerity to question the great man’s evidence to be reprimanded by the presiding judge. Dr Bernard Spilsbury was knighted in 1923.
Alas, it is so often the case that celebrities begin to believe their own publicity and consider themselves infallible, even in areas outside their expertise. So it was with Sir Bernard. He became thought of as the universal expert on all things medical where a crime was suspected, even though his time spent as a physician to the living could be measured in months. He was consulted on matters about which his knowledge was scant, but his prejudices strong, and he was always prepared to give an opinion. At that time both homosexual practices and abortion were illegal, and in retrospect one might gain
the impression that if someone known to be involved in either, was accused of some other crime, evidence might be tailored to fit.
In the late 1930s Sir Bernard’s star began to wane and his judgment was occasionally questioned, and by the end of the decade his health too had deteriorated. He was developing arthritis and in 1940 when he was 63, he had a minor stroke. Having no medical practice he relied on coroner’s work for his income, but his declining health made autopsies difficult and his finances suffered.
The same year personal tragedy struck. He was very proud of his son Peter who had graduated from Oxford and was working in London as a house surgeon at St Thomas’s hospital treating victims of the German air raids. In September the hospital was bombed in the blitz and Peter was killed. In 1945, his other son Alan, who had worked alongside his father in the lab, died from tuberculosis. Life was bleak.
He struggled on till December 1947, then just before Christmas, he performed his last post mortem, distributed seasonal gifts to his staff and took dinner at his club. He then went back to his lab, locked the door, carefully hung up his coat and turned on the gas tap to his Bunsen burner. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, famous Home Office pathologist, sat down on a battered wooden chair to await his end. He was found, too late, by a lab technician who smelt gas. He was pronounced dead at 9.10pm.
It was a sad end to a glittering career. At his peak he was credited by judiciary and public alike with almost superhuman skill and insight. Later he was revealed to be fallible, but would never concede an error. He sometimes advanced theories as to how a crime may have been committed based mainly on conjecture, but he presented them with an authority that convinced juries. His detractors slate him for that, but his was an age when it was not unknown for police to find a charred body in a burnt-out car and take neither photographs nor notes, or to send a victim’s blood-stained pyjamas to the laundry before a forensic examination could be made. Is it any wonder speculation played a part?
Sir Bernard Spilsbury undoubtedly had his failings and may have been responsible for some grave miscarriages of justice, but modern forensic pathology owes a great deal to his hard work and dogged determination. He stressed the importance of examining the crime scene; he pressed for improvements in forensic laboratory facilities and he instigated the use of the “murder bag”, a kit of essentials to take on an investigation. Perhaps, above all, it’s his ability to translate complex pathological findings into layman’s language that endures.
Today, thanks to television we’re all amateur CSIs. Next time we eagerly await the verdict as a handsome on-screen pathologist peers down a microscope, or we gaze enthralled at a pair of latex-gloved hands holding a gory blob of unidentified tissue, we should perhaps spare a thought for a leading pioneer of forensic science – Leamington’s famous son, Sir Bernard Spilsbury.