Today's Reading

As I flipped through those portraits, I gleaned more details about his private lab in Berkeley Hills, a lovely neighborhood overlooking San Francisco Bay. Heinrich was surrounded by odd devices. Every conceivable type of microscope was crammed onto a long wooden desk. Any extra space was surrendered to test tubes, crucibles, beakers, lenses, and scales. Behind Heinrich were shelves filled with hundreds of priceless books, at least priceless to a chemist turned forensic scientist. There were tomes on fingerprint identification, applied mechanics, analytic geometry, and powdered vegetable drugs.

The titles, written in six different languages, would intrigue any intellectual. Blood, Urine, Feces and Moisture: A Book of Tests, read one cover. Arsenic in Papers and Fabrics, read another. He even owned a tattered dictionary of slang used by criminals. They seemed unrelated, a cache of mismatched textbooks in the library of a brilliant madman. But each was a tiny piece belonging to a bigger puzzle that only he could assemble. The portrait of a genius and the tumultuous era in which he lived began to emerge.

And it 'was' a tumultuous era—the homicide rate in the 1920s, when Heinrich's most interesting work began, had increased by as much as almost 80 percent from the decade before, thanks to Prohibition. For thirteen years the federal government banned alcohol in hopes of reducing crime, but instead it spawned new and more creative criminal enterprises. Varying levels of corruption tainted local governments and police departments across the country. Judges enjoyed immunity from arrest, and most major cities were ruled by crime bosses. Poverty and unemployment were also responsible for the increase in violent crimes, as many Americans became desperate for security and safety. And there was an ever-growing backlog of unsolved crimes.

The FBI was still the Bureau of Investigation, a group of insufficiently trained officers who mostly investigated bank fraud. Local police forces were underfunded, poorly instructed, and mostly using investigative techniques that hadn't been updated since the Victorian era. There would be no public federal crime lab until 1932; violent bank robberies increased while murderers terrorized Americans, especially women, whose newfound independence inflamed both the passions and the anger of many in society.

The archaic methods of crime fighting in the 1920s, procedures depending on hunches and weak circumstantial evidence, were futile. Cops were combatting a sneakier criminal, those thieves and murderers who understood chemicals, firearms, and the criminal court system. Police were outmanned and many times outsmarted.

"Footprints are the best clue," declared one top cop at the time. "There's no need for any other type of identification."

Innocent men were being hanged while criminals escaped justice.

The complicated crimes of the 1920s demanded a special type of sleuth—an expert with the instincts of a detective in the field, the analytical skills of a forensic scientist in the lab, and the ability to translate that knowledge to a general audience in a courtroom. Edward Oscar Heinrich became the nation's first unique crime scene investigator—one of America's greatest forensic scientists, a criminalist who cracked some of the country's most baffling cases.

But not everyone in law enforcement welcomed his peculiar approach. In 1910, when he opened the nation's first private crime lab in Tacoma, Washington, he was scorned and quickly labeled a quack, an arrogant academic who claimed he could solve baffling crimes with some suspicious chemicals and a heavy microscope. His snappy tweed suits made him seem more like a square college professor than a seasoned detective. But he offered astounding results, solving at least two thousand cases in his more than forty-year career. He would regularly work between thirty and forty cases a month.

The press at the time dubbed Edward Oscar Heinrich "America's Sherlock Holmes" thanks to his brilliance in the lab, his cool demeanor at crime scenes, and his expertise in the witness chair. Between 1921 and 1933, his reputation evolved from curiosity to legend. His cases are enshrined in books, but their hero is largely unknown—a pioneer in the world of crime solving whose fingerprint is everywhere.

He invented new forensic techniques, a CSI in the field and inside the lab before the acronym even existed. And he was a nascent innovator of criminal profiling fifty years before the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit invented its methodology, in 1972. Present-day scientists recite his methods as they sit on the stand in criminal cases. He pioneered countless methods that we take for granted as part of the crime-fighting arsenal—techniques like blood-spatter analysis, ballistics, and latent fingerprint retrieval and analysis. It's safe to say Oscar Heinrich shaped modern criminal investigation techniques as much as any other scientist in the twentieth century.

He also pioneered some significant mistakes—problems that law enforcement are still grappling with today.

So much can be gleaned from Heinrich's best-known cases, many of which were front-page news at the time (but most of which have fallen into obscurity, much like the man himself). It was through these cases that his reputation was made. It was also in a few key cases that his worst mistakes were codified for generations of investigators to come. But first, to understand where Heinrich went wrong, we need to understand where he went right, by peering into his work at the very height of his powers.
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