5 Bizarre Ways Our Ancestors Solved Major Crimes
Our society has a weird relationship with its law enforcement. On one hand, it's good to know that someone is contractually required to come to our rescue when Choppy the Killer Klown attacks, or at least shovel what's left of us into a bucket afterward. On the other hand ... yeah, you know.
Still, things in the past were much stranger. Most every period of written history has featured at least some form of law enforcement, and back before modern, fancy tools like DNA testing and David Caruso, their methods could get ... pretty interesting.
In Ancient Athens, Cops Were Slaves And Citizens Investigated Crimes
With its estimated population of up to 300,000, ancient Athens was a bustling motherfucker of a city-state by the day's standards. As such, it was in need of a sturdy, powerful police force that could keep all the rowdy drunk philosophers in check. What it got instead was a cadre of 300 slaves, armed with whips.
Not these 300. That would have been a very different form of peacekeeping.
The publicly owned slaves were Scythians -- nomads with a barbaric reputation and unrivaled archery skills. And their elected leaders gave them Judge Dredd-scale peacekeeping rights; they ended riots, arrested people, and performed prisoner transport and guarding duties. They also had a license to kill when necessary and performed executions.
And, oh yeah, the whip thing: Despite their aforementioned archery skills, they most likely didn't carry bows as weapons. The magistrates decided to arm them with whips instead, presumably so they could keep things peaceful and kinky at the same time. Athens had a police force made up entirely of Indiana Joneses and Simon Belmonts.
"Look, I get that you guys need to practice, but could you at least take away
the second target from my crotch?"
Even though arming a bunch of slaves and asking them to enforce the law sounds totally bananas, it apparently worked pretty well. Rome even later copied the system with their awesomely named Triumviri Nocturni or "three judges of the night," because Rome was Mega-City One, apparently.
Of course, this system completely disregarded all the actual, you know, crime-solving. That shit was the responsibility of the citizens themselves, who could -- and were totally encouraged to -- run around with the era's equivalent of a kid's detective kit and make arrests if they ran into someone guilty of insider-trading or murder or whatever. On an unrelated note, the Athens legal system turned into a notoriously convoluted, lawsuit-happy mess.
The Wild West Had Sherlock Holmes-Like Detectives
Despite what Josh Brolin, Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, and other icons of Western cinema have taught us, the Old West was actually pretty peaceful and cooperative. Even freaking Tombstone had stricter gun laws than we have today. And why wouldn't it? People were already living in a frontier packed to the gills with snakes, wolves, and an angry native population. The last thing people needed was an abundance of boomsticks.
"Christ, Frank, I'm just trying to walk my puppy."
Rather than being full of gunplay and dramatic heroics, Old West law enforcement was slow-paced, scientific, and sophisticated. Instead of itchy-fingered "I'm your huckleberry" federal marshals, they had something arguably way cooler: Old West detectives like Charlie Siringo and James B. Hume.
Hume, a sheriff turned Wells Fargo detective, distinguished himself by employing investigative methods that sound like they belong on CSI: Dodge City: He'd scratch shotgun pellets off the sides of stagecoaches, sketch shoe impressions for later comparison, and even analyze handwriting. He was also an accomplished interrogator who employed modern techniques with great success. If he was an Old West Batman, he had his own Riddler in Black Bart, a masked "gentleman" stagecoach robber who was afraid of horses, never fired a gun, and left taunting poems at the scene of his crimes. And if that wasn't delightfully whimsical enough, Hume managed to track the guy down and arrest him based on the laundry mark on a freaking handkerchief he dropped.
"My criminal career has always been doomed
Because I behave like a fucking cartoon."
-Black Bart, upon being captured (probably).
Siringo, on the other hand, was a famous Pinkerton agent known as the "cowboy detective" thanks to his past in the cow-wrangling profession (and the best-selling book he wrote about it). Despite his celebrity status (or perhaps because of it), he became a pioneer in undercover work and disguises, and reportedly made a point of personal pride to avoid violence during his arrests. Among his many other undercover antics, he infiltrated Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid's gang and painstakingly tracked its members around the country for years. Then he retired and wrote a book to piss off his former employer, because at a certain point you just become addicted to making enemies.
As befits a man who voluntarily calls himself "Chas."
But you know how it is: An epic gunfight is much sexier than a small, determined man in a fake mustache painstakingly extracting buckshot from the side of a stagecoach for examination, and then using that science to track poetry-themed criminals and notorious gangs across the- wait a minute, no it's not. What the hell, Hollywood? Give me my Sherlock Holmes In The Wild West movie. Show me a Sherlock Holmes Wild West movie that's based on a true story, and I'll show you a Western that won't fall face-first into some cow pies at the box office.
The Salem Witch Trials Were The Forensic Science Version Of Ghostbusters
The Salem witch trials were a peculiar time in U.S. history where colonial Massachusetts went full Spanish inquisition on some of its citizens, in what was either one of the greatest examples of bullshit procedure or an early infestation of Gozer the Gozerian and its minions.
"Don't be stupid; they won't invent suitable marshmallow until the 19th century."
The witch hunt started when a bunch of young girls began experiencing hallucinations, convulsions, and other strange symptoms, which was eventually blamed on a bunch of witches, because that was seriously as good a guess as any. Modern forensic science generally chalks this up to mass hysteria, although sometimes alternative theories surface, like how maybe everyone was tripping on naturally occurring LSD in their food. Which should provide some perspective for the next time you feel like you're having a bad trip: Sure, having your dead ancestors appear and disapprove of your masturbation habits is pretty freaky, but at least you didn't talk your neighborhood into killing 16 innocent people.
You did lynch a dude once, but he and his car alarm had it coming.
But despite believing in witches, it turns out that the colonial American judicial system was pretty goddamn intricate. They might have been lacking on the DNA 'n' fingerprints front, but investigations and court proceedings were presided over by educated, well-traveled men who were perfectly capable of asking the right questions, arguing cases, taking witness testimonials, and generally employing the many failsafes society tends to equip its machinery with specifically so we don't start randomly hanging people because their neighbor had a nightmare about them. Although these safety valves were technically in place when the Salem trials took place (they were trials, after all), the procedure was filled with as much logic and common sense as a three-way shouting match between Cobra Commander, Skeletor, and Doctor Doom.
For example, a lot of the case was built around spectral evidence, which is the kind of dumbass shenanigan you'd expect Peter Venkman to draw from his sleeve when the ecto containment unit finally explodes. Lawyers, investigators, and judges were nuts deep in serious conversation about whether the devil could jump from person to person and possess them, what exactly was needed to prove this, and whether it meant that they should hang folks as witches. As history would soon find out, the answers to these questions were "totally," "very little," and "fuck yes." After the dust settled, 20 people had been formally investigated, tried, and executed.
"Wait, you're single-handedly turning logic into lizard shit and I'm the one
that's in cahoots with Satan?"
Victorians Believed Murder Victims' Eyes Held Images Of Their Killer
Fans of shitty horror, sci-fi, or even fucking Wild Wild West (I know you're reading this, Steve) may be familiar with optography, the art of extracting the last image a dead person saw from the retina of their eye. It's such a fucking goofy concept that anyone who even proposes it and is not currently on your TV screen wearing a Star Trek uniform is without a shadow of a doubt the Melon Baller Killer, and you should really, really be running.
Whoops, too late!
Optography got its start in mid-17th century, when a monk from Heidelberg, Germany, found a dead frog with an image of a flame etched on its retina. He assumed that this could only be because that flame was the last thing the frog had seen before it died, because reasons. By the latter half of the 19th century, physiologist Wilhelm Kuhne was the man to call in all your dead-eye-imagery-related issues. Presumably, his hotline wasn't as broiling as he would have hoped, because he decided to take matters into his own hands and acquired the head of a guillotined murderer. A host of eye-related surgical fuckery revealed the guy's retinas did show an image of a guillotine-blade-like object, which was great until someone pointed out the guy had been blindfolded (and presumably wouldn't have been looking at the blade anyway, because that's not how guillotines work). Still, Kuhne tinkered on and eventually did manage to extract some verifiable eye-images, like this one:
... Death Star?
Don't worry; that's not a human eye. Just a reflection of a window in the eye of a bunny that Kuhne kept in a dark room for a week and then decapi- uh, actually, let's not go there. That's actually worse.
As word on Kuhne's studies spread, people became convinced that it was the ultimate investigative tool and, therefore, crime should now be impossible. As such, every single notorious murder case saw the investigators drown under public pressure to solve the crime. After all, "How difficult can it be? Just check the eye for the killer's image and make an arrest!"
"Your killer is clearly a black hole in the middle of a circular sea!
Do we have to do everything around here?"
Though peer review had denounced optography as a forensic tool almost immediately after Kuhne's theories hit the fan -- although the human retina can retain some images after death, they're basically just useless blurs -- the method's popularity and reputation among the less savory essentially made it a forensic version of the anti-vaxxer movement. Sometimes, even the police took the bait. It's unclear how many cases actually saw the use of optography. Some accounts say it even featured in the hunt for Jack the Ripper, but there is little conclusive evidence how -- and if -- it was actually used. But we do know that at least one German mass-murder case featured optograms as recently as 1924.
Random French Guys Created The Bulk Of Modern Crime Investigation (And Its Biggest Mistakes)
We might make surrender jokes about France because of its recent track record in wars, but as they've proven time and time again, when they don't bother raising their hands, you know you're well and truly fucked. They're dangerous fighters and cunning strategists, and this attitude very much reflects on their approach to law enforcement. In fact, it's only thanks to two French dudes that we even know how to solve crimes on any level beyond punching the first guy who looks like he did it.
The first of these men is Eugene Vidocq, a double Cracked article alum who pretty much invented modern criminology during the first half of the 19th century. He was the guy who introduced the hitherto bumbling world of coppery to stuff like forensics, ballistics, and criminal databases. Go see a movie about him punching ghosts.
With fist knives, judging by his sideburn game.
The second of these men, less known but arguably even more influential, was Alphonse Bertillon. He didn't have to punch anyone, presumably because he looked like he happily (and repeatedly) would, while also sporting a mustache like this:
How the rest of France didn't immediately surrender to him, we'll never know.
Although Vidocq had laid down the ground rules of crime investigation and ghost punching, the late-19th century still saw criminology at the "dick around until you have a name or a face" stage. Thanks to the emergence of photography, they had started laying the ground for future Batman-ing with "rogues' gallery" collections of photos of known criminals, but these were borderline useless without a proper method of organization. Bertillon, a low-level clerk in the Paris Police Prefecture, set out to correct this, and ended up inventing an entire scientific field by becoming the first-ever forensic expert.
In 1879, Bertillon debuted his imaginatively named Bertillon system for criminal identification, aka bertillonage. It was a system of quick identification based on anthropometry: various measurements of each subject's head and appendages, simplistically scaled "small," "medium," or "large." (Sadly, the body part you're thinking of wasn't part of the equation.) Each arrestee's measurements and photographs were put in a file, eventually creating a huge system that could easily be cross-referenced to find a suspect's identifying characteristics and see if there was a match. Here's what a Bertillon file looked like, courtesy of the man himself:
They couldn't use this as an actual example because his scowl made the paper spontaneously combust.
Does that look familiar? Yeah, it's a mug shot -- a technique used to this day. Bertillon invented that shit, too.
Bertillonage was a smash hit. In 1884 alone, the French police captured 241 repeat offenders based on the method, giving Bertillon widespread fame and causing many police forces around the world to adapt the method, along with many of his other inventions. Apart from his filing system, he made pioneering discoveries in forensic examination, developed resins for preserving footprints, and created devices for measuring the force used in breaking-and-entering cases.
Unfortunately, there were some problems. Peoples' measurements are far, far less unique than he assumed. His dabbling at handwriting analysis once led to an innocent man getting a life sentence, largely because his convoluted "expert statement" and intense look creeped out the jury. Another time, two men named Will West and William West were discovered to not only share a name but Bertillon measurements as well, resulting in serious confusion when they were incarcerated at the same prison. This incident is what finally led law enforcement to abandon Bertillon's flawed science, as well as all superstition, and base the future of police work on hard science -- like fingerprinting. Thank God those dark days are behind us, eh?
Wait -- fingerprint technology was also pioneered by Bertillon, and he blatantly forged the results he used to develop the system that's still in wide use today? And many current experts say fingerprint evidence is nowhere near as reliable as people think? Shit.
Your ancestors would be confused by many of today's customs (like marriage). See why in 5 Reasons 'Traditional Marriage' Would Shock Your Ancestors, and check out why they predicted their dumb future selves would destroy all of nature in 6 Insanely Awesome Things The 1900s Thought We'd Have By Now.
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