The Crime Readers' Association

Skin & Bone giveaway – Robin Blake on the Birth of Forensics

2nd November 2016

By today’s standards, the Georgian age, in which my Cragg and Fidelis mysteries are set, was a particularly callous one. Unequal rights for women, the slave trade and cruel capital punishment were all widely accepted, though not by all. My latest book Skin and Bone is specially concerned with the treatment of children, in which matters were no more humane. Minors could be brutally chastised, forced to work, bought and sold and hanged for what we would consider relatively insignificant crimes. These attitudes and practices persisted into the 19th century, before being gradually changed by campaigners like Charles Dickens.

However, 18th century England drew the line at child murder and, in fact, the killing of a child was regarded as especially heinous, not for sentimental reasons, but because it was a crime against the future – the continuation of one’s family and one’s own protection in old age. The trouble was that a secret murder could be very difficult to detect. There was no science, and no organised police force, so that various occult ways of discovering a murderer were used. If you made a person touch the corpse of someone who’d been killed, and blood flowed from the victim’s wounds, you would have found the murderer. If the ghost of a recently dead person appeared, it was a sign  (as happened to Macbeth and Richard III in Shakespeare) that the ghost had returned to haunt its killer.

Dead newborn babies presented a particularly tough problem. The last thing an unmarried girl wanted was a child and, without contraception, pregnancies would quite often end with a concealed birth and the immediate disposal of the baby. But how could you distinguish between a suffocated baby and a stillborn one? In the early 17th century the government had decided that, unless there were witnesses, this was impossible and a law was passed automatically treating any woman who concealed the birth of a dead child as a murderer.

This law remained technically in force in mid-Georgian England, although a test had been developed in Holland to resolve the issue, and was actually used by some English magistrates and coroners. It was admittedly a rudimentary test, involving the removal of some lung tissue from the corpse and attempting to float it in water. If there had been air in the lungs, it was argued, the tissue would float, indicating that the child had died after birth. If the tissue sank, it would indicate a stillbirth as the baby had never breathed.

The test was the first faint (and no doubt inaccurate) manifestation of what we now call forensic science. It marked the beginning of the end for trials and inquests in which evidence about bleeding corpses and ghostly apparitions could be heard. Justice achieved by the scientific appraisal of evidence was still a very long way away but this “floating lung” test was, at least, a start.

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake is the fourth Cragg and Fidelis mystery. It is published by Constable in the UK and by Minotaur Books in the USA.

We are offering a FREE SIGNED COPY to the first ten UK and Irish residents who mention the book on Twitter and the address @RobinBlakeUK.


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