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The 'American Sherlock' Was A Pioneer Of Forensic Science


Before "Columbo," before "Magnum P.I.," before "Monk," there was a real-life crime solver named Oscar Heinrich. Kate Winkler Dawson tells the story of this pioneering forensic scientist in a new book full of suspenseful - and let me just warn you - sometimes gruesome cases, like this one from 1925.

KATE WINKLER DAWSON: Heinrich receives a package from the police, and it contains an ear with part of a scalp.

SHAPIRO: It was discovered in a Northern California swamp, and police were stumped.

WINKLER DAWSON: And they really couldn't even tell until they talked to Heinrich whether this was a male or a female. They just knew dead. For sure, this person was dead. I mean, there is no recovering from this. And so he looked at it, and he did his thing. He started examining every part of it because there was no body.

SHAPIRO: In the course of his examination, Oscar Heinrich finds something telling - signs of blowflies. They're typically the first insect to lay eggs on a decomposing body.

WINKLER DAWSON: There was no other larva attached. There was no other signs of any other kind of beetles or anything else that would come later. So he estimated between 24 and 48 hours for the murder. So this was very new.

SHAPIRO: So he has a time of death but still no body. Oscar Heinrich keeps going.

WINKLER DAWSON: So inside the ear, he finds one grain of sand. And he's able to run a test on it and determine where the sand came from. And it was 12 miles away from where the ear and the scalp had been found. And the detective said, this is impossible. And he said, just trust me. You need to go to this area. And they went, and they started digging. And they found the rest of the body.

SHAPIRO: Kate Winkler Dawson's new book about Oscar Heinrich is called "American Sherlock." She first read about him in an old encyclopedia of crimes in America.

WINKLER DAWSON: And I'm never going to say the name of the book because I'm convinced every single book I do from now on will be somewhere hidden within...

SHAPIRO: An encyclopedia.

WINKLER DAWSON: I don't want anybody else to steal that idea. So, you know, and for me, I'm really interested in pre-1960. So this was perfect. It was printed in the '70s. And so I got - I waded my way through gangsters and got finally to about Page 100. And there was a story about this botched train robbery in Oregon in the 1920s. And within the story, there was, you know, a mention of a forensic scientist whose nickname was America's Sherlock Holmes.

SHAPIRO: Why did people describe him that way? What made him America's Sherlock Holmes?

WINKLER DAWSON: Well, I think of now, when we think about forensic scientists, they're sort of siloed. You know, they have their different expertise. You've got somebody with ballistics and bloodstain pattern analysis. And back then, people were dabbling in everything, these experts. And there were very few that I think had a strong hold on different aspects of forensics that Oscar Heinrich did. And he was professionally trained in so many of them. And so this was really unusual.

SHAPIRO: So he was one of the few people who could do bullets and blood spatters and...


SHAPIRO: ...Footprints and fingerprints and all of these other things.

WINKLER DAWSON: And, you know, chemistry - he had an undergrad degree in chemistry. He was a chemical engineer for the city of Tacoma and a sanitation engineer. So he really had the chops, which was unlike a lot of the people he would refer to as charlatans on the stand who would oppose him in these trials.

SHAPIRO: He invented a lot of forensic techniques that are still in use today. Give us an example of one of them.

WINKLER DAWSON: Well, one of the - I think within the forensic community what he would be known for would be being able to photograph two bullets and their markings, which are called striations, next to each other, which people essentially thought was impossible.

SHAPIRO: These markings are made on the bullet as it leaves the gun...


SHAPIRO: ...And so it's going to be unique.

WINKLER DAWSON: Right. And so he would, you know, retrieve a bullet from a victim or from a wall, and then he would take and find this - you know, he would get the suspect's gun. He would fire the gun into wax. He'd retrieve the bullet, clean it off. And then he could put it under a newly invented comparison microscope. And he could look at both bullets, which is fine, except he had struggled for his career on how to translate complicated science to a jury that in the 1920s most certainly many would not have a college education, but some wouldn't have even had a high school education.

So this was a big struggle for him. And so he finally just said, I know I can figure out how to take a photograph - to blow it up and bring it into this trial. And he was able to successfully take this photo. And it's a technique that's still used today. But even then, he was accused of what I would consider 1920s Photoshopping by a competitor. And he, like, gathered so many angry competitors over the years that he was constantly being undermined and challenged in court.

SHAPIRO: He also used some techniques that scientists today say are not reliable in court. Give us an example of one of those.

WINKLER DAWSON: Right. Well, he was - if not the first, one of the first to use bloodstain pattern analysis in a case. And, you know, that is when...

SHAPIRO: And that's like, if the blood spattered this way, it means the bullet was fired from here, that sort of thing?

WINKLER DAWSON: Right. Right. It has been overstated in court. And there people in prison, you know, because of evidence, you know - and there are other, of course, techniques that have been disproven also - because of what we call junk science.

SHAPIRO: As a person, Oscar Heinrich struggled with what you describe as obsessive compulsive disorder. Do you think that was actually helpful or crucial to his success as an investigator?

WINKLER DAWSON: You know, you hit on something that my friend said to me that I always think about. So, you know, I told her the whole story. And she said, do you think that he picked up on this way? And when we talk about obsessive compulsive, I mean, his archive was massive. He kept everything. He kept locks of hair in cases. And he kept a locket of a woman who was run over six times by her own limousine.

But I think that he had to do this job because of what I think is this disorder, not the other way around. My friend was saying, did he adopt these techniques as - out of necessity because he's this forensic scientist? I think it's the other way around.

SHAPIRO: Well, at its root, it seems like his career was about finding order amid chaos, right? You show up at a crime scene, and it is - I don't know - a bomb has exploded or a person has been violently killed. And he's trying to find the accurate factual narrative to impose upon it.

WINKLER DAWSON: He is. And what's amazing about him is he could walk into a crime scene and figure out if there's forensic geology that he can pull from and run tests, tests that he knew how to do from when he was a sanitation engineer 20 years before. If there's botany, is there forensic entomology? Which he was the first to use in the U.S., so how the bugs arrive to a corpse. So he just was able to sort of, you know, scan a room and know exactly what he needed to do to solve the crime.

And so I do think he was such an ordered, meticulous man, that in his personal - in his professional life, it was extraordinary. I mean, it catapulted him to international, you know, acclaim and success. In his personal life, it was troubling, and it was problematic with his relationships with other people because he was such a control freak and he was so ordered. And it was - so it really kind of wreaked havoc and made him a success at the same time.

SHAPIRO: Kate Winkler Dawson's new book is "American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, And The Birth Of American CSI."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

WINKLER DAWSON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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