Historical forensic pathology – a “new” discipline
One of the failings of modern forensic pathology is that there is often very little effort made to draw upon the rich history that has been endowed by previous generations of practitioners. For example, the complex analyses and academic discourse that distinguished nineteenth century European forensic practice still stand as gold standards in some areas, however, many of the major pathologists of that time have been forgotten, along with their considerable legacies. The same lack of engagement often applies to historical events where standard documentation and conclusions are accepted despite the fact that the application of modern techniques and review of primary sources may provide an opportunity to shed new light on what actually occurred, and/or give us an increased appreciation of the complexity of certain events. The following review of a short series of papers provides an insight into the range of historical questions and issues that can be explored and analyzed under the umbrella of historical forensic research.
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965)
One of the idiosyncrasies of modern day Australia is the belief that a group of nineteenth century criminals, known as “bushrangers”, were somehow noble individuals who resisted the oppressive yoke of colonial governments to act as surrogate “Robin Hoods” . However, the truth is somewhat different as the legend of Robin Hood clearly did not specify stealing from the poor and keeping it for yourself. Reading the infamous Jerildaree letter by one of the better known bushrangers, Ned Kelly, reveals passages such as this:” I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain. I would manure the Eleven Mile with their boated carcasses”, and elsewhere “…. pegged on an ant bed with their bellies opened their fat taken out and rendered and poured down their throat boiling hot” . With passages such as these is there any wonder that modern psychiatric assessment has concluded that he was a classical psychopath ?
Paddy Kenniff was hung on January 12 1903 and his brother Jimmy sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Constable Doyle in the remote Carnarvon Ranges of Central Queensland. Doyle’s burnt and fragmented remains were found with those of the local station manager, Albert Dahlke, in horse saddle bags at Lethbridge’s Pocket. One of the key points made by the prosecution was that the bodies of the two victims had been dismembered by the two “ghouls” before being burnt. A controlled experiment utilizing pig carcasses, however, demonstrated that dismembered remains virtually disappeared when left on a fire, compared to a whole carcass which closely resembled the material described in the saddle bags . Although the reasons for the incineration and subsequent idiosyncratic “disposal” will probably never be determined, it appears most likely that post mortem dismemberment did not occur.
Contemporary toxicological and DNA analyses can also be applied to historical remedies. For example, analyses of two potions prepared by an early twentieth century Afghan herbalist, Mohamet Allum, revealed only herbal components such as wheat, nettles, passion flower and bear berry. There was no evidence of adulteration with drugs such as cocaine, cannabis and opium that were commonly used in more main-stream pharmaceutical preparations of the time .
Perhaps further investigations could now be undertaken of the bones of two children discovered in the Tower of London in 1678 which were assumed to be the remains of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the nephews of Richard III. Legend has it that they were dispatched by their uncle to facilitate his path to the crown. Although an examination of the bones in 1933 concluded that they were indeed the princes , modern DNA technology could greatly assist in determining whether this conclusion was correct . Another interesting historical question involves the remains of General Custer’s men who died at Little Big Horn in June 1876 . Questions that have been raised concerning the manner of death of these troops  could be resolved by examination of the remains for black powder residues .
Thus, re-examination of archival material, records, remains and data, with use of modern analytic techniques, may serve to clarify many more questions that have been handed down from previous times. Churchill in stating that “history will be kind to me as I intend to write it” very clearly demonstrated the truly subjective nature of many of our historical records. Objective scientific review and testing with modern forensic techniques may, therefore, be very useful adjuncts to more traditional historical methodology.
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