A Study in Spenzer: Cleveland’s Sherlock

ForenscisSmallAs many of you know, I have been working for the past year on the archive of John George Spenzer, toxicologist and forensic expert in Cleveland Ohio (1864-1932). Today, I would like to introduce the intrepid student who has been assisting in this research, Elizabeth Fregoso. In today’s post, she gives us a wonderful tour through that archive in A Study in Spenzer: an Evening of Amateur Deductions. Welcome Elizabeth!

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A Study in Spenzer
Elizabeth Fregoso

My experience working with the Spenzer collection and thoughts/ analysis on his personal effects.

During my most recent year at university, I had the great fortune of spending lots of quality time with renowned forensic toxicologist and professor of chemistry and medicine at Case Western Reserve University, none other than Dr. John George Spenzer.

That is to say, I rummaged through his belongings and catalogued them in as much painstakingly personal detail as possible. Spenzer himself died in 1932.

But allow me to explain! This opportunity came unexpected, by way of an article I discovered online about a fantastic exhibit entitled “Forensic Science, Sherlock, and Steampunk” showing at the Dittrick Medical History Museum. I found this article while I was rather vainly entering the search term “ ‘Sherlock Holmes’ ‘Case Western Reserve University’ “ into Google in an effort to find some interesting Sherlockian attractions near campus. I should mention that I am an aspiring Baker Street Irregular and actually celebrate January 6th in an entirely ‘un-ironic’ fashion, so naturally, I’m pretty interested in anything related to this particular interest.

The next day, I trekked out to check out this exhibit. If you haven’t yet been, the exhibit contains a collection of various medical and Victorian artifacts with a focus on the evolution of forensic science around the turn of the 20th century, and I HIGHLY recommend visiting the museum next time you’re in town. While perusing it closely I was lucky to meet the inestimable Dr. Brandy Schillace, who introduced me to the doctor personally in the form of numerous amusing anecdotes and plenty of odd and intriguing similarities between Spenzer and Sherlock. Interest piqued, it was about a week later when I returned to the museum and at the invaluable suggestion of my first-year advisor inquired into an undergraduate research position. On getting hired, little did I suspect that I was just beginning a fascinating and intimate association with this incredible man.

I can indeed confirm that it was just as Dr. Schillace said: time and time again I was reminded of the Great Detective while going through Spenzer’s things. He kept a bunch of commonplace books where he stored information he found relevant – he was intensely involved in the subject of crime and followed it closely –he was occasionally a bit of a ‘sassmaster’ — sometimes I couldn’t even tell which of the two was the one cramping the other’s style. It was this inextricable linking that gave me the idea to have a little fun while I was going through Spenzer’s notes – Sherlocking about a little, if you will. I decided to put my skills of deduction to the task of building up a sort of idea of the man. What follows is my attempt to apply Sherlock’s own methods to my examination of Spenzer’s belongings, and deliver a brief analysis on the character of the man behind the infallibly well-groomed moustache, Dr John George Spenzer.

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Spenzer_cane_5x7.5Born in 1864, Spenzer had quite the drive to achieve, even from a young age. Though he was born in the United States, he moved to Germany at 15 years old, when American law at the time deemed him too young to obtain his degree. He completed his education abroad and, from there, he moved to Cleveland and became a professor at what is now Case Western Reserve University. It was while here that he became known as “Cleveland’s Sherlock Holmes”, having a hand in multiple sensational criminal trials. Among his achievements were providing definitive evidence in the 1916 trial of Josh Kiser as well as identifying toxic chemicals in the Cuyahoga River that led directly to federal efforts to understand pollution during an age when many companies were permitted to use rivers as industrial waste dumps.

The majority of the Spenzer collection that I interacted with was composed of notes on printed-slides-3_8x5various topics relevant to Spenzer’s known areas of expertise: medical jurisprudence and forensic investigation. All the material were contained in binder upon forest-green binder and on paper so thin it could have been used for tracing. Most of the copied articles were excerpted from published textbooks; the one he favored most seemed to be Eduard Von Hofmann’s Atlas of Legal Medicine. Apparently, Spenzer was a man on a mission to catalogue everything that piqued his curiosity, a continual quest to hone his skills and build on his professional knowledge. There must have been about 100 pages per binder per subject, and there were even accompanying illustrations. In watercolor.

Title Page_cropPretty impressive, eh?

Well, clearly he thought so too, because he went a long way in convincing his readers (or maybe just convincing himself) that he was striving for nothing less than perfection. Check this out: in many of the binders and positioned before all the content, there was a manufacturer’s tag clipped in the very front firmly attesting to the “mechanical perfection” of the binders.

How’s that for some old-fashioned, passive-aggressive vanity?

As for the content itself: Spenzer collected miscellanea on a variety of topics that today would be intimately familiar to any forensic scientist. Fingerprinting, ballistics, hangings, drownings, electrocution… just a handful of the subjects he collected materials on. Though I haven’t cataloged it yet, there was an entire binder on the infamous Rasor trial. A sensational case for its time, Guy Rasor was accused of murdering his lover, Ora Lee. It was a case in which Spenzer was personally involved as an expert witness – and enjoyed making the ‘expert’ part known, especially. Take a look at this exchange, which I transcribed from a photo I took in order to use as a reaction image whenever I thought a friend was wrong about something in a text conversation:

 

SPENZER: A heart-shaped piece was cut out of the right-hand pocket.

ATTORNEY: And by whom?

SPENZER: By myself. From this point below and posterior to the left-hand pocket a rhombohedral piece was removed.

JUDGE: Will you put it in United States, Doctor?

SPENZER: A rhombohedral, your Honor, is a certain, definite shape, like a square is a shape, or a rectangle.

ATTORNEY: The trouble is we don’t understand that, Doctor.

SPENZER: A faulty education.

 

I’m definitely no Sherlock Holmes, but I’ll go out on a limb here and deduce from this particular exchange that Spenzer could be a bit of a Holmesian know-it-all when he wanted to be.

I did get to catalogue an entire binder on the Crippen trial, a case in which Spenzer was not directly involved. You wouldn’t think it though; from the sheer amount of materials he collected on this trial’s proceedings, he was certainly an interested third party. Doctor Harvey Crippen is accused of murdering his then-wife Cora and disposing of her body in the basement. The two expert witnesses in the case are entirely at odds about what the chemical evidence means. In fact, much of the transcript Spenzer had on record was argument on each scientist’s methodology, as the judge and attorneys attempted to figure out how two radically different conclusions could be reached from the same evidence.

This binder stood out to me. Unlike the other binders, it wasn’t just a collection of useful and interesting tidbits. It was one of only two I had gone through – the other being “The Forensic Detection of Blood” — that appeared to be set up as a textbook, complete with a table of contents, multiple sources, and original commentary. Of course, much of this commentary was thinly veiled criticisms of the investigators involved and laments on how, if it were him on the case, he would have done things differently. But the main idea is that much of the language was directed at a third party, as if someone were meant to read these notes in the future as instructive exercises on chemical toxicology, and its limits. It would seem not all of the work was private; some of it was meant as a field guide for future generations of forensic scientists.

A last feature of note: nearly every entry had hand drawn ink and watercolor illustrations accompanying them – save for those with parent articles that had none. These illustrations came in either color or in black and white, but were always copied meticulously from the source material. In my opinion, the most charming of these illustrations wOhio-vs-Murray7x5ere the ones on the spines of each binder, indications of the specific binder’s subject materials. With little touches like that, beginning an impressive new tome always gave me the definite feel of cracking open an actual textbook.

A name commonly showed up alongside these illustrations: “Louis Karnosh”, about whom surprisingly little can be found on Google, besides that he was a practicing MD in the Cleveland area around Spenzer’s time and was 44 by the time of the 1940 census. It’s fairly reasonable to assume that he was involved in the reproduction of these images somehow – possibly Spenzer did the lineart and Karnosh supplied the watercolors? In any case, there’s no confirmation on what role he played exactly, but the pictures are quite detailed and, despite showing graphic images of violent crimes, are rather beautiful. However Dr. “Louis Karnosh” of Cleveland was involved, he deserves a little bit of the limelight.

Speaking of the limelight, it is here that we may be witness to a rare expression of humility on the part of our good Dr. Spenzer: deferring a portion of his personal, work-related project onto someone with known skill that he considered worthy of inclusion in his Perfection Collection. As anxious as he was to make his own expertise known – and not without good reason, of course — he was not above acknowledging the skill and expertise of others.

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So, to conclude my Study in Spenzer, as it were: here we have a chemist and forensic investigator of note—sharp as a tack, dedicated to his studies, and deeply invested in his work on both a professional and a personal level. A perfectionist and concerned with high standards of presentation, he worked tirelessly to ensure that his methods were reliable and his records flawless, as seen in his immense dedication to keeping commonplace books to paste newspaper abstracts and transcripts for reference. Despite being somewhat standoffish and arrogant, Spenzer was readily able to recognize and acknowledge the unique talents of those around him. He was also anxious to have a hand in influencing future forensic scientists, both in the classroom and on the page. In conclusion, Spenzer was a highly intelligent and motivated man, and all of his efforts in the field of forensic science were taken up with the aim of more easily and efficiently getting to the truth, serving justice, and keeping the peace in common society.

Sound like someone else you might know?

I thought so, too.

Holmes_chem_9x9ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Elizabeth Fregoso is an undergraduate engineering student at Case Western University and currently lives in Parma, OH. She takes special interest in true crime, behavioural science, and chemistry, and her dream is to find (or invent!) a job in which she can indulge a combined interest in storytelling, imagination, and problem-solving on a daily basis. She enjoys filling rare moments of spare time with gourmet sodas, free online courses, and copious amounts of Sherlockiana.

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MedHum Monday Presents: A Little Drop of Poison

DailyDose_PosterTo those of you who follow my various twitter or visit the Dittrick Museum blog, twitter and instagram,  my preoccupation with toxicology will not come as a surprise. Over the past year, I have been researching the archive of John George Spenzer in advance of my next book project, and along the way I’ve discovered not only a fabulous and strange series of crimes–but also a unique relationship between medicine and forensics. In many ways, the field of forensic science owes its birth to practices of medicine… and on the other hand, many medicines really were but a “little drop of poison.”

Deborah Blum’s Poisoner’s Handbook reminds us that until the late 19-teens and twenties, coroners were elected officials rather than medical doctors. And yet, poisons can only be traced through a series of lab tests, themselves difficult to perform. Catching clever poisoners, however, requires clever specialists. In a post for the Dittrick, I wrote about some of those early practitioners, including James Marsh and Mathieu Orfila.

L0057809 Blue ridged glass bottle for arsenic, Europe, 1701-1935In 1836, James Marsh would develop a test that could determine if arsenic was present. He had been called in to the Bodle Case, where a whole family became ill from tainted coffee (though only the elderly George Bodle died). His grandson John Bodle was brought to trial for murder, but Marsh was unable to convince the jury and set about inventing a new and better test. He constructed a simple glass apparatus capable of detecting minute traces of arsenic and measuring its quantity.  Adding a sample of tissue or body fluid to a glass vessel with zinc and acid would produce arsine gas, which would oxidize when ignited, producing a silver-black metallic glaze. Young Bodle went free, though he later confessed to the crime [3]. The Marsh test was not in vain, however.

In 1840, Mathieu Orfila, was summoned to the Lafarge murder trial in Paris (Madame Lafarge was accused of poisoning her husband). The Marsh test had proven inconclusive due to improper handling, and prosecution sought an expert. What made Orfila different? His methods. Piece by piece, he put the case together, eliminating all other possibilities. Orfila is also credited as one of the first to use a microscope to assess stains of blood and bodily fluids. His work refined forensics as a science.

Patient and meticulous, Orfila worked to make chemical analysis part of forensic medicine. He also made careful studies of asphyxiation, the decomposition of bodies, and exhumation. Orfila’s first treatise, Traité des poisons, greatly enhanced and built upon the work of other toxicologists (and quickly surpassed them). Published in 1813, the treatise earned him the title Father of Forensics. By the time he was called to the Lafarge case, Orfila was considered the greatest toxicologist in the world… and all of this well before Charles Norris, Alexander Gettler (the forensic team in NYC) were established [see Poisoner’s Handbook, Blum]. And–incidentally–the Spenzer archive also covers the era before Norris, showing that physicians and chemists had started working on forensics in their own way before the establishment of official crime labs.

salvarsanAt the same time, however, the poison is often the cure. Take the compound mentioned above: arsenic. Dangerous. Deadly. But believe it or not, arsenic also became a valuable medicine. In 1906 Paul Ehrlich, the famous German physician, discovered Salvarsan 606 and Neosalvarsan 614, the world’s first chemotherapeutic agents for systemic treatment of a micro-organism. Sahachiro Hata and Paul Ehrlich discovered the compound in 1909. Ehrlich’s team was the first organized team effort to optimize the biological activity of a lead compound through systematic chemical modifications. They first studied the reaction on animals, particularly mice and rats. Wilhelm compiled his findings in The Treatment of Syphilis with Salvarsan (which had an introduction by Ehrlich) and provides many cases of healing where erosive chancres recede within forty-eight hours. As the author explains:

As a result of these and similar observations, the superiority of the new remedy over those hitherto known was fully demonstrated and I therefore felt justified in assuming the risk that naturally attached to any new remedy. [Wechselmann. The Treatment of Syphilis with Salvarsan.]

Sometimes we forget how fine the line between poison and medicine–but as with all chemotheraputic remedies, the killer is sometimes the cure. And, as the progenitor of forensic science, those who sought to cure (such as Marsh and Orfila) sometimes helped to catch a killer.

[1] Deborah Blum. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. New York: Penguin, 2011.

[2] Spenzer Archive, Dittrick Museum of Medical History, Cleveland Ohio [book research, Brandy Schillace]

[3] Wilhelm Wechselmann. The Treatment of Syphilis with Salvarsan. New York Rebman Company 1911