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North West. South East. South West. Intelligent arsenic killers went down the chronic rather than the acute path of administration. When she was 19, Mary Ann Cotton fell pregnant to a miner called William Mowbray and together they travelled the country looking for work. She gave birth to five children during this time, but four of them died, possibly from natural causes.
In , the couple moved back north, where she had three more children, all of whom died of diarrhoea. Her grief didn't prevent her from claiming on the life insurance policies she'd taken out on each of them. Then Mowbray injured his foot in a pit accident and had to convalesce at home.
Soon he became ill and was diagnosed with "gastric fever"; he died in January Over the next dozen years, Cotton became the most prolific female serial killer in British history. Only her seven-year-old stepson, Charles Cotton, stood in the way. She tried fostering him with one of his uncles but failed. All other options having failed, she poisoned Charles. The workhouse superintendent heard about his death and went to the police.
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The doctor who had attended Charles before he died carried out an autopsy and found no evidence of poison. So the coroner ruled death by natural causes.
But the doctor had kept Charles's stomach and intestines and, when he tested them, he discovered the lethal poison. The bodies of Mary Ann's most recent victims were exhumed and found to contain high levels of arsenic. Under the weight of this evidence and other witness statements, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
The story ran in the newspapers for months, and a rhyme was coined that began "Mary Ann Cotton — she's dead and she's rotten". But men were far more likely to stab or strangle their wives; twice as many wives as husbands stood trial for poisoning.
By the midth century, forensic scientists had a much higher profile, and some were almost celebrities in their own right. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the eminent pathologist, was held in reverent esteem by the police and courts. Arthur Conan Doyle, who was somewhat suspicious of Spilsbury, remarked of "the more than papal infallibility with which Sir Bernard is readily being invested by juries". But his unconventional methods were also vital in another extraordinary case that neither DNA testing nor any other modern forensic technique could have helped him solve. On 3 January , Charles Burnham, a Buckinghamshire fruit grower, sat down with a mug of tea and opened his copy of the News of the World.
On page three, he found a headline "Dead in Bath: Bride's Tragic Fate on Day after Wedding" and a short report explaining that one Margaret Lloyd had been found dead at her flat in north London. Charles Burnham's daughter Alice had also died in a bath, shortly after her wedding almost exactly a year before. Burnham contacted the police, and discovered that Margaret Lloyd's husband was George Joseph Smith, who had previously been married to Alice Burnham.
The police called in Spilsbury to perform an autopsy on the exhumed body of Margaret. He then travelled to Blackpool to autopsy Alice. Following this, the police uncovered details of a third woman, Bessie Williams, who had married George Smith and died in similar circumstances at home in Kent in A pattern was emerging, and the police arrested Smith.
From the bodies of Margaret and Alice, Spilsbury could find no signs of violence, poison or heart attack, though the GP who had first seen Bessie's body noted that she had been clutching a bar of soap. He had all three bath tubs brought to Kentish Town police station, where he lined them up together and examined them minutely. He was particularly puzzled by the case of Bessie Williams. Shortly before her death Smith had taken her to see the doctor about epilepsy symptoms. Smith had told her that she was suffering from fits, even though she couldn't remember having them and had no epilepsy in her family.
But Bessie was 5ft 7in tall and obese. Spilsbury knew that the first phase of an epileptic fit causes complete rigidity of the body and that, given her size and the shape of the bath, such a fit would have raised Bessie's head above the water rather than brought it below. Spilsbury researched further and learned that an extremely sudden rush of water into the nose and throat can inhibit a vital cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, and cause sudden loss of consciousness, swiftly followed by death.
A common subsidiary result is instant rigor mortis — which Spilsbury thought explained the bar of soap clenched in Bessie's fist. Armed with this knowledge, the investigating officer, Detective Inspector Neil, decided to carry out a series of experiments before the trial. But when Neil grasped her ankles and abruptly pulled her legs up, she slid under the water and lost consciousness.
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It took a doctor several minutes to restore her to consciousness; she was lucky to live. But the police had their answer. At the trial, Spilsbury spoke with great authority. The jury deliberated for 20 minutes before finding Smith guilty. Public interest in the "Brides in the Bath Murders" was intense. Scores of journalists, hungry for a "scientist foils serial killer" headline, doorstepped Spilsbury throughout the investigation.
Penhallow Hotel Fire, Newquay, August 2007
Although Smith was almost certainly guilty, Spilsbury's intense self-belief — and the implicit faith invested in him by the legal system — also led to several miscarriages of justice. Although juries these days might be less swayed by the word of a charismatic expert witness, they can still place much faith in disciplines that are subject to interpretation — such as fingerprinting.
Similarly, recent developments have shaken the foundations of DNA profiling. The strange case of the "Phantom of Heilbronn" involved a seemingly superhuman female serial killer whose DNA was found at the scene of robberies and murders across Austria, France and Germany in the s and s. Mitochondrial analysis of the DNA suggested it came from a woman of Russian or eastern European extraction, but she seemed to be involved in a bewildering variety of criminal activity, and to leave no other trace. One expert I interviewed said: "DNA doesn't lie. It's an exceptionally good lead and exceptionally strong evidence, but there is human interaction in the process [of profiling].
So the error rate is exceptionally low but it's not zero … DNA shouldn't be a lazy way to not do an investigation. The largest strides in forensics in recent years have been digital. One case that hinged on such evidence was the murder of Suzanne Pilley, who was last seen as she set off on her way to her job as a bookkeeper for a financial services company in central Edinburgh.
Suspicion quickly fell on David Gilroy, a colleague of Suzanne's with whom she had recently ended an affair.
Case Studies - Eurofins Scientific
The police interviewed Gilroy and noticed a cut on his forehead, subtle bruising on his chest and curved scratches on his hands, wrists and forearms. Gilroy said he had scratched himself while gardening. Forensic pathologist Nathaniel Cary would later examine photographs of these injuries and testify that they could have been made by another person's fingernails, possibly in a struggle. The police seized Gilroy's mobile phone and car, and specially trained cadaver dogs detected human remains or blood in the boot and in the footwell, though there had clearly been an attempt to clean the car.
Police also found vegetation underneath the car and a damaged suspension. It was suspicious, but they needed more to make the case. A forensic digital analyst went to work on Gilroy's phone. When you turn your phone off, it keeps a record of the last phone mast it was connected to, so it can find it again quickly when you start using your phone again.
On the day that they thought he had disposed of Suzanne's body, Gilroy had switched off his phone as he travelled between Stirling and Inveraray. Police suspected he had done this to avoid being tracked as he searched for a good place to dispose of Suzanne's body in the dense woodland. On his way back, Gilroy again switched off his mobile phone between Stirling and Inveraray. This, the police believed, was when he dumped the body. Suzanne's body was never found. Nevertheless in March , Gilroy was found guilty of murder and conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice.