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Corpora delicti
October 27, 2012 10:53 AM   Subscribe

CSI: Parthenon: A questioner asks historians how a murder case would be solved and prosecuted in the era of their expertise. Answers for : Colonial Boston, Norman Ireland, 19th Century Imperial China, Ancient Athens, 14th-Century England, 13th century England, Victorian England, Rome. (Via Reddit's AskHistorians; whole thread.)
posted by Diablevert (18 comments total) 102 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very cool thread - the breadth of knowledge hanging around on reddit never fails to amaze me.
posted by davey_darling at 11:05 AM on October 27, 2012


"Bertillon's system was based on five primary measurements: (1) head length; (2) head breadth; (3) length of the middle finger; (4) the length of the left foot; (5) the length of the "cubit" (the forearm from the elbow to the extremity of the middle finger)."

From the Alphonse Bertillon link in the Victorian England link.

Fascinating; such a strange set of measurements to use!
posted by marienbad at 11:08 AM on October 27, 2012


1300s England works more like this: Man kills another man, and gets on with his life because local justice is practically non-existant, and besides, he's bestmates with the sheriff for that year. There's absolutely no need for any investigation, as nobody doubts he did it, and he likely happily admits it himself. However, relatives of the dead man gather enough money to send somebody to the king and raise the case there, bypassing the corrupt local system. King makes a writ of oyer and terminer, inpowers and commands local bigwigs to get off their arses and arrest the very violent and brutish man who did the murder. The very violent and brutish man is then arrested, arraigned, and promptly pardoned all his crimes, so long as he agrees to serve the king in France. Murderer dies of dysentry in some godforsaken corner of the PĂ©rigord, and karmic balance is restored to the universe.
posted by Jehan at 11:16 AM on October 27, 2012 [12 favorites]


That's some fun reading. The most interesting to me were the ones where a system was nascent, like 13th/14th c. England--people seemed keenly interested in having some kind of objective system, even if they didn't know how.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:22 AM on October 27, 2012


One thing which was fun about the BBC America series Copper was that it was basically a CSI-ish police procedural set in 1864 Five Points area of NYC.

Seriously, it's a great series. I've been recommending it to people for a while now. If you like British historical costume dramas and like police procedurals and don't mind a lot of characters visiting prostitutes regularly, you'll probably like this show.
posted by hippybear at 12:03 PM on October 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Were they not doing an American version of that, hippybear, or do I have my commercials mixed up? Lately all I've been doing is digging up obscure BBC shows on YouTube anyway, so I could be misremembering.
posted by Diablevert at 12:05 PM on October 27, 2012


It is an American version. It's the first series that BBC America created on their own. It's not a BBC series.
posted by hippybear at 12:13 PM on October 27, 2012



"Bertillon's system was based on five primary measurements: (1) head length; (2) head breadth; (3) length of the middle finger; (4) the length of the left foot; (5) the length of the "cubit" (the forearm from the elbow to the extremity of the middle finger)."

From the Alphonse Bertillon link in the Victorian England link.

Fascinating; such a strange set of measurements to use!
posted by marienbad


Yes, but thanks to you, marienbad, we may be in a position to understand why Goldry Bluszco, one of the principal heroes of The Worm Ourobouros, has shorter, thicker arms than the villain, King Gorice of Witchland, a thing which has always puzzled me.

I bet other bodily comparisons between the two fall into Bertillonian line too, but I can't remember.

(Incidentally, [Harry Potter spoilers] reviewing the summary of the plot of The Worm Ourobouros on the Wikipedia page, it struck me that the rescue of Sirius Black from imprisonment in the tower at Hogwarts by means of hippogriff must be meant to evoke the rescue of Goldry Bluszco in the Worm.)
posted by jamjam at 12:16 PM on October 27, 2012


( If you like British historical costume dramas and like police procedurals and don't mind a lot of characters visiting prostitutes regularly, you'll probably like this show.

Well, how could I not immediately put that in my Netflix queue? Thanks for the rec.)
posted by LooseFilter at 12:23 PM on October 27, 2012


Fascinating; such a strange set of measurements to use!

Not that weird, if you consider the constraints and objectives. You can't use fingerprints, retina scans or similar due to technological limitations. You don't want to use "normal" measurements like weight or height, because those can be altered (slouching vs stretching, high heels, hats, etc). You need to find unalterable body things, which is basically going to be measuring various bones either individually or in groups that can't extend/contract. And do it all over the body to get good coverage.

The foot, the hand, the arm, the skull. The only thing missing is the leg. I wouldn't choose the upper leg, due to butt size discrepancy issues, but the lower leg should be OK.
posted by DU at 12:57 PM on October 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the Athens one:

> We learn from the surviving speeches that the testimony of witnesses was allowed to be read into evidence; we learn, also, that the testimony of slaves was allowed, but only if given under torture
posted by mulligan at 3:25 PM on October 27, 2012


This idea would make a great TV series...
posted by sfts2 at 4:01 PM on October 27, 2012


Also from BBC "City of Vice", about the Bow Street Runners, the first police force in London, set up in the 1700s by Henry Fielding (yes, the same one who wrote Tom Jones). Interesting stories, great costumes, and London looks like a pig sty.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:27 PM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


...the testimony of slaves was allowed, but only if given under torture...

This is mentioned in the also-awesome-for-many-other-reasons I, Claudius.
posted by DU at 4:46 PM on October 27, 2012


AskHistorians is an excellent and tightly moderated forum, I am able to find a lot of fun reading there.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:24 PM on October 27, 2012


I'm pretty certain that at least one of the answering historians is a mefite.
posted by vanar sena at 3:34 AM on October 28, 2012


vanar sena's right, I posted one of the answers.

Fun fact: Whicher's request for two other investigators (having arrested Constance with the only evidence being... the absence of a piece of evidence) was, effectively, as a polite as a "help me or I'm fucked" letter as you'll ever see. Well, in this case, it's an "I'm fucked" telegram, but:
I have this day apprehended, on a warrant, Constance Kent the third daughter who is remanded for a week. The magistrates have left the case entirely in my hands to get up the evidence. I am awkwardly situated and want assistance. Pray send down Sgt Williamson or Tanner [emphasis added]
And he was indeed fucked, seeing as how the case ruined his reputation.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 11:48 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's also worth noting that the time period in question is far outside of my normal expertise--early Jewish-Christian relations, battles for orthodoxy, defining 'apocrypha' and 'canon', etc.--but I do have a passion for a good crime (or disease) story that reveals a lot about the society in which it took place. (A fact that merges my two passions: if you wanted to poison someone with arsenic before John Snow's theory of cholera being spread by contaminated water was generally accepted, your best bet was to wait until a cholera epidemic, as the symptoms of cholera and of arsenic poisoning are quite similar).

Especially as I'm a huge Holmes fan, and the Road Hill House case is seen as one of the inspirations for Sherlock Holmes--alongside Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, Poe having taken inspiration for Dupin's second outing (1842) from a different real-life murder (of Mary Rogers in New York City, who died in 1841). In both cases, the fictional detective is constructed as a perfect observer, often dealing with an inept or overwhelmed police force that simply doesn't understand--because police forces were often inept, poorly trained, uncaring, or simple spread far, far too thin. And unlike police officers, Dupin and Holmes were portrayed as being robotic in their understanding of the world (the early Holmes stories portraying him as being disinterested in whether the earth orbited the sun or vice versa, as it would have no impact on his investigations) and thus beyond reproach when it comes to accusations of acting to hastily, being prejudiced against a suspect, being paid off, etc.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 12:02 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


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