The Anatomy Lab

A Study in Scarlet: Where Fact Meets Fiction


Our Curator shares some of her research into the developments of 19th Century forensic medicine and the influence the Edinburgh medical scene had on author Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

When we are first introduced to Sherlock Holmes in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ an astonished Dr Watson learns Sherlock has been beating cadavers in the lab:

He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge…but it may be pushed to excess. When it comes to beating the subjects in the dissecting-rooms with a stick, it is certainly taking a rather bizarre shape’

Why we, along with Dr Watson ask, was Sherlock Holmes beating cadavers in his lab, to which we are told:

‘to verify how far bruises may be produced after death’

This experiment has a strong connection to Edinburgh, as does Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in the 1870s and would have been well aware of the advances in Forensic Medicine that took place in this city during the 19th century. In fact, Edinburgh was the birthplace of Forensic Medicine in Britain, with the first chair of Medical Jurisprudence created at the University in 1807. Crucially, the extra-mural medical school run by the Royal Colleges of Edinburgh had been teaching a course in medical jurisprudence since 1796, which was the training ground for some of the most influential forensic men of 19th century Scotland, most of whom went on to teach at the University. We believe that Arthur Conan Doyle may have taken some of these extra mural forensic classes during his studies.

The above-mentioned experiment, undertaken by Sherlock Holmes, was based on the work of early forensic expert Robert Christison, who became Chair of Medical Jurisprudence (now called Forensic Medicine) in 1822. He was one of the first toxicology experts and was such a reliable medical witness in court that he became the Crown Witness for the prosecution for nearly 33 years. His discovery of post-mortem bruising occurred during his investigation into one of the most famous serial murder cases in history.

Robert Christison,. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection

The Burke and Hare murders are well known; William Burke and William Hare murdered fifteen people in 1828 in order to supply bodies to Robert Knox the Edinburgh anatomist, for dissection. The last victim Margaret Campbell was discovered and the crime reported to the police. The police searched Burke’s lodgings but found no body, however the trail led them to Knox’s anatomy school, where the body of Margaret Campbell was found in a tea chest. Burke and Hare were arrested along with their wives, and Robert Christison and Dr Robert Newbigging were called to examine the body and compile a medical report for the prosecution.

Their report stated that the victim had been ‘conveyed from Burke’s house in a tea-box, in which it was doubled up with knees on the breast, and the face on the knees, the head being uppermost’. The post-mortem showed that all the victims’ organs were healthy, with no evidence of natural death. The investigation found ‘no effusion of blood or laceration of the parts around the windpipe’. External studies discovered small amounts of blood issued from the nose, the eyes ‘much injected with blood’, and ‘bluish-black discolorations’ on the legs and arms. The report recorded a laceration on the arm describing ‘blood effused into the cellular tissue and substance of the skin around’. There were also discussions around a laceration of the spine.

At the initial stages of the enquiry the medical experts believed that the laceration to the spine had occurred when the victim was alive and that it had caused her death. However, they began to doubt this theory and started to consider how to determine if these injuries, along with the bruising on the legs and arms, could have been sustained after the victim’s death. Christion contacted colleagues, including the esteemed anatomist and surgeon, Charles Bell in London. Based on his colleagues’ opinions, Christison decided to undertake his own experiments into post-mortem bruising. Post-enlightenment Scotland was primed for the application of empiricism, the idea that knowledge can best be achieved by experience, a philosophical idea advanced by enlightenment philosophers in Edinburgh like David Hume.  So Christison was keen to experiment (often on himself) in order to test his theories.

Charles Bell. Image courtesy of RCSEd Library and Archive. 

This application of the scientific method was relatively new in the world of medicine but one that was to prove crucial in the advancement of the profession.

Christison, just like Sherlock, treated five human cadavers, which had been dead for various lengths of time, with a variety of injuries known to cause bruising in the living. This showed that

“Express trial, however, proved that such forcible flexure, practised very soon after death, while the blood is fluid and the blood-vessels retain contractility, produces the same appearances of extravasation as in the body we had examined.”

What Christison discovered is that post mortem bruising can occur on a body up until around two to three hours after death. The bruising can be distinguished from bruising caused in life due to the lack of swelling around the wound, clotted blood, effusion into the cellular tissue and lastly due to the colour. Because there is no incorporation of blood or effusion into the cellular tissue, post mortem bruising does not gain the same black colour of a bruise gained in life.

These experiments and findings would assist future forensic post-mortems, ensuring that pathologists could differentiate between the bruising that occurred before – and the kind of bruising seen after death.

The conclusion of Christison and Newbriggings’ report was that the victim had most likely died of suffocation caused by smothering, but at this early stage of forensic medicine they knew they could not prove this in court. They concluded that, 1) the victim had been healthy 2) some of the lacerations had been caused in life, 3) some indications pointed to suffocation 4) the victim had died by violence 5) the laceration on the spine and the bruising to the lower limbs and arms were caused after the victim’s death and that neither of these injuries had caused Campbell’s death.

A drawing depicting the murder of Margaret Campbell. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Although this evidence was not strong enough to be used to prosecute for murder, their conclusions did nonetheless corroborate other evidence used by the prosecution. Unbeknownst to Christison, Hare had turned against Burke, and given what was known as King’s evidence. This meant he could not be prosecuted, regardless of his own involvement in the crime but that his evidence could be used to prosecute Burke.

Hare’s description of the murder process matched the post-mortem findings exactly, which assisted the prosecutions case. Burke and Hare’s method was to ply their victims with alcohol until they were unable to defend themselves, Hare would lie across the victim’s body and chest to prevent a struggle and limit their breathing, whilst Burke would use their hand to cover the victim’s mouth and nose, causing suffocation. In the case of their last victim Margaret Campbell, her body was then hidden until it could be safely transported to Knox’s dissection rooms in a tea box. The tea box being too small for the body, meant that the body was forced inside causing bruising to the legs, and laceration to the spine; the neck was then forced downwards on to the chest.

With Hare’s evidence matching the independent medical evidence, Burke was convicted and executed in January 1829. As an additional punishment for his crimes the judge ordered his body to be publicly dissected, seen as a fitting punishment given the nature of the crimes. Hare however, though apparently equally involved in all killings, due to his turning of King’s Evidence, escaped punishment and left Edinburgh for his own safety. No one knows what became of Hare after he left the city in January 1829.

Burke’s execution. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

The Burke and Hare trial was widely reported, along with his involvement in numerous other notorious trials.  The great advances in forensic science made by Christison, like the post-mortem bruising experiments were also well known. All of this would have more than ensured that the bruising experiment and its findings were well known to medical student Arthur Conan Doyle, making it possible for the world’s most famous detective Sherlock Holmes to take the credit.

Louise will be discussing Edinburgh’s 19th century ‘medical detectives’ as part of our Surgeons’ Hall Museums On Demand lecture series. The talk will be available from the 28th of September for 7 days.
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