We are more than a little bit obsessed with Criminal Minds, CSI and Bones, so we were excited to learn about Stefanie Pintoff's new release Secret of the White Rose. The story features a turn-of-the-century sleuth Simon Ziele who uses the era's budding practice of criminology to solve a judge's murder. So we knew we had to ask the author, "what are the CSI techniques of the early 1900s?"
My historical mystery series revolving around Detective Simon Ziele and early criminal scientist Alistair Sinclair is set in early 1900s New York. It’s a time period I was attracted to largely because of the zeitgeist of this era, which was characterized by a tremendous faith in possibility. People – especially scientists – believed that the next big discovery was just around the corner, certain to change society for the better. Their innovations were revolutionizing all fields and areas of life – criminology among them.
When we first meet Detective Simon Ziele, he has already proven his willingness to embrace certain types of new technology. At crime scenes, he regularly collects fingerprint evidence – even though New York courts didn’t accept it, and the New York Police Department had only just begun to condone its use. Ziele is also an early proponent of using cameras to take photographs of the crime scene. But he isn’t exposed to early criminal profiling until he meets Alistair Sinclair.
Alistair is a lawyer by training, but his passion is the study of criminal behavior. He vigorously disagrees with Lombroso’s prevailing theory, which argued criminals are “born” – and could be identified by certain physical characteristics. Alistair Sinclair, like other criminal scientists working at the time, sought to disprove these notions by interviewing and learning from violent offenders themselves – just like the first FBI profilers at Quantico. They were curious what factors – both psychological and sociological – were involved in creating criminal behavior. And of course then, as now, this practice was highly controversial: people worried that if we came to understand the criminal too well, then we might excuse (and not punish) his or her behavior.
Ziele is initially skeptical that Alistair’s theories about criminal behavior can help him, but he soon proves himself more than up to the task of adapting tried-and-true detective methods to new ideas. With the case he tackles in my latest novel, Secret of the White Rose, Ziele has learned enough from Alistair to use profiling techniques to paint a picture of the murderer – one very different from the type of killer that top police brass are furiously hunting.
Of course, the innovations in early modern forensics extend far beyond profiling. I’ve introduced elements of “new” science in each Ziele book so far – fingerprinting in In the Shadow of Gotham, graphology in A Curtain Falls, and now ballistic testing in Secret of the White Rose. Experts had recently discovered that it was possible to match a particular gun to the bullet it had fired – as Oliver Wendell Holmes spectacularly demonstrated by calling a gunsmith into court to test-fire a revolver. Afterwards, he used a magnifying glass to match the unique markings on the bullet taken from the murder victim’s body to those on the test-fired bullet. He showed both to the jury – and proved that the gun fired in court was the same as the murder weapon.
Whether a particular way of thinking about crime – or a pragmatic scientific test – early twentieth-century innovations offered Ziele many opportunities to adapt traditional methods to new, sometimes unorthodox techniques. And his reaction to them – sometimes skeptical, other times welcoming – mirrors the complicated response that his real-life counterparts had to ever-changing technology.
- Stefanie Pintoff