Thursday, March 13, 2008

He Made Mute Evidence Speak: Edward O. Heinrich

He Made Mute Evidence Speak: Edward O. Heinrich

he crowded Number 13 train was on its usual route as it headed into Tunnel 13 through the Siskiyou Mountains in Oregon, just north of the California border. It was October 11, 1923, and the train was bound for San Francisco. Nothing that day appeared to be out of the ordinary, so engineer Sidney Bates was oblivious to what awaited him on the other side of the half-mile tunnel. As the train emerged from the dark into daylight again, two masked men with guns jumped out and demanded that Bates stop the train. When he complied, a third man appeared, shoved a bundle through the door of the mail car, and ran. A second later, a blast shook the train, triggering a fire. Shots were fired in the ensuing confusion that left three trainmen, including Bates, dead. The clerk trapped in the mail car burned to death and the three bandits-turned-killers fled without the money they had come to grab. Some of the horrified passengers managed to alert authorities.


By Katherine Ramsland, PhD, CMI-V

Daniel O’Connell, chief of the Southern Pacific police force, was the first investigating officer to arrive. Near the damaged train he found a battery linked to a detonating device, a pair of gunny-sack shoe covers, a revolver, and a pair of greasy denim overalls. Although teams equipped with dogs had caught the killers’ trail, they did not track them down. The discovered battery led officials to a mechanic in a nearby town and, noticing that his overalls were greasy, arrested him. He claimed he had never seen the battery before, but when the overalls taken from the scene fit him, he was detained. Authorities were unable to connect him to the crime, but, having no other leads, they were not about to let go of this rather sensational investigation.

Someone had heard of a chemist down in Berkeley, California, with a reputation for tackling tough cases. His name was Edward O. Heinrich, and, reportedly, he used science to solve crime. While not everyone trusted his techniques in an era when science was not yet common practice for investigators, he had often surprised people with solutions that stood up in court. Using objects such as hair, threads, dust particles, and bullet fragments, he could coax otherwise mute evidence into telling a story. Some people called him the “Edison of crime detection.”

Although the Oregon investigators saw nothing on the overalls that could possibly offer any leads, they sent them on to Heinrich, along with the shoe covers, the revolver, a summary of the facts, and a description of their jailed suspect. He accepted the case, and thanks to a chemical analysis, a microscope, and careful observation, he spotted a lot.

“You have the wrong man,” he told them, adding that the overalls had been worn by a left-handed, twenty-something-year-old Caucasian lumberjack who worked in the Pacific Northwest. The wearer of the overalls, according to Heinrich, stood no taller than 5’10 and weighed about 165 pounds. He also had small feet for his size, light brown hair, and a fastidious habit. The mechanic, who did not resemble this description, was freed.

Heinrich pointed out that stains on the overalls were not car grease, but pitch from fir trees; their size, with the shoe covers, had provided the suspect’s height and approximate weight. Tiny wood chips in the right pocket indicated the position the man took when cutting a tree, and because the overalls buttoned on the left and there was more wear on the left-hand pocket than the right, it stood to reason that the person who wore them was left-handed. Hair shafts caught on an overall button indicated his race, age, and hair color, while fingernail clippings in one pocket affirmed his tendency toward neatness. More interesting was a receipt for registered mail overlooked by other investigators: it was burrowed deep inside the narrow bib pocket, and magnification had offered a number.

This evidence led to the three D’Autremont brothers, missing since the incident, one of whom was a left-handed lumberjack of the right size and age. Evidence from the brothers’ personal effects matched evidence on the overalls, and strands of hair and fibers from items in their homes were consistent with evidence from the scene. A knapsack found days later near the train tunnel yielded minute grains of dust like that on pine needles taken from the overall pocket. In fact, the knapsack had been mended in the same manner and with the same type of thread as a worn area on the overalls.

Heinrich also turned his skill to the revolver, which the investigators had deemed worthless for clues because only part of the serial number was legible. He found a hidden serial number that led to a sales slip that had been signed with an alias; however, the handwriting, according to his expert analysis, was that of Roy D’Autremont. After a tedious manhunt that spanned several years, the youngest brother was finally caught, creating press coverage that led to the apprehension of the other two. They all confessed and were given life in prison (Thorwald, 1966).

This case earned Heinrich another nickname: the American Sherlock Holmes, which he disliked. He claimed that Holmes acted on hunches rather than calculating methodically with solid science. “Hunches play no part in my crime laboratory,” Heinrich told reporter Eugene Block, explaining further that all criminals left clues that decreased the pool of suspect possibilities. His procedure was to reconstruct the crime “by visualizing the habits and actions of the criminal.” He started with the manner in which the crime had been committed and applied the relevant area of science to the debris left behind (Block, 1958). Hunches had no place.

The forensic arena during the 1920s was in a state of chaos, as charlatans touted themselves as “experts” and no one held them accountable. Heinrich was aware of this and wanted to improve the situation, at least in his corner of the world, so he went to work learning everything he could about forensic chemistry, handwriting analysis, ballistics, and trace evidence investigation. He excelled in all of these areas. He was among the first investigators to use strings to compute bullet trajectories. Despite having a wife and two sons, Heinrich despised vacations and was most happy when he could immerse fully in a project that exercised his intellectual skills.

He became one of the greatest forensic scientists of the early twentieth century, a living encyclopedia of the natural sciences, and his reputation spread across the country and abroad. His formula relied on answering five questions: what, when, where, why, and who, and his specialty lay in ferreting out more key minutiae at a crime scene than anyone else—including the bad guys. “The smaller the detail,” he would say, “the more likely it is that the criminal has overlooked it” (Block, 1958).

In the course of one case, Heinrich actually learned several Hindu dialects. It was during World War I in 1916, and British military intelligence sought information about a conspiracy of revolutionaries who threatened to weaken the country’s resources. The authorities had papers in different dialects, which they could translate, but they were unable to identify the authorship. When Heinrich consulted, the only solution he could see was to translate the papers himself, so that he could discern between analogous styles; this would mean learning all the dialects. Tutors were employed and the task took months. The process that eventually solved the puzzle included a chemical analysis of the inks used and a complete examination of several confiscated typewriters. Finally, however, Heinrich provided the information necessary to connect the papers with specific people. The conspiracy was larger and more complex than anyone had realized, and, ultimately, 31 participants were arrested and convicted. For Heinrich, the triumph belonged to science.

As a teenager growing up in Tacoma, Washington, he had acquired part-time employment in a pharmacy. He used the opportunity to learn everything he could about the trade, and he would later comment, “A drugstore is a veritable laboratory in behavioristic psychology. I learned what people do in secret” (Block, 1958). Without the benefit of formal schooling in the subject, at only 18 years of age, he passed the state pharmacy exam. A pharmaceutical career was not to be his destiny, but was just one step along the way.

Heinrich received a chemistry degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He went to work for the city of Tacoma, but his knack for solving crimes put him in demand as an investigative consultant. By 1916, he had become the chief of police in Alameda, California, where he trained his investigators in scientific procedures; 3 years later, he accepted a post in San Francisco as a hand-writing expert. He also taught courses at his alma mater.

Journalist Eugene Block collected Heinrich’s most “insoluble” cases into a book and called Heinrich the “Wizard of Berkeley” to convey a sense of his extraordinary intuitive powers, though Heinrich himself believed his deductions were merely a matter of the proper application of scientific methods. In Heinrich’s mind, science was never wrong.

On the night of August 2, 1921, a man arrived at the home of Father Patrick Heslin in Colma, California, in urgent need of a priest: a friend of his was dying. Father Heslin accompanied this stranger, but failed to return. Soon, an anonymous and disjointed letter arrived from San Francisco demanding a ransom of $6,500 for the priest. The correspondent indicated that Heslin had been beaten unconscious and described an elaborate arrangement that involved releasing chemicals to kill him. The kidnapper promised another letter, but it failed to arrive. Unable to develop leads and fearing the worst, local police contacted Heinrich.

Heinrich had worked, by this time, with August Vollmer, the police chief in Berkeley who had encouraged Sergeant John Larson to devise a machine that could measure deception via elevated heart rhythms and systolic blood pressure. Now, they would have cause to put the device to the test.

Heinrich arrived in Colma and studied the ransom letter. He could not tell them much, but of one thing he was certain: the correspondent was a baker. The police were skeptical, but Heinrich was firm that the lettering was the style taught to cake bakers. How he knew this he did not say, but after the manner of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, he trained himself daily in gathering information about a diverse range of subjects. Still, this identification did not offer much in the way of leads, so authorities offered a reward.

A week passed and a Texan named William Hightower entered the Archbishop’s office. He told an elaborate yarn that included how he had heard that Father Heslin was dead and buried. In fact, while digging for bootleg liquor he had found what he believed must be the spot, because the dirt was loose. He had seen the offer of a reward and he wanted to claim it. So Hightower led detectives to the suspected burial spot, indicating the location of the grave’s foot end, and some digging soon unearthed the corpse; Heslin had been beaten over the head and shot twice. The police then took Hightower, who was a baker, in for further questioning. They thought he knew the burial site just a little too well, but he stuck by his original story.

Larson brought in his lie detector, and as Hightower answered questions, it was clear from changes in his blood pressure that he was lying. Larson concluded that Hightower had murdered the priest, but it remained for the evidence analysis to prove it (Wilson, 2003).

Further searching of the burial place produced a tent peg wrapped with white cord. In Hightower’s room they found a canvas tent imprinted with the word Tuberculosis. Heinrich’s inspection of a jackknife removed from Hightower’s pocket showed microscopic shreds of white cotton like that of the cord on both the tent peg and the tent. Sand in the knife’s hilt was identical to that at both the burial site and in the tent seams. Heinrich also compared the handwriting on the tent to that in the ransom note and in poems penned by Hightower, affirming that they all originated from the same source. Also, a typed section of the note had been produced on a typewriter traced to Hightower.

From this stack of evidence, Heinrich surmised that Hightower had slain the priest at the burial site, wrapped the body in the tent to await burial the following night, and used the disease label to prevent the curious from looking inside. Hightower was convicted of murder and given a life sentence.

In another case, Heinrich introduced a new type of evidence into the courtroom. John McCarthy, foreman for the Vallejo Street Department, entered his home on December 19, 1925, and was shot in the chest. As he was dying, McCarthy stated again and again, “I fired Colwell.” The police believed he was referring to Martin Colwell, 59, a local ruffian with a criminal record for assault. McCarthy had dismissed Colwell from a street labor gang and Colwell had, on drunken binges, threatened revenge.

A .38-caliber bullet was recovered from McCarthy’s body, and when police arrested Colwell, they found a .38 revolver in his pocket with one chamber empty. He had three more bullets on his person, and a box of ammunition from his home showed four bullets gone. Colwell could not account for the missing bullet, protesting he had been drunk at the time of the incident. He remembered nothing.

The gun and bullets went right to Heinrich. Having versed himself in the emerging science of ballistics, he used the gun to test-fire one bullet retrieved from Colwell’s pocket, several from his ammunition box, and others from an unrelated batch similar in caliber. Examining the bullets under a stereoscopic microscope, along with the recovered bullet that had killed McCarthy, Heinrich found convincing similarities that led him to believe that Colwell’s revolver had fired the fatal bullet.

However, as the January trial approached, the prosecutor was concerned that the ballistics analysis would prove insufficient, so Heinrich strove to produce photographs that would show the tiny rifling scratches on the bullets in a side-by-side comparison, as a single three-dimensional image. He experimented over and over until he was able to successfully click his two cameras simultaneously over the dual microscope lenses. No court officer had ever before seen such an image, where the photographs of two different bullets seemed to perfectly merge, and they thought it was impressive. As Heinrich made his presentation to the jury, with photographs, he called the marks the weapon left on the spent bullets a “bullet fingerprint,” setting a precedent in an American court. Another ballistics expert confirmed Heinrich’s work, but the defense had a witness as well who contradicted them both, so the jury hung.

The case went back to trial. This time jury members asked to look into the microscope to see for themselves what Heinrich had observed. Heinrich took advantage of the unique opportunity to teach laypeople the methods of science and arranged for a demonstration, allowing each jury member to look through the lenses. But they wanted more. They asked Heinrich to re-shoot the photographs in front of them. He accepted the challenge and then took the negatives to a nearby darkroom, accompanied by the bailiff. Under these difficult conditions, he replicated his laboratory feat and the jury was finally convinced. Despite the defense’s attempt to introduce new alibi witnesses, after only an hour of deliberation, the jury sent Colwell to prison. Heinrich’s approach inspired refinement of the equipment so that future scientists could more efficiently offer results.

Throughout his long career, Heinrich continued to expand his knowledge into other fields, including even the authentication of works of art and the restoration of burned papers to the point of legibility. He kept working past the typical retirement age, but on September 28, 1953, the world lost a brilliant forensic scientist when the Wizard of Berkeley, at age 72, suffered a stroke and died. He would have enjoyed seeing the procedures he developed or refined nearly a century ago still being used today to make mute evidence speak.

Works Consulted

Block, E. The wizard of Berkeley. New York: Coward-McCann, 1958.

Evans, C. The second casebook of forensic detection. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.

Thorwald, J. Crime and science. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.

Wilson, C., & Wilson, D. Written in blood: A history of forensic detection. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2003.

About the Author

Katherine Ramsland, PhD, CMI-V, has published 29 books, including The CSI Effect and Beating the Devil’s Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation. Dr. Ramsland is an assistant professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, is a Certified Medical Investigator (CMI-V), and has been a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners since 1998.


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