Fatal Evidence-Helen Barrell   Leave a comment

Fatal Evidence is a biography of the Victorian forensic scientist, Alfred Swaine Taylor, a person I had not come across before, but the idea of tracing the history of forensic medicine interested me.

There have been no previous biographies of this person, so Ms Barrell had her work cut out in researching the long and full life of this gentleman. I was impressed by the quality of the research and the very readable way the facts were presented.

The book is chronological, and after covering childhood and parentage, moves through Taylor’s life mentioning every significant published article and case in which he was involved. This must have involved a lot of reading of old newspapers.

The result is very interesting, as not only does it tell Taylor’s story, but it inadvertently gives a timeline of the use of medical evidence in criminal trials during 1830-1880. It becomes fascinating to watch the changes in reception to the scientific facts of poisoning, from the beginnings, when often the Judge would treat Taylor’s information with disdain and dismiss it, to the almost reverential respect he achieved in court be the end.

The book overflows with anecdotes of poisonings and other crimes. The court system is clearly described, and we are able to watch as cases are tried, in very different ways to now. The courts themselves developed much during that time, and we are able to observe these changes too.

Taylor’s other interests, early photography, and an obsession for public health are all covered in the text, with short backgrounds placing each situation in context. He campaigned for correct payment of medical witnesses, for the regulation of poisons, and for the expert witness to become impartial, without the obligation to twist their testimony to the defence or prosecution.

The final section, which covers mentions of the author in crime literature is a fascinating and very welcome addition.

I read this book rapidly, the wealth of information regarding the development of forensic science as used in court case during the Victorian period was amazing and riveting.

I would heartily recommend this book.


Posted July 13, 2017 by dianne7 in Uncategorized

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