James Williams

What I Read - American Sherlock

American Sherlock cover

American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI by Kate Winkler Dawson

Edward Oscar Heinrich was a complicated figure. On one hand, he perfected many of the techniques used in forensic science today and was such a great autodidact that he passed his state's pharmacy board exam without a high school degree. On the other hand, his reputation, built by his work on high profile cases, lent credibility to the pseudoscience handwriting analysis cases that formed a bulk of his caseload.

In a time where not only do most people not carry pens nor regularly write, it's easy to think it's absurd that you can determine someone's mood, personality or intent from their handwriting. But we still have contested science in today's forensics, in the branch of arson investigation commonly called fire science. Lots of "conventional knowledge" that's been long disproven is still presented as fact with little recourse for the accused.

Another contemporary view I had upon reading the book is how we still confer reverence on folks that have great success on an unrelated area. Being a SuperBowl winning quarterback doesn't make you an automatic expert on vaccine science. We need to be able to honor their accomplishments in one area without fast-tracking them to credibility in another where they haven't earned it.

Nonetheless, the book was an interesting time capsule into what was cutting edge 100 years ago.