Oscar Heinrich, the American Sherlock

Kate Winkler Dawson

In this edited extract, the author of American Sherlock tells us about Oscar Heinrich, the forensic criminologist
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Oscar Heinrich, ‘The American Sherlock Holmes’ is the most famous criminalist you’ve likely never heard of.

Looking at his photograph, I was struck by something that seemed like an odd observation at the time—Heinrich was quite handsome for a tightly wound scientist. He was slight and not particularly tall, with thinning light brown hair. There was something about the sharp angles of his face that made him magnetic in photos, a confidence in his eyes as he cleaned a revolver.

Oscar Heinrich

I spent months staring at thousands of photographs, some taken by Heinrich’s assistants and others developed by the criminalist himself (he was an avid photographer who relished documenting crime scenes). I noted hundreds of details, like the way he squinted as he adjusted the focus knob on his favourite microscope. The way his teeth gripped the bit of a straight-stemmed pipe as a small stream of smoke billowed from its bowl. The way his forehead wrinkled as he hunched over evidence. The way his round rimless glasses fit extra-snuggly around his temples—a requirement for a chemist who spent much of his time leaning over a microscope.

As I flipped through those portraits, I gleaned more details about his private lab in Berkeley Hills, a lovely neighbourhood overlooking San Francisco Bay. Heinrich was surrounded by odd devices. Every conceivable type of microscope was crammed onto a long wooden desk. Any extra space was surrendered to test tubes, crucibles, beakers, lenses, and scales. Behind Heinrich were shelves filled with hundreds of priceless books, at least priceless to a chemist turned forensic scientist. There were tomes on fingerprint identification, applied mechanics, analytic geometry, and powdered vegetable drugs.

The titles, written in six different languages, would intrigue any intellectual. Blood, Urine, Faeces and Moisture: A Book of Tests, read one cover. Arsenic in Papers and Fabrics, read another. He even owned a tattered dictionary of slang used by criminals. They seemed unrelated, a cache of mismatched textbooks in the library of a brilliant madman. But each was a tiny piece belonging to a bigger puzzle that only he could assemble. The portrait of a genius and the tumultuous era in which he lived began to emerge.

And it was a tumultuous era—the homicide rate in the 1920s, when Heinrich’s most interesting work began, had increased by as much as almost 80 percent from the decade before, thanks to Prohibition. For thirteen years the federal government in the US banned alcohol in hopes of reducing crime, but instead it spawned new and more creative criminal enterprises. Varying levels of corruption tainted local governments and police departments across the country. Judges enjoyed immunity from arrest, and most major cities were ruled by crime bosses.

Poverty and unemployment were also responsible for the increase in violent crimes, as many Americans became desperate for security and safety. And there was an ever-growing backlog of unsolved crimes.

American policemen at the scene of a crime

The FBI was still the Bureau of Investigation, a group of insufficiently trained officers who mostly investigated bank fraud. Local police forces were underfunded, poorly instructed, and mostly using investigative techniques that hadn’t been updated since the Victorian era. There would be no public federal crime lab until 1932; violent bank robberies increased while murderers terrorized Americans, especially women, whose newfound independence inflamed both the passions and the anger of many in society.

The archaic methods of crime fighting in the 1920s, procedures depending on hunches and weak circumstantial evidence, were futile.

Cops were combatting a sneakier criminal, those thieves and murderers who understood chemicals, firearms, and the criminal court system.

Police were outmanned and many times outsmarted. “Footprints are the best clue,” declared one top cop at the time. “There’s no need for any other type of identification.”

Innocent men were being hanged while criminals escaped justice.  The complicated crimes of the 1920s demanded a special type of sleuth—an expert with the instincts of a detective in the field, the analytical skills of a forensic scientist in the lab, and the ability to translate that knowledge to a general audience in a courtroom. Edward Oscar Heinrich became the nation’s first unique crime scene investigator—one of America’s greatest forensic scientists, a criminalist who cracked some of  the country’s most baffling cases.

The press at the time dubbed Edward Oscar Heinrich “America’s Sherlock Holmes” thanks to his brilliance in the lab, his cool demeanor at crime scenes, and his expertise in the witness chair. Between 1921 and 1933, his reputation evolved from curiosity to legend. His cases are enshrined in books, but their hero is still largely unknown—a pioneer in the world of crime solving whose fingerprint is everywhere.

Kate Winkler Dawson is the author of American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of the Crime Scene Investigation.