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  • Scotland Yard in the Bush: Medicine Murders, Child Witches and the Construction of the Occult: A Literature Review1
  • Terence Ranger


In the Sherlock Holmes stories Scotland Yard famously does not deploy science or make use of all those studies of blood and ash and bone which Holmes himself had pioneered. But the Yard is never so clumsy as when the occult seems to be involved – with suspected vampires, spectral dogs, tribal fetishes. The Yard’s combination of ignorance, scepticism and credulity is shown to be the very worst of all attitudes to adopt. How much things have changed in one way and how little in another. Scotland Yard is now incredibly scientific. The assumed ritual murder of ‘Adam’, the African boy whose torso was found in the Thames, has allowed a dazzling exhibition of what scientific method can now achieve. On the other hand police interpretations of the African occult still combine ignorance, scepticism and credulity.

An article posted on the National Geographic website on 7 February 2005 celebrated the science:

When the mutilated remains of a young child were pulled from the River Thames on September 21 2001 one of the most complex, bizarre and high profile murder investigations in criminal history began. All that remained of the tiny boy was a torso. His head, arms and legs had been removed with chilling precision and his body had been drained of blood. Identification seemed almost impossible. The lack of teeth and fingers rendered standard forensic techniques like dental and fingerprint analysis useless. Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly of Scotland Yard was charged with leading the investigation and turned to science to advance his inquiry (Barry 2005).

DNA analysis ‘suggested that Adam might be West African’, probably Nigerian. Professor Ken Pye, a forensic geologist at Royal Holloway College, ‘found that the juvenile torso came from a small area in north-west Africa, probably a rural area near the city of Benin in south-western Nigeria’. A scientist at Kew Gardens found traces of Calabar bean in Adam’s gut. ‘Richard Hoskins, a UK based expert on African religion and voodoo said that the Calabar bean is a very toxic plant because the poison acts in such a way to bring on total paralysis and an insanely painful death.’ A forensic squad disinterred skeletons from a [End Page 272] cemetery in Benin City to find a match for Adam’s bones. Sherlock Holmes would have been impressed.

But the interpretation of the data was much more questionable. The assumed location in Benin offered an instant connection with Vodun, the official religion of the Republic of Benin. ‘Two officers in Nigeria’ reported the Observer on 3 November 2002, ‘believe his death may be linked to an extremist element from the Yoruba people, a tribe with voodoo-like rituals.’ The Observer also reported that:

[i]n the past year police have discovered seven incidences of West Africans conducting religious rituals on the bank of the Thames. They usually involve lighting candles and writing on white sheets that are then thrown into the water. Early in their investigations, police thought seven half-burnt candles wrapped in a sheet near Battersea Power Station could hold the key to the murder. The name Adekoyejo Fola Adoye was written on the sheet and carved in the candles.

Alas, detectives soon found ‘that Adoye lived in New York and that his London-based parents had performed a ceremony to celebrate the fact that he was not killed in the 11 September terrorist attacks’ – a real example of the globalization of the occult! The same article, which was entitled ‘Human Flesh on Sale in London’, reported what turned out to be another false trail. Police had been told that there was a trade by West Africans in bush meat and human body parts; detectives from the Adam operation joined a raid by environmental health officers on a north London shop after a tip-off. The paper grudgingly admitted that ‘no obvious traces of human flesh’ were found but reported that packages of ‘unidentifiable meat’ had been sent for DNA testing. The testing was negative and Scotland Yard abandoned this theory too.

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pp. 272-283
Launched on MUSE
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