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Lethal Witness

Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Honorary Pathologist

Andrew Rose

Publication Year: 2009

The man who brought forensic pathology out of the laboratory

Sir Bernard Spilsbury was an early-twentieth-century British forensic pathologist who gained fame by testifying in classic murder cases, beginning in 1910 with the Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen trial. His expert court testimony—he identified Crippen’s victim by detailed microscopic study of a scar—convinced the lay jury of Crippen’s guilt.

Considered the father of modern forensic pathology, Spilsbury became well known after he provided crucial prosecutorial evidence in the Brides in the Bath case (where a nurse nearly drowned in a laboratory experiment designed to prove his theories), the Blazing Car and Brighton Trunk murders, and the Hay-on-Wye arsenic poisoning trial. Knighted in 1923, Spilsbury performed 20,000 postmortem examinations and became the first and only “Honorary Pathologist to the Home Office.”

Controversial and dramatic, Lethal Witness charts Spilsbury’s rise and fall as a media star, revealing how he put spin on the facts, embellished evidence, and played games with the truth. In some notorious cases, his “positive evidence” led to the conviction and execution of men innocent of murder—gross miscarriages of justice that now demand official pardons.

Andrew Rose examines Spilsbury’s carefully nurtured image, dogmatic manner, and unbending belief in his own infallibility and exposes the fallacies of the man dubbed “the most brilliant scientific detective of all time.” True crime fans, students of forensics, and law enforcement professionals will enjoy this biography of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the man who helped raise forensic science to an art.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

Series: True Crime History Series


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-xi

Professor Bernard Knight CBE, Emeritus Professor of Forensic Pathology, University of Wales College of Medicine, formerly Consultant Forensic Pathologist to the Home Office, and Barrister-at-Law, has been of immeasurable help for more than a decade. As the project for a life of Spilsbury ...

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pp. xv-xxi

At 9 a.m. Wandsworth Prison lay in almost total silence, a rare event indeed. All prisoners had been confined to their cells. To preserve due order and decency among the inmates, the chime of the prison clock had been disconnected. The hour was not sounded. Two men, brought from the North of ...

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ONE. An Unsentimental Education

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pp. 1-8

Sir Bernard Spilsbury possessed a profoundly English surname, whose origin lies in the Cotswold village of Spelsbury, standing between Chipping Campden and Woodstock, not many miles from the great university city of Oxford. The surname of Spilsbury is found throughout middle ...

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TWO. Dr Spilsbury

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pp. 9-19

ln March 1899 the St Mary's Hospital Gazette carried an advertisement for scholarship examinations at the Medical School. Modest (and possibly unexpected) success in the Oxford finals seems to have prompted Spilsbury to redeem his failure to win a Demyship at his Oxford college. On 20 and 21 ...

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THREE. Dr Crippen

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pp. 21-30

A weedy, goggle-eyed, henpecked, middle-aged little man with thinning ginger hair, pince-nez and a bushy, droopy moustache hardly seems the embodiment of absolute evil. Yet in the popular imagination his name has acquired a notoriety second only to Jack the Ripper. 1 The name 'Crippen' ...

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FOUR. Moral High Ground

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pp. 31-40

The DPP's gratitude to Spilsbury for 'the excellence of his work' in the conviction of Dr Crippen did not prevent his staff disallowing a fee claim for £72 16s, paying the rising star only £54 6s.1 Nevertheless, the daily attendance rate of three guineas, although less than the five-guinea rate ...

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FIVE. Brides in the Bath

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pp. 41-49

Alan Spilsbury was born on 5 April 1913. Late in pregnancy, Edith Spilsbury developed appendicitis. Though an operation (risky at the time) was successful, damage had been caused to her unborn child, remembered as being 'always ill'.1 The expectant father had been kept busy over the months ...

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SIX. Night of the Gothas

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pp. 51-62

Spilsbury's workload increased dramatically through 1916, partly because of his increasing fame and partly because other colleagues, not least William Willcox, were away from England engaged in war service. The following year, he became run down and developed an infection in one arm, caused by contact ...

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SEVEN. The Button and Badge Murder

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pp. 63-75

On 12 February 1918 Spilsbury travelled to Woolwich Mortuary, at the request of the local coroner, to conduct a post-mortem on the body of Nellie Grace Trew, aged 16, who had worked as a clerk at Woolwich Arsenal. Within a few weeks Spilsbury would become involved in a terrible miscarriage ...

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EIGHT Mid-Life Crisis

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pp. 77-83

Early in 1919 Spilsbury gave evidence in another society shooting, with a resemblance to the case of Lieutenant Malcolm (see Chapter Six).1 Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Cecil Rutherford was a medical doctor and married man with six children. His former pupil at medical school, Miles ...

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NINE 'Excuse Fingers'

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pp. 85-96

Spilsbury rarely travelled to the north of England. In 1917 he had given evidence at Liverpool Assizes in the murder trial of William Hodgson, and, as in the case of Voisin (see Chapter Six), Spilsbury's evidence about the significance of bloodstains was the subject of controversy. On 2 March 1922, ...

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TEN. 'Arise, Sir Bernard'

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pp. 97-110

James Spilsbury died at his home, The Nook, Wake Green Road, Moseley, on 18 April 1922. Although he had been fairly well known in the Birmingham area as 'an eminent pharmacist', his obituary in the Birmingham Post1 mostly remembered him as 'the father of Dr Bernard Spilsbury, the ...

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ELEVEN. 1924: Two Vintage Murders

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pp. 111-124

On 18 March 1924, at a meeting of the Medico-Legal Society, Spilsbury read a paper, prepared with the help of Dr Percy Spurgin, a London police surgeon, entitled 'Cases of Sudden Death from Inhibition'.1 Spilsbury described three cases from his own experience, noting that there were 'several ...

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TWELVE. A Martyr to Spilsburyism

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pp. 125-139

Within six months of his appearance in the trial of Patrick Mahon, Spilsbury was back in Sussex to investigate another human dismemberment, which, as bad luck would have it, also posed fundamental problems about the cause of death.1 Since 1922 Norman Thorne had lived in a ...

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THIRTEEN. Not Proven

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pp. 141-151

Spilsbury's public reputation had survived the controversy generated by the Thorne case (see Chapter Twelve), although, in private, doubts about his dogmatic approach to evidence were beginning to surface among legal and medical circles. For the press, however, Spilsbury remained excellent ...

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FOURTEEN. 'Do you think I've come up here for fun?'

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pp. 153-162

On 6 May 1927 a taxi-driver took two young men from the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall to Rochester Row police station, next door to Westminster Police Court, where Spilsbury had often given evidence in committal proceedings. The young men, it seems, had been summonsed for ...

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FIFTEEN. A Disappearing Bruise

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pp. 163-183

In 1927 the Medico-Legal Society elected a woman member. It was a controversial step. Dr Marie Stopes, pioneer advocate of birth control and author of the best-selling Married Love, was a formidable character, not afraid to advance her views robustly, without fear or favour. Shortly after ...

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SIXTEEN. The Blazing Car Murder

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pp. 185-198

The so-called Blazing Car Murder, tried in 1931, was probably the high watermark of Spilsbury's career, but shortly before, in 1929 and 1930, he had been called in to another well-publicised murder mystery connected with motor transport, investigating the case of ...

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SEVENTEEN. Murder Parade

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pp. 199-210

On 2 June 1931 Spilsbury travelled the short distance from University College Hospital to the mortuary at Hendon, where he examined another badly burnt corpse.1 Unlike the victim in the Rouse case (see Chapter Sixteen), who had been dead ten days before Spilsbury conducted his post-mortem, the ...

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EIGHTEEN. Ghastly Speculation

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pp. 211-219

ln 1931 Spilsbury had received enormous publicity from the Blazing Car Murder, where his evidence had contributed materially to the conviction of Rouse (see Chapter Sixteen), as well as from several other high-profile murder investigations. This was also the year in which Spilsbury - perhaps a little late ...

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NINETEEN. 'Laugh, baby, laugh for the last time!'

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pp. 221-228

In the 1932 Old Bailey murder trial of Mrs Barney, Sir Patrick Hastings put brilliantly into practice lessons learnt from studying the evidence given by Spilsbury in the Rouse trial a year earlier (see Chapter Sixteen)) Elvira Dolores Barney, 28, was the rich, spoilt daughter of Sir John Ashley Mullens, the Chief ...

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TWENTY. Tony Mancini: The Brighton Trunk Murders

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pp. 229-249

In 1932 Sir Bernard's youngest son, Dick, now 13, left preparatory school in Hampstead, where he had been a day-boy, and was sent as a boarder to Sedbergh, a hearty, games-oriented public school in Cumberland. Dick did not relish his schooldays at Sedbergh, where, much to his father's chagrin, he took ...

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TWENTY-ONE. Spilsbury in Decline

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pp. 241-250

On 1 February 1935 the Daily Express - owned by Lord Beaverbrook and a leader in the mass circulation market - published the results of a popularity contest on its front page. People had been invited to write in, naming the people they most liked (or disliked) reading about. A league table ...

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pp. 251-262

After the outbreak of the Second World War Spilsbury continued to live in his flat at 1 Verulam Buildings in Gray's Inn. Alan, his eldest son, assisted his father in the laboratory, acting as secretary and maintaining records of Spilsbury's work. Alan's poor health (he may have been epileptic) precluded ...

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pp. 263-270

Spilsbury's bleak little laboratory in the Department of Pharmacology was o accommodated on the second floor of a three-storey block, with a single window overlooking an internal courtyard at University College Hospital. Boxes of slides and drawers filled with case cards stood on grimy tables. A ...


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pp. 271-283

Select Bibliography

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pp. 285-288


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pp. 289-296


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p. 297-297

E-ISBN-13: 9781612775531
E-ISBN-10: 1612775535
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606350195

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: True Crime History Series

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Subject Headings

  • Spilsbury, Bernard Henry, Sir, 1877-1947.
  • Forensic pathologists -- Great Britain -- Biography.
  • Medical examiners (Law) -- Great Britain -- Biography.
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