- Global Forensic Cultures: Making Fact and Justice in the Modern Era ed. by Ian Burney and Christopher Hamlin
This volume illustrates how handsomely historians are making up for their earlier neglect of forensic ideas, tools, and techniques. Its eleven essays provide a rich sampling of the scholarly bounty awaiting us in a subject that had for long been left to retired police officers or forensic workers to chronicle for the delectation of "true crime" enthusiasts.
Forensic science developed in multiple settings and in diverse hands. The colonies of the European powers were particularly prolific in generating new approaches. But the colonies were not simply laboratories for Europeans to develop new ways of managing irksome or potentially dangerous "natives." The indigenous people possessed their own forensic techniques as well, and Gagan Preet Singh explores how the tracking of footprints had been refined into a complex, highly effective tool for detection by generations of non-literate villagers in the Punjab. Their expertise owed nothing to the colonial state, but the latter, Singh shows, was not only eager to employ them but sought to subsume [End Page 306] their knowledge into "European" science. Singh's study is complemented by Binyamin Blum's fascinating essay on the displacement of human trackers by Doberman Pinschers in mandate-era Palestine. Even though the legal status of evidence obtained by canine tracking was dubious across the world and its physiological basis a mystery to scientists, dogs were favored in Palestine because the British found it difficult, especially during the Arab Revolt of 1936–39, to gather intelligence from Arab communities. A dog's evident lack of community loyalty, moreover, made it the perfect witness in a situation bristling with racial animosities. Projit Bihari Mukharji's essay on a family of handwriting specialists in colonial India is no less intriguing. Neither a state operation nor representing any indigenous tradition, the Hardless family's graphology service claimed a unique ability to detect document fraud, a crime that the British had long considered to be characteristic of Indians. But although they got plenty of official work, the Hardlesses were not unthinking satellites of the colonial government. Liminal in their Eurasian (Anglo-Indian) origin, free from the obligations imposed on government servants and benefiting from private assignments, some of them even supported Indian nationalism.
Mitra Sharafi's essay is also on colonial India, but focuses on the "hard" science of testing for human blood, one so important to the Raj that it created the position of Imperial Serologist even though no comparable role existed in Britain itself. Delving through a startling history of indigenous vendettas and disputes in which animal blood was used to incriminate enemies, Sharafi shows how the fabrication of blood evidence was an important forensic problem at the time and argues that it would be simplistic to view it as a straightforward instance of colonial racism. In his contribution, Marcus Carrier turns to another impeccably scientific subject—forensic toxicology—but in the very different setting of nineteenth-century Germany. Analyzing how expert witnesses sought to persuade courts of the reliability of toxicological evidence, Carrier demonstrates that they did not simply follow scientific precepts but carefully considered which tests and what kind of results would be immediately comprehensible to judges, juries, and other laypeople. In Ian Burney's enthralling, blow-by-blow account of blood-spatter analysis and the role it played in a celebrated American murder case that even involved the creator of Perry Mason, we have another case study of a developing forensic "science" and its long struggle to establish its authority over other competing truth-claims.
We return to the British Empire in Jeffrey Jentzen's survey of medicolegal investigative regimes for sudden or suspicious deaths. In his whistlestop tour across the empire on which the sun never set, Jentzen shows how the cultural heterogeneity of the imperial domains necessitated not only departures from English law but major innovations that had no parallel in the metropole. Heather Wolffram's essay also...