The Murder Bag

22 May 2015

Our Forensics: Anatomy of Crime exhibition is on until 21 June 2015. One of the objects you’ll find on display is an equipment case from 1972, used by officers at the scene of a crime to gather evidence. Sarah Mason tells us about the evolution of the so called “Murder Bag”. 

The analysis of the crime scene has been, and continues to be, central to the process of forensic investigation. Most of us are familiar with the image of teams of forensic experts clad in white suits sweeping an area for minuscule clues to trace the perpetrator. It hasn’t always been this way however. Over the last two hundred years, the development of forensic science can be traced through one vital object: the investigators toolkit, or the “Murder Bag”.

 A

A “Murder Bag”.

Analysing bodies which have met a violent end was first enshrined in the 1533 legal code known as the “Constitutio Criminalis Carolina” by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This can be seen as the first legalisation of analysing part of the crime scene; the first acceptance that opening the cadaver and the analysis of its exterior could be vital in the tracing of the murderer.

It was not until the 1880s that the true importance of crime scene analysis was given predominance in investigations, due mainly to one important individual. In 1880, Alexandre Lacassagne was appointed to the newly created position of Chair of Legal Medicine at the University of Lyon. Over several years he came to be the preeminent expert in this newly developing field, consulted internationally for his expertise and tutoring the next generation of influential forensic investigators.

 A pint glass sealed in a plastic bag as

A pint glass sealed in a plastic bag as “evidence”.

Lacassagnes’ lifelong pursuit was to help his fellow criminologists understand that “All the Silent witnesses…the place, the body, the prints…can speak if one knows how to properly interrogate them” (Starr, 2010). As well as encouraging his pupils to write theses for his growing library of forensic information, Lacassagne made the first steps in the creation of the murder bag by publishing his book “Vade-mecum du médecin-expert”(Handbook for the medical expert) in 1892. This pocket sized handbook gave step-by-step instructions to medical practitioners called to the scene of a crime. It was so detailed that in its 250 pages it covered almost every crime that an investigator could encounter.

 Scene of crime officer’s equipment case, 1972. On display in our Forensics exhibition, on loan from the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre, London. (Image: Metropolitan Police |Heritage Centre)

Scene of crime officer’s equipment case, 1972. On display in our Forensics exhibition, on loan from the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre, London. (Image: Metropolitan Police |Heritage Centre)

No look at the history of the Crime Scene analysis kit would be complete without a mention of Edmund Locard. This Frenchman, who ran the first Police crime laboratory, also in Lyon, was vital in the development of a theory still pertinent today: that “every contact leaves a trace”. In a criminal case in 1912 he removed material from beneath the fingernails of a murder suspect, thus confirming him as the perpetrator of the crime. This important step can be seen to have paved the way to the inclusion of swabs in to today’s kits.

 Sir Bernard Spilsbury, a famous pathologist.

Sir Bernard Spilsbury, a famous pathologist.

It was one of forensic history’s most famous pathologists that coined the term and put together the more recognisable “Murder Bag”. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, appalled at seeing the police removing rotting flesh with their bare hands, conducted a series of meetings with the Metropolitan Police, ultimately leading to the development of the “Murder Bag”. The kit containing rubber gloves, tweezers, evidence bags, a magnifying glass, compass, ruler and swabs, soon became a central part of every investigation.

Since this early version there have been many modern iterations, including a fibreglass brush; lifting tape and powder for fingerprinting; a utility knife; scissors; blood and semen tests; alcohol hand gel; scalpels; and goggles.

 DNA swab collection kits.

DNA swab collection kits.

Crime scene analysis kits are now inclusive of DNA tests and are mass produced by a central company, a level of centralisation unimaginable to someone like Lacassagne, but vital to the future of criminal identification by trace evidence.

Sarah is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.