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Last Updated: Friday, 29 August, 2003, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Solving it like Sherlock
Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes - pioneer of geoforensics
The science of geoforensics - using particles of rock, dirt or soil to help solve a crime - is now one of the most frequently used methods at the start of any police investigation.

But the practice is based not on the brainchild of any university professor or crime expert, but in fiction - the character of Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Although the first investigation involving geoforensics was at the start of the 20th Century, Doyle's famous detective was using the methods to solve crimes in London some 30 years before.

"The use of geology and physical evidence really began with Sherlock Holmes," geoforensic expert Dr Ray Murray told BBC World Service's Discovery programme.

"Conan Doyle wrote that series for two reasons - one, he made some money off of it, and two, he wanted to introduce the new developments of science in the late 19th Century to criminal investigation."

In one of the books, Holmes is able to instantly tell that his companion Dr Watson has been to a post office, just from a few specks of dirt on his shoe.

"Observation tells me that you have a little reddish mould adhering to your instep. Just opposite the Whigmore Street office they have taken up the pavement and thrown up some earth, which lies in such a way that it is difficult to avoid treading in it on entering," Holmes explains to his bemused friend.


Conan Doyle developed his personal interest in what would become known as geoforensics when he himself was asked to help the defence in a real criminal case.

"Conan Doyle was writing in the 1870s, and even then he was talking about being able to identify where a person had been from the soil on his shoes," geoforensic scientist Dr Barry Simpson - a former Detective Superintendent in the UK - told Discovery.

"In real life, Conan Doyle actually helped a solicitor who was involved in a case about some animals who had been maltreated and injured.

"This person had been accused of doing it, but from the soil on his shoes that he had worn on the day of the offence Conan Doyle was actually able to prove that that person had been nowhere near the scene of the crime."

Perhaps you can tell more about where a person has last been from the dirt on their shoes, than you can from intensive interrogation'
Hans Gross, The Handbook For Examining Magistrates
It was to be 30 years, however, before the techniques Sherlock Holmes had been using to crack fictional cases were transferred into real police work in Britain.

The first time they were used was in 1904, when a geologist was brought in to help with the investigation into the death of a woman called Margareet Filbert.

"The suspect was immediately identified by all his neighbours as a possible because he was known to be a poacher," Dr Murray explained.

"He wore his dress shoes - as his wife testified - only on the day of the crime. And on the sole of those shoes, at the front of the heel, there were three levels of soil."

The lowest level of these traces was brick and coal, which matched with traces taken from a castle where the murder weapon - a gun - was found.

The middle layer compared with soils found next to the body, and the uppermost - the layer of soils that was the oldest - compared with soils found on the walkway outside the victim's home.

While the defendant claimed he had been somewhere else that evening, his shoes told a different story, and the suspect was convicted.


Six years later a Frenchman, Edmund Lucard, established the "transfer principle" - the idea that whatever a person touches or walks on leaves a trace on them - which became the foundation on which geoforensic science was built.

Soil, Eyewire
Small changes to soil can be crucial evidence
Dr Simpson added that technology had in recent times allowed even greater advances - from metal detectors to full sonar scans of what may be underneath the ground.

These are very important as they allow detectives to see what may be buried without disturbing the crime scene.

"It's a way of looking into the earth without disturbing it," Dr Simpson said.

"We're looking for anomalies. what you don't see is the exact shape of what is under the ground. You see differences, so a pattern appears, and you see vague shapes.

"It doesn't mean to say if you are looking for a human body you will see the exact shape of a human body.

"What you will see is a difference in the patterning that is produced, and that is the anomaly that eventually will be excavated."

Elementary, really.

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30 Mar 01  |  Entertainment

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