Murder & Crime Scenes Before the 1950s


Yesterday, I discussed the Villisca Axe Murders and J. N. Wilkerson and someone sent me a note about why on earth there weren’t detectives in the 1912.  Murder before the 1950s was handled much differently than it is now days.  Hell, even in 1950 it was handled much differently than it is in 2018.

First off, in 1912 the discovery of fingerprints was new.  The discovery that humans left fingerprints when they touched things was also still new.  Yep, humans spent thousands of years looking at their finger tips without realizing that sometimes when they touched shit, they left fingerprints.  I know that sounds crazy, but it makes a lot of sense actually…

People understood that dirty hands left marks on clean surfaces, but that really just meant cleaning whatever clean surface some asshat had touched and left dirt on.  And everyone had fingerprints, why wouldn’t they all be the same, unless you had scarred them and lots of people had scarred fingerprints, so again why would anyone think they were unique to every person on the planet?

Forensics really wasn’t a thing.  Not like we think of them.  Forensics was in its infancy in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  And between the beginning of homo sapien sapien to now, it was pretty much standard operating procedure to let every Tom, Dick, Harry, their wives, their parents, and their kids tramp through a murder scene.  It was a social event.  “Oh, did you hear about Marvin?  He was murdered, me and the family is headed over there now to see how gruesome it is.”  Yes, things like that happened, often.

The Villisca Axe Murders deviated from this a bit, the sheriff at the time called out the national guard to try and stop people from going through the house.  And those that did get through before the guard showed up, did so without the bodies being present, which was also unusual.

And no, most police departments didn’t have detectives.  Hell, most of them didn’t have many officers.  Think Mayberry folks.  The reason the sheriff of Montgomery County called the national guard to protect the Villisca murder site was because even with a population of nearly 2,000, there weren’t enough full and part time officers to do the job.  They weren’t busy with other crimes, they just didn’t exist.

Furthermore, forensics wasn’t the only science in its infancy, psychology was too.  I’m sure Freud and Jung would have had some ideas about the murderer, but they wouldn’t have been terribly helpful.

Finally, while serial killers had popped up by 1912, they definitely weren’t at the forefront of most people’s minds.  And those that had been caught, hadn’t been caught by police forces.

Private detective agencies were well funded.  They could train their investigators (and usually did).  And they had resources that most city and county law enforcement didn’t.  The Bureau of Investigation didn’t open until 1908 and they didn’t cut their teeth on serial killers or general murders.  And when they did finally have some experience in investigating crime, they mostly went after organized crime and bootleggers, not murderers or multiple murderers.

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