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by Dr. Ray Murray

          History and legend contain examples of the use of observation, past experience, and evidence in the form of rocks and minerals to solve forensic problems. For instance, in one common old story, shrewd thinkers are able to locate an enemy camp by examining the rocks caught in horses’ hooves. There was a case in April of 1856 where a barrel of silver coins transported on a Prussian railroad arrived with rock and sand and no silver. Professor Ehrenberg in Berlin was asked to examine the sand. He had samples of sand collected from each stop that train made. Using his microscope, Ehrenberg was able to identify the railroad stop where the substituted sand occurred. With this information the railroad police quickly identified the railroad employee at that location who was the culprit and he was convicted. However, the formal application of geology and soil science to criminal investigation had to wait for developments in crime-lab technology, as well as the education of investigators about the usefulness of these materials. Since the end of the nineteenth century, geoforensics has been applied widely and has evolved to a high level of sophistication and quality, becoming an accepted and commonly used tool in today’s criminal justice system. The use of earth materials as evidence in both criminal and civil matters assists in investigations and serves as evidence in actual court cases.

          The idea of professional geologists applying their field to criminalistics began, like applications of many sciences to this area, with the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The publication of the Sherlock Holmes series between 1887 and 1927 provided the world with scientific ideas and techniques for solving crimes that until then existed only in the mind of physician-author Conan Doyle. These techniques and scientific thinking had never actually been used before. Investigators would only later develop some of the techniques suggested by Sherlock Holmes and use them to solve actual cases.

          The venerable Dr. Watson summed up Holmes’s knowledge of geology this way: “Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.” Today, considering information and techniques available in the late nineteenth century, we know that a real-life Holmes could not really have performed such feats. However, Conan Doyle’s writings did plant ideas that now form the basis of forensic geology: the number of kinds of soils is almost unlimited; soils change markedly over short distances; people may collect soil samples on their clothes, tools, or vehicles simply by coming into contact with earth materials; and examination of that soil may help place the person at the location where the soil was collected.

           Hans Gross, an Austrian criminal investigator and professor of criminology who may never have heard of Sherlock Holmes, was instrumental in applying scientific methods to the investigation and prosecution of crime. Early in his career Gross served as legal counsel, state’s attorney, and later on the Appellate Court in Graz, Austria. Gross was not only concerned with using scientific methods for solving crimes, but he also studied the underlying causes of crime, the criminal’s personality, psychological changes during confinement, and methods of rehabilitation. Spurred by his interest in the rapid developments in scientific method, Gross compiled those methods being applied to crime investigation at the time and published them in 1893 in his classic and practical Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Handbook for Examining Magistrates). He included what was known at the time about applications in forensic medicine, toxicology, serology, and ballistics. With remarkable foresight and imagination, Gross also suggested many potential applications of science to criminal investigation—including earth science. Prophetically, he advocated the employment of the microscopist and mineralogist for the study of “dust, dirt on shoes and spots on cloth.” He astutely observed, “Dirt on shoes can often tell us more about where the wearer of those shoes had last been than toilsome inquiries.” Translated into English with the title Criminal Investigation, this book has significantly influenced the development and use of scientific methods in criminal investigation.

           The ideas that Conan Doyle published in fiction and that Gross recorded in his forward-looking criminalistics handbook set the stage for the application of geology and soil science to crime investigation. It was only a matter of time until the applications were actually made.
Georg Popp, a chemist by training, maintained a laboratory in Frankfurt, Germany. Like many consulting laboratories in the early twentieth century, Popp’s provided chemical and microscopic services in the area of food studies, analyses of mineral waters, bacteriology, and other related fields. In 1900, a criminal investigator in Frankfurt who had read Hans Gross’s handbook asked Popp to examine spots on a suspect’s trousers. From this introduction, Popp’s interest in criminalistics developed, and he devoted himself to developing chemical and microscopic techniques for forensic applications.

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