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The Murder Squad

Need and error inspired early crime scene innovations.

During the early 1900s, London supported around 700 detectives, but provincial towns lacked such resources. In addition, local officials with little experience often muddled their cases.

In 1907, Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone created an elite unit from members of Scotland Yard’s criminal investigation department. They were to be on call for murders outside London. At a moment’s notice, they should be on a train heading toward remote destinations in the British countryside. Although this group received no official title at the time, it would become known as the Murder Squad.

During an age when Sherlock Holmes stories were all the rage, these men gained national prominence whenever they solved cases.

Still, it could be difficult for them to investigate murders some distance from London.

In one case, Flora Haskell reported the murder of her son, a young amputee. He’d been saving money to purchase a cork leg. She’d seen a man running away from her home. When she’d called to him to stop, he’d thrown a knife at her, missing her. Blood from it had spattered her clothes. Alarmed, she’d gone to check on her son. That’s when she’d found him stabbed to death in his bed. Half of his money was missing.

When Murder Squad detectives arrived, they looked at the scene, questioned Mrs. Haskell, and asked other villagers if they had noticed a stranger. No one had. The detectives grew suspicious.

They learned that Flora was in dire need of money and suspected that her handicapped son was a burden. She’d cleaned up the crime scene and asked the local physician to wash the body before agents from the Yard could see it. The knife was Flora’s and it had recently been sharpened.

The detectives arrested her, but during her trial, her attorney told the jury that the primary piece of evidence against her – the blood from the knife thrown at her – was missing. The jury acquitted.

Certain that a killer had escaped justice, the Home Office ordered local authorities to preserve and guard such scenes, so as to prevent anyone from interfering with the evidence.

These Murder Squad detectives worked seven days a week, learning the faces and habits of the criminal element, and cultivating informants. They were only just starting to understand the value of fingerprints.

A case in 1924 inspired an important innovation. To this point, detectives used whatever packaging they could find for evidence and handled it with their bare hands.

Mrs. Mahon had found a cloakroom ticket in her husband’s coat pocket. She’d given it to a former railroad detective, who used it to acquire a bag from the train station. He’d opened the bag without breaking the lock and saw a bloodstained knife and female underclothes. He replaced the bag and told Mrs. Mahon to put the ticket back into her husband’s coat pocket.

Detective Chief Inspector Percy Savage put surveillance on the cloakroom and arrested Patrick Herbert Mahon when he claimed the bag. Savage opened the bag and, besides the other items, found a canvas racket bag with the initials, E.B.K.

Mahon confessed that he’d met Emily Kaye, a 34-year-old secretary, in London. They’d gone for a romantic holiday to a rented bungalow along a two-mile strip of the Sussex shore. At one point, they’d argued and he’d accidentally shoved her. She had hit her head on a coal bucket and died.

Afraid he’d be arrested for murder, Mahon dismembered her. He burned the head, legs and feet in the grate. He boiled other parts in a large pot. Some he packaged and tossed out the train window on his way back to London. He placed the bag with the knife and some of Emily’s things at the train station luggage area. The saw he’d left at the bungalow, along with the boiled body parts.

Detectives, along with pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, found the bungalow to be just as Mahon had described, except that Mahon had purchased the knife three days prior to the murder. It was pre-meditated, and the victim’s uterus was gone. The condition of her breasts showed that Emily had been pregnant. In addition, the coal bucket, a flimsy thing, had not been damaged.

Spilsbury had noticed the detectives handling the remains with their bare hands, which exposed them to infection. He told the chief they should use gloves. His concern inspired discussions about other crime scene needs. Thus, the Murder Bag was born. The next team going out to investigate a murder carried tools in designated bags.

I write about more of their cases and other chapters from forensic history in Beating the Devil’s Game.