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American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI

American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI

by Kate Winkler Dawson


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Notes From Your Bookseller

Scotland Yard had Sherlock Holmes. However, Kate Winkler Dawson shows us in American Sherlock that we, too, had someone who knew all too well about deductive reasoning. Our favorite true crime books read like fiction and emphasize that “truth is stranger than fiction.” The story of Edward Oscar Heinrich is exactly that. Elementary, one might say!

A gripping historical true crime narrative that "reads like the best of Conan Doyle himself" (Karen Abbott, author of The Ghosts of Eden Park), American Sherlock recounts the riveting true story of the birth of modern criminal investigation.

Berkeley, California, 1933. In a lab filled with curiosities—beakers, microscopes, Bunsen burners, and hundreds upon hundreds of books—sat an investigator who would go on to crack at least two thousand cases in his forty-year career. Known as the "American Sherlock Holmes," Edward Oscar Heinrich was one of America's greatest—and first—forensic scientists, with an uncanny knack for finding clues, establishing evidence, and deducing answers with a skill that seemed almost supernatural.

Heinrich was one of the nation's first expert witnesses, working in a time when the turmoil of Prohibition led to sensationalized crime reporting and only a small, systematic study of evidence. However with his brilliance, and commanding presence in both the courtroom and at crime scenes, Heinrich spearheaded the invention of a myriad of new forensic tools that police still use today, including blood spatter analysis, ballistics, lie-detector tests, and the use of fingerprints as courtroom evidence. His work, though not without its serious—some would say fatal—flaws, changed the course of American criminal investigation.

Based on years of research and thousands of never-before-published primary source materials, American Sherlock captures the life of the man who pioneered the science our legal system now relies upon—as well as the limits of those techniques and the very human experts who wield them.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525539568
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/16/2021
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 15,720
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kate Winkler Dawson is a seasoned documentary producer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, WCBS News, ABC News Radio, PBS NewsHour, and Nightline. She is the host of "Tenfold More Wicked," a historical true crime podcast on the Exactly Right network. Her first book was Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City. She teaches journalism at The University of Texas at Austin.

Read an Excerpt


A Bloody Mess:

The Case of Allene Lamson's Bath, Part I

He dipped into this bottle or that, drawing out a few drops of each with his glass pipette, and finally brought a test-tube containing a solution over to the table. . . . "You come at a crisis, Watson," said he. "If this paper remains blue, all is well. If it turns red, it means a man's life."

-Arthur Conan Doyle,

The Naval Treaty, 1893

The sharp crackles in the back garden signaled a weekend ritual-the sporadic popping from a small fire, one of many bonfires in her yard over the past three years. Her husband was fond of burning the rubbish he collected from their small bungalow-style home in Northern California.

It was Tuesday, May 30, 1933. The fire sizzled, consuming an incredible amount of debris: garden trimmings, dead artichoke plants, long-dead snails, useless paper, pieces of canvas, and even old steak bones-anything David Lamson thought might reduce to ash by late morning. The pungent smell grew stronger, like charred meat served by a distracted chef, but Allene Lamson rarely complained. The fires helped satisfy her husband's compulsion to keep their home orderly.

It was an honor to live along Stanford University's prestigious Faculty Row in Palo Alto, an affluent community about thirty miles south of San Francisco. Now a high-tech hub in the heart of Silicon Valley, the city has always attracted the wealthy, the educated, and the kingmakers, even in the 1930s. The Lamsons' cottage was snuggled amid the palatial homes of professors and professionals, surrounded by the splendid coast live oaks and flowering eucalyptus trees on campus. The university had earned an international reputation by the 1930s-a sanctuary for future academics who could afford a pricey private education, even as most Americans struggled through the fourth year of the Great Depression, later called the toughest year.

The Lamsons' cottage on Salvatierra Street, with its Spanish-style red-tiled roof and stucco walls adorned with ivy, was modest compared to the other lavish homes in the neighborhood. The house was just a ten-minute stroll from former president Herbert Hoover's impressive three-tiered residence. His wife, First Lady Lou Henry, had an interest in architecture; in 1919, she'd helped to design the five-thousand-square-foot home in the newly popular International style of European estates. In the 1920s, she had overseen the construction of seven single-story cottages on the Row for younger faculty, with prices ranging from about $4,000 to $7,000, and the Lamsons had purchased one.

President Hoover had recently retreated to his sprawling California estate after being soundly defeated in the last election by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many Americans blamed Hoover for the Great Depression, the catastrophic economic collapse triggered by the stock market crash just seven months after the Republican took office in 1929. By 1933, shantytowns called "Hoovervilles" increasingly dotted America. Bread lines and soup kitchens served millions of impoverished people as Hoover returned to Palo Alto with a tainted legacy. While the former president's two-acre property might have seemed ostentatious, the Lamsons' cottage was cozy, the perfect size for a small family. David proudly, meticulously groomed his garden almost every weekend.

In 1933, many people in Palo Alto were certainly more fortunate than the rest of the country. The United States had been struggling to survive a world economic crisis since 1929. The Great Depression had devastated so many families-fifteen million Americans were unemployed at the time, about 25 percent of the country. But most people in Palo Alto seemed to be thriving, or at least maintaining.

Professors and scholars at Stanford University continued to teach classes and conduct research. Endowments suffered, but athletics and academics had expanded. The city relied on the university's faculty and staff to spend money-and they did.

The black smoke billowed from the bonfire. It was a glorious summer morning in Northern California-bright, blue skies with just a hint of warmth. Unlike San Francisco, its Bay Area neighbor to the north, Palo Alto was shielded from the cool summer fog by the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The yard trash slowly cooked. But buried inside the pile was an innocuous piece of metal that refused to melt as it seared beneath the embers. In just a few hours it would become a vital clue, but for now it remained one more piece of junk in David Lamson's bonfire.

Around nine that morning Allene Thorpe Lamson untangled her brown hair with her fingers, gently dividing it into sections and then weaving two long braids. Wrapped in her cotton nightgown, she gazed into the mirror hanging on the vanity in the couple's small master bedroom. Allene was a natural beauty, with a slender figure, pale skin, dark hair, and chocolate-colored eyes, but her most attractive feature was her mind. She had received both a bachelor's and master's degree from Stanford University, an impressive achievement for anyone in the 1930s, particularly a woman. Allene had belonged to myriad campus organizations-a leader in the Delta Delta Delta sorority as well as the women's national journalism fraternity, Theta Sigma Phi. She was president of the Peninsula Women's Stanford Club.

She was a fledgling writer and editor for the university's yearbook, the 1926 Quad, as well as the Stanford Daily, a campus newspaper. As a graduate student she wrote lengthy and deeply researched features, including stories about the school's hefty endowments and the publication of the university's yearbook. Her writing was fluid and engaging-she clearly delighted in journalism.

"In a few short miles one passes from sea level to mountain top, each region abounding in the wild creatures and plants peculiar to it," Allene wrote about Stanford's role as a game refuge.

She was particularly enamored of the gorgeous Northern California countryside. She had moved from her native Missouri several years before, and her surroundings were often featured in her writing.

Inside the yearbook's offices she met David Lamson, the charismatic editor in chief for a popular humor magazine, the Stanford Chaparral. They shared so many interests, both brainy students who were engaged in the Stanford community. By graduation Allene had been charmed by the handsome writer, and they were married just a few years later.

Her thirty-one-year-old husband of five years was slim and fit with dark brown eyes and a full head of thick, wavy dark brown hair just beginning to recede at the forehead. Much of the time David Lamson seemed pensive-curious women might have labeled him 'intriguing'" The outer corners of his eyes drooped just a bit, but his young daughter almost always drew out a sly smile that turned big and bright. He was perpetually charming with friends, which made them a popular couple, much to Allene's delight.

In 1933, David was the sales manager of the Stanford University Press, the school's prestigious publishing house. He had spent a year teaching advertising at the university-a writer with ambition. Allene was an assistant executive secretary with the YWCA, which was more of a job than a calling. The position didn't tap the skills she had earned from her two degrees. It stifled her, but unemployment wouldn't do.

"She needed something to occupy her mind," David explained to a friend. "She was not satisfied to be home."

The Lamsons were a modish couple, both hailing from well-respected families. David was from Cupertino, California-his mother and two sisters lived nearby, one of whom was a well-known physician with her own medical practice. Their friends were some of the most moneyed figures in Palo Alto-there was a chemist with the National Research Council, a metallurgical engineer, a journalism professor, and an attorney. One of their closest confidants was socialite Louise Dunbar, President Hoover's glamorous niece, who cavorted with the city's bluebloods.

Allene gazed in the mirror as she examined the tiny lines on her face, as most women do. She was twenty-eight years old and the mother of a toddler, a little girl with black curly hair she named Allene Genevieve, whom she called Bebe. Allene smoothed her braids, coiled them, and fastened each to either side of her head neatly with hairpins, part of her morning routine. It had been such a taxing night, the last evening of a holiday weekend. She and David had zipped between social events for the last three of four evenings. There was a visit with the Ormsby family on Friday, several bridge games at the Swains' home on Sunday, and dessert with their friends Dr. and Mrs. Ralph Wesley Wright the night before. The Lamsons enjoyed being hosted by friends, intellectuals who challenged their ideas and tickled them with quick wit.

"I would say they were quite happy," remembered Dr. Wright.

But the couple's enthusiastic socializing might have finally taken its toll. After chatting for several hours with the Wrights over dessert the night before, the Lamsons arrived home by eleven with Allene's stomach in knots. Perhaps it was the lemon pie and orange juice that Mrs. Wright served, she wasn't sure. David tried to be considerate; he insisted on lying down in their daughter's nursery at the back of the house so he wouldn't disturb her, which had been their routine for years when she needed rest. Luckily two-year-old Bebe was at a sleepover with David's mother-a blessing, the families would later say.

David reminded Allene that he planned to do yard work the following day; he removed his work clothes, bathrobe, pajamas, and house shoes from the hall closet so he could slip out quietly in the morning. Allene snuggled under the sheets and closed her eyes, but not for very long.

The stomach pain had returned around three that morning when she called his name; there was no need to shout because their house was so tiny. David appeared at their bedroom door in his pajamas. He ran his hand gently across her back to comfort her and then suggested she have a bite to eat.

Soon Allene could hear him collecting things in the kitchen. He handed her a glass of lemon juice mixed with water; then he quickly left and returned with some warmed-up leftover tomato soup and a toasted cheese sandwich. Eating something hot usually lulled her back to sleep, but she had little appetite that night. She nibbled on the crust and took just a few sips of soup.

David returned to the nursery as Allene fell asleep again. The house was quiet now without Bebe; it was almost disconcerting. A silent home meant a respite from the incessant crying of a toddler who had suffered from horrible sinus infections all winter. It had been an exhausting few months for Allene-night after night of coaxing a sick child back to bed with the help of a nursemaid in the little girl's room. David was the one to suggest that Bebe stay with his mother; he also told the nursemaid to take the holiday off so he and his wife could have some privacy. With Bebe sleeping at her mother-in-law's, Allene was in a peaceful home, despite the indigestion.

By nine that morning, David appeared in the bedroom's doorway once again. His shirt was off, his chest was sweaty, and his face was wet after hours of early-morning yard work near the bonfire.

Allene was still feeling poorly, but David had anticipated that. The water from the tub in the next room rumbled through the pipes-a hot bath was waiting for her. David had also prepared a breakfast tray in the kitchen with a bowl filled with Shredded Wheat cereal, a container of cream, and hot water for her morning cup of Postum, a popular coffee substitute made of whole grains and molasses for those who didn't care for caffeine.

David guided Allene down the short hallway to the left of their bedroom. Much of the tiny bathroom was bright white, including the walls, the fixtures, and the tile around the tub. The room was far too cramped for two people, so David gently maneuvered her around the basin; she suffered from notoriously weak ankles.

Allene kicked off her sheep fleece-lined slippers, untied her nightgown, and hung it on the door nearby. David helped her step into the tub, which was now quickly filling with warm water. Weighing about 115 pounds, Allene was a delicate woman even at her healthiest, and her stomach was still bothering her that morning. She hoped that a long soak might move along her recovery-she didn't intend to wash her hair, just relax. She didn't even bother with a bar of soap.

Allene was steady as she lowered herself into the water, while David turned and left the door slightly ajar, stuck on a thick doormat. The tub was about halfway full when she turned the handle and slowly stood up-it was time to begin the day. The doorbell rang, but it might have gone unnoticed.

Suddenly the light that illuminated her bathroom vanished-deep blackness was everywhere. Perhaps she had closed her eyes, just for a bit, but the sensation was startling, as if she was blinded by thick ink. She was breathless, and now there was an aching at the back of her head, stretching from ear to ear. She collapsed.

The outside of the porcelain tub was cold as her body slumped over the side. Her torso dangled halfway out. Her arms hung down. Allene's head tilted toward the tiles of the bathroom floor as one of her beautiful dark braids, which she had so gently fixed earlier, became unpinned and drooped along her left arm to the floor. The ends of her hair were frayed. One of her hands rested on a slipper, which had been lying on the tiles just outside the tub.

There was blood everywhere-even on the ceiling-but she didn't notice. She was limp, dying. Red liquid from the back of her head quickly spilled into the clear water in the bathtub as crimson tentacles reached away from her body. The water slowly turned pink. Dark red streaks slid along the side of the tub. Within minutes, the blood glistened in her hair, soaking the brown strands along with almost every surface of her bathroom.

Allene Lamson's gruesome death would soon attract more attention than her quiet, ordinary life. Her friendships and her marriage would offer morbid fodder for a scandal-hungry press and a politically savvy prosecutor. Most of Allene's friends didn't realize that her gracious smile had hidden some troubling secrets, but soon everyone would know. She was married to a killer-even he had admitted it. And soon newspapers across America would accuse David Lamson of murdering Allene, too. But that narrative would unfurl later. For another few minutes Allene Thorpe Lamson would lie alone, dying in warm bathwater.

For the past three years David Lamson had been a reliably cordial neighbor. His scheduled weekend tasks in the small backyard were part sweat equity, part social hour. Friends peered over their fences and gossiped with one another about colleagues and classes as they trimmed their lush fruit trees-quince, apple, pear, loquat, and fig, among others.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Tales from the Archive: Pistols, Jawbones, and Love Poetry 1

Chapter 1 A Bloody Mess: The Case of Allene Lamson's Bath, Part I 7

Chapter 2 Genius: The Case of Oscar Heinrich's Demons 25

Chapter 3 Heathen: The Case of the Baker's Handwriting, Part I 43

Chapter 4 Pioneer: The Case of the Baker's Handwriting, Part II 65

Chapter 5 Damnation: The Case of the Star's Fingerprints, Part I 87

Chapter 6 Indignation: The Case of the Star's Fingerprints, Part II 111

Chapter 7 Double 13: The Case of the Great Train Heist 129

Chapter 8 Bad Chemistry: The Case of the Calculating Chemist 163

Chapter 9 Bits and Pieces: The Case of Bessie Ferguson's Ear 185

Chapter 10 Triggered: The Case of Marty Colwell's Gun 207

Chapter 11 Damned: The Case of Allene Lamson's Bath, Part II 227

Epilogue: Case Closed 267

Acknowledgments 275

Notes 279

Index 315

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