Berkeley, CA

American Sherlock: The Father of Forensics That History Forgot

Lori Lamothe

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Heinrich at work.(University of California, Berkeley)

Nicknamed the “American Sherlock” during his time, famed criminologist Edward Oscar Heinrich has fallen into obscurity. Not only did Heinrich solve more than 2,000 cases in the first half of the twentieth century — including some of the most famous crimes of his era — but he also discovered many scientific techniques that are still in use today. Yet, despite his brilliant contributions to forensics, Heinrich didn't even have a Wikipedia entry until late 2020.

If you’re a fan of shows like Bones and CSI, then Heinrich is your guy. Much like Sherlock Holmes, Heinrich’s curiosity and expertise on matters related to all facets of criminology was vast. He worked obsessively, often going twenty-four hours without food or sleep while he traveled the country to work on case after case.

“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” — Arthur Conan Doyle

Of course, Heinrich recorded and stored everything (and I mean everything). He hoarded notes written on napkins, stacks of newspapers, thousands of photographs, letters, notes, sketches, journals, trial transcripts, and priceless books on countless topics, including fingerprint identification, rare poisons, and analytic geometry.

Not to mention the stranger fare. He kept hundreds of bullets, an enormous, blackened jawbone, pieces of detonated bombs, a slew of pistols, a locket owned by a dead woman, and strands of hair that belonged to an actress who died while partying.

His intense obsessiveness often led him to find clues that the police had overlooked and his record for solving cases was far better than that of his peers in law enforcement. He wasn’t infallible: some of his techniques, like handwriting analysis, are no longer considered reliable, but he was at least fifty years ahead of his time.

Moreover, Heinrich worked during an era when murder rates had skyrocketed. Many of his key investigations occurred during the 1920s, when Prohibition resulted in an increase of nearly eighty percent in violent crime.

Congratulations to Kate Winkler Dawson for bringing him into the spotlight again in American Sherlock, which came out last year. She bases her book on the vast collection of documents and other material stored at U.C. Berkeley, where Heinrich taught criminology courses for decades.

In fact, there is so much material that for sixty-five years the university deemed it too time-consuming and too costly to archive it until Winkler Dawson petitioned them to do so. According to Winkler Dawson:

“They seemed unrelated, a cache of mismatched textbooks in the library of a brilliant madman. But each was a tiny piece belonging to a bigger puzzle that only he could assemble.”

American Sherlock makes for fascinating reading worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle, but it barely scratches the surface of Heinrich’s life and work. I’m hoping we haven’t heard the last of him or his cases. Considering the depth and breadth of his contributions, a single book isn’t nearly enough.

Move over, CSI

Heinrich was one of the first criminologists to successfully profile suspects, to use insects to establish the time of death, to use ultraviolet light to detect blood, to conduct ballistics testing, and to study microscopic soil fragments in order to pinpoint the scene of a crime.

He was also one of the pioneers of toxicology, using his own poison tests to determine cause of death. He began developing his techniques in the twenties and continued to perfect them until his death in 1953.

Keep in mind that he created these practices at a time when most police departments were still using methods from the Victorian era. The FBI existed as the Bureau of Investigation but it was a shadow of what it is today. Its primary task back then was investigating bank fraud.

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(Jay Wennington on Unsplash)

Though Heinrich was married and fathered two boys, he still found time to turn the first floor of his home into a sprawling crime lab where he tested poisons, photographed bullet slugs, analyzed fingerprints, and studied blood spatter patterns (even going so far as to cut himself and his volunteers if blood was in short supply).

The Tacoma, Washington, lab was filled with every type of microscope he could lay his hands on and the space was crammed with test tubes, crucibles, beakers, lenses, scales, and — of course — books.

Written in six different languages, they were the types of tomes that would only interest an eccentric genius. I can’t say I’d be up for memorizing the contents of Blood, Urine, Feces and Moisture: A Book of Tests, The Control of House Flies or Arsenic in Papers and Fabrics. But that is exactly what Heinrich did. Though he later moved everything to a larger lab in northern California, his Washington home is where it all began.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.” — Arthur Conan Doyle

The game is afoot

Using his Tacoma lab as a base, Heinrich solved countless cases from the mundane to the bizarre to the ridiculously famous. He once solved a murder by examining a lone ear and another by analyzing a lemon pie sent to the deceased. Sure enough, the sugared crust contained poison crystals only visible under a microscope.

Heinrich’s cases really do seem like episodes of Bones. In one, he correctly predicted that a kidnapper worked as a baker based on the formation of the letter “B” on a ransom note. In yet another, Heinrich instructed police to search for a lumberjack by looking at an ordinary pair of pants left at the scene of a train robbery.

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(Christian Bowen on Unsplash)

In one of his most fascinating cases, Heinrich determined that the body of a chemist who had died in a lab fire belonged to a different man. Not only that, but he figured out that the man who had been posing as the chemist was not a chemist at all. He was a con artist who had convinced investors he had discovered the formula for synthetic silk. Even the lab was nothing but a false front.

When Charles Schwartz’s grift began to unravel, he murdered another man and set his lab on fire. Schwartz believed he had made a clean escape. Even his wife fell for it. Everyone thought the badly burnt body was Schwartz.

Not Heinrich.

By studying the contents of the dead man’s stomach, as well as dissecting the victim’s eyeball, he learned the truth. Heinrich even made a cast of the murdered man’s teeth, which allowed him to discover that Schwartz had extracted an upper right molar so that the dead man’s dental records would match his own.

Police were thrilled to solve the case — sort of. Turns out they too had fallen for Schwartz’s false persona.

Berkeley police captain Clarence Lee…quickly felt nauseated and Oscar soon discovered why. Lee and Charles Schwartz had known each other for years.” — Kate Winkler Dawson

The case he got wrong

Heinrich was usually right but he did make the rare mistake. One case that he appears to have botched involved silent film star Fatty Arbuckle. Signed to a three-year three-million-dollar contract with Paramount, Arbuckle was one of the most famous actors of his day. In 1921, nobody made that kind of money.

Predictably, Arbuckle’s trial for the rape and murder of a young actress who died during a party became a media sensation. Heinrich gave damning testimony against Arbuckle, though later evidence seems to suggest he was innocent. After studying the scene of the crime, Heinrich concluded the actor known for his dissolute lifestyle was indeed responsible for Rappe’s death.

“By the way the new drink down here in bootlegging circles is the ‘Arbuckle Crush,’” he wrote a friend. “Fatty is guilty as hell of everything charged.”

The jury didn’t agree. Or at least not all of them. After debating for forty-four hours, they failed to come to a conclusion and the judge declared a mistrial. Oddly enough, a second trial also resulted in a hung jury. By the third time around, however, jurors were in a hurry to make a decision. They deliberated for all of a few minutes and came back with a verdict of not guilty.

The public was less forgiving. Arbuckle’s career was essentially over. Heinrich’s, on the other hand, was just beginning.

Dr. Watson, I presume

Like Holmes, Heinrich also had his Watson — a librarian named John Boynton Kaiser. The two friends didn’t actually work together, but they corresponded for most of their lives, discussing books, cases Heinrich was working on, and personal struggles.

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Kaiser at work in the Tacoma Public Library.(Photo via Richards Studio}

Unlike some of Heinrich’s rivals, Kaiser didn’t seem to mind his friend’s ego (which is another key similarity with Holmes). Heinrich struck many as a know-it-all and his aloofness made some law enforcement officials reluctant to work with him. Despite Heinrich’s reputation for arrogant coldness, Kaiser — as well as Heinrich’s wife — knew he could be witty, loyal, and affectionate.

Heinrich may not have been quite as full of himself as others claimed. When he taught criminology he refused to let students call him “professor.” According to Heinrich, “The investigation of crime is merely a special case in the study of behavior.”

He also urged his students, many of whom were police officers, to develop their powers of reasoning instead of simply memorizing facts about the crimes he described:

“A chess board in a police station is more valuable than crime books. There is nothing that I know of in English that will as quickly enable a man to see situations and analogies.”

No Arthur Conan Doyle

I also found it interesting — and more than a little ironic — that the one thing Heinrich couldn’t do was to write detective fiction, despite his ardent desire to do so. After receiving an unencouraging rejection from a New York publisher, he vowed not to give up on his dream of penning mysteries.

However, his dreams of success as a fiction writer were not to be. What Heinrich did publish over the course of his career was dozens of papers and scientific articles about forensic science. He also instructed thousands of future investigators and detectives, many of whom went on to gain fame for their deductive skills.

Oscar Heinrich may have faded from the public eye, but his contributions have not.

“All other men are specialists, but his specialty is omniscience.” — Arthur Conan Doyle

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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