God is in the Details

"If you would like to see a case of coal-gas poisoning come here at once." This little note was received by Doctor Littlejohn in January 1877 in Edinburgh. It was sent by another doctor, an acquaintance of Littlejohn's, who was attending a woman called Elizabeth Chantrelle. As it happened Doctor Littlejohn did want to see a coal-gas poisoning, so he went. With him he took a friend of his, a certain Doctor Joseph Bell.

It was the unfortunate woman's husband, a French teacher of languages, Eugene Chantrell, who'd come up with the idea of gas poisoning. The police were convinced that this indeed is what had happened. To them it was an open and shut case, just an unfortunate accident due to bad plumbing. Not so to Dr. Bell. Several things, tiny details, attracted his attention. The victim's breath didn't smell of gas. It ought to have done. She had vomited and then fallen into a coma. That too was wrong and inconsistent.

The woman was taken to hospital where soon she gave up the breath.

Dr. Bell started to suspect poisoning. He at once discarded most poisons. The symptoms were perfect for one poison, however: opium. No opium could be found in the victim's blood. But there was opium in the sheets where she'd vomited.

Other facts unfavourable for Chantrelle, a former student of medicine, began to emerge. Recently he'd purchased a large amount of opium, the rest of which was discovered in his house. Six months prior to his wife's demise he'd taken out a remarkably large life insurance policy on her, with himself as the sole beneficiary. The sum Mr. Chantrelle was to receive if Mrs. Chantrelle were to die was either £500 or £1000 (I've seen both figures mentioned), either way an enormous amount of money. It never was a happy marriage. Mrs. Chantrelle had been one of Mr. Chantrelle's pupils and he had gotten her with child at the age of fifteen. The marriage was a forced one. He'd regularly beaten her and threatened to kill her. So off it was to the dock with Chantrelle and it didn't take long for the jury to find him guilty.

Bell didn't appear at the trial in any capacity. His role in the investigation was kept strictly out of the records. It was Littlejohn who presented the evidence. But Chantrelle knew. His last words were addressed to Bell. Bell didn't attend the execution, Littlejohn did. This is how Chantrelle's hanging is described in Peter Costello's The Real World of Sherlock Holmes: "On the gallows Chantrelle is said to have taken one last puff of his cigar. 'Bye-bye Littlejohn. Don't forget to give my compliments to Joe Bell. You both did a good job of bringing me to the scaffold.' Though apocryphal, his remark soon became part of Edinburgh medical folklore."

Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student at the time. He was Bell's pupil. He was in fact the one pupil picked out by Bell as his dresser or assistant. So, one wonders, how much did Doyle know of the case? Was he perhaps involved in some small capacity? He never writes about it anywhere. Which, according to certain theorists, is enough to implicate him. David Pirie, for one, is convinced that Doyle played Watson to Bell's Holmes in the Chantrelle case. (This premise is in fact what Pirie based his novels on, even if the Chantrelle case never gets mentioned.)

Soon Bell's name was known in police circles all over Britain and his services were very much in demand. Small wonder then that he was contacted in 1888 when the horrid Whitechapel murders began. Bell reviewed the wealth of material the Metropolitan Police had amassed and reached a conclusion as to the identity of the murderer. He wrote a name on a piece of paper, sealed it in an envelope and sent it to the Metropolitan Police. His friend Littlejohn, who also had reviewed the evidence, did the same thing. They found that they had named the same man as Jack the Ripper.

Whom? That isn't known. Bell's conclusions have disappeared from the case files of the Metropolitan Police. Which, of course, seems a bit rummy.

Bell's methods were exteme and often deemed unorthodox. He had to get the details right. And so to do he had to experiment and recreate. He beat corpses with heavy sticks so as to find out if bruising could be induced after death. He fired shotguns on pig skulls so as to establish what kind of marks were left in the bone when shotgun was fired on skull from different distances and angles. Many thought him quite demented. But he was one of the first to lay the ground rules to what today is known as forensic science during a dark age of criminology when even fingerprints weren't admissible as evidence.

Bell never was fond of the fact that Doyle named him as the real Sherlock Holmes. Being in the limelight wasn't his style at all. His work was about science, not showmanship. The results were the only thing that mattered, not who got them. He also resented the deplorable fact that people really believed that he too was a cold and heartless calculating or ratiocinating machine, just like he or Holmes was described in the stories. Or, perhaps, viewed by the reading public.

There is an amusing anecdote about Bell. Bell was very insistent that his students must see, and observe, matters accurately. Everything must be noticed. Nothing may be assumed or taken for granted. Or believed just because somebody says so. So during a lecture he would produce a beaker filled with horse urine. "This is horse piss," he would say to the class, "but as scientists we may not take anything for granted. So we must establish the fact for ourselves." He would proced to dip his finger in the urine and then stick his finger in his mouth, thereby to test wether or not it in fact is horse urine. After which he would let the beaker go round the class and he would tell his students to do exactly as he did. They did. They tasted the foul and rank urine. It wasn't pleasant. When he got the beaker back he would inform the students that paying attention to the minutest details was not only crucial, it was everything. Without tiny details there could be no big picture. Paying attention, noticing the tiniest things, saved lives. Only those students who paid attention to everything, every single seemingly irrelevant detail, would flourish and become successful in their profession. Like those today who had noticed that while he dipped his forefinger in the urine, it was in fact the middle finger he stuck in his mouth.

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