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  • So we live in what I think of as a CSI age

  • where we take for granted

  • that scientists are going to work together with the police,

  • help them solve crimes,

  • map fingerprints,

  • analyze poisons,

  • but in fact, this is really a very new idea.

  • We only actually started training scientists and forensics

  • in this country in the 1930s.

  • So as a writer interested in chemistry,

  • what I wondered was,

  • "What was it like before scientists knew

  • how to tease a poison out of a corpse,

  • before you could actually catch a killer that way?"

  • And it won't surprise you to learn

  • that the answer is pretty dangerous.

  • And in fact, in 1918, New York City issued a report

  • admitting that smart poisoners could operate

  • with impunity in the city.

  • This is a 1918 crime scene photo from Brooklyn,

  • and at this time, the coroner system was so corrupt

  • that you could literally buy your cause of death.

  • Often coroners didn't even show up at crime scenes.

  • And if you go back and you look at the death certificates of the time,

  • I found one that read,

  • "Could be an auto accident or possibly diabetes."

  • And another, which involved a man who shot himself in the head,

  • said, "ruptured aneurysm".

  • So you find, not surprisingly, the police saying,

  • "We're going to look a lot smarter

  • if we stay away from the science side of the story."

  • But, in 1918 New York City appointed

  • the first trained medical examiner it ever had.

  • That's the gentleman sitting down there.

  • And he hired the first forensic toxicologist ever

  • attached to an American city.

  • And together, these two men,

  • Charles Norris, the medical examiner,

  • and Alexander Gettler, the chemist sitting next to him,

  • rewrote the rules of crime detection in this country.

  • And that wasn't easy because poisons were everywhere.

  • If we take this one, arsenic trioxide,

  • arsenic trioxide's probably the most famous homicidal poison in history

  • and it was in every home.

  • Anyone could go to the grocery store or the pharmacy and buy it.

  • It was in every kitchen because,

  • believe it or not, it was used to color food.

  • It was in medicines

  • and it was in cosmetics

  • in ways that prevented people from really understanding

  • how dangerous these poisons were

  • or how they worked.

  • Now, scientists had in the 19th century

  • begun developing tests to look for poisons in corpses.

  • But as this cartoon shows you of the first test for arsenic,

  • these were very primitive tests,

  • so, that our heroes really have to figure this out

  • as they go in the 1920s.

  • Gettler, for instance, was the first person in the world

  • to know how to tell if someone was drunk at time of death.

  • He figured that out right about 1930

  • and he said later it took him 6,000 brains from the morgue

  • to get to the point that he could get to that answer.

  • And to give you a sense of what this is like,

  • I'm going to ask you for a moment

  • to become 1920s forensic detectives.

  • This is a case based on one solved by Alexander Gettler in 1923,

  • and as you can probably tell,

  • it's a case that begins in a tenement building.

  • This particular one was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

  • And these buildings were very crowded

  • with families who had very little money.

  • And the rooms were very poor.

  • This is actually an abandoned room

  • at the Tenement House Museum

  • that is in Lower Manhattan today.

  • These rooms often had no electricity,

  • they had no hot water,

  • and people who lived this way

  • depended on gas to fuel everything

  • from their stove to their electric lights.

  • And this gas was called illuminating gas,

  • and it was both a toxic and explosive mixture

  • of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

  • So you, the forensic scientist, are called

  • to a crime scene in a tenement house.

  • This is actually a police photo from the time in question,

  • but the story that I'm going to tell you

  • is a little more complicated than this.

  • Nevertheless, you're going to go into this building,

  • you're going to walk down this hall,

  • you're going to go through the door,

  • and you're going to find yourself

  • in a very shabby apartment.

  • The floors are splintered,

  • the walls are peeling,

  • there's only gas lighting,

  • and in this case,

  • you go into the back bedroom.

  • There's clearly been a gas leak,

  • there's a broken fitting on the wall.

  • The police are opening the windows,

  • and in the bed there's the body of young woman

  • who's clearly been dead for some time

  • because she's cold

  • and she's stiff

  • and she's pale.

  • And you turn to the police and you say,

  • "No, this is not an illuminating gas death

  • because...."

  • Because if you're killed by carbon monoxide,

  • there is such a powerful chemical reaction in your blood

  • as the oxygen is muscled out of the blood stream

  • that the blood cells are turned a bright, cherry red.

  • And this red is so strong that it flushes the skin

  • of the corpse a cherry pink.

  • In fact, people who see bodies

  • after someone has died of a carbon monoxide death,

  • they'll often talk about how healthy they look.

  • So your poor, pale corpse could not have been killed by this gas.

  • You take the body back to the morgue,

  • you run more blood tests,

  • and you find another gas at extremely high levels,

  • carbon dioxide.

  • And what does that tell you?

  • If you think about the way we breath,

  • we inhale oxygen,

  • we exhale carbon dioxide,

  • but what if you can't exhale?

  • What if that gas can't get out?

  • It backs up into your lungs,

  • and the number one clue of a suffocation or a strangulation

  • is elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.

  • And in fact, what they found

  • when they took a closer look at the body

  • were the bruise marks left by her husband's fingers

  • as he had held her down and suffocated her.

  • And it turned out that he had

  • taken out an insurance policy on her life,

  • suffocated her,

  • broken the gas fitting to try to stage an accident scene,

  • and it turned out that it was chemistry

  • that sent him to prison.

  • There are so many good poison and murder stories

  • from this time period that I would love to tell you.

  • It's one of my favorite subjects obviously.

  • But I want to leave you with this thought.

  • Two things.

  • One is that case that I just described to you

  • is one of my favorites

  • because it's the beginning of a series of investigations

  • that persuade the New York police

  • that they do need to work with scientists

  • and it lays the foundation for, in fact,

  • our CSI-era age,

  • and, because it's such a good story of two very determined people,

  • in this case two city scientists,

  • who were able to change the world around them.

  • Thank you.

So we live in what I think of as a CSI age

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B1 TED-Ed gas carbon police forensic crime

【TED-Ed】Early forensics and crime-solving chemists - Deborah Blum

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    wikiHuang posted on 2013/12/07
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