Monday, 22 August 2016

Person of Interest: Sir Bernard Spilsbury (Trail, Call, Bookhounds)

I thought I'd try something different and kick of what I hope will be a semi-regular column here: Person of Interest. I'll discuss the biography and gamification of important historical people, and to start us off let's have a look at the life and career of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the Scalpel of Scotland Yard.

Spilsbury was born 1877 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, to a sold, middle class family. His father was a chemist, and Bernard spent his early years watching his father in his laboratory, experimenting. However his family was trade and his grandmother, a very determined woman, saw no future in medicine or chemicals, insisting that Bernard's father go into business. He did so reluctantly, but made sure his son would be a doctor if he had anything to say about it.

Bernard was a solitary soul who best liked long walks, skating and other hobbies that he could enjoy by himself, without distractions. He was amenable to his father's wish that he become a doctor, and resisted his grandmother's insistence that he go into trade instead, as a draper. He was an older graduate, entering St Mary's Hospital Medical School at 23, and his contemporaries found him amiable but ordinary, certainly not marked out for greatness. He seems to have been one of those people who just got on with things, without drawing attention to himself, and was a born workaholic.

At St Mary's he fell in with some of the best and brightest pathologists of their day, who took Spilsbury under their wing once they saw that, in spite of his seeming plodding unimpressive nature, he was a prodigious worker. Soon he became Student Demonstrator of Pathology, eschewing competitions, prizes and fame for hour after hour after hour in the lab. In fact his dedication to his craft meant that he did not take on the other courses needed for a medical degree, so he graduated much later than many of his classmates.

He did so at just the right time. In years gone by the police force and public prosecutions had been a piecemeal operation, with different standards and practices applying in every county. Now things were being reorganized; there would be a central authority in charge of the police, and a Director of Public Prosecutions, under the supervision of the Attorney General. Scotland Yard, meanwhile, was being forced to update itself. Paris, New York, Berlin, Prague, all these had police laboratories; even some of the provincial British police forces had established ad-hoc relationships with private medical labs. Yet Scotland Yard had no police laboratory of its own. All this was to change, and quickly.

Then along came Crippen.

The 1910 Crippen case gripped the nation. He had murdered his wife, a stage performer, and taken up with his lover, stealing his wife's money and even clothes. Then, when suspected, the pair fled across the ocean, leaving the police to find the wife's remains in the cellar of his house. Not all of the corpse was recovered; head, limbs and skeleton were missing, but a piece of flesh remained. That flesh bore an old abdominal scar, which helped identify the remains as those of Cora Crippen. Spilsbury also found traces of scopolamine in the remains, which suggested that Crippen, a doctor himself, had used the drug to pacify Cora and make her easier to kill. The doctor and his lover were caught and returned to Britain, where Crippen was eventually hanged.

Yet it wasn't Spilsbury's medical ability - excellent though it was - that really made his reputation. It was his demeanor, as an expert witness. Well dressed, handsome, with a carnation in his button hole, he projected solid competence, an impression that was only reinforced by his detached yet determined attitude. Spilsbury would not be rattled by the prosecution, nor yet by the judge. "Here is a coming man," said spectators, and they were right.

From there Spilsbury went from strength to strength. He became the pathologist of choice for the prosecution, travelling across the country from murder site to murder site, gathering and recording evidence. No absent-minded professor he; Spilsbury was an avid record keeper and fastidious note taker. His index card collection eventually sold for several thousand pounds and is now in the Wellcome collection in London.

Spilsbury loved nothing better than to experiment and solve problems. After the Mahon case, for example, Spilsbury determined to carry out Mahon's autopsy himself, though this would normally be the prison's responsibility. Mahon had been double-hanged; the murderer had, at the last moment, tried to save himself, but instead fell backward rather than down, breaking his spine on the trapdoor as he fell, and then his neck. In most instances the autopsy would be fairly perfunctory, but Spilsbury insisted on a complete autopsy including examination of the brain, a portion of which he took away with him. It was the first judicial autopsy Spilsbury conducted but by no means the last, and eventually as a result of his examinations a recommendation was made to increase the drop by two inches on humanitarian grounds, the better to ensure a clean break of the neck.

Spilsbury also developed the Murder Bag, or collection of standard equipment to use in murder cases, and the Mahon case is the cause. This is what Spilsbury and his colleagues found at the murder site, a bungalow at the Crumbles, Eastbourne:

'On a rusty tenon saw, grease and a piece of flesh. Articles of female clothing, greasy and bloodstained, some with soot or coal-dust on them. On the cauldron-shaped coal-scuttle, two minute specks of blood. In the saucer near it, solidified fat. The two-gallon saucepan in the same fireplace was half-full of a reddish fluid, with a thick layer of grease on the surface; this contained a piece of boiled human flesh, the skin adhering to it. The metal fender was splashed with grease. There was more grease deposited in the second saucepan, and smeared in the bath and basin. In the hat-box, among soiled articles of clothing, were thirty-seven pieces of flesh, cut or sawn. All were human, and all apparently had been boiled. The big fiber trunk held four large pieces of human body, sawn apart, but not boiled. On one of those pieces, a left chest and shoulder, there was a bruise over the shoulder blade, the result of a blow inflicted before death, if only a few minutes before; it had been, in Spilsbury's opinion, a heavy blow. There was also in the trunk a biscuit tin containing various organs.' From The Life of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, 1952, by Douglas G Browne and E V Tullett.

Spilbury started work on the murder bag, full of equipment needed to properly collect and store remains, when he saw a detective using his bare hands to scoop the victim's boiled flesh into a bucket.

Spilsbury became Sir Bernard in 1923, one year before the Mahon case. He spent his entire career dissecting, studying, analyzing, and giving evidence in case after case. It's become fashionable now to downplay Spilsbury, to claim that his dogmatic and unyielding attitude on the stand led to miscarriages of justice. Just as in his university years, when he eschewed competitive examinations and prizes for ordinary lab work, in his working career he refused to engage in peer review, or to train students. Spilsbury preferred his own counsel.

Yet it must be remembered that Spilsbury did not get where he was through anything other than effort. He was and remained the persistent, meticulous workaholic who graduated late because, thanks to his dedication to pathology, he could not be bothered with distractions. He lived for the job, and never lied or prevaricated. He thought before he acted but, once he made his mind up, that was that.

It did not end well for him. He had three sons. Peter, the one following in his footsteps, became a house surgeon at St Thomas' in London. On the 13th September, 1940, the Hospital was bombed and Peter died, but the news didn't get to Spilsbury right away. He went to work as usual the next morning, performing post-mortems and giving evidence at the Coroner's Court. After finishing one case and while waiting for the other to start he went through the morning's post, only to discover a letter from a friend with condolences on the death of his son. Except the letter didn't say which son; Spilsbury had seen Alan earlier that day, so it might have been either Peter or Richard.

Eventually Spilsbury learned the truth. He was back at work the next day, but he was never the same again.

Alan, the eldest son, was a sickly soul, and Spilsbury was devoted to him. The two would spend each day together, at the Gower Street laboratory where Spilsbury worked. In November 1945 young Alan died of consumption.

By this point Spilsbury was in decline. A micromanager to the end he could not bear to have other people write his reports or fill in forms for him, yet he became increasingly incapable of doing the job himself. He took longer and longer to make decisions now, his tiring mind unable to do the work of former years.

His death was characteristic of the man. During Christmas 1947 he took care of his affairs, gave his staff their accustomed Christmas boxes, and completed his paperwork for the year. On December 17th he sent out his last post-mortem report, in time to catch the 530 post. He dined at his club, afterwards handing the key to his private cupboard back to the club steward because, he said, he no longer needed it. He went back to the Gower Street laboratory at 730, which he had kept exactly as it was since the death of Alan two years prior. At 830, one of his colleagues passed by the laboratory, smelt gas, and investigated. By then, Spilsbury was dead.

With all that in mind, let's talk gamification.

As his career spans several decades all of which are core for Call and Trail of Cthulhu, Spilsbury could easily appear in either setting. Some of his most famous cases are in the 1930s - Trail's favorite decade - but Spilsbury was already the most celebrated pathologist of his day long before 1930. Moreover unlike many specialists, who prefer staid laboratory work, Spilsbury travels all over the country, which means he can be encountered almost anywhere from John O'Groats to Land's End. He might even be encountered elsewhere within the Commonwealth; he's known to have worked in the Channel Islands, and a small amount of fictionalization could have him turn up, say, in Canada or further afield.

In Trail or Call, Spilsbury's most likely role is the expert, assisting in investigations without taking part himself. If the investigators have a medical background or any official standing, they might meet the great man himself. From a rules perspective Spilsbury's bound to have expert-level ratings in any medical or forensic discipline and, though his finances were relatively modest, thanks to his professional reputation his Credit Rating is very high. His library and note card collection would be a boon to any researcher, giving boosts to related medical or forensic abilities.

For investigators more likely to commit crimes than investigate them, Spilsbury is a very dangerous enemy. No matter how careful, clever, or resourceful the characters think they are, it's nearly impossible to outwit the Scalpel of Scotland Yard.

In a Bookhounds game, Spilsbury best fits a Sordid London setting. No amount of crime novel romanticism can disguise Spilsbury's grim and grisly world. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers both based their crime fiction in part on Spilsbury's work, directly or indirectly. Yet their depictions are fairly bloodless, when compared to the gore, guts, and limbless torsos that made up Spilsbury's professional career. Spilsbury was no stranger to the variations of the human condition; suicide, accidental death, sexually motivated asphyxia, and a thousand other kinds of demise were his stock in trade.

If you wanted to go in an Esoterrorist direction, the obvious terror to link to Spilsbury is the Practice. This gestalt, described in The Book of Unremitting Horror, is a medical nightmare, a surgical team of the damned. If you were to link Spilsbury to it then one way would be to suggest that the Practice is haunting the site of Spilsbury's old lab at Gower Street. I'm guessing that the old lab is long gone, but it was probably part of what's now University Teaching Hospital. Maybe there's a cult of medical students seeking grim knowledge, or perhaps Spilsbury wants his index cards back from the Wellcome.

In any case, you've more than enough information now. I hope this was useful! Enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Karloff,

    This is just fantastic, a really tremendous resume of a fascinating man and his career, now almost lost to history. I'd never heard of Sir Bernard Spilsbury - which shows my ignorance - so thanks for posting all of this on your blog in such meticulous detail (of which Sir Bernard would not doubt have approved). There must be a plethora of amazing, gruesome and horrifying cases in Sir Bernard's index files alone...

    On a more general note, I love and cherish your fantastic blog. It's not just the interesting, obscure and unusual items your bring into the light. It's also your written style which is always beautifully measured, never verbose, always judged with perfection. Thanks so much!