THE DETECTIVE WHO COULD HAVE
BEEN A GREAT ARCHAEOLOGIST
by JUAN JOSÉ CASTILLOS
It has been said, and quite correctly, that there are many similarities between modern police work and archaeology, both being attempts to recover material evidence of past events so as to reconstruct them as accurately as possible.
One of the main differences nevertheless is the much greater scope of archaeology which strives to recover the circumstances of ancient (or modern) people, their living conditions, their interactions with the environment and among themselves, and much more, while police work never goes beyond the acquisition of solid evidence to identify and convict a criminal.
However, it is interesting to find people who working as detectives for the police at the end of the XIX century, used methods that could have established them as pioneers of modern archaeology, which was then just beginning to improve its previously shoddy and destructive nature as little more than treasure hunting.
John Wilson Murray was born in Scotland in 1840 and died in Toronto, Canada in 1906. His life was very colourful and full of adventure and the memoirs he published in 1904 read like Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
Because of his skills he was appointed in 1875 to be the first full-time detective in Canada, working for the Ontario Provincial Police.
The story taken from his memoirs that I am quoting below shows the care and persistence in securing valuable evidence that would have done him proud if he had decided to devote his skills to archaeology.
In short, a woman had been killed, a suspect was in custody but proof was required that he had been the murderer. What he was looking for was a footprint on the ground in the vicinity of the grave dug to bury the woman. Being in possession of the dusty shoes the suspect was wearing when he was arrested, it was just a matter of securing a match.
But no footprints were found anywhere near the grave. He therefore quite rightly thought that the missing evidence could have been left on the ground before the grave was dug, then covered by the mound of compact and moist earth that came from the grave .
In order to retrieve it, he would have to very carefully remove the mound without destroying in doing so the very delicate evidence he was looking for.
His success speaks highly of his resourcefulness, skill and perseverance that would have made a name for him in archaeology at the time if he had decided to concentrate his efforts in that direction.
Let us remember that in those years and thousands of miles away, in Egypt, Petrie, considered by many to be the founder of modern archaeology, was deprecating the destructive and irresponsible approach by some of his contemporary colleagues that left for him to study what he aptly described as the pitiful remains of murdered evidence.
In a tangled swamp on a farm near Gait, in the county of Waterloo, Province of Ontario, Canada, in August 1897, searchers were hunting for the body of a farmer's wife. She had disappeared, and blood by the wood pile and near the house told of a crime and the hiding of the body.
One of the party beating the swamp came upon a half-dug grave. He kept silence as to his discovery, and, when night fell, he secreted himself in the thick brush near the grave and waited, in the faint hope that the murderer would return and finish his task, perchance bringing the body with him.
It was bright moonlight overhead. In the thicket of the swamp all was gloom, save for a broken filtering of pale light where the underbrush and tall briar had been thinned out. It was a lonely, dismal place. An owl's wailing and the swamp-frog's croaking were the only sounds. The hours passed. Midnight came and went. Not even a lizard appeared by the grave. The watcher was about to creep closer and ease his limbs, when a rustle sounded in the brush, a noise like the wind swishing a bush. It ceased, then came again, then all was still. Suddenly, on the side of the grave farthest from the watcher, a figure crept swiftly out of the thicket and stood erect.
The moon shone full upon him. He was tall and broadshouldered, with a pose like that in the old-fashioned prints of heroic figures of the ancient wars. He wore knee-boots, with a long, loose coat reaching to their tops, and buttoned to the chin. A slouch hat, pulled well down on the forehead, shaded his face. In his left hand he held a spade. He paused by the grave, thrust his spade into the earth, and left it upright like a headstone, then shoved back the hat, and knelt on all fours, with his face close to the ground, for all the world like a bloodhood sniffing for a scent. On hands and knees he crept around and around the grave. Finally, from a pocket of the long coat, he produced a tiny lamp, and turning its light full upon the ground, he resumed his circling of the grave, his face not five inches from the earth, his eyes searching every foot of ground.
For half an hour this creeping around the grave continued. Then the figure squatted by the mound of earth and sat motionless. Suddenly he arose, seized the spade, and swiftly tossed away the mound of earth dug from the grave. All was done so noiselessly, so deftly, that it seemed unreal, phantom-like, the antics of a ghost. As he neared the bottom of the pile of earth his care redoubled. At length, he began to dig around the remnant of the pile as if making a second grave, beside the first. He had left about four inches of the earth from the first grave lying undisturbed on the site of the second grave. It was thick, sticky soil, that held together firmly, being less watery than elsewhere in the swamp, yet being full of heaviness and moisture.
He dug cautiously, sinking the spade about four inches in the soil, then driving it under, as would a man in cutting sod. When he thus had cut under the entire remnant of earth from the first grave he cleared a space on the ground beside it, and as one would turn a pancake on the griddle, he flipped the earth out and turned it on to the cleared space, so that the remnant of soil from the first grave was underneath. He then painstakingly lifted away the upper layer, and thus exposed to view the soil from the first grave, precisely as it had formed the surface or top of the earth before the digging of the grave began. He knelt over this earth as a mother over her child. He turned the light of the little lamp full upon it. Then he grunted, a subdued, deep, satisfied grunt. With the spade he carefully cut out a piece of the earth about a foot long and half as wide. He produced a measuring rule, and for half an hour worked over the piece of earth. Then he took the earth in his arms as tenderly as if it were a babe, picked up the spade, and vanished in the thicket.
Like a flash it dawned on the watcher that this mysterious figure had been searching for footprints. He had found no clear footprint around the grave. The marks there had been trampled by those of the watcher. But on the surface of the earth, where the grave had been dug, the footprints of the digger were certain to appear. So the figure in the long coat had reclaimed this surface undisturbed, and, judging from the one sound he made, the grunt of joy, he had found what he sought.
The watcher trailed after him, ignorant of who he was or whence he came. The grey dawn was creeping into the sky as he entered his hotel at Gait. A sleepy porter was lolling on a table. Footsteps sounded in the hall, and past the office door on his way upstairs went the figure of the long coat. The coat was in his arms, borne carefully, for it concealed the precious piece of earth.
" Who is that ?" asked the watcher.
"That!" said the porter, with a yawn. "That's Old Never-let-go."
" Who ?" asked the watcher.
" Old Never-let-go," answered the porter.
"Murray, John Murray, Old Never-let-go, the greatest genuine detective that this here or any other bloomin' country can produce. He's snoopin' around now a gettin' ready to fix a hangin' for whoever killed Mrs. Orr."
The figure of the long coat was in his room before the porter finished. He had laid the piece of earth on a table and turned the light full on it. A footprint showed, distinct in every detail of the shoe's outline. He remeasured it carefully, noting the measurements on a slip of paper. When he finished he compared this slip with another slip. Then he went to a closet, and drew forth an old shoe, earth-stained and worn. He gently lowered this shoe into the imprint on the piece of earth. It matched. The clue held true.
After locking the piece of earth in an iron box, he went straight to the gaol or lockup, where a suspect was under guard. He entered the cell, and slammed the door. An hour later he returned to his room at the hotel, glanced, longingly at the bed, then at his watch, shook his head, and five minutes later was in a cold bath. When he appeared in the hotel office shortly after, the newspaper men and others including the watcher in the swamp, crowded around him.
" Any news ?" they asked eagerly.
" The murderer's locked up," was the reply.
" Who is he ?"
"Jim Allison, the chore boy. He'll confess before he's hanged."
Allison was tried and convicted, and he confessed before he was hanged. At the trial there was no inkling of the allnight labours in the swamp or of the fatal footprint. The case was complete, without a revelation of the methods of the man who ran down the necessary evidence. If it had been necessary, the piece of earth with the tell-tale tread, a plaster cast of it to make it still plainer, would have been in evidence at the trial. It was not needed, and hence it did not appear. In a somewhat similar case a few years before, proof of footprints was needed, and it did appear.
" You're sure Allison did it ?" asked the newspaper men at the Gait hotel.
"Sure," said Murray, and he went to breakfast.
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