Murder and Mayhem: Mathieu Orfila and the Lafarge Trial

V0004364 Pierre Matthieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila. Lithograph by A.

Wellcome Image

Who was Mathieu Orfila?

In 1840, Mathieu Orfila, was summoned to the Lafarge murder trial in Paris. The Marsh test had proven inconclusive due to improper handling, and prosecution sought an expert. What made Orfila different? His methods. Piece by piece, he put the case together, eliminating all other possibilities. Orfila is also credited as one of the first to use a microscope to assess stains of blood and bodily fluids. His work refined forensics as a science.

Patient and meticulous, Orfila worked to make chemical analysis part of forensic medicine. He also made careful studies of asphyxiation, the decomposition of bodies, and exhumation. Orfila’s first treatise, Traité des poisons, greatly enhanced and built upon the work of other toxicologists (and quickly surpassed them). Published in 1813, the treatise earned him the title Father of Forensics. By the time he was called to the Lafarge case, Orfila was considered the greatest toxicologist in the world.

The judge ordered Charles Lafarge’s body to be exhumed, though months hadLaFarge_ill gone by. The evidence was literally “under their noses,” and several jurors fainted at the stench as Orfila conducted the chemical test inside the courtroom. This way, everyone could witness his methodology. After painstaking work, he demonstrated definite traces of arsenic in the body, and showed that it did not come from the surrounding soil. The verdict was in: Mme. Lafarge was found guilty of murdering her husband!

Bodle and LaFarge: Sensational Arsenic Cases

L0057809 Blue ridged glass bottle for arsenic, Europe, 1701-1935

Arsenic and its Discontents

Despite its poisonous nature, arsenic was very easy to get a hold on in the 19th century. It could be found in many household products.  Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele mixed copper, arsenic, hydrogen, and oxygen to produce a brilliant green pigment. These pigments were used in everything from children’s toys to soap, wallpaper, fabric, and even sweets! The fabric of a lady’s green ball gown might contain 100 grains of arsenic–and it takes only 4.5 grains to kill an adult! [1] Just as problematic were accidental uses. In 1858, 20 people died in Bradford, England, when a sweet-maker mistakenly bought white arsenic instead of sugar substitute for lozenges. [2]

Easy to obtain, cheap to purchase, and invisible when mixed with food, the fine white powder was very attractive to would-be poisoners. Two sensational trials brought the threat to national and international attention; the Bodle Case in England and the LaFarge case in France.

Trial and Error
In 1836, James Marsh would develop a test that could determine if arsenic was present. He had been called in to the Bodle Case, where a whole family became ill from tainted coffee (though only the elderly George Bodle died). His grandson John Bodle was brought to trial for murder, but Marsh was unable to convince the jury and set about inventing a new and better test. He constructed a simple glass apparatus capable of detecting minute traces of arsenic and measuring its quantity.  Adding a sample of tissue or body fluid to a glass vessel with zinc and acid would produce arsine gas, which would oxidize when ignited, producing a silver-black metallic glaze. Young Bodle went free, though he later confessed to the crime [3]. The Marsh test was not in vain, however…

Marie LaFarge’s husband had taken ill while on a business trip. Upon his return, Marie attended to his every need,MMeLaFarge scarecely leaving his side. A friend of the family noted peculiarly behavior, however. She was putting something in the food! When her husband Charles expired, she was brought up on charges for murder.The trial dragged on and on, dividing the French public. Was she to blame?

The illness began abroad, and Marie had an alibi (though as it turns out, she had sent a small cake to her husband while he was away.) The public was divided about her guilt and once again the Marsh test was brought in to ascertain the truth. As before, the test was in conclusive, but the prosecution did not rest. They decided it was time to bring in a true specialist, a man that would forever change the methodology of forensic science. His name was Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila… and our next blog post in this series will talk more about his methods.The Dittrick will be hosting an exhibit this spring that details more about forensics, the history and the artifacts of a science on the cutting edge of medicine and murder!


[1] Sandra Hempel. The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic Murder and the New Forensic Science. New York: Norton, 2013.

[2] Ben Johnson. Dying for a Humbug, the Bradford Sweets Poisoning 1858. HistoricUK

[3] Marie Belloc Lowndes. Great French Mysteries: The Strange Case of Marie Lafarge. McClure’s Magazine v38, 1912.

Forensics: The Science of Sherlock and Steampunk


Generally speaking, reactions to the term “steampunk” tend to be of two types: overwhelming enthusiasm or a quizzical expression. What on earth is it? Steampunk is usually defined as a sub-genre of science fiction that features technology and is set during the Victorian era and the industrialization of the West. What kind of technology? Steam-powered, electrical, and mechanical (the gears of clockwork are almost ubiquitous). However, there are other technologies–and other fields of inquiry–on the rise during the period, and these influence the aesthetic of the genre. In today’s post, and as part of our series, we will discuss the rise of forensics, the science that frequently features in crime fiction and even in steampunk.

S. Paget, Sherlock Holmes

S. Paget, Sherlock Holmes

There are a number of films (once books) that classify as steampunk, including Legend of Sleepy Hollow, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Sherlock Holmes. In Legend, our hero is a forensic expert, using gadgets to determine cause of death (and wearing some funky eye-wear–goggles are a hallmark of steampunk.) In Sherlock, of course, Mr. Holmes uses analytical observation to determine the cause of death (and the perpetrator of the crime). Even League has a number of medical-science cross-overs, including the Jekyll and Hyde serum. In many respects, the science in these films reflects new understandings of forensic pathology as it developed in the Victorian age.




The science of deduction gained public popularity in part because of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes, but forensics have been around for centuries. In the year 1248, a Chinese text (Hsi DuanYu (the Washing Away of Wrongs) described how to tell from physical evidence whether a victim was strangled or drowned. That, in essence, is what forensic deduction is all about. It’s where science, technology, and crime-solving meet.

The 2009 and 2012 Sherlock Holmes movies incorporated forensic technology in different ways. When Sherlock examines a body, he is looking for evidence that will tell him time of death, place of death, and cause of death. Dr. Watson, as a physician, is able to answer some of these questions, too–and today, forensic pathologists are medical doctors. In more modern renderings of Sherlock Holmes’ deductive powers (including the recent BBC Sherlock series), he is also a chemist. Today, deduction is the work of several specialists, from the medical examiner and coroner to pathologists, chemists, and experts of forensic science. (We can’t all be lucky enough to have every talent at once like Mr. Holmes!)


Dittrick image, L Travis

Dittrick image, L Travis

Numerous technological innovations for forensics came from medicine and from medical doctors. An upcoming exhibit at the Dittrick museum will explore early pioneers, like Dr. James Marsh and Dr. Methieu Orfila, whose methods and experiments set the stage for modern criminal forensics. It will also take a look at a local “Sherlock,” Dr. John George Spenzer, a blood and poison expert who helped crack cases for the police. Along the way, we will consider some of the technological innovations that made forensics possible. For instance, the goggles we see in movies were actually used in laboratories. In addition, though the microscopes and lab equipment may look like scenes from science fiction, they are actually scenes of medical science and innovation. The history of medicine as told through the Dittrick Museum collection showcases these innovations, from our static generator and x-ray machine to microscopes, lab equipment, and even the 19th- century doctor’s office. The mechanics, machines, and microscopes of a by-gone era seem both fascinating and foreign today, but help to contextualize our leap into the modern world.

We hope you will continue to tune in for our series on forensics, and that you’ll visit the museum later this spring to see the artifacts and objects from forensic medical history!

Affairs of the Heart: A Valentine’s Day Post

L0033466 Front and back view of the heartGiven that it is Valentine’s Day, we are taking a short break from our series on forensics and poisoning. (Granted, a number of those poisonings were, themselves, “affairs of the heart!”) Today, we celebrate the history of cardiac care, and of Cleveland, where so many of those innovations began.

In the 1930s, Western Reserve surgeon Claude Beck perfected operations to improve heart circulation. That might not seem like a feat, but when you understand the circumstances, it becomes a matter of life and death.

When Beck performed cardiac surgery, the heart sometimes went into ventricular fibrillation–in other words, heart muscles twitched and contracted rapidly, disrupting the normal rhythmic heartbeat, a life-threatening condition. Beck could massage the heart, but this did not always stop the fibrillation and the patient would die on the operating table! Beck became desperate for a remedy, and he learned that a colleague at Western Reserve, the physiologist Carl J. Wiggers, had maintained Defibrilator-prototypecirculation in laboratory animals by manual massage of the heart, followed by electrical defibrillation. Beck concluded that using electric shock to counteract fibrillation and restore normal heart rhythm would work for humans, too. It was risky, but then, the heart surgery itself was risky–he was willing to do anything to save his patients.

In 1947, Beck had his chance. He successfully revived a patient for the first time during an operation, the fibrillation ceased and normal heart beat was restored! Subsequently, patients were resuscitated outside the operating room as well–though it still required the chest to be opened. One operation actually occurred on the hospital steps!

Finally, massage and defibrillation across the intact chest made cardiac resuscitation available at any place or time. Defibrillators have since been used daily in hospital emergency rooms and EMS units across the country. Almost everyone knows what it means when someone shouts “Clear!” and tiny defibrillators can be inserted right into the chest cavity (my father, for instance, has one of these.)

Beck and his colleagues also developed cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques (CPR), and with the help of the Cleveland Heart Society, they trained more than 3,000 doctors and nurses in 20 years. By 1963, they added a course in closed-chest cardiopulmonary resuscitation for lay persons.

This history of the heart can be a somewhat “tangled” one, however. The difficulty of working on this so-important organ has occupied doctors of the Western Reserve and Cleveland Clinic for years. Want to know more about it? David S. Jones (Harvard) wrote Broken Hearts: The Tangled History of Cardiac Care to examine why it can be so difficult for physicians to determine the efficacy and safety of their treatments. Dr. Jones will be in Cleveland at the Dittrick Museum on March 21st to give the annual CMLA lecture: On the Origins of Therapies. Join us for this public talk! Register here.


Early Forensics: The Problem of Arsenic

L0057809 Blue ridged glass bottle for arsenic, Europe, 1701-1935In the early part of the 19th century, a fine, white powder was all the rage among murderers (and some would-be beneficiaries). It was easy to acquire and easy to administer, too. Tasteless and colorless, it might be added to food or water and ingested. It was even called the “inheritor’s powder” because it aided in the rapid passing of the rich and elderly.

What was arsenic doing on shelves to be purchased, you might ask? In the 19th century, arsenic was used in wallpaper, beer, wine, sweets, painted toys, insecticides, clothing, hat ornaments, coal, and candles (A further list of uses may be found in James C. Whorton’s The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play). But of course, arsenic is still used today, frequently an V0011589 An unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanumingredient in ant poison and insecticides; Michael Swango, a 20th century Dr. Death, used arsenic to sicken his colleagues before going on to kill his patients with other drugs. Swango got caught–but early 19th century poisoners did not. Why?

As usual, the devil’s in the details. The 19th century might have been subject to a plague of poisonings, but it had other plagues, too. Cholera, for instance, was a frequent cause of death. Cholera affects the small intestine, and the more common signs are diarrhea and vomiting… which are also the signs of arsenic poisoning. In 1831, an outbreak in the UK claimed 52,000 lives. Who would notice a few poisonings in the midst of all that?

Well, in turns out someone would. His name was James Marsh. A chemist, Marsh was brought in for the sensational case of George Bodle’s death, wherein an entire family and servants fell ill (though only the patriarch died) in 1833. The test that March developed was complex, but he had found that adding bodily tissues to a glass vessel with zinc would produce a gas; if heated and ignited, it would turn to arsenic and water vapor (which would be seen as a metallic film on a ceramic vessel). Earlier discoveries has been made by Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Johann Metzger, but Marsh’s was the first time the body itself could yield solid clues.

The Marsh test was taken further yet by a French case, the poisoning of Charles Lafarge. Marie Lafarge was charged with the murder and the trial polarized French society. Botched Marsh experiments nearly saw her go free, until toxicologist Mathieu Orfila–and his extraordinarily methodical and scientific methods–proved beyond doubt that the she had murdered her husband.


Edward Salisbury Dana’s Microscopic examination


By the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, arsenic lost favor. It had become too easy for forensic toxicologists to find it. In 1880, Edward Salisbury Dana’s Microscopic examination of samples of commercial arsenic, and the practical results to which it leads was published in New Jersey. Here in Cleveland, as part of the Western Reserve medical school in 1882, Oliver Franklyn Gordon even wrote his final thesis on arsenic, adding to a large and increasing literature on the subject. That doesn’t mean arsenic fell out of favor in general, however; Salvarsan 606, used to treat syphilis, was an arsenic compound–and of course, it’s still the bane of the invasive and unwanted ant colony.

Forensic science had a long history before CSI and other detective shows made it popularly regarded. Here at the Dittrick, we hope to explore more of this rich history for a spring exhibit: Steampunk, Sherlock, and Forensics. We will be posting additional details as soon as they become available; look for more in March!

Death in the Pot

3131768052_c5f23479db_oPoison. It’s whats for dinner.

In 1820, Fredrick Accum wrote A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons  to exhibit “the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy.”

This work promoted awareness of food poisoning–and the need for food safety oversight. It was controversial at the time, because it threatened the burgeoning food processing industry. Nonetheless, as the title page suggests, there was often death in the pot.

Food Processing in the 19th century

In the 18th century novel Humphrey Clinker, the father of the titular character described the unhealthy means of getting food in the city. Greens were sometimes boiled with a copper penny to give them a greener color, and milk was carried through the streets in buckets, getting warmer as the day wore on. In the 19th century, much had improved, but food still had to travel long distances. Meat, in particular, could be problematic. Sometimes the animals were still alive for the journey, but that also meant that animals from mixed groups were kept together in small quarters, promoting disease. Once butchered, meat that appeared diseased might be cleaned or cut up for sausage or pies to avoid detection.


“O man of God, there is death in the pot.” –2 Kings 4:40

To alleviate these issues, some animals like geese might be “town bred” or raised in pens right in the heart of London. In fact, a town-bred goose is the subject of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” Of course, raising the animal nearer its food destination had problems of its own, including pollution from London’s many coal chimney pots and possibly contaminated feed. (That is, stolen blue gemstones were not the only things that might be crammed down a goose’s throat). These problems were further exacerbated by lack of refrigeration, lack of oversight–and that doesn’t even consider the actual processing plants (which were dangerous, unclean, and frequently infested with rodents).

Death of Another Sort

The response to Accum’s work was mixed. It was very popular with the public and sold well, coming out in a second edition. However, in the forward of that edition, he confesses to having received death threats from the food industry. Though he did much to bring food safety to the table, in the end, he was forced to flee England for Germany, in fear for his life. Despite his exile, his work continued to be published and reaches a wide audience in Europe and the US.

For more about food adulteration in the 19th century (and its relationship to similar problems today), you might be interested in Food Adulteration, the Victorians and Us or Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud.

Newsworthy Events

Welcome back tot he Dittrick Museum Blog!

Today, we would like to mention some newsworthy events upcoming in February. Mark your calendars, Clevelandites!


The Departments of Classics and History are sponsoring a talk on ancient “astro-medicine” (free and open to the public) on Wednesday, February 19 from 3:00 – 4:00 PM in Mather House 100

Maddalena Rumor, Doctoral Candidate, Freie Universität, Berlin, will present and compare two texts – a puzzling late Babylonian Kalendertext written on a cuneiform tablet in Uruk by a scholar named Iqīšâ (late fourth century BCE), and a passage from the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (first century CE) concerning fever therapies. While at a first glance these two testimonies seem to have nothing in common, a closer examination of them reveals that Pliny was commenting on the specific tradition of pairing animal products with calendric/zodiac information as found in Iqīšâ’s text, and thus each is useful for the interpretation of the other.

This finding represents the only identified direct proof of the sharing of astro-medical knowledge between the lands of cuneiform writing and the Greco-Roman world. As such, it has far-reaching implications for the history of ancient medicine and/or astrology.


The Dittrick Museum will present a lecture and reception, free and open to the public, Thursday, February 20th, 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Lucy Inglis Lucy Inglis (Museum of London) presents Jan Van Rymsdyk, the best anatomical artist of the eighteenth century. His work on two pioneering medical treatises, A Set of Anatomical Tables and The Gravid Uterus, marked the birth of modern obstetrics. Yet Van Rymsdyk’s life has been overlooked. A portrait painter by ambition, a botanical artist of some repute, he was also a skilled engraver and mezzotint worker. This lecture and companion exhibit explores his life, work and legacy.

William Smellie (1697-1763) and William Hunter (1718-1783) both published landmark book’s on obstetrics in which accurate illustrations were essential. Smellie wanted his advances in the use of forceps to continue after his death. Hunter wanted his scientific discoveries on why women died in childbirth to ensure his fame. They both needed Van Rymsdyk. He worked fast, with pinpoint accuracy, and his images had a strange allure. For all their gruesome reality; in them he managed to combine the Enlightenment ideal of beauty and truth. William Hunter said, “the magic of Jan Van Rymsdyk is that he ‘represents what was actually seen, it carries the mark of truth, and becomes almost as infallible as the object itself”.

RSVP required by Monday, February 17th. RSVP to or call 216-368-3648