Murder and Mayhem: Mathieu Orfila and the Lafarge Trial

V0004364 Pierre Matthieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila. Lithograph by A.
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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!

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Brandy Schillace

Historian and author Brandy Schillace, PhD, is Editor for Medhum Fiction | Daily Dose, Research Associate and Public Engagement at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, as well as Managing Editor of the medical anthropology journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.

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