For today’s Museum Week post, we #Zoom in on the forensic collection of John George Spenzer–with the help of research assistant Elizabeth Fregaso. What she has discovered about our erstwhile toxicologist attests to the power of minutia, not only in solving crimes, but also in the day-to-day life of Cleveland’s “Sherlock.”
Elizabeth Fregaso, Case Western Reserve University
Born in 1864, Spenzer (fellow with the cane) had quite the drive to achieve, even from a young age. Though he was born in the United States, he moved to Germany at 15 years old, when American law at the time deemed him too young to obtain his degree. He completed his education abroad and, from there, he moved to Cleveland and became a professor at what is now Case Western Reserve University. It was while here that he became known as “Cleveland’s Sherlock Holmes”, having a hand in multiple sensational criminal trials. Among his achievements were providing definitive evidence in the 1916 trial of Josh Kiser as well as identifying toxic chemicals in the Cuyahoga River that led directly to federal efforts to understand pollution during an age when many companies were permitted to use rivers as industrial waste dumps.
The majority of the Spenzer collection that I interacted with was composed of notes on various topics relevant to Spenzer’s known areas of expertise: medical jurisprudence and forensic investigation. All the material were contained in binder upon forest-green binder and on paper so thin it could have been used for tracing. Most of the copied articles were excerpted from published textbooks; the one he favored most seemed to be Eduard Von Hofmann’s Atlas of Legal Medicine. Apparently, Spenzer was a man on a mission to catalogue everything that piqued his curiosity, a continual quest to hone his skills and build on his professional knowledge. There must have been about 100 pages per binder per subject, and there were even accompanying illustrations. In watercolor.
Pretty impressive, eh?
Well, clearly he thought so too, because he went a long way in convincing his readers (or maybe just convincing himself) that he was striving for nothing less than perfection. Check this out: in many of the binders and positioned before all the content, there was a manufacturer’s tag clipped in the very front firmly attesting to the “mechanical perfection” of the binders.
As for the content itself: Spenzer collected miscellanea on a variety of topics that today would be intimately familiar to any forensic scientist. Fingerprinting, ballistics, hangings, drownings, electrocution… just a handful of the subjects he collected materials on. Though I haven’t cataloged it yet, there was an entire binder on the infamous Rasor trial. A sensational case for its time, Guy Rasor was accused of murdering his lover, Ora Lee. It was a case in which Spenzer was personally involved as an expert witness – and enjoyed making the ‘expert’ part known, especially. Take a look at this exchange, which I transcribed from a photo I took in order to use as a reaction image whenever I thought a friend was wrong about something in a text conversation:
SPENZER: A heart-shaped piece was cut out of the right-hand pocket.
ATTORNEY: And by whom?
SPENZER: By myself. From this point below and posterior to the left-hand pocket a rhombohedral piece was removed.
JUDGE: Will you put it in United States, Doctor?
SPENZER: A rhombohedral, your Honor, is a certain, definite shape, like a square is a shape, or a rectangle.
ATTORNEY: The trouble is we don’t understand that, Doctor.
SPENZER: A faulty education.
I’m definitely no Sherlock Holmes, but I’ll go out on a limb here and deduce from this particular exchange that Spenzer could be a bit of a Holmesian know-it-all when he wanted to be.
I did get to catalogue an entire binder on the Crippen trial, a case in which Spenzer was not directly involved. You wouldn’t think it though; from the sheer amount of materials he collected on this trial’s proceedings, he was certainly an interested third party. Doctor Harvey Crippen is accused of murdering his then-wife Cora and disposing of her body in the basement. The two expert witnesses in the case are entirely at odds about what the chemical evidence means. In fact, much of the transcript Spenzer had on record was argument on each scientist’s methodology, as the judge and attorneys attempted to figure out how two radically different conclusions could be reached from the same evidence.
This binder stood out to me. Unlike the other binders, it wasn’t just a collection of useful and interesting tidbits. It was one of only two I had gone through – the other being “The Forensic Detection of Blood” — that appeared to be set up as a textbook, complete with a table of contents, multiple sources, and original commentary. Of course, much of this commentary was thinly veiled criticisms of the investigators involved and laments on how, if it were him on the case, he would have done things differently. But the main idea is that much of the language was directed at a third party, as if someone were meant to read these notes in the future as instructive exercises on chemical toxicology, and its limits. It would seem not all of the work was private; some of it was meant as a field guide for future generations of forensic scientists.
A last feature of note: nearly every entry had hand drawn ink and watercolor illustrations accompanying them – save for those with parent articles that had none. These illustrations came in either color or in black and white, but were always copied meticulously from the source material. In my opinion, the most charming of these illustrations were the ones on the spines of each binder, indications of the specific binder’s subject materials. With little touches like that, beginning an impressive new tome always gave me the definite feel of cracking open an actual textbook.
A name commonly showed up alongside these illustrations: “Louis Karnosh”, about whom surprisingly little can be found on Google, besides that he was a practicing MD in the Cleveland area around Spenzer’s time and was 44 by the time of the 1940 census. It’s fairly reasonable to assume that he was involved in the reproduction of these images somehow – possibly Spenzer did the lineart and Karnosh supplied the watercolors? In any case, there’s no confirmation on what role he played exactly, but the pictures are quite detailed and, despite showing graphic images of violent crimes, are rather beautiful. However Dr. “Louis Karnosh” of Cleveland was involved, he deserves a little bit of the limelight.
Speaking of the limelight, it is here that we may be witness to a rare expression of humility on the part of our good Dr. Spenzer: deferring a portion of his personal, work-related project onto someone with known skill that he considered worthy of inclusion in his Perfection Collection. As anxious as he was to make his own expertise known – and not without good reason, of course — he was not above acknowledging the skill and expertise of others. […] See the original post here.
…As Elizabeth aptly points out, our friend Dr. Spenzer understood the value of detail in both his life and his work. The archive remains an incredible treasure that we continue to unpack!