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Edmond Locard, The Sherlock Holmes of France

With his silhouette of full-bent meerschaum pipe and deerstalker cap, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognized figures in popular culture. He has probably appeared in more films, television series, books, stories, plays and pseudo-scholarly articles than any other fictional character. His influence is worldwide, not only on readers seeking quality crime/procedural stories but also police officers: Not too shabby for a creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

But how many people are aware of Holmes’ connections to France? According to the great consulting detective, Holmes stated in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”: “My ancestors were country squires… my grandmother… was the sister of Vernet the French artist.”

He did not state whether it was Claude Joseph Vernet, Carle Vernet, or Horace Vernet. He also consulted with various French citizens, usually of the Upper Classes, involving dastardly deeds by nefarious enemies! Most important, Holmes led to the work of Edmond Locard (1877-1966), The Sherlock Holmes of France.

Born in 1877 in Saint-Charmon, near Lyon, Locard admitted to reading the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He was fascinated by the Consulting Detective’s keen eye, logical reasoning and strong interest in chemistry and other sciences to identify evildoers. In short, Locard admired Holmes’ approach to what would later be called scientific criminology, then forensic science.

Locard studied law and medicine as logical approaches to finding evidence and arriving at the appropriate conclusions. Mostly, detectives in those days arrived at the solution to a crime through some intuitive leap of faith, rather than the systematic collection and analysis of evidence in a logical, rational process leading to the resolution of a crime.

The handsome, dark-haired young man, sporting a modest moustache, began his professional career by acting as an assistant with the celebrated French physician and criminologist, Alexandre Lacassagne. Locard was the image of intelligence and persistence, and with his movie matinee image, often appeared in daily newspapers.

Once Locard passed the bar as an attorney, he essentially duplicated Holmes’ rational approach to criminal investigation. But he wanted to learn more about this relationship and travelled to gain insights into the criminal lifestyle.

In Paris, during his first stop, he met and studied with Alphonse Bertillon, an anthropologist, who had created a criminal identification procedure using body measurements known as anthropometry. This was an attempt to identify unique criminal types. From anthropometry, Locard was guided to the more accurate technique of dactylography, the study of fingerprints to identify both suspects and victims. Fingerprinting soon became standard for evidence collection in criminal investigations.

Locard then traveled to New York City. Here he continued his studies of various investigative tools and processes in criminal procedures. Chief among these were the extensive use of various photographic methods to document and preserve evidence And most importantly – the use of chemical analyses to identify and catalogue physical evidence.

After returning to France, Locard immersed himself in the task analyzing, cataloguing and better understanding potential evidence obtained from the various crime scenes. He convinced Lyon police officials to give him the use of two empty attic rooms. There, he conducted chemical analyses and other investigative procedures related to the murders. In short, he created the first forensic laboratory.

The First Forensic Laboratory

In that laboratory, Locard proceeded to solve some of the highest-profile criminal acts. One of the earliest ones was in 1912. The so-called Lyon Strangler brutally killed Mademoiselle Marie Latelle. Her boyfriend Emile Gourbin, the principal suspect, claimed she had been killed while he was playing cards with his friends, each of whom supported his statement.

After analyzing the dirt beneath Gourbin’s nails, Locard found traces of Marie Latelle’s makeup. Faced with this evidence, Gourbin confessed to the brutal murder. Soon, seemingly unsolvable mysteries from around the world began arriving at Locard’s laboratory. His fame was now established.

The Legacy of Locard

His most lasting contribution to forensic science is known as Locard’s Exchange Principle”.  As he wrote:  “It is impossible for a criminal to act, especially considering the intensity of a crime, without leaving traces of this presence.”

For example, a person walking through a crime scene may leave a trace of mud on a carpet while, at the same time, having carpet fibers attached to the soles of their shoes. Today, this is known as trace evidence.

A second major contribution of Locard is the use of fingerprinting.  During his studies into dactylography he established that if twelve points of comparison could be found between two fingerprints, this would be enough to confirm a match.

During his lifetime, Locard published numerous articles which significantly helped to increase both the quality of criminal investigations and the conviction rate of criminals. His most famous work is his seven-volume series, Traité de Criminalistique (Treaty of Criminalistics). Sherlock Holmes is still working on his masterpiece of criminal investigation: One can only wonder how the world of forensic science might have been exponentially enhanced had Holmes published his insights.

By John Pekich  producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA

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