HOW POLICE CAMERAS REVEAL Hidden Crime Clews (May, 1938)

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DUSK was closing down on a midwestern city when a black roadster rolled to a stop on a deserted side street. A man wearing a slouch hat stepped out, looked up and down the street, and then slipped to the rear of a neighboring store. In one hand he carried a small box wrapped in newspapers. A moment later, he returned and drove hurriedly away.

Thirty minutes passed. Then, like a clap of thunder magnified a thousand times, a blast shook the business district. The end of the store was blown to kindling. Windows for a block around shattered into fragments. The box had held a time bomb filled with high explosives. Fortunately, the intended victim had stepped to the front of his store and escaped without a scratch.

All night long, detectives combed the ruins looking for clews. They photographed the debris. They made casts of footprints found back of the store. They recorded the marks left by tires on the side street. Most important of all, they retrieved fragments of the box which had held the bomb. One piece contained a finger hold characteristic of chalk boxes used in public schools. This was a valuable clew. But it was another fragment which provided the astonishing piece of evidence that solved the crime.

Under a magnifying glass, one of the detectives noticed what appeared to be faint printing on the piece of wood. He hurried to the photographic laboratory at police headquarters. Here, the expert in charge of the crime-fighting cameras slipped a filter over his lens, adjusted photoflood lamps to throw a strong side lighting on the wood, and snapped the picture.

Detectives crowded around him as he lifted the dripping negative from the developing bath. On it, faint but legible, was printing from a newspaper. The explosion had forced the wood against the paper so violently that an impression of the printing was left on the box fragment. It proved to be part of an item published in a paper in a neighboring city only twelve hours before the blast. This clew led directly to a known enemy of the storekeeper, a school janitor in that city. Confronted by detectives, he confessed his crime.

This amazing instance is but one of many in which photography has played a leading role in solving major crimes. The scientific sleuth of today is depending more and more upon the round, gleaming eye of the camera to search out hidden clews. He has gone photographic, and is using everything from huge color-movie outfits to miniature cameras, from highly magnified enlargements to candid snapshots, to trail and convict his man.

Only a few days ago, in New York City, a camera which “saw” something invisible to human eyes led to the conviction of a murderer. A week before, radio cars had raced to an outlying tavern in response to an emergency call. They found a man stabbed to death. The assailant had made his escape. When a suspect was being questioned at police headquarters, a week later, the photographer who had just “mugged” him noticed a peculiar thing about the picture. The faint outlines of a stain appeared on the freshly laundered shirt the man was wearing. Questioned about it, the suspect became confused, gave conflicting statements, and finally broke down. During the struggle with the victim, his shirt had been stained with blood. It had been washed out, but the faint, remaining discoloration, unnoticed by the eye, had been recorded by the supersensitive panchromatic film in the camera.

In another instance, the same type of film revealed an overlooked bloodstain on a carpet. In examining a room where a murder was thought to have been committed, detectives shot pictures from different angles for later reference. When they studied the developed films, they discovered the outlines of the stain. Although the carpet had been washed carefully, the discoloration was apparent to the camera.

Such films, sensitive to red as well as to other colors, are a boon to the crime fighters. Old types of film were “colorblind” to red. Recently, a new photographic emulsion, said to be four times as fast as that (Continued on page Ilk) used on previous films, has been made available to photographers. With such films and the fast lenses now available, a detective can take pictures which are fully exposed, and yet stop all action even on dark or rainy days or in comparatively dim interiors. It adds greatly to his chances of getting his man—on film.

THE latest color films are also playing a part in convicting the guilty. Not long ago, a jury was sitting on a case in which a child had been beaten atrociously. Conviction was quick after colored movies were admitted to the evidence. They revealed the discolored flesh where the little girl had been struck again and again.

But the camera is as quick to free the innocent as it is to convict the guilty. Take one striking instance reported from a western state.

A woman was on trial for the murder of her husband. Her story was that he came home drunk and threatened her with a revolver. During the struggle on the front lawn, she swore, the gun went off accidentally and he was killed. The district attorney, however, maintained that she shot him as he came up the walk, firing from inside the house through a screen door. The whole case hinged on proving or disproving this latter statement.

The trial reached its climax when defense attorneys handed the jury a sheaf of photographs. Each was the picture of a bullet. All except one had crisscrossing marks in the lead. Time after time, the bullets had been fired through screens into oak boards. In spite of the fact that the wood is far harder than a human body, the recovered bullets always retained the imprint of the wire mesh. Yet, the photograph of the fatal bullet showed no such markings. The camera, more clearly than hours of talking, proved that the lead which killed the victim could not have been fired through the screen door. The case for the prosecution collapsed; the woman was given her freedom.

THE whole science of forensic ballistics, or tracing bullets to the guns that fired them, is based on taking pictures through comparison microscopes. In many other ways, the camera records in permanent form the findings of the different sciences applied to criminology. It records fingerprints, scars and wounds, the position of footprints, teeth marks, forgeries, mutilated documents, and other pieces of evidence which aid in the solution of crimes.

Recently, newsreels have helped identify rioters, and fast cameras have snapped “repeaters” at the polls. One of the latest applications of photography to police work is the assembling of large albums of pictures, showing hundreds of known pickpockets, footpads, and other underworld characters who follow fairs and conventions. By familiarizing themselves with the faces of these undesirables, the local police in a city where an exposition or convention is to be held can increase their chances of nabbing criminals before they can get into action.

Trapping insurance racketeers is another phase of the camera work of modern detectives. One example will illustrate the methods used.

IN Maryland, a mason took out a large I accident-insurance policy. Only a few weeks later, he reported he had had a bad fall and had injured his right arm so severely he was no longer able to work. Company physicians examined him. Beyond a few minor bruises, they could find nothing wrong. However, the laborer insisted he could bend his elbow only with extreme pain and demanded the payments called for in the policy.

This was the situation when a camera detective, employed by the company, reached the town in which the mason lived. For days, he shadowed the quarry with his miniature outfit slung in its ever-ready case. Always, in public, the laborer’s arm remained as stiff as a steel shaft. Early one Sunday morning, however, the injured man appeared in his back yard with a heavy hammer and began pounding down a row of bean poles, unaware that a hidden camera was recording him at work, bending his right elbow without effort at each lift of the hammer. That one set of pictures nipped his attempted fraud in the bud and saved the insurance company hundreds of dollars.

Telephoto lenses, which permit the recording of such pictures from a distance, have been used effectively in several cases. They give close-up views while permitting the photographer to snap the pictures from a distant hideout.

EVEN aerial cameras, pointing down from the sky, are being enlisted in the scientific war on crime. Some months ago, a silver-winged plane zigzagged back and forth across Long Island Sound while the aerial camera it carried snapped picture after picture. It was recording “submarine” shots in search of a vital clew in a kidnap case. The resulting negatives recorded objects lying many feet below the surface of the water. Although this sky hunt failed to reveal the body of the victim, the unusual procedure opens up new possibilities for rapid searches of the kind. Photographs taken from an altitude often reveal valuable clews not evident to the ground observer.

Occasionally, luck as well as foresight plays a part in solving crimes by photography. When a policeman was making his rounds in the park of a large eastern city, not long ago, he discovered a girl slumped on a bench, one arm hanging limply, a revolver resting on the ground below the lifeless hand. It had all the appearances of a routine case of suicide.

And so it remained until the police photographer developed the negatives of pictures he had taken at the spot. In the slanting rays of the early morning sun, a faint covering of dew stood out clearly on the bench. And, on the seat next to the girl, there were revealed sharp outlines in the dew that proved beyond doubt that some one had been sitting there shortly before the policeman had arrived. Detectives abandoned their suicide theory and turned to a check-up of the girl’s acquaintances. As a result of this hunt, the murderer was identified, captured, and brought to trial.

IN Rio de Janeiro, an Englishman was accused of the murder of a Brazilian acquaintance with whom he had quarreled violently a few days before. On the day of the victim’s death, their differences apparently had been patched up and the two went sailing together in a small boat in the harbor of the city. When the boat returned to its mooring, the Brazilian was dead. He had been killed, the Englishman said, by a fall from the masthead to the deck.

Police, however, noted that a heavy oar was missing from the boat’s regular equipment. Medical experts testified that death resulted from a blow on the head which could easily have been administered by the oar. Details of the quarrel were aired in court and the case looked hopeless for the Englishman until defense attorneys introduced one of the most remarkable pieces of evidence ever produced in court. It was an enlargement from a casual snapshot made by a tourist.

On the day of the Brazilian’s death, a cruise ship had steamed into the harbor at Rio. One of the passengers, impressed by the view, snapped the picture with his camera. When the film was developed and enlarged, it contained positive evidence that the Englishman’s story was true and insured his acquittal. For the film revealed a dark blotch on the sail of a boat which, by sheer chance, had been within the camera’s range. The enlargement proved that the dark spot was the body of a man falling from the masthead past the white sail to the deck!

THUS, by chance and by design, the camera is playing a vital part in furthering justice. It is a powerful new weapon in the hands of the police, a weapon which is being used for new tasks from month to month, a weapon the underworld does not know how to fight. Every criminal who hides his face from the piercing eye of a camera, pays tribute to its worth as a potent aid on the side of law and order.

  1. Hirudinea says: October 24, 20117:29 am

    CSI ’38! Now if only they could get a clew on spelling! 🙂

  2. vse says: October 24, 201110:13 am

    Yes, I had to look up clew, too, for a clue…

  3. Richard says: October 24, 201110:58 am

    I was familiar with the nautical meaning of the word “clew”, but I didn’t realize it was also an accepted synonym for the word “clue”, or it could also mean a ball of thread or yarn, as in that which Theseus used as a guide out of the labyrinth.

    I enjoy learning these bits of linguistic trivia that can be gleaned from old writings.

  4. GaryM says: October 25, 20118:55 am

    “Clew” is old-fashioned, but it still shows up in dictionaries.

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