Skip to main content

American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI

Review

American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI

AMERICAN SHERLOCK offers an intriguing and in-depth look at the career and accomplishments of Edward Oscar Heinrich, one of the United States’ first forensic scientists. Kate Winkler Dawson tells Heinrich’s story through the lens of certain high-profile cases where he provided forensic evidence and often pioneered some new forensic technique, many of which are still in use today. Some of his more prominent cases included the Siskiyou train robbery, the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle trials, and the murder of a priest in Northern California that captivated the nation.

Each chapter opens with a carefully chosen quote from one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales that relates to the case Dawson addresses in that particular section. Using this format to tie Sherlock Holmes to the life of Oscar Heinrich is clever and entertaining, especially since the media frequently dubbed Heinrich “America’s Sherlock Holmes.” He solved over 2,000 cases in his career, and Dawson chose to highlight the ones where his contributions were seminal. While most of the cases in the book were solved, one or two have never been closed.

"...an intriguing and in-depth look at the career and accomplishments of Edward Oscar Heinrich... While AMERICAN SHERLOCK surely will appeal to true-crime aficionados, it also will grab the attention of anyone who appreciates a good story."

Heinrich died in 1953, and his son Mortimer waited 16 years to bestow the contents of his laboratory to the University of California at Berkeley, Heinrich’s alma mater where he taught criminology classes for almost 30 years. The materials included case files, evidence, photographs, personal diaries, correspondence and trial transcripts, and he had saved over 100,000 pieces of information.

Due to budget constraints, the collection remained untouched and unsorted for over 50 years until Dawson chose to write a book about Heinrich and requested that UC Berkeley allow her to peruse it. While wading through the massive amounts of info, she examined “pieces from a detonated bomb, a locket owned by a dead woman who was run down by her own car, a lock of hair belonging to an actress who died during an infamous party, and several pistols that required having their firing pins removed by the UC Berkeley police.”

Dawson provides insight into Heinrich’s personal life as well as his career. Losing his father to suicide when he was just 16 haunted him for the rest of his life. He constantly struggled with balance --- maintaining a good relationship with his wife and children, while also focusing on his work and keeping his business afloat. While he rarely shared private thoughts on his work and his competitors with his family, reporters and colleagues, Heinrich chose to do so with his closest confidant, John Boynton Kaiser. The two men penned letters to each other for decades, and much of what Dawson learned about Heinrich’s innermost thoughts was gleaned from this correspondence.

Heinrich made countless influential contributions to forensic science, including his revolutionary use of a comparative microscope and forensic entomology, and his analysis of trace evidence to solve a crime. His techniques are still studied today and routinely used by investigators across the country. However, he also pioneered a few methods that are less sound, such as handwriting analysis and bloodstain pattern analysis, that had been used for many years but are slowly being phased out because of their unreliability.

While AMERICAN SHERLOCK surely will appeal to true-crime aficionados, it also will grab the attention of anyone who appreciates a good story. In addition to gaining an understanding of early forensic science, readers will be treated to a glimpse into several prominent cases (including Fatty Arbuckle’s numerous trials) and an exploration of the societal issues at play during the relevant time periods.

Reviewed by Cindy Burnett on February 14, 2020

American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI
by Kate Winkler Dawson

  • Publication Date: February 11, 2020
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 0525539557
  • ISBN-13: 9780525539551