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The Development of Ballistics


The first case involving tracing a bullet wound back to a suspect occurred in 1794 when a surgeon removed and preserved a wad of paper from the gunshot wound which had killed a Lancashire man, Edward Culshaw.   When the paper was unfolded, it was found to match the missing torn-off corner of a ballad sheet still in the pocket of the suspect John Toms.

A similar case occurred on 24 October 1860, when PC Alexander McBrian, a police officer in Wyberton, Lincolnshire, was shot by Thomas Richardson, a suspected poacher.   The wadding found at the scene of the crime was compared with the paper in the other, undischarged, barrel of the suspect's double-barrelled shotgun recovered at his home.   They were both found to have come from the very same page of The Times newspaper of 27 March 1854.

In relation to examining ammunition, the Bow Street officer, Henry Goddard, described one of his cases, in 1835, when he solved a case at the home of a Mrs Maxwell of Southampton whose butler, Joseph Randall, had apparently had an exchange of gunfire with burglars.   Goddard was suspicious of Randall's story, and when he examined his guns and ammunition he found an identical pimple on all the bullets, including the one which had allegedly been fired at Randall.  He then found a corresponding pinhead-sized hole in the mould from which the bullets had been made. This indicated that the bullet fired at Randall was in fact part of his own ammunition.   In prison, Randall confessed to making up the story with a view to obtaining a reward from his mistress for his bravery in protecting her property, and was eventually released with a sharp warning from the court.   Goddard's keen observation had linked a series of bullets together.

On Friday 1 December 1882, when PC George Cole caught a young thief trying to break into a chapel in Dalston, his prisoner escaped by firing a pistol at him as they ran through the dark foggy night, and PC Cole was killed.    The offender left behind a chisel with the letters ‘rock’ scratched on it, and this was eventually traced as belonging to Thomas Orrock.   One of PC Cole's colleagues, Sergeant Cobb, found a mark on a tree on Tottenham Marshes where Orrock had been conducting target practice, and dug out a bullet which was then shown to be of the same type and weight as those recovered from PC Cole's body.   James Squires, a gun maker of Whitechapel, testified that the bullet from Tottenham Marshes and the two bullets from the scene were all of the type fired from the pin fire cartridges used by the gun which had been bought  (and later thrown away) by Orrock.   This is probably the earliest recorded use of ballistics evidence by the Metropolitan Police.

 In March 1903, Scotland Yard was asked to help the local police with enquiries into the disappearance of the wealthy Miss Camille Cecile Holland from her home at The Moat House Farm, Clavering in Essex.   She had been living with Samuel Dougal, and had paid for the farm herself in April 1899.    On 27 April, suspicions were confirmed when the officers succeeded in finding her body buried in a former drainage ditch.   A revolver bullet had entered her skull behind her right ear, fracturing the inside of her skull on the left side but without passing through the bone.   Mr Edwin Churchill, whose gun shop was situated near Strand in central London, was called in to help.   He had experience of giving expert evidence on behalf of the prosecution, and was able to say that the bullet recovered from Miss Holland’s head was the same type as a box of 34 unused .32 calibre bullets also found at the farm.  Churchill was also able to say that the revolver must have been fired at a distance of between 6 and 12 inches from the victim’s head.   He came to this conclusion by systematically firing bullets into sheep's heads, with the assistance of his nephew Robert, to calculate the pattern of bullet penetration which would result.    The question of powder burns, the classic evidence of a shot from close range, could not be assessed because the flesh had disappeared in the four years since Miss Holland’s death.   In due course, the ballistics evidence helped to convict Samuel Dougal of the murder, the culmination of an excellent investigation by Detective Inspector Eli Bower of Scotland Yard.   

On 9 October 1912, however, The Hooded Man case occurred in Eastbourne, Sussex at the house of Countess Flora Sztaray, where Police Inspector Arthur Walls was shot dead after responding to a call that a burglar was hiding above the front porch.  Eli Bower also investigated this case, and turned for ballistics advice to Robert Churchill who had taken over the gun shop business after the death of his Uncle Edwin.    Robert Churchill concluded, from the bullet which killed Arthur Walls, and a cartridge case recovered from the scene, that the weapon had been a .25 automatic pistol, and, because he knew the rifling details of all the various makes of gun which could fire that ammunition, he could give the police further information about what type of gun they should be looking for.    After the police found parts of a gun on Eastbourne beach, Churchill fitted a new hammer and springs and then test-fired it.    Those test bullets had the same rifling pattern as the bullet used to kill Inspector Walls, and Churchill had no doubt about his conclusions that it was a gun of that very same make which had fired the fatal bullet.   

 In order to demonstrate the technicalities of Churchill's evidence, Sergeant William McBride, one of the very first police photographers at Scotland Yard, used close-range photography to illustrate the pattern of the grooves on the bullets.   He also collaborated with Churchill in placing dentist's wax inside the gun barrel, then withdrawing it when it had cooled and set hard.   This enabled him to photograph the pattern in the wax, caused by the grooves of the inside of the gun barrel, showing the same profile that would match a lead bullet fired through that gun barrel.      When John Williams was being escorted into court to face the murder charges, Eli Bower placed a spotted apron over Williams' head, since at that stage he had not been formally identified, and the trial then became known in the newspapers as the 'Hooded Man case'.  John Williams was not his real name.   He had enlisted into the Royal Scots Regiment (No 6910) as George McKay on 9 October 1899 and had deserted on 15 October 1901.

One of the famous early cases involving what we now call ballistics was the murder of an Essex police officer PC George Gutteridge in 1927.

On Tuesday 27th September 1927 just before 6am a post office worker, Bill Ward, was driving in Essex near a place called Howe Green. Suddenly he saw a body by a bank at the side of the road and found PC George Gutteridge wearing his full uniform and cape, with his helmet and notebook beside him, and his pencil still in his hand. He had been cruelly murdered by being shot four times in the face. Detective Inspector Crockford from Romford took up the investigation.

About 10 miles away a Morris Cowley motor car belonging to Dr Edward Lovell had been stolen from his garage in London Road Billericay. Some of his medical instruments and some drugs were in the car. But by the time the theft was reported, the car itself had already been spotted 42 miles away in a narrow passage behind 21 Faxley Road, Brixton. There were blood splashes on one of the running boards.

The police recovered the car and found a cartridge case marked RLIV. This marking indicated that it was an old Mark IV type made at the Royal Laboratory in Woolwich Arsenal for troops in the First World War. The case seemed to have been scarred by a fault in the breech block of the gun which had fired it.  It was again Robert Churchill who found the crucial evidence that the bullet would have been fired by a Webley revolver.  By this time he had acquired a comparison microscope to make examination of bullets easier.

The murder hunt went on for four months. At one point DCI Berrett of Scotland Yard and his assistant Sergeant Harris worked 130 out of 160 consecutive hours. The police suspected two car thieves Frederick Browne and Pat Kennedy but did not have any evidence.

Eventually the police had evidence against Browne for the theft of another car, a Vauxhall, and raided his premises. They found cartridges and a loaded Smith & Wesson in his room off Lavender Hill. He had been using a car he had part-exchanged for the stolen Vauxhall the police were interested in. And when the police searched that car they found yet another loaded revolver in a secret recess in the car. And it was a Webley.

And it was that Webley which Mr Churchill examined and found to be the very same one which had caused the peculiar mark on the cartridge case. Later Browne's accomplice Patrick (or William) Kennedy was arrested, but only after he had pressed a loaded firearm into the ribs of Sergeant Mattinson of Liverpool Police and pulled the trigger. But the gun clicked as a bullet jammed in the barrel, Sergeant Mattinson survived and both Kennedy and Browne were now in custody. They were later convicted of murder.

The Sunday Dispatch newspaper carried the headline "Hanged by a microscope" reflecting the fact that microscopic examination of the cartridge cases had provided the crucial evidence to convict them of an awful murder.

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