History of Forensics: Murder & the Metal Detector

Searching a stream with a modern metal detector

Necessity is the mother of invention. In 1881 assassin Charles Guiteau fired two shots at the 20th President of the United States James A., Garfield. One of the bullets lodged in his body and did not exit. President Garfield was rushed to the hospital where he lived for 80 days before his death. Doctors were hesitant to do surgery because they couldn’t determine where the bullet was lodged.  Famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell learned of the President’s injury and the inability to locate the bullet. He set about to develop a device to “see” the bullet through the skin. Bell developed a coiled detector and performed several successful experiments on finding bullets in animals (sheep) before rushing to the hospital. His first attempts to use the detector were unsuccessful so Bell  went back to his laboratory and made several adjustments. Returning to the hospital he tried again without success.

Following the President’s death from his condition Bell went to the autopsy with his metal detector and it worked very well. Some historians believe that a new invention owned by President Garfield interfered with the operation of the new metal detector. What was the new invention you ask…the coil spring mattress. The metal coils essentially “overloaded” or “masked” the signature of the bullet making it invisible. Modern investigators often run into the same problem when searching ground littered with metal trash. The difference is that modern CSIs are very aware of this cancellation. Modern metal detectors can actually be “tuned” to ignore certain signatures and limit their sensitivity to that of the evidence being searched for. I’ll need to do a future posting on modern metal detectors and their capabilities. Being a new invention however, Bell was totally unaware of the coil springs in the mattress and apparently didn’t account for them. Think of it. Two brand new inventions cancelling each other out. It was an unfortunate incident but both inventions continue to enrich our lives.

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About forensics4fiction

Hi there. Thank you for visiting my BLOG for crime writers. I hope you will find it interesting. I would love to hear your questions and thoughts regarding forensics and criminal investigations. I hope that the information here will help answer your questions or ignite your imagination. I am a retired senior criminalist with 15 years of forensic experience. I have served as the president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and the Rocky Mountain Division of the International Association for Identification. I am triple board certified in forensic related fields and one of only 40 board-certified bloodstain pattern analysts and 80 board-certified footwear examiners worldwide In addition to writing over 60 scientific papers, I have worked as the editor of the Journal of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, been interviewed by and consulted for television, books, magazines, and newspaper articles including documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Posted on April 27, 2012, in Historical Forensics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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