A perfect amalgam of biography, true crime, history, forensic science, and thrilling detective storytelling

SCIENCE/TRUE CRIME

Kate Winkler Dawson

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

G.P. Putnam's Sons

Hardcover (also available as an e-book and an audiobook), 978-0-5255-3955-1, 336 pgs., $27

February 11, 2020

 

“Oscar Heinrich’s fingerprints cover the history books of forensic science because so many of his techniques are still used.”

 

Edward Oscar Heinrich (1881-1953) was indeed the American Sherlock Holmes during his years spent constructing an independent practice as a forensic scientist. Unlike others in this burgeoning field during the 1920s and 1930s, Heinrich built his expertise through education, hard work, meticulous attention to detail, and obsessive notetaking. Convincing investigators, jurors, and judges of his findings, however, was regularly a challenge because they were often confused and skeptical from the sheer science of it all. “What they do not easily understand they reject.” To defend his methods, Heinrich had to learn to speak to his audience using simple terms and photographs, rather than bombarding them with scientific jargon.

 

Kate Winkler Dawson’s American Sherlock is a compelling study of one man’s rise as a criminalist and forensic scientist who participated in many high-profile cases, including Fatty Arbuckle’s alleged murder scandal that ruined his Hollywood career. Heinrich relied not on hunches or manipulating witnesses and crime scenes to fit the desired narrative but on facts and evidence. Armed with a microscope, a laboratory, and a spray bottle of benzidine to detect the presence of blood, Heinrich was a true Holmesian criminalist, endowed with uncanny observational skills, who left no grain of sand unturned. He allowed the truth to emerge by observing bodies and blood and rebuilding the crime from the ground up based on hard evidence.

 

Despite his devotion to his wife and two sons, his life-long friendship with librarian John Boynton Kaiser, and high demand for his skills, Heinrich was not always a happy man. He remained crushed under the threat of poverty and the fear of repeating his father’s mistakes. Heinrich also never realized his passion of becoming a published author of detective fiction, even though he wrote prolifically and tried valiantly to entice a publisher. While Heinrich continuously remained on the brink of financial ruin, he never lacked for arrogance and ego. He considered himself superior to his peers and thought many in the field were charlatans and his own personal enemies because they would undermine him and cast him as a vainglorious charlatan himself.

 

American Sherlock will certainly appeal to discerning readers, as it is a perfect amalgam of biography, true crime, history, forensic science, and thrilling detective storytelling. Dawson’s journalistic expertise shines throughout as she showcases the details of Heinrich’s life as a renowned forensic scientist through a handful of the thousands of cases that passed under his microscope.

 

Heinrich’s remarkable story might have remained buried in history books if not for Dawson’s spark of interest after reading about the botched Siskiyou train robbery in 1923 and Heinrich’s innovative scientific contributions in solving this dramatic crime. Dawson was determined to bring Heinrich into the well-deserved spotlight, and the idea of American Sherlock was born.

 

Lara Michels at UC Berkeley agreed to help, and together, Michels and Dawson cataloged and sifted through an astounding number of boxes of information related to Heinrich’s life and career. The result is a well-researched, well-written, riveting biography of a man who dedicated his life to using and improving his scientific know-how, tirelessly and meticulously building cases for many courtroom trials.

 

Each chapter offers a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through epigraphs from relevant Sherlock Holmes stories. The eight cases chosen for this book begin with the sensational events, followed by Heinrich’s precise, thoroughly documented approach to rooting out the criminal and solving the crime, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, but always with the desire for truth and justice.

 

With almost twenty-five years in television news, Kate Winkler Dawson has worked as a field producer, line producer, and writer for some of the top news organizations in the country. Her career started in Austin at KVUE-24. Dawson holds a BS degree in broadcast journalism from Boston University and an MS degree in journalism from Columbia University. Dawson teaches at the University of Texas at Austin in the broadcast journalism department; before that she was on the faculty at Marymount College at Fordham University. Dawson is on the board of directors for the Texas Center for Actual Innocence, a non-profit organization that investigates claims of wrongful convictions in the state of Texas.

 

Dawson's documentaries include La Candelaria, Goldrush.com, Breaking the Barrier, Grass Ceiling, and The Long Haul. Dawson is the author of The Digital Reporter, Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, London's Great Smog and the Strangling of a City, and American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI.