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Forty Years of Murder by Keith Simpson Book

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Overview:Christie, Hanratty, The Krays … murderers haunt the mind.

We read about them in the press with horrified curiosity and, if we’re lucky, this is as close as we get. But Home Office Pathologise Keith Simpson spent forty years in the very midst of murder.

This is his autobiography.

The late Professor Keith Simpson became the first Professor of Forensic Medicine at London University and lectured on the subject to other doctors, lawyers, police officers and magistrates at home and all over the world. He pioneered forensic dentistry, and for the first time identified a suspected murderer by teeth marks left on the victim’s body. He was responsible for the first successful ‘battered baby’ prosecution in England, and perhaps one of his greatest contributions has been to save the lives of countless babies by disseminating information on the syndrome and getting it recognized and controlled.

This is the bestselling autobiography of the man who was always at the scene of the crime. In describing his celebrated investigations he spares his readers none of the chilling details: the whip-marks, the maggots, the skeletal remains, which proved the innocence of so many men and women…and sent so many more to the gallows. 

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Forty Years of Murder by Keith Simpson Book Read Online Chapter One

Why choose Pathology?

You might well ask what could possibly persuade any young doctor, unmarried and without ties, to take up the study of the dead - the diseased, mutilated, sometimes even dismembered dead, whose bodies seem to come to light at such odd hours and in such queer places. Why not a nice clean laboratory job in a white coat with keen technical staff, or a challenging research project? Or surgery, with the glamour of the operating theatre, the appeal of brilliant results snatched from the jaws of disaster? Why not patient scholarly physicianship - or neurology, obstetrics, children’s diseases? There they all were, and if you’d had a successful medical studentship, as mine had been at Guy’s, the choice really was wide open. So why the dead body, the often smelly morgue, exhumation, lust and violence, the inconvenience of calls to derelict premises, dells in Epping Forest, ponds, prostitutes’ bedrooms, at all hours; of sudden challenge, hard duels with lawyers, pompous old judges and obtuse juries? Why?

Well, few doctors can enjoy a more exciting life, such a challenge to be constantly on the qui vive, or should it be the qui meure? There could be few jobs so full of new possibilities, so certain to bring new and colourful slices of vivid life, new acquaintances with other doctors of all kinds, with detectives, with policemen and prostitutes, barristers and barmen, distinguished lawyers and drug-addicted layabouts. It’s so different from looking into ears or throats muttering ‘Say ah’ or ‘Now breathe in’, handling distasteful skin diseases or trying to persuade hysterical women they haven’t got cancer. The smell? No worse than the unwashed. Harrowing? There is, as H. E. Bates wrote, a ‘beauty of the dead’. And wasn’t it John Wesley who wrote:

Ah, lovely appearance of Death, 

What sight upon earth is so fair? 

Not all the gay pageants that 

breathe Can with a dead body compare.

Isn’t it more exciting than ‘Doctor, little Willie’s been sick again’, to hear an urgent ‘Doctor Simpson? Oh, glad to find you in, sir’ (as if you spent the night on the Embankment or in Soho night clubs). ‘Inspector Read here, sir. Got a man stabbed in the back in Lambeth public toilets. Could you come and see him? Ten minutes? Splendid, sir; meet you outside the Underground station.’

So there you are once again in overcoat and muffler, crouching on the floor of a stale public lavatory in the glare of police spot-lamps trying to see everything, literally every clue that might later be vital to yet another murder trial. A stray hair from the assailant clinging to the jacket, an indistinct footprint, blood smeared over here, dripping first there, then trickling over there. Buttons undone, trousers torn and muddied. Black eye and bruised lip. Another homosexual quarrel? The knife and the stab wound can have attention much later - comparatively unimportant, just the last fatal stab, and of course never to be touched or explored at the scene.

First, photographs and fingerprints, cellophane bags for the hands; head, clothes, another search with the CID, then the undertakers to carry the body to the nearest mortuary, and finally yet another look around at the scene for clues. One stray button torn away on the window-sill of a pub in Portsmouth pointed at Loughans: a Luton dyer’s tag in a discarded piece of coat at Bertie Manton; a shell case in Chelsea Square at Boyce. Each proved guilty (although Loughans was wrongfully acquitted) on such tiny observations. Finally everyone round the body in the morgue - Yard men, photographic, fingerprint, liaison and ‘scene-of-crime’ scientific detectives - and it will go on patiently until the job’s done, all day and all night if necessary.

No fun, you say? Nothing to laugh at in the ugliness of crime, the grimness of poverty, the tragedy of death; not a smile’s worth of fun in the weeping wives and the sad and sometimes savage face of humanity? No, it isn’t funny; and that is why laughter has to break through, probably i more than in other jobs.

I have a vivid memory of standing in the Shoreditch Public Mortuary one morning, sharpening my knife, about to examine the body of an old man lying stiff on the slab, prepared for post-mortem an hour or so previously by the attendant, a cheerful Cockney named Hart.

‘Tell me something about him,’ I asked Doughty, the Coroner’s officer. ‘What did he do, and how did he come to die?’

‘Well, sir, this man was an actor, and…’

But before Doughty could say another word, the Cockney wit of the attendant was out:

‘Got blimey, if he’s acting now, he’s bloody good! ’

We all laughed freely and easily. It was the joke of a compassionate, not a callous, man. The dead actor could have appreciated it.

Fun, without disrespect for the dead, is where you look for it. I’ve had many a chuckle roving round the tombstones in churchyards whilst waiting for a body to ‘come in’. Undertakers are always said to be ‘out on the job’ or ‘on way’ (never ‘on the way here’) if one arrives first, so often there’s time to look around the graveyard. Epitaphs often have a diverting macabre humour of their own. How about this?

Poor Martha Snell her’s gone her way

 Her would if she could but

Her couldn’t stay.

Her had two bad legs and a baddish cough, 

But her legs it was that carried her off.


Some tombstones sound a Salvationist note: one in Hammersmith reads:

The trumpets sounded, a voice said ‘Come’, 

The Pearly Gates opened - and in walked Mum.

Laughter can erupt in even less hilarious places than a cemetery, and a drab scene can at any time suddenly light up with some gem of humour or Gilbertian situation. There is nothing remotely amusing about the mutilated head of a dead girl, and I could not have been further from laughing when I took one away, in a cardboard box, from a murder in a ryefield near Saxmundham during the latter years of the war. I wanted to study the pattern of some knife wounds on the head. I returned to London by the milk train, which rattled into Liverpool Street station at 5 a.m. A Scotland Yard car met me, and deposited me at the street door of my block of flats in Weymouth Street, close to Broadcasting House, driving away as I mounted the few stairs to the front door. I was fiddling with the key in the Yale lock, quite alone in the bare light of dawn, when a constable strolled round the corner. He looked at me, half in and half out of the building, and with this cardboard box under my arm. One could almost see him thinking ‘Ullo, ’ullo, now what’s all this?’ He came across to me.

‘May I ask,’ he said very politely, ‘what you have in that parcel under your arm? ’

‘Why - er, yes,’ I said. ‘It’s a head.’

He looked at me hard. Then: ‘A what, sir?’

‘A specimen. I’m a doctor. I’ve been on a job…’

‘If you don’t mind, sir, I think I must ask you to just step inside,’ I’d got the door open by now, ‘and let me see.’

We both got inside the front door, and I untied the parcel, exposing first a rather bloody crown of brown hair, then eyebrows, then… but he’d had enough.

‘Good God! * he muttered, clutching his face. ‘Good God!’

I explained. He didn’t know me, but it must have dawned on him that I wasn’t a crank.

‘You might perhaps like to ring the Yard for confirmation?’

‘No, sir.’ He was distinctly white in the face. ‘No, thank you, sir. And it’s the last time I’ll ever ask anyone what they’re carrying in a parcel! ’

A charred body in a burnt-out house isn’t intrinsically amusing either, and there was nothing to laugh about when, one Saturday night in Bedford, I searched with fire officers and the local CID chief for traces of a second burnt body. For a man and a woman who had been drinking and quarrelling at a local pub had been seen entering the house soon after 9 p.m. and by 10.30 a fierce fire had destroyed it. Only one body had been found.. The possibility of murder must always lie at the back of a CID officer’s head, so a full-scale search was started just before midnight.

Padding around in the soaked charred debris for some sign of human remains, we suddenly lit upon what looked like a human forearm, charred out of recognition. Carefully handled, it was laid in a cardboard box and carried off to the local mortuary under police car escort, together with other fragments destined for the forensic science laboratories. Ten minutes later, Under the tense scrutiny of Scotland Yard and local CID chiefs, Chief Fire Officers and the Police Surgeon of Bedford, I made a half section of it so as to get down to the bone that I thought would prove it was human. Suddenly, as the charred crust gave way under my knife, we all burst into laughter, for there, split open on the bench, was… a French loaf! The laugh was certainly on me, and to this day, when I visit Bedford on a crime, I am likely to be asked if I would care for a slice of French bread with my tea!

If he worked alone the pathologist’s spirits would fade, but he is one of a team. Cheerful policemen, eager young doctors, alert lawyers, matter-of-fact magistrates, counsel, judges, all help to provide a balance that preserves one’s reason and sense of humour in the most dismal surroundings.

Stories are still told and told again of the devastating wit of famous counsel of the past like F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead.

‘Mr Smith,’ a judge once interrupted him, ‘I have listened to you with great care for some forty minutes now and I am none the wiser.’

‘No, my lord,’ answered Smith, dryly, ‘merely better informed.’

Encounters in court are seldom dull, for so few counsel are; most will either challenge or respond to a thrust with pleasure. A ghost of a smile, perhaps, then: ‘Doctor, are you seriously saying that A plus B equals A2 plus 2AB plus B2?’

No one could possibly say the practice of medicine in court is a dull branch of professional life. It teems with personalities and abounds in challenge and surprise. I always enjoyed the drama of an Assize trial: a duel with the lawyers, the tensing of intellects in a cross-examination on the medical and scientific aspects of the case, with opposing counsel coached by one of one’s colleagues like Donald Teare or F. E. Camps to probe the weakness and strength of one’s case. Camps in particular seemed to relish throwing variously sized and weighted ‘spanners in the works’ of a good Crown case. But it was good for me: it kept standards of work high, demanded careful attention to detail and accuracy.

Able lawyers are a constant spur to performance, a challenge that prohibits any pathologist from the easy-going indifference into which doctors may so easily drift in private practice.

‘Doctor,’ they say, in a slow and emphatic challenge,

‘are you seriously saying that the injuries you describe exclude the possibility of an accident?’

Well, you hadn’t thought of the possibility, perhaps, but here is the challenge, and, unlike Members of Parliament or Judges, you are going to have to answer now, not later, after further thought. ‘I don’t think they could have been accidental,’ you say, a little uncertain as to the line he may adopt. What other information had he up his sleeve?

‘Come, doctor, this is a serious charge, and you are the expert.’ Counsel is relentless. ‘Do you or do you not exclude that possibility? Yes or no, doctor? ’

Lawyers all want a black or white ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. There’s no grey anywhere, no ‘It might be’. I once had a young barrister thunder at me:

‘Tell me, doctor, in what order were these injuries sustained?’ And before my mouth had opened…

‘And I want “yes” or “no” for an answer, not a long lecture! ’

All this testing is good for professional standards. No one is allowed to go to seed, drop off, or muddle a way through. It is a life of challenge, and no one is allowed to drift along. Any ordinary intellect needs it: an alert mind thrives on it.

Of course there are difficulties and intense irritations. The ponderous, slow-moving majesty of the processes of law, for one. Every pathologist contends with inconveniently timed or unnecessary calls, extremes of cold and heat, bodies with scores of wounds (when one would have sufficed), decomposed, fly-ridden, disintegrated remains, long waits for the undertakers or some expert to arrive, dirty premises and sloppy morticians.

Add to all this the prospect of a prosecution at some unfixed future date in an Assize Court often seventy or eighty miles distant. Warnings to attend often come after 6 p.m. on the eve of the trial through the DPP or a local police station. ‘Doctor, you’re wanted tomorrow morning at Nottingham Assizes; 10 a.m., please, case against Pitts from Slough.’ Never mind what you’ve got on next morning, whose expecting you or what other court has already engaged your services (the Assize and Civil High Court have precedence). Never mind that after 6 p.m. it’s impossible to find everyone on your list for tomorrow to tell them what has now happened.

Never mind, either, that your holiday may be due to start tomorrow, and you’re packed ready to travel. Or, worse, that you have already travelled!

The day I married my secretary, Jean Scott-Dunn, in 1956, I left for Paris with a ‘Recognizance Notice’ in my pocket warning me to be at the Old Bailey next day at 10 a.m. I’d hardly arrived before I was back again on the platform at Gare St Lazare, finding my way to the night train for London. Some honeymoon!

Worse, but far more amusing, I was on holiday in the Atlas mountains, right in the middle of Morocco, in April 1966, when, at the end of a long and very hot drive from Marrakesh I was relaxing in a bath in the Palais Jamais at Fez. The telephone bell rang.

‘Eet eez ze foyer, Monsieur Simpson. Ze Police are here. Pleez to come down. And pleez also to bring ze passport.’

I dressed hurriedly. The police can be awkward in a foreign country. What had I done? Run over a dog with my hired Simca car? Perhaps. Or, worse, some exchange deal in Tangier?

Sure enough, there in the foyer stood two Moroccan police officers - pretty high-up stuff by their braid. Attention.

‘Monsieur Simpson?’

‘Mais oui, messieurs. Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?’

‘Ici, monsieur, s’il vous plait’ We withdraw into an office.

My passport was closely inspected, and my photo checked. An official black briefcase was produced, and from it the senior officer drew a thin telegram headed ‘Interpol’.

‘You are wanted,’ the officer read menacingly, slowly, ‘on a charge of murder. To be at the Gloucester Assizes at 10 a.m. tomorrow, Friday 19th.’

What excitement! The Fez Police had never in their lives had a telegram from Interpol. And they’d got their man! Wanted for murder - Keith Simpson!

Unfortunately, in the excitement of transmitting the Yard message from Tangier to Fez, three words that meant so much had been omitted. A telephone call to Scotland Yard elicited the information, as I suspected, that the original Interpol message had read, ‘Wanted to give evidence on a charge of murder’. It made all the difference! A few drinks in the bar, and the tension settled. The officers left, not a little deflated. I felt almost sorry for them. It had looked so much like their big moment.

Anyone who thinks pathologists run well-planned days dealing with the dead at their own convenience, and taking holidays when the weather’s fine, should spend a few days going round the morgues, dashing at short notice for court, often miles out of London, back to the lab, or to give lectures, trying to receive visitors and dictate letters, obeying summonses to be here, then there, ‘as soon as possible, doctor. The body’s in the open air, sir. We’re rather worried about it, and a man’s in the station. As soon as possible?’ ‘I’ll come straight-away.’ It was the sort of response every CID chief hopes for, and I always went out of my way to give it if I could. I knew how much it meant to both of us to get down to a murder job before the body had cooled off and the scent had gone stale.

How nice to have an ordered life! Or would it be too dull for words? Chacun á son goût, I suppose, for it isn’t everyone who would choose to spend so much of his professional life with the dead. For me it is the spice of life; an ever-changing stage with an unending stream of characters: public, the police, the Bar, doctors, scientists, old lags, young students. Every day brings some new surprise, some sort of challenge, some humour, some pathos. There is an air of challenge and intellectual test so unlike ‘just another day at the office’. Any moment the telephone can start anything, from a strangled Pimlico prostitute to an urgent call to Canada.

Why choose pathology? For Heaven’s sake, how could one choose anything else? 

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