The Father of Forensics

Alexandre_LacassagneFor centuries, solving crimes was something of a hit-or-miss field. There was no such thing as forensics, no way to take and compare fingerprints, and no way of analyzing crime scenes or piecing together the events that led up to the crime.

Until, that is, one 19th-century professor teaching at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Lyon decided that his students needed some hands-on experience more than they needed a refresher course on the way things had always been done. Suddenly, for the first time, students weren’t sitting in lectures but they were performing dozens of autopsies every year.

Alexandre Lacassagne single-handedly revolutionized forensic science. He trained his students to look for the pieces that told the story of a person’s murder, from bruises on the body to checking the internal organs of a victim for signs of drowning. He taught them how to use chemical reactions to look for trace evidence, and how to tell the difference between dried blood and rust. He showed them how to examine the insects that were present on a dead body to determine just how long the person had been dead.

Since there was no place suitable for the type of exams and work that he had in mind, Lacassagne created his own laboratory—complete with state-of-the-art equipment, most of which had never been regularly used for police work.

He also constructed a macabre museum of sorts, where students could look at and learn about the human body under different types of conditions. He had skulls that were fractured and broken by different instruments, sketches and plaster casts of crime scene body parts, stillborn babies of different ages, displays of weapons both standard and makeshift. He had vials of poisons and bodily fluids, and even different types of ropes to show students how the rope itself would match the wounds it left behind.

He also developed the idea of ballistics. He’s noted for providing evidence in several cases in which he successfully proved a particular gun was a murder weapon by firing bullets into cadavers then comparing those bullets with ones that were pulled from a murder victim.

Lacassagne even cataloged thousands of different tattoos that were common among the underworld’s unsavory characters. While serving in the military, he became fascinated by the idea of tattoos providing a very visible look into a person’s most innermost feelings. Then he began recording.

If there were any who doubted these newly developed methods, those doubts were erased with Lacassagne’s persecution of a man known as the French Jack the Ripper. Joseph Vacher was a spree killer who raped and murdered his way across the French countryside in 1894 before finally being arrested. Clearly crazy, it was an insanity defense that was making it look likely that he wouldn’t be beheaded for his crimes, but instead committed to life in an asylum.

Lacassagne was, however, able to recreate the heinous acts that Vacher had committed, leaving no doubts that he knew exactly what he was doing. He showed no remorse, was known for torturing and killing small animals, and had all the hallmarks of what we would now call a psychopath. Vacher was deemed culpable and was executed in 1898.

72 Uses For Common Household Items

People have been using common substances like citrus juices, oils and vinegars for cooking, as household cleaners and personal grooming products, for centuries, and many of the store bought products we buy everyday use these items as their core ingredients.

However, these store bought products also contain chemicals and toxins we’re better off leaving on the store shelves, and using core ingredients also means saving money.


This simple yet informative chart takes household products back to the old school, showing dozens of great uses for everyday products like baking soda, white vinegar and coconut oil.

The chart is missing amount recommendations for each use, but they’re pretty easy to figure out with a little help from Google.

A Twisted Bit of Irony

geo harrisonA pine tree planted in memory of the late Beatle George Harrison has died after being infested with insects.

The culprits: beetles.

Councilman Tom LaBonge told the Los Angeles Times that the memorial tree, located in L.A.’s Griffith Park, had grown to more than 10 feet tall as of 2013 before it was overwhelmed by the onslaught of tree beetles.

The tree was planted in 2004 near the Griffith Observatory in memory of Harrison, who was an avid gardener and spent his final days in Los Angeles before his passing in 2001.

LaBonge said that a new tree will be planted at the memorial site at a yet to be determined date.

The Real Scoop on Almond Milk

almond-milkAlmond milk is the drink that’s reportedly leading the growing market in dairy alternatives, beating out such competition as soy and rice milk in the growth of market share.

A single ounce of almonds contains six grams of protein, about  the same as an egg. That ounce of almonds also has three grams of fiber, the same as a medium banana, and 12 grams of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, equivalent to half an avocado.

According to its label, an eight-ounce serving of almond milk offers just one gram each of protein and fiber, and five grams of fat. A 48 ounce container of almond milk delivers six eight-ounce servings, meaning that a handful of almonds contains as much protein as the entire jug of this hot-selling beverage.

This tells us that the almond-milk industry is selling you a jug of filtered water containing a handful of ground almonds. This leads us to the question of price and profit. The average price for a pound of organic almonds sold in bulk is around $11.99. A one-ounce serving costs about 66 cents. If you buy nonorganic California almonds, they sell for about $6.49 per pound, about 39 cents per ounce. That container of almond milk, which contains roughly one ounce of nonorganic almonds, retails for $3.99. Quite a mark up for water and an ounce of nut powder.

It’s not necessarily healthier than conventional milk, either.

Almond milk is mostly just a waste of good food; food that demands an unusually high amount of water to grow. Seeing as how 80 percent of the global harvest comes from drought-stricken California, that has the potential to become a problem.

Other milks have problems of their own, of course: soy milk’s been tied to certain hormone-related health issues, which could be one of the reasons, analysts  say, that people are switching over to almond milk. And plain old milk, a no-go for people with lactose intolerance, puts a strain on the environment as well. Dairy cows produce a  considerable amount of the greenhouse gas methane that escapes into the atmosphere, and also consume huge amounts of water per gallon of milk they produce.

I conclude that almond milk is a product with little food value sold at a much higher price than the ingredients indicate it should demand in the market place. You could eat an ounce of almonds and drink a glass of water and get six times the nutrition at a fraction of the price. But if you prefer to use water make murky by a little almond dust it’s not going to hurt anything but your wallet in the end.

Otzi the Iceman


Ötzi the iceman, as he has come to be known, is a 5,300-year-old mummy who was discovered by some German tourists in the Alps in 1991. Tests have confirmed the iceman dates back to 3,300 BC and most likely died from a blow to the back of the head. He is Europe’s oldest natural human mummy and, remarkably, his body contained the still intact blood cells, which resembled a modern sample of blood. They are the oldest blood cells ever identified. His body was so well-preserved that scientists were even able to determine that his last meal was red deer and herb bread, eaten with wheat bran, roots and fruit.

Ötzi’s human genome was decoded from a hip bone sample. However the tiny sample weighing no more than 0.1 g provides so much more information. A team of scientists have successfully analyzed the non-human DNA in the sample. They found evidence for the presence of Treponema denticola, an opportunistic pathogen involved in the development of periodontal disease. Thus, by just looking at the DNA, the researchers could support a CT-based diagnosis made last year which indicated that the Iceman suffered from periodontitis.


Much of what we know about Ötzi, for example what he looked like or that he suffered from lactose intolerance, comes from a tiny bone sample which allowed the decoding of his genetic make-up. Now, however, the team of scientists have examined more closely the part of the sample consisting of non-human DNA.

“What is new is that we did not carry out a directed DNA analysis but rather investigated the whole spectrum of DNA to better understand which organisms are in this sample and what is their potential function,” is how Frank Maixner, from the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, described the new approach which the team of scientists are now pursuing.

“This ‘non-human’ DNA mostly derives from bacteria normally living on and within our body. Only the interplay between certain bacteria or an imbalance within this bacterial community might cause certain diseases. Therefore it is highly important to reconstruct and understand the bacterial community composition by analyzing this DNA mixture,” said Thomas Rattei, Professor of Bioinformatics from the Department of Microbiology and Ecosystem Science at the University of Vienna.

Unexpectedly the team of scientists detected in the DNA mixture a sizable presence of the bacterium, treponema denticola, an opportunistic pathogen involved in the development of periodontitis. This finding supports the computer tomography based diagnosis that the Iceman suffered from periodontitis. Even more surprising is that the analysis of a tiny bone sample can still, after 5,300 years, provide us with the information that this opportunistic pathogen seems to have been distributed via the bloodstream from the mouth to the hip bone. Furthermore, the investigations indicate that these were old bacteria which did not colonize the body after death.

Besides the opportunistic pathogen, the team of scientists also detected Clostridia-like bacteria in the Iceman bone sample which are at present in a dormant state. Under hermetically sealed, anaerobic conditions, however, these bacteria can re-grow and degrade tissue. This discovery may play a significant part in the future conservation of the world-famous mummy. “This finding indicates that altered conditions for preserving the glacier mummy, for example when changing to a nitrogen-based atmosphere commonly used for objects of cultural value, will require additional micro-biological monitoring,” explained the team of scientists who will now look closer at the microbiome of the Iceman.

The Servant Girl Annihilator

A serial killer, popularly dubbed the Servant Girl Annihilator, preyed upon the city of Austin, Texas during the years 1884 and 1885. The series of murders was referred to by contemporary sources as “The Servant Girl Murders.” The December 26, 1885 issue of The New York Times reported that the “murders were committed by some cunning madman, who is insane on the subject of killing women.”

According to Texas Monthly, seven females (five black, two white), and one black male were murdered during the spree. Additionally, six women and two men were seriously injured. All of the victims were attacked indoors while asleep in their beds. Five of the female victims were then dragged, unconscious but still alive, and killed outdoors. Three of the female victims were severely mutilated while outdoors. Only the murdered male victim was mutilated indoors.

All of the victims were posed in a similar manner. Six of the murdered female victims had a “sharp object” inserted into their ears. The series of murders ended with the killing of two white women, Eula Phillips, age 17, and Susan Hancock who was murdered on the night of December 24, 1885.

According to a page one article in the New York Times of December 26, 1885, four hundred men were arrested during the course of the year. Texas Monthly reported that powerful elected officials refused to believe that one man, or one group of men, was responsible for all of the murders.

These murders represent an early example of a serial killer operating in the United States, three years before the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel.

In her book, Jack the Ripper: The American Connection author Shirley Harrison asserted that the Texas killer and Jack the Ripper were one and the same man, namely, James Maybrick. According to author Phillip Sugden in The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, the conjecture that the murders were committed by the same hand originated in October, 1888, when an editor with the Atlanta Constitution proposed the conjecture following the murders of two women by Jack the Ripper.

London authorities questioned several American cowboys, one of whom, according to the authors of Jack the Ripper, A to Z, was possibly Buck Taylor, a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, who was born in Fredricksburg, Texas, about seventy miles west of the city of Austin, Texas.

According to the Atchison Daily Globe of November 19, 1888, the Austin American-Statesman reported that a Malay cook “running on ocean vessels” was a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders. The newspaper reported that “a Malay cook had been employed at a small hotel in Austin in 1885. Furthermore, the newspaper reported that the Austin reporter:

“…investigated the matter, calling on Mrs. Schmidt, who kept the Pearl House, near the foot of Congress Avenue opposite the Union depot, 3 years ago. It was ascertained that a Malay cook calling himself Maurice had been employed at the house in 1885 and that he left some time in January 1886. It will be remembered that the last of the series of Austin women murders was the killing of Mrs. Hancock and Mrs. Eula Phillips, the former occurring on Christmas eve 1885, just before the Malay departed, and that the series then ended. A strong presumption that the Malay was the murderer of the Austin women was created by the fact that all of them except two or three resided in the immediate neighborhood of the Pearl House.”

▪ Mollie Smith, 25, was murdered the night of 30 December 1884. Walter Spencer was seriously injured.
▪ Clara Strand and Christine Martenson, two Swedish servant girls, were seriously wounded the night of 19 March 1885.
▪ Eliza Shelly was murdered the night of 6 May 1885.
▪ Irene Cross bled to death after being attacked by a man with a knife on the night of 22 May 1885.
▪ Clara Dick was seriously injured in August, 1885.
▪ Mary Ramey, 11, was murdered the night of 30 August 1885. Her mother, Rebecca Ramey was seriously injured.
▪ Gracie Vance, was murdered on the night of 28 September 1885. Orange Washington was also killed during the attack upon Vance. Lucinda Boddy and Patsey Gibson were seriously injured.
▪ Susan Hancock was murdered the night of 24 December 1885.
▪ Eula Phillips was murdered the night of 24 December 1885. Her husband, James Phillips, was seriously injured.

According to a June 2000 article appearing in the Texas Monthly about the murders, there was an eyewitness who claimed to have seen the murderer(s) but reported contradictory information to police and detectives. The killer(s) was reported to be white, or “dark” complexioned; to be a “yellow man” wearing lampblack to conceal his skin color; a man wearing a Mother Hubbard style dress; a man wearing a slouch hat; or a man wearing a hat and also a white rag that covered the lower portion of his face. There were also reports that the killer worked with an accomplice, or was part of a “gang” of murderers.

The African-American community and some practitioners of voodoo believed the killer was a white man who had magic powers that enabled him to appear invisible, as no dogs outside or in fenced-yards adjacent to locations where murders occurred were heard to bark or raise any alarm.

The series of murders stopped when additional police officers were hired, rewards were offered and citizens formed a vigilance committee to patrol the streets at night. Contemporary newspapers reported that the murderer(s) had apparently fled the area, as no more murders were officially attributed to the killer by the authorities. The still existing Austin Moon Towers were installed for safety ten years after the murder spree.

William Sydney Porter, better known as the short story writer O. Henry, was living in Austin at the time of the murders. Porter coined the term “Servant Girl Annihilators” in a May 10, 1885, letter addressed to his friend Dave Hall and later included in his anthology Rolling Stones: “Town is fearfully dull”, wrote Porter, “except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively in the dull hours of the night….” However, no contemporary newspaper or published source referred to the murderer(s) as “The Servant Girl Annihilator.”

In 2000, Steven Saylor published the novel A Twist at the End, which closely reconstructs the murders and the ensuing trials, with young William Sydney Porter playing a fictional role. The novel was published in the U.K. (as Honour the Dead) and has been translated into Portuguese and Hungarian.

On July 15, 2014 History Detectives profiled the murders and came up with a probable suspect: Nathan Elgin a 19 year old african American cook who had died of wounds in February 1886 after being shot by police while trying to assault a girl with a knife and resisting arrest. He worked in an part of Austin consistent with having easy access to the crime scenes, and was known to have assaulted other women prior to being killed in the act. Maybe most damning of all is the fact that at least two of the murder scenes of the Servant Girl Annihilator spree there were bare foot prints indicating someone with the right little toe missing. It was reported in Elgin’s autopsy that he was missing the little toe on his right foot.

The Grave In the Middle of an Indiana Road

Nancy Kerlin Barnett, was married to William Barnett, Febuary 29, 1808. William was the great great great grandson of Pocahontas and John Rolfe.

Nancy Kerlin passed away on December 1, 1831 and is buried in what is known today as “The Grave in the Middle of the Road”.

nancy barnett marker

It has to be one of America’s most unusual burial grounds: A grave that singularly divides a county road.

At each end of the grave is a divided highway sign with a cross in the center, indicating a cemetery. One can only wonder if there’s another like it anywhere in the country.

Here’s the story: Nancy Kerlin was only 14 — soon to be 15 — when she married William Barnett in 1808. Her husband was the great-great-great grandson of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Nancy and William lived near present-day Amity, a small community south of Franklin which wasn’t actually founded until a number of years later in 1855.

When she died in 1831 at age 39, she was buried at what was apparently one of her favorite places — on a small hill overlooking Sugar Creek. In the following years, several others also were buried there and a small cemetery was created.

Like many Indiana counties, Johnson County had innumerable small cemeteries. One researcher has identified 163 in the county with 54 of them lost and nine removed. This biggest move of all came in the 1940s when a large number of graves were moved so Camp Atterbury could be constructed.

Over time a foot path developed through this small cemetery and later a county road was planned through it. Other graves probably were moved, but one of Nancy’s sons objected to moving her grave. Since it originally wasn’t a problem, her grave was left behind.

The trouble developed still later when the county wanted to widen the road. Now the grave would have to be moved.

So the story goes, her grandson, Daniel Doty, went to the gravesite with his shotgun and, in essence said, “over my dead body.” How long he remained there and what was said by whom to whom isn’t definitely known.

The upshot, however, was that the county agreed not to move the grave. Instead, they built the road around it. A concrete slab was placed over the grave to protect it and on Aug. 8, 1912, a historical marker was placed at the site as well.

nancy barnett grave

That’s how things still stand today.

In almost any writing about unusual places in Indiana, you will see the gravesite of Nancy Kerlin Barnett included. Also, it is easily seen by traveling a short distance north off U.S. 31 in southern Johnson County.

Incidentally, the grandson who protected his grandmother’s grave was the son of one of Nancy’s daughters, also named Nancy, the eighth of her 11 children. The second Nancy was 20 years old, if records are correct, when she married John Doty in Johnson County in 1843. Daniel was the second of her nine children.

The first Nancy’s husband, William, died by drowning in the Ohio River 13 years after her death.