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The Making Of The Murder Bag

Updated on August 12, 2011

Watching CSI and other forensics-related programs it's easy to forget that scientific crime scene processing is still a relatively recent innovation. At one time, cops smoked cigarettes over dead bodies, trampled thoughtlessly on potential evidence, and generally did all the slipshod things that keep defense lawyers in mohair suits. Now, of course, it's different (or it's supposed to be.) And for that thanks are due to a British pathologist, a man who brought order to chaos and criminals to justice.

The case that changed the face of forensic science forever began in London on the evening of Friday May 2, 1924. The police had received a report of a suspicious item in the left luggage office at Waterloo railway station. The item in question was a Gladstone bag – the kind that doctors used to carry – and it contained, among other things, some bloodstained clothing and a large kitchen knife. When, at 6.40 p.m., a fellow strolled up to the counter and presented a ticket for the bag, he was arrested and taken to Scotland Yard.

Smooth Talking Lothario

His name was Patrick Mahon and he was a silver-tongued 34-year-old salesman with a hypnotic effect on the opposite sex. And it was this obsession with women that brought about his downfall. That night in custody, after a long interrogation, he explained how the bloodstained clothing came to be in his bag, and, in little more than a murmur, he suggested that officers should go to the Officers' House, a bungalow on a deserted area of beach known as the Crumbles, close to Eastbourne in Sussex. What the police found there sickened them, and they immediately requested the assistance of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the honorary Home Office pathologist and England's greatest medical detective. Next morning he set out for Sussex. When Spilsbury arrived at the bungalow, word had already leaked out of the ghoulish secrets within, and the house was surrounded by hordes of gawping spectators. Spilsbury had been warned what to expect, but nothing could gave fully prepared anyone for the horrors of Officers' House.

The Officers' House in Eastbourne
The Officers' House in Eastbourne

Thirty-eight-year-old Emily Kaye had gone to the bungalow with Mahon, expecting it mark a turning point in her life. She was already carrying Mahon's child and the trip to Eastbourne was supposedly a prelude to marital bliss. Instead, she ended up on the front pages of every newspaper in the land. Mahon had chosen murder over matrimony. There was a good reason for this. He was already married and his long-suffering wife would never have agreed to a divorce. Not that Mahon wanted to marry Emily; he just wanted to get rid of her. And he'd done his best.

House Of Horrors

What was left of poor Emily Kaye was scattered all round the bungalow. Everyone entering the house reeled from the stench. Bits of boiled flesh floated in greasy tureens. One stood by the hearth, one in the kitchen. Other saucepans were rimmed with thick layers of fat. In one of the bedrooms, Spilsbury saw a rusty tenon saw, its teeth clogged by grease, lying on the bed. No prizes for guessing what that that had been used for. Judging from the huge pile of ash in the hearth and gobs of grease along the fender, he thought that most of Emily's mortal remains had been incinerated on the fire. He bent down and sifted through the ash, much like a miner panning for gold. Then he went from room to room, making an inventory of the various human remains. When he was done he set up an ad hoc laboratory in the backyard. Canvas covers were placed over the high walls to keep out prying eyes. The kitchen table was moved out to become his workbench. After donning his trademark long white apron and rubber gloves, Spilsbury asked for all the human remains to be brought out for his closer inspection.

What Spilsbury saw next horrified him. Without a second thought the officers merely rolled up their sleeves and grabbed hold of chunks of putrid flesh, tossing them into buckets, as if they were sorting fish on a quayside. Spilsbury summoned Detective Chief Inspector Percy Savage and laid down the law on the dangers of infection, saying, "Are there no rubber gloves?" Savage looked at him blankly and explained that his officers never wore any form of protective gear when processing crime scenes. Now it was Spilsbury's turn to look askance. With a resigned shake of the head he returned to the job in hand, but at the back of his mind an idea was germinating, one that would flower later.

Mahon (inset) being led hooded into the bungalow
Mahon (inset) being led hooded into the bungalow

Over the next 48 hours, both here and in his London laboratory, Spilsbury toiled with barely a minute's sleep. From the various piles of ash he recovered almost 1,000 pieces of calcined, pulverized bone. Some were recognizably human, others were not, and it was a case of trial and error as he attempted to put together this human jigsaw puzzle. Piece by piece the charred skeleton took shape. By the time he was finished the framework of Emily Kaye's hideously violated body lay before him, minus the skull, the upper part of the neck, and the lower portion of one leg. It was a fantastic feat of reconstruction.

Spilsbury found enough to convince a jury that Mahon's story of Emily's accidental death, followed by his hysterical panic, was a pack of lies. She had been deliberately murdered and hacked into pieces. Mahon had spent hours, even days, boiling down much of the flesh into a greasy stew, while at the same time lobbing pieces of bone onto the living room fire. Mahon's guilt was never in doubt and he went to the gallows, and Spilsbury added another remarkable triumph to his résumé.

But he was far from satisfied. What he'd witnessed at the Officers' House – officers handling chunks of decomposing human flesh without any regard for personal hygiene – utterly appalled him. By this stage of his career, Spilsbury was one of the most powerful figures in the English judicial process and when he spoke people listened. He took his concerns to Scotland Yard. What he discovered was alarming. The handicaps that detectives labored under at murder scenes went far beyond a shortage of rubber gloves. They were hopelessly ill-equipped for the efficient performance of their duties, still floundering in the forensic dark ages. For instance, if they wished to preserve human hair on clothing, or soil or dust on boots, they simply picked it up with their fingers and put it on a piece of paper. They had no tweezers to aid them in this task, not even something as elementary as a magnifying glass. In short, they had none of the tools necessary for the scientific processing of a crime scene.

The Murder Bag
The Murder Bag

The Murder Bag

Spilsbury resolved to remedy these deficiencies. He and Dr. Aubrey Scott-Gillett, a Wimpole Street physician who acted as a divisional police surgeon, put their heads together and, in consultation with Detective Superintendent William Brown from Scotland Yard, the first Murder Bag – it was actually a leather case – came into being. Designed to be carried by Scotland Yard detectives whenever they left London to pursue a murder inquiry, in its original incarnation the bag contained:

  • Complete apparatus for taking fingerprints
  • Two test tubes
  • Two magnifying glasses
  • Two pairs of rubber gloves
  • One rubber apron
  • A pair of scissors
  • Large and small forceps
  • Disinfectant
  • A towel and soap
  • A tape measure
  • A flashlight
  • A two-foot rule
  • A compass for determining the exact position in which a body is found
  • A pair of handcuffs

(Some officers were rumored to include a flask of whisky for those nippy winter investigations!) The Murder Bag was constantly being refined and improved to the point where any clue could be safely processed and preserved. Nowadays, with the advent of the specialized criminalist, the Murder Bag has become a quaint memory. But this was where modern CSI started, and without this groundbreaking innovation many more killers would have escaped justice.


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      ccbrookes 6 years ago

      Good point, JG. Spilsbury reckoned that, because the house had no bathroom, Mahon had butchered Emily in the kitchen sink (no jokes, now) and a galvanized metal tub, both of which were mired in human grease.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 6 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Fascinating! One would think officers would've brought things like tweezers and rubber gloves from home or bought them out of pocket from the local chemist (drugstore).

      I am surprised, though, that Spilsbury used the kitchen table from the crime scene. Surely he would have surmised it had been used for some or all of the butchering and would contain additional evidence like hack marks. (Have I been watching too much CSI and other crime shows???) ;D