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School of History, Philosophy and Culture
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
+44 (0)1865 483709
Headington Campus, Tonge Block,T520
Katherine D. (Cassie) Watson was educated at the Universities of Western Ontario and Leeds before completing her DPhil in modern history at the University of Oxford. Her work has been supported by grants and fellowships from the Wellcome Trust, British Academy, and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. She has been teaching at Oxford Brookes since 2004.
Dr Watson is a historian of forensic medicine and crime in Britain, focusing on the period between 1700 and the First World War. Her research is interdisciplinary, drawing on law, medicine and social history of crime. She has recently completed a monograph on medico-legal practice in England and Wales 1700-1914, drawing on case reports of interpersonal violence. Her research interests are reflected in much of her teaching.
To understand our criminal justice system, it is crucial to understand the long-running historical debate on the nature, incidence and causes of crime, as well as the way in which medicine has played an active part in shaping legal, political and social change. Dr Watson’s specialist teaching focuses on the origins of these foundations of modern legal practice, while her broader teaching considers the wider socio-political contexts within which these practices developed.
Dr Watson has supervised MA dissertations on various aspects of the history of crime and forensic medicine. Her PhD supervisions include a completed thesis on establishing the identity of the unknown dead in England and Wales 1800-1934 (Fraser Joyce, 2013), and on medical themes in the early (18th-century) novel (Mary Gifford, 2019). Ongoing projects include homicide in nineteenth-century Lancashire (Louise Roy), nineteenth-century police detectives (Angela Buckley), and the development of forensic medicine as an academic discipline (Christopher Milroy). She welcomes applications from students interested in the history of forensic medicine and science, as well as the history of crime in Britain and the West since the seventeenth century.
History of crime in Britain; Western forensic medicine and science in the post-medieval period.
Katherine Watson's doctoral thesis investigated the role of scientific expertise in the late Victorian period. The theme of ‘expertise’ recurs in her current work, which focuses on topics where medicine, crime and the law intersect. Her main areas of research are:
She is currently working on a book on the history of acid throwing, an unusual form of assault, from the early eighteenth century through the 1970s. This strand of her research will be expanded and developed in future work, which will include further detailed study of assault as a form of interpersonal violence. She has also returned to the history of poisoning crimes, focusing on its incidence in Scotland.
Her research interests have been reflected in appearances in television documentaries since 2005, most recently in Murder, Mystery and My Family (S5 Ep5, 2021).
You can listen to a podcast - Moments In Medicine #9: Before CSI: The Origins of Forensic Medicine and Science. And she blogs with two colleagues in North America - you can read our posts on the history of law, crime and justice at Legal History Miscellany.
Dr Watson leads the History of Crime research group in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture.
This monograph makes a major new contribution to the historiography of criminal justice in England and Wales, by focusing on the intersection of the history of law and crime with medical history. It does this through the lens provided by one group of historical actors, medical professionals who gave evidence in criminal proceedings. They are the means of illuminating the developing methods and personnel associated with investigating and prosecuting crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when two linchpins of modern society, centralised policing and the adversarial criminal trial, emerged and matured. The book is devoted to two central questions: what did medical practitioners contribute to the investigation of serious violent crime in the period 1700 to 1914, and what impact did this have on the process of criminal justice? Drawing on the details of 2,600 cases of infanticide, murder and rape which occurred in central England, Wales and London, the book offers a comparative long-term perspective on medico-legal practice — that is, what doctors actually did when they were faced with a body that had become the object of a criminal investigation. It argues that medico-legal work developed in tandem with and was shaped by the needs of two evolving processes: pre-trial investigative procedures dominated successively by coroners, magistrates and the police; and criminal trials in which lawyers moved from the periphery to the centre of courtroom proceedings. In bringing together for the first time four groups of specialists — doctors, coroners, lawyers and police officers — this study offers a new interpretation of the processes that shaped the modern criminal justice system.
The easy availability of deadly poisons in nineteenth-century Britain, western Europe and the United States led to widespread public anxiety about the prevalence of murder by poison, resulting in what might be termed a ‘poison panic’. The fear was fed by well-publicised reports of trials and executions which, though not especially numerous, seemed indicative of the dangerous incidence of a unique type of homicide, one that was particularly difficult to prevent or detect. As a result, poisoning crimes stimulated the development of the earliest medico-legal specialism, forensic toxicology, and consequently the careers of some of the best-known expert witnesses of the Victorian era, including Mathieu Orfila, Alfred Swaine Taylor, Thomas Stevenson and Theodore Wormley. This article traces the history of poisoning crimes and the related medico-scientific discipline of forensic toxicology, using textbooks, key trials and crime statistics to examine and evaluate their contribution to the historical development of forensic expertise and practice.
In the summer of 1826, Hannah Russell was tried for petty treason, viz. the murder of her husband, Benjamin Russell, by poisoning. Their lodger, Daniel Leney, was indicted as her accomplice. The exact circumstances surrounding the death were unclear but Hannah was known to have purchased white arsenic (arsenious oxide). A local surgeon, Thomas Evans, supported at the post-mortem examination by two further surgeons, not only reported severe corrosion of the gastrointestinal tract, but also the recovery of nearly an eighth of an ounce of arsenic from the victim's stomach. Both accused were convicted and sentenced to death. Leney was executed, but Hannah Russell was respited because the trial judge, Sir Robert Graham, had doubts as to a direction he had given to the jury. The surgeon and paleontologist Gideon Mantell took up her case, stressing that death from arsenic could not have taken place as quickly as was alleged and maintaining that the chemical evidence of arsenic poisoning was inconclusive. He gained the support of some eminent chemists and physicians. Subsequently, forensic toxicologists [Sir] Robert Christison and Alfred Swaine Taylor pointed out that Mantell's arguments as to the possible time to death in arsenic poisoning were quite wrong. Moreover, Evans gave details of the analyses he and his colleagues had undertaken to Christison, who pronounced the findings sound, as indeed did Mantell after Evans and his colleagues published details of their investigations in the Sussex Advertiser. Papers in The National Archives show that Hannah was pardoned for the offence for which she was indicted, leaving it open to prefer a lesser charge. That this was never done may have been due to Mantell's campaign, at least in part, but the pardon she did receive was due to the concern of the trial judge as to the implications of the evidence presented at trial.
This special issue focuses on the crime of infanticide in three of the four constituent nations of the British Isles: England, Scotland and Ireland. The papers collectively point to the fact that although families and communities could be a source of support for women in crisis, they were also the route by which many instances of infanticide were revealed. In addition, the evidence here suggests that the signifi cance of religious cohesiveness to family and community relations may, in some contexts, have encouraged infanticide to occur, due to a pressure to maintain respectability in religiously observant communities. The fact that the crime occurred regardless of the moral climate in each nation suggests that women faced with the reality of bearing a bastard weighed it against the possible consequences of committing infanticide and decided to take the risk. Thus the role of religious belief in the actions of married and unmarried infanticidal women emerges as a unifying contextual theme that is likely to stimulate further research.
Forensic medicine became a recognised discipline in the nineteenth century, growing alongside the medical and legal professions. Very few medical men taught or studied forensic medicine at the start of the nineteenth century but by the end it was an integral part of medical education, and forensic science had begun to emerge as a separate discipline. This chapter focuses on the forensic expertise and practice of Leeds–based doctor, toxicologist, and lecturer Thomas Scattergood (1826–1900). Alongside his teaching career, he researched forensic techniques and acted as a consultant and medico-legal witness in criminal cases across the north of England.
Scattergood’s personal casebooks will be used as the starting point to explore the kinds of forensic techniques available in the second half of the nineteenth century. These volumes contain Scattergood’s compiled notes on a wide range of potential forensic clues, including blood splatters, the effects of fire, water, lightning and earth on the body, knife or blade injuries, strangulation, chemical decomposition of bodies and a variety of poisonings. Case studies from his notebooks illustrate the scientific developments made in forensic medicine in this period. The casebooks also provide insights into the range of individuals involved in the business of medico-legal practice. Beyond his Yorkshire College–based laboratory Scattergood engaged with coroners, policemen, lawyers, judges, postmen, farmers and other doctors, among others, and he therefore lies at the heart of our work to unravel the networks involved in Northern forensic investigations.
Editorial Board Member, Law, Crime and History (e-journal) [http://www.pbs.plymouth.ac.uk/solon/journal.htm]
Dr Watson will be giving a keynote lecture at the student conference "Iustoria 2022 - Law, Health and Medicine", to be held at the University of Belgrade (Faculty of Law), 25-27 March 2022.
Find me on Twitter @DrKDWatson
I blog at Legal History Miscellany