This Was the First Murder Solved Using Geology

Illustration for article titled This Was the First Murder Solved Using Geology

The victim was a seamstress, found dead in a bean patch, strangled by her own scarf. The suspect was a local creep who insisted he had nothing to do with the crime and was far away when it occurred. How did one detective prove what really happened? With dirt.


At the turn of the last century, no one was particularly worried about leaving evidence at crime scenes, which is why German detectives examining the area near the strangled body of Eva Disch found the murderer’s mucus-filled handkerchief right next to her. Unless the handkerchief was monogrammed, it couldn’t point to a suspect—that is, until George Popp came on the scene.

Popp examined the handkerchief and found that the mucus in it was full of snuff, coal dust, and hornblende. Hornblende is a component of many types of rock, including granite. A look at the nearby residents turned up one man, Karl Laubach, who worked at both a gasworks where coal was burned and a gravel pit where hornblende was among the materials. When they hauled Karl in to be questioned, detectives checked under his nails and got all the components on the handkerchief—except, thank goodness, the mucus.

What they didn’t get was a confession. Laubach insisted he’d been nowhere near the scene of the crime. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t hem his trousers. Popp took a look at the bottom edges of his pant legs and found layers of dirt. At first the dirt didn’t look anything like the stuff found in the bean field. It had a layer of finely crushed mica that wasn’t present in the field. Only under that layer could Popp find all the minerals he’d found in a sample of dirt from the field.

What was the outer layer of dirt? Popp scouted around, taking samples, and found that the road between the field and Laubach’s house had that particular type of crushed mica on it. Not only did geology help Popp prove that Laubach killed Disch, it showed him the route Laubach took as he walked home afterwards.

[Source: History of Forensic Geology, Forensic Geology Case Histories]

Image: Willem van Aken, CSIRO


Great story.

On a similar vein. Towards the end of World War II, a number of mysterious explosions shook the Western United States. They were associated with the wreckage of balloons that were suspected to be part of the Japanese campaign. It looked like America was being bombed by the Japanese. And they were right, the Japanese had built a balloon that contained a number of small incendiary bombs and one big explosive device. It would be carried by high altitude winds to the US with a timer deploying the bombs one by one with the hope of causing forest fires and civilian deaths.

The US government was worried that the balloons might carry biological weapons which Japan was known to have developed during its occupation of Manchuria. A press blackout was put in place not only to allay peoples’ fears, but to also black out the Japanese knowing how the balloons were doing.

What was not known was where the balloons set off on their flight. No one seriously believed a fragile balloon could cross the Pacific, so there were concerns they were being launched from unknown Japanese submarines, or even by covert agents within the US.

The answer came from the sandbags that were used to ballast the balloons to prevent them flying too high and venting all of their gas. One was take to the Military Geology Unit of the USGS and opened up. The geologists examined the mineral grains and microscopic diatoms within the sand. They were quickly able to rule out an American origin, indeed the combination of minerals and diatoms could only have come from Japan - IIRC they were even able to determine the actual beaches where the sand was scooped up.

In the end only one balloon bomb caused any deaths. Six people on a picnic were killed when they stumbled on a balloon bomb that had landed in an Oregon forest.