The importance of historical context in an investigative story

“Emergence.” Molly, Act 1, Chapter 3: The Birth, 1924, Ireland.

 

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What happens when a case is very old, when much of its physical evidence is deteriorated or destroyed, and its main players long deceased?  How do we investigate?

For me it is all about the historical context.

I interviewed Dr. David Sweet, forensic odontologist, on the importance of historical context in solving the 1953 Stanley Park cold case in 2004 (when I volunteered on the Babes in the Wood Task Force):

The experts [for example, forensic anthropologists and entomologists] that you mention would focus on human remains and I think we’ve pretty well exhausted all the different things related to the actual bones and the skeletons.  But there are many other forensic scientists that look at different kinds of physical evidence and I’m not sure that they’ve had an opportunity to look at these exhibits that remain.  My concern is that the public perception of forensic science today is that we can do a lot more that we actually can.  So when you consider the age of the exhibits, there probably isn’t much left.  Now, you should never say never, and I agree it would be beneficial [for a group of forensic scientists to have a look at the existing evidence].  But it’s really hard to predict what would come out of it.  I think really our attention should be focused on the historical aspects and trying to identify an individual or more than one individual who sort of fit the profile and the circumstances of the disappearance.  I think that is really where our hope lies now because the physical evidence deteriorates over a period of time and even with our modern technology we can’t bring it back. – Dr. David Sweet

When I work on Molly, I like to surround myself with objects and curios from the era (in my 1929 apartment close to the park).  This allows me to immerse myself in the time, in the circumstance of the case.  It is a means of stepping into the scene.  Working my way outward.  The objects are the context from which I draw clues.  As I put together the massive amounts of research into a cohesive presentation, these objects of the past keep me inspired, focused, on track.

              

Speaking of history, make sure to check out:

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And I am SO EXCITED for:

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At the core of this story: child abuse. #graphicnovel #Vancouver @Kickstarter @annatfabulous #ISPCC

PROJECT FUNDING HAS LAUNCHED on KICKSTARTER:

As of this moment [September 5, 2011], we’re 80% funded.

BUT to get funding we need to reach 100%! That’s how Kickstarter works! Please help us make our goal by Sept 11 5:17 PM!

The case itself centres around two unknown children, two young brothers who deserve to be identified.

These children were undoubtedly not only victims of homicide, but also victims of child abuse.  As I work with children who have been traumatized by severe physical and sexual abuse, this case is particularly important to me.

These boys died without a voice and without a name.

I want to tell their story.

Please help me do so.

Related: article on the Irish Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children on The Complex Media & Design Blog

 

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's Summer campaign, I Can’t Wait Until I Grow Up. “The campaign, which will run for the month of May 2011, highlights that childhood is supposed to be one of the happiest and safest times in a child’s life, yet for many Irish children who contact Childline this is simply not the case.” - The Complex Media and Design Blog

“The ISPCC is the only organisation in Ireland providing 24 hour support services for children and young people through our Childline service. Childline receives the majority of its 2,300 calls per day after 6pm each evening, when most other support services are closed. 

Childline receives no government funding, relying on the generosity of donors and volunteers to help run this vital, unique service. 

ISPCC support workers and volunteer mentors also work with over 1,500 individual children and families nationwide each year through our TeenFocus, ChildFocus and Leanbh services. Our support workers encounter many issues such as emotional and behavioural problems, anxiety, grief, risk of drug and alcohol abuse and early school leaving. 

The ISPCC is a child centred organisation providing a range of independent and unique services which are preventative and empowering in nature.”  [SOURCE]

Extremely powerful video:

To help fund this graphic novel go to KICKSTARTER!

Note: All backers will receive a mention in the book (if they so wish).  Take a look at the fun rewards available for various donation levels!  In addition, backers who donate $100 and above will receive a signed copy of the book when it is published!  All backers who donate $50 and up will appear in the graphic novel in a cameo role!

Mistaken evidence: they thought it was a boy and a girl. #graphicnovel #Vancouver @Kickstarter @annatfabulous

PROJECT FUNDING HAS LAUNCHED on KICKSTARTER:

As of this moment [September 3, 2011], we’re 79% funded!!! YAY!!!

BUT to get funding we need to reach 100%! That’s how Kickstarter works! Please help us make our goal by Sept 11 5:17 PM! Thank you everyone!

The case itself centres around two unknown children, two young brothers who deserve to be identified.  Cranial reconstruction was performed in 1953, but the result was very generic and based on the belief that the remains were that of a boy and a girl.  Madame Erna von Engel-Baiserdorf created these plaster casts in 1953:

 

From The Vancouver Province, Friday July 17, 1953:

Madame Erna von Engel-Baiserdorf predicts it will take her several months to prepare busts from the weathered skulls of the two children murdered in Stanley Park more than six years ago. 

She’ll hand five busts back to police for each skull.  Mrs. Baiserdorf- as she’s been called since coming to Vancouver from Vienna five years ago- feels reasonably sure that two of the white plaster busts will be close to the way the children looked before the attack.

Pictures of the busts will be distributed across Canada and positive identification across Canada and positive identification of the tiny victims may be gained.

“It’s just a try, but I’m anxious to do it,” she said.

The skulls, however, won’t be the toughest reconstruction job handed to this Viennese anthropologist-sculptress.  She’s reconstructed countless ancient skulls dating back to Neolithic man. 

Her work- first with the Natural History Museum in Vienna, the in Vancouver Museum and finally in private studio work here at 245 West Sixteenth- had brought her world recognition. 

She is the only scientist in B.C. trained in physical anthropology, the field where skulls are measured.

“If bits of hair were found with the skeletons, it will make facial reconstruction much easier,” she said.

“If the police don’t bring me hair, it will be most difficult to judge the skin coloring.

“The skull will show a definite facial outline- chin, jaw, bridge of nose, forehead, cheekbones.  The soft parts of the face can vary.  Things like lips, tips of noses and ears.  That’s why I’ll give police about five busts each.

Mrs. Baiserdorf will probably start work on the two skulls next week after a conference with Police Chief Walter Mulligan and Det.-Sgt. Perry Easler.

Photo retrieved from “Grisly murders unsolved after 31 years,” The Vancouver Sun, January 14, 1984
Video capture from Babes in the Woods Task Force meeting at Vancouver Centennial Police Museum, February 2004

The larger skeleton was referred to as the female victim in 1953 and was assumed to be the older child.  The smaller skeleton was referred to as the male victim and was consequently deemed the younger child. The skulls were described in The Vancouver Sun on April 15, 1953:

MacKay, a detective who has cracked some of Vancouver’s most baffling murders [said} “The [smaller skull] showed two clefts which fitted the blade of the hatchet.  The [larger skull] has one cleft.  This also fits the blade.  They were light blows that barely made a depression in the skull…

The [larger skull] had light brown hair and a very prominent lower jaw.  The [smaller skull] had dark brown hair and his lower jaw, while also prominent, was not as pronounced as the girl’s.

Both children had many cavities in their teeth, [the older child] especially, and doctors who examined the skeleton said [he] had been inclined to eat too many sweets.  [He] was of slender build while [the younger child] was sturdy. 

My sketch, 2004

Dr. David Sweet, forensic odontologist, performed DNA profiling on the teeth pulp.   In 1998, sex [two males] and age was determined but the profiles are unable to determine race.  I’ll discuss the DNA evidence in the next post.

Photo of skulls in evidence boxes

To help fund this graphic novel go to KICKSTARTER!

Note: All backers will receive a mention in the book (if they so wish).  Take a look at the fun rewards available for various donation levels!  In addition, backers who donate $100 and above will receive a signed copy of the book when it is published!