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Book Review


Robert C. Williams, The Forensic Historian: Using Science to Reexamine the Past. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2013. Pp. xiii + 160. $19.95 (Paper).


     The historian as detective is a recurring metaphor used at least as far back as R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History, published posthumously in 1946. Thanks in no small degree to the popularity of the CSI television franchise, the image of the detective is now closely associated in the public mind with the analysis of forensic evidence – as the producers of the PBS series History Detectives have astutely recognized. In The Forensic Historian: Using Science to Reexamine the Past, Robert C. Williams provides an introduction to the field of forensic history that is brief but substantial, clearly and engagingly written, and therefore accessible to undergraduates at any level, not only as an extension to Williams' widely used guide for history majors, The Historian's Toolbox, but even for those students in the sciences fulfilling general education requirements in introductory history courses. The examples are slanted towards cases drawn from the Western historical tradition and therefore limited in scope from a world historian's perspective, but the book is inviting and interesting enough for students that instructors should recognize its potential to inspire rich critical discussions, supplemented perhaps with examples and issues that connect its themes directly to their own syllabi.

     Brief prefatory and introductory sections feature the forensic work of Mildred Trotter, a former colleague of Williams at Washington University in St. Louis, and Mikhail Gerasimov, who used the remains of Ivan the Terrible of Russia during the 1950s to pioneer methods of facial reconstruction that are standard practice around the world today, and set the tone for the rest of the book. Williams explains cases with simple prose and an anecdotal style that allows him to convey some rather complex technical aspects effectively; researchers themselves become active characters in the stories that unfold—some, like Walter McCrone and Vincent Guinn, become recognizable to readers by taking part in several of the investigations that Williams describes—which allows the cases to be understood not as the dry, cold process of scientific research but as the focus of human ingenuity and discovery. Often the personal attributes of the researchers and the background circumstances of the cases themselves come across as more interesting than the research methods that the examples highlight.

     The substantive chapters of the book address different topics of forensic history through specific examples that form subsections of each chapter. Chapter Two deals with chemical analysis as a method to discover forgery or false artifacts, highlighting among other cases the fake Dutch masterpieces passed off to credulous buyers that included the Nazi leader Hermann Goering by the failed artist but talented forger Han van Meegeren and the notorious "Hitler Diaries" that caused the renowned historian Hugh Trevor-Roper such embarrassment. The next chapter examines the use of neutron activation analysis (NAA) to investigate persistent questions surrounding the deaths of Napoleon Bonaparte, John F. Kennedy, Zachary Taylor, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Williams stays focused on the famous (or infamous) dead in a chapter that discusses how bone pathology gave way to DNA fingerprinting as a technique for verifying the identity of human remains or ancestry in the cases of the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the Romanovs murdered by the Bolsheviks, the putative descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the dauphin (known as Louis XVII) who died while imprisoned during the French Revolution, and a skull fragment alleged to have been that of Adolf Hitler. The last substantive chapter illustrates how forensics contributes to the dynamic of history as "a continuous process of review and revision in an argument without end" (86) through a varied set of examples ranging from the 1918 influenza epidemic, the sinking of the Titanic, the cause of Tutankhamun's death, and identifying the corpse of Osama bin Laden. The final section of this penultimate chapter delves into cyberforensics, a field significantly different in many ways from materials-based forensics but which also shares some of the same characteristics.

     The concluding chapter lucidly recapitulates themes and examples addressed throughout the book in a way that reinforces the point to readers that the cases discussed do not simply provide historians with definite answers to their questions but raise even more questions that perpetuate and reanimate arguments about the past. Williams points out the capabilities as well as the limitations that forensic methods can offer researcher—what questions can be answered with a reliable degree of certainty and which cannot. He shows how media frenzy, conspiracy theories, rumors, wishful thinking, and ambiguous test results can complicate the research process, or at least how its conclusions might be misinterpreted by a fascinated public, especially when misrepresented by interested parties. He shows, too, how tools and methods used by forensic historians are continually developed and reapplied to questions explored previously with earlier methods. As Williams observes, no historical case is ever truly closed.

Michael Clinton is an associate professor of history at Gwynedd Mercy University in Gwynedd Valley, PA. He can be reached at


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