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15 Fascinating Facts About Forensic Files

If you know what a pyrolysis gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer does, can readily identify the symptoms of arsenic poisoning, and perk up whenever you hear the name Dr. Henry Lee, you’ve clearly been watching Forensic Files. Since its premiere 20 years ago on April 21, 1996, the documentary-style science series has guided television audiences through the often complex world of forensic science, and left a trail of network crime shows in its path (see: CSI).

To celebrate the beloved series’ 20th anniversary, we spoke with creator/executive producer Paul Dowling, who shared 15 fascinating facts about Forensic Files.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A TRUE CRIME VERSION OF THE “WHODUNIT” FORMAT.

“There was no particular case or incident that sparked the idea for the series,” Dowling tells mental_floss. “It was a new idea for how to tell true crime stories. Before Forensic Files, true crime TV series and documentaries were all produced in the same tired way, but fictional crime drama was excellent and getting much higher ratings. So why not marry the best of both?”

By melding talking head interviews with reenactments of both the crimes and forensic processes scientists used to solve said crimes, Dowling came up with a totally new type of television series. “I simply took the murder mystery 'whodunit' format of the successful fictional television crime dramas and used it to tell true crime stories,” he says. “That's how Forensic Files was born.”

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO FOCUS ON MEDICAL INVESTIGATIONS.

Longtime fans of Forensic Files might remember that it was called Medical Detectives in its earliest days. “Originally, we planned to tell not only murder investigation stories but also disease outbreak and accident investigations,” Dowling explains. “Over time, ratings showed that viewers preferred the murder mysteries, which explains the title change in 2000.”

3. THE PREMIERE EPISODE HAD A CONNECTION TO FARGO.

Spring of 1996 was a big season for death by wood chipper. In March, one month before Forensic Files debuted, the Coen brothers’ critically acclaimed black comedy Fargo was released in theaters. Among the film’s most memorable scenes is one in which Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) feeds the body of his partner, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), into a wood chipper. The scene was inspired by the murder of Helle Crafts, who was killed by her husband, Richard, then disposed of in a wood chipper. Crafts’s murder was also the subject of Forensic Files’ very first episode, “The Disappearance of Helle Crafts.”

4. THE O.J. SIMPSON CASE HELPED BOOST THE SHOW’S POPULARITY.

It was only about six months before Forensic Files premiered that nearly 100 million people tuned in to see the verdict read in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. For many of those same courtroom watchers, it was the Simpson case that first introduced them to the basics of forensic science, which led to a built-in audience for Forensic Files from the get-go.

“The Forensic Files pilot of the famous Wood Chipper Murder case did indeed benefit from the wall-to-wall coverage networks had given to the O.J. trial,” Dowling says. “It prepared the public to handle crime scene photographs, detailed crime creations, and it gave audiences a good preview for the new role forensic science would play in the criminal justice system.”

5. THE SERIES BROUGHT ATTENTION TO LITTLE-KNOWN CASES THAT FEATURED BREAKTHROUGHS IN FORENSIC SCIENCE.

While Forensic Files didn’t completely shy away from revisiting well-known cases, it was in the lesser-known crimes that they were able to feature some truly groundbreaking scientific developments.

“We've done several one-hour specials on high-profile cases like the Kennedy assassination and Lindbergh baby kidnapping, but virtually all of the half-hour episodes (400 in total) were little-known [stories],” Dowling says. “Interestingly, many of the breakthroughs in forensic science happened because of the innovation and discoveries of scientists and investigators in these little-known cases, which we brought to worldwide audiences for the first time.”

6. PETER THOMAS WAS THE “FIRST, LAST, AND ONLY CHOICE” FOR A NARRATOR.

It’s impossible to talk about Forensic Files without mentioning the familiar voice that narrates each episode. That voice belongs to Peter Thomas, a world-class orator who has spent more than 50 years lending his pipes to Oscar-winning documentaries, television series, and commercials. For Dowling, Thomas—who passed away on April 30—was the only choice to serve as Forensic Files’ narrator.

“When the series was set to premiere in 1996, it wasn't going to look like a PBS or A&E crime documentary," he says. "It was going to be something new and different, a little ‘tabloidy,’ but I didn't want the series to sound like a tabloid, which I'd describe like an AM radio announcer doing a car commercial.

“I wanted the series to have the legitimacy of a documentary, despite how it looked, so I wanted a traditional voice, a great storyteller, classy, and chose a man whose voice was well known because he'd done some PBS documentaries and science and history films we'd all seen over the years in high school. That was Peter Thomas, my first, last, and only choice.”

7. THOMAS DIDN’T TAKE THE GIG LIGHTLY.

In a tweet, Dowling shared that, “Peter Thomas rehearsed each script for several hours the night before the recording session with his wife Stella as his audience.”

8. PRODUCERS ACTIVELY SOUGHT OUT “OMG” MOMENTS.

When asked if there were specific elements that made a case Forensic Files-worthy, Dowling says that, “It was the 'oh my god' factor. If a story had that, it was chosen.”

Some examples, according to Dowling:

"A doctor accused of rape implants a tube of his patient’s blood into his arm so the blood sample drawn for his DNA test wasn't his—and therefore, didn't match the semen sample from rape test kit. But the victim stole the doctor’s Chapstick and the DNA from those skin cells did match! The victim solved her own crime.

A killer in bare feet steps on a hamburger roll on his way out of the crime scene, leaving his clear footprint in the soft dough!

A piece of chewing gun found next to a dead body matches the teeth impressions of the suspect.

A sundial analysis proves that the time clock on a home video—the murder suspect’s alibi—was not correct, and had been doctored."

9. STUPID CRIMINALS DON’T MAKE FOR GREAT TELEVISION.

Some of Forensic Files’ most compelling episodes are the ones in which a crime is so sophisticated, and so well covered up (like the aforementioned doctor inserting a vial of his patient’s blood), that they make truth seem stranger than fiction. As for crimes that didn’t interest the producers? “Stories we rejected were often ones where a killer was so stupid, and left so much evidence, it was almost a comedy,” Dowling says.

10. THE REENACTMENTS LOOK DIFFERENT ON PURPOSE.

The show is generally made up of three different parts: interviews with the people involved, then reenactments of both the crime and the lab processes—each of which was filmed in a slightly unique style, which was a very conscious decision.

“I wanted to make sure viewers knew exactly what was reenactment and what was real crime scene video or authentic police interrogation footage,” Dowling explains. “We did that by setting recreations apart from the other elements by giving them a different look and using loud sound effects and flash frames and music bumps.

“Some crime TV series today try to make recreations seamless, so viewers can't tell what's real and what's not. I find that very confusing and, frankly, unfair to the accused.”

11. THEY TRIED TO CAST REENACTMENT ACTORS WHO RESEMBLED THE REAL PEOPLE.

“We used crime reenactments at the end of each episode to show how the scientific evidence put all the pieces together for prosecutors in the courtroom,” Dowling says. “When doing that, we tried to cast actors who looked as much like the individuals involved in the case as possible, to avoid confusing the viewers. Viewers obviously knew these were crime recreations intended to put all the pieces of the investigation puzzle together and were willing to suspend disbelief if and when the casting matches weren't perfect.”

12. THE ACTOR WHO PORTRAYED LEE HARVEY OSWALD LOOKED A LITTLE TOO MUCH LIKE LEE HARVEY OSWALD.

For the hour-long JFK special, it was particularly important to senior producer Kelly Martin that they cast actors who shared a strong resemblance to the real-life figures they were portraying. “We want exact matches or it is not going to work," Martin told The Morning Call in 2004. “This is one of the highest-profile killings ever. Pardon the pun, it had to be dead-on.”

They found their Lee Harvey Oswald in an actor named Marcus Hinkle, who may have looked a little too much like Oswald for some. “Martin said that when the company was shooting the JFK special on Sixth Street in Allentown, [Pennsylvania] last year, older bystanders who lived through the assassination said Hinkle gave them chills because he resembled Oswald so closely,” wrote The Morning Call.

13. MANY OF THE POLICE OFFICERS AND PARAMEDICS YOU SEE ARE REAL.

In 2004, Laurie Bianco—president of Pro Model & Casting Agency, the company tasked with finding the right reenactment actors for Forensic Filesexplained to The Morning Call that when casting on-screen police officers and paramedics, she preferred to use real professionals in those fields, because they behaved much more naturally in those parts.

14. IT HOLDS SOME TELEVISION RECORDS.

First, according to Dowling, “Forensic Files is the longest running non-scripted series in TV history.” In addition, the show “made television history in 2002 when it aired on NBC as a summer replacement series,” he says. “It was the first TV series that originated on a cable network first, before moving to a broadcast network airing new episodes.”

And its popularity stretches far beyond American borders. “At one time,” Dowling says, “Forensic Files aired simultaneously on five different broadcast networks at the same time in Great Britain: CBS Reality, UKTV, History Channel, Sky Network, and Discovery.” The series has been seen in 142 countries.

15. THERE’S AN OFFICIAL COMPANION BOOK TO THE SERIES.

In 2004, Dowling published The Official Forensic Files Casebook, which provides recaps of the series’ individual episodes, gives some behind-the-scenes details on how the show itself is produced, and offers further insight into why particular stories make the cut, and why others are rejected. (You can purchase it here.)

All images courtesy ForensicFiles.com
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Amergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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The Bizarre Death of Bridget Cleary, the Irish "Fairy Wife"
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
Amergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The policemen had been combing the green yards and fields of Ballyvadlea, Ireland, for a week when they finally found Bridget Cleary. The 26-year-old's body had been wedged beneath several inches of clay and a jumble of thorn bushes, but her corpse showed wounds caused by something much worse than branches: Her spine and lower limbs were so badly burned that parts of her skeleton were exposed. She was naked, except for a stocking and one gold earring, and her head was encased in a sack.

The judge would later describe the events leading up to Bridget's death as demonstrating "a degree of darkness in the mind, not just of one person, but of several—a moral darkness, even religious darkness." It was the end of the 19th century, not exactly the Middle Ages, but those involved in the end of Bridget's life had become convinced that she wasn't really herself—and that a supernatural creature had taken her place.

GONE WITH THE FAIRIES

Bridget was the wife of a cooper named Michael Cleary, and the pair were regarded around town as a relatively happy couple. They shared their cottage, in a remote townland near Tipperary, with Bridget's father, Patrick Boland, and had no children. Michael was nine years Bridget's senior and earned a decent salary; she brought in some extra income by working as a seamstress and egg-seller. By all accounts, they were more prosperous than their neighbors, likely thanks to her resourcefulness. As a literate, independent, and fashionably dressed working woman, she was part of an emerging class in a rural society that had long been based in agriculture and the oral tradition.

It was also a society steeped in legends of the supernatural. Fairy belief, in particular, was pervasive in Irish rural societies at the time, and had long coexisted with Christian doctrine. Children grew up hearing legends of the Little People from their earliest days, and learned how to appease them by leaving untasted food on the table, for example, or saying "bless them" whenever the fairies were mentioned. The fairies were blamed for everything that went wrong—lost items, spoiled milk, bad crops. As one County Sligo man interviewed at the start of the 20th century told an anthropologist, "Nothing is more certain than that there are fairies."

Bridget herself was known to be fascinated by the beings, and to take trips to the most fairy-ridden spots around town. She may have visited such a spot on Monday, March 4, 1895, when she went to deliver eggs to her father's cousin, Jack Dunne, near Kylenagranagh Hill. The area was home to a ringfort, an early medieval circular fortified settlement believed, in Irish folklore, to be a "fairy fort," and thus to be avoided at all costs. Yet Bridget often visited the fort, and she likely spent time there that Monday after delivering the eggs.

It was a cold morning, the mountains still covered in the snow that had fallen the previous day, and after the two- or three-mile walk Bridget couldn't seem to warm up once she got back home. She spent the following day in bed, shivering and complaining of "a raging pain in her head."

That Saturday, her father walked four miles in the heavy rain to ask the doctor to call on her. But the doctor wasn't able to visit until the following Wednesday, and by then her husband had also gone to summon him twice. They should have been reassured by the doctor's diagnoses—"nervous excitement and slight bronchitis"—but it wasn't this ailment that worried Michael. He was convinced that the bed-ridden woman in their cottage was "too fine," in his own words, to be his wife, and that she was "two inches taller" than the woman he had known. At some point, Michael had developed the belief that Bridget had been replaced by a fairy changeling as she passed near the fairy fort on Kylenagranagh Hill.

"ARE YOU BRIDGET BOLAND?"

It is likely that this idea was planted in Michael's head by his confidante, Jack Dunne. According to Irish historian Angela Bourke, who has researched the case extensively, the 55-year-old Dunne was a charismatic man rumored to have the power of divination. He was known in the area as a seanchaí, a sort of storyteller well-versed in fairy mythology.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the doctor's visit, a priest visited. He wasn't overly concerned about the illness, but decided to administer the last rites in case it worsened. The ceremony emphasized the fact that Michael could lose his wife, which distressed him even more. He talked to Dunne, who urged him to act immediately, or the "real" Bridget would be lost forever. "It is not your wife is there [sic]," the older man reminded him. "This is the eighth day, and you had a right to have gone to Ganey"—the local "fairy doctor"—"on the fifth day."

The cooper duly visited Ganey following morning. He came back with a mixture of herbs that needed to be boiled in "new milk," the nutrient-rich first milk produced by a cow after calving.

That night, Michael forced the bitter concoction down Bridget’s throat while Dunne and three male cousins pinned her down in bed. Relatives outside the house heard someone—likely Michael—shouting, "Take it, you witch, or I'll kill you!" The men threw urine at her and shook her, yelling, "Away with you; come home Bridget Boland, in the name of God!" Other relatives and neighbors came and went, witnessing her ordeal and hearing her screams, but were too scared to intervene. Michael asked his wife to answer her name three times: "Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?" The men then brought her to the fireplace and held her over the grate—ordeals by fire were known to drive out the fairies—while they repeated the questioning.

By midnight Thursday night, the ritual seemed to be completed. Bridget was "wild and deranged," according to her cousin Johanna, but her husband seemed satisfied, and her relatives thought there had been some sort of catharsis. The following morning, at Michael's request, the priest said mass in Bridget's bedroom in order to banish the "evil spirits" that were left in the house.

"IT IS NOT BRIDGET I AM BURNING."

An image of fairies from fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
Fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
British Library, Europeana // Public Domain

On Friday, March 15, for the first time in 11 days, Bridget got out of bed and dressed in her usual, fashionable clothes "to give her courage when she would go among the people," as Johanna later told the magistrates. Several family members had joined them in their cottage for tea later in the day when an argument erupted. Bridget had asked for some milk, which had rekindled Michael’s suspicions; fairies are known in folklore to yearn for fresh milk.

Bridget was probably exhausted, and she didn't want to be questioned any more. "Your mother used to go with the fairies and that is why you think I am going with them," she told her husband. Michael was furious. He demanded that she eat three pieces of bread and jam—perhaps to reinforce his control over her—asking her to say her name again. She answered twice and ate two of the three pieces, but when she hesitated for a moment with the third, her husband flung her on the ground and threatened her: "If you won't take it, down you will go."

Michael jabbed his knee into her chest, forcing the bread and jam down Bridget's throat. He began tearing off her clothes, leaving only her chemise, then grabbed a hot stick from the fire and held it close to her mouth. He struck her head against the floor, then set her chemise alight. Within a few minutes, he had also poured paraffin lamp oil over her, encouraging the flames.

As her body was burning, Michael said in front of shocked relatives: "She's not my wife. She's an old deceiver sent in place of my wife." Relatives yelled at Michael to put out the flames, but Bridget "blazed up all in a minute," according to their later testimony. They huddled in fear in a nearby bedroom, the flames soon barricading their way.

Once the flames had died down, Michael wrapped her body in a sheet and shoved it in an old bag. Then he left the house, locking Bridget's relatives inside with the corpse. They waited for about an hour, praying. When Michael returned, he was wielding a knife and threatened to kill Bridget's cousin Patrick Kennedy if he didn't help him bury Bridget's body. "Come on out here now," he shouted. "I have the hole nearly made." The two men carried the body to a boggy area about a quarter-mile uphill from the cottage, and buried it in a shallow hole. Back in the cottage, Michael made the rest of the family swear they wouldn't tell the authorities.

ON A WHITE HORSE

The following morning, an agitated Michael arrived at Drangan church with Dunne. Dunne wanted Michael to speak to a priest, but when the priest saw him kneeling in front of the altar—weeping, tearing his hair, and asking to go to confession—he thought he wasn't fit to receive the sacrament. He spoke to Dunne instead, who hadn't been at the cottage at the time of Bridget's death, but told the priest that Michael had claimed to have burned his wife the previous night. "I've been asking them all morning to take her up and give her a Christian burial," Dunne added. Bewildered, thinking them both insane, the church minister reported their conversation to a police sergeant.

For the next few days, the police searched for Bridget and questioned her friends and relatives. Even though Michael spoke about emigrating or committing suicide to escape the law, he still hoped his "real wife" would come back: For three consecutive nights starting the day after visiting the priest, he waited at the ringfort on Kylenagranagh Hill, where he believed she would appear, galloping on a white horse. He said he would only have to cut the ropes that bound her to the animal so she would be his forever.

On Wednesday, March 20, the Royal Irish Constables issued arrest warrants for eight people from Bridget's circle, as well as Denis Ganey, the "fairy doctor." Two days later, police found Bridget's body. The prisoners were brought before the magistrates on March 25, ushered in by the angry screams of a crowd who had learned of the case through extensive press coverage. On July 5, 1895, after a two-day trial, Michael was found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned, along with Jack Dunne, Patrick Boland, and four of Bridget’s cousins, including Patrick Kennedy. The judge ruled out a verdict of murder, explaining they all had acted out of genuine belief.

Michael was released in 1910, after which he boarded ship for Montreal. Dunne served a three-year prison sentence before returning to the area, where he kept working as a laborer. "God knows I would never do it but for Jack Dunne," Michael had reportedly said not long after burning Bridget. "It was he who told me my wife was a fairy."

ILLNESS—OR INFIDELITY?

During her illness, Bridget was visited by her aunt, Mary Kennedy, and told her, "He [Michael]'s making a fairy of me now. He thought to burn me about three months ago." Her words suggest this wasn't the first crisis of its kind.

Although we can only speculate about the couple's disagreements, there were rumors in Ballyvadlea that Bridget had a lover. Contemporary newspapers reported Michael saying his wife "used to be meeting an egg-man on the low road" [sic], but the rumors pointed to young caretaker William Simpson, who had visited the Clearys' cottage with his wife the night before Bridget’s death. In his court testimony, Simpson explained he had arrived as the four men were restraining Bridget, and he had asked them to leave her alone.

Although Michael and the other people involved in the killing were never formally psychiatrically assessed, a 2006 article from the Irish Journal of Medical Science suggested that Michael may have been suffering from a psychotic state known as Capgras syndrome, which involves the belief that a person has been replaced by an impostor. The authors suggest Michael "may have developed a brief psychotic episode" as he struggled to deal with his wife's illness, sleep deprivation, and the recent death of his father—news of which had reached him in the middle of his attempted "cure" on Thursday night. In Capgras syndrome, the socio-cultural context of the sufferer determines the nature of the impostor, which can be another person or even a supernatural being, such as an alien or a fairy changeling.

In her discussion of the supernatural beliefs related to the case, Bourke notes that the message of fairy legends is that "the unexpected may be guarded against by careful observance of society's rules." Bridget Cleary was ambitious, independent, and childless; a modern woman. She didn't conform to the patriarchal norm, which may have made her appear, to some in her life, as closer to the fairy realm than to their own.

Even today in Tipperary, her story hasn't been entirely forgotten. The local children have a nursery rhyme that runs: "Are you a witch or are you a fairy, / Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?"

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Queen Anne of Brittany's Heart Stolen From French Museum
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images

Bringing new meaning to the idea of stealing someone's heart, thieves in France made off with a 16th-century gold relic containing the once-beating organ of Anne of Brittany, the only woman to ever have been twice crowned the queen of France.

Over the weekend, burglars smashed a window of the Thomas-Dobrée museum in Nantes and lifted the six-inch case from its display, The Telegraph reports.

Anne was crowned queen when she was just 12 years old after marrying Charles VIII of France in 1491. After his death in 1498, she married Louis XII and once again ascended the throne, where she stayed until her death at age 36. Although her body was buried at the Basilica of Saint Denis, she requested that her heart be kept alongside her parents’ tomb in Brittany.

“The thieves attacked our common heritage and stole an item of inestimable value," Philippe Grosvalet, president of the Loire-Atlantique department, which owns the museum, told The Telegraph. "Much more than a symbol, the case containing the heart of Anne of Brittany belongs to our history.”

The gold relic was saved from being melted down after the French Revolution, and it has been kept safe at the Thomas-Dobrée museum for more than 130 years. The case contains an inscription in old French, which translates to: “In this small vessel of pure, fine gold rests the greatest heart of any woman in the world.”

This practice of burying the heart apart from the rest of the body was not entirely uncommon among European aristocrats in the Middle Ages. The hearts of both Richard I and Anne Boleyn were kept in lead boxes, and the hearts of 22 former popes are stored in marble urns at Rome's Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi church.

It's also far from the only instance of relic theft. In a slightly more bizarre case, fragments of the brain of John Bosco, a 19th century Roman Catholic priest, were contained in a reliquary at his basilica in Castelnuovo, central Italy, until they were snatched by a thief in 2017. The reliquary was ultimately recovered by police from the suspect’s kitchen cupboard.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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