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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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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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