When skeletal human remains were discovered on April 13, 1922, in a rural part of New York State near New York City, Mary E. Hamilton was assigned to the case. Hamilton, head of the short-lived New York City “Women’s Precinct,” was the first policewoman to serve in New York City. Medical experts declared that the victim was a young woman but her identity was unknown.
Hamilton used a novel and untested technique, facial reconstruction on the skull, to try to identify the victim. Grant Williams, a retired police captain, was brought in by Hamilton to create the reconstruction. Williams gradually added Plaster of Paris and wax to the skull to build up the victim’s face. The plaster face was painted with a flesh-toned paint. Finally glass eyes and a wig were added to complete the head.
The reconstructed head was shown to the Lillian White’s sister who agreed that it bore a strong resemblance to her sister. White had run away the previous fall from Letchworth Village, an institution for mentally and physically disabled individuals in Rockland County, New York.
A New York court ruled that the bones were those of the missing girl, Lillian White. There was no doubt that her death was murder; she died after being hit on the head multiple times with a hammer. Her body had then been wrapped in old newspapers and left to decompose.
James Crawford, alias Harry A. Kirby, a former attendant at Letchworth Village, was a “supposed sweetheart of White’s.” He was a suspect in Lillian White’s murder and police collected his fingerprints from his home, but in the meantime he escaped. He was arrested three years later, in Augusta, Maine, for the abduction and strangulation of another woman, Aida Hayward, and attempted murder of Hayward’s aunt.
While being held in jail for the Hayward murder, Kirby committed suicide in jail by slashing his wrists with a razor blade.
Hamilton retired from the police force in 1926 but she remained a strong advocate of fingerprinting for use in identification of criminal suspects. Forensic facial reconstruction continues to be used to help identify victims of crimes as well as to visualize the faces of famous historical figures. Mary E. Hamilton was the first American police officer to use the technique to identify a murder victim.
Featured image: News photo (jail mugshot) of Harry A. Kirby, 1925. Collection of the author.