From the archives: Sleuthing with science

The Oregon State Police Crime Detection Laboratory on Marquam Hill

A crime lab on campus? Yes, and because of this some interesting crime stories are pasted into the news clipping folios in the OHSU Historical Collections & Archives. The Legislative Assembly created the OSP Crime Lab in 1939. It was first housed in the Administration Building at the University of Oregon Medical School and there it stayed for 37 years.

Dr Joseph BeemanThe department employed just three persons, a physician appointed by the dean of the school, a secretary, also known as the chief cook and bottle washer, a state police officer and a chemist, Ruth Swinney. Mrs. Swinney later became the first female member of the Oregon State Police. The team was called to investigate nearly every one of Oregon’s murders or suspected murders. Everything found on or in close proximity to the body was photographed and sketched. The team searched for hairs, drugs and poison and all was taken to the laboratory together with any blood stained objects to be carefully examined.

Dr. Howard RichardsonBut it was not only in the field that intrigue flourished. A fascinating story also evolved around the long-standing friction that existed between the directors of the lab and the chief of the OSP. The first director, Dr. Joseph E. Beeman (pictured above) had resigned, and according to his predecessor, Dr. Howard L. Richardson (pictured left), he was warned against taking the post. Richardson, who preceded Dr. Homer H. Harris (pictured below), resigned his post in a flurry of accusations against the chief of the state police, alleging that the police officer assigned to the lab was “uneducated’ and “unqualified” to testify as an expert in court. After four years as the director, Harris resigned to pursue “disease, instead of murder, suicide and yeggery”.

For those of you who like true crime stories, you would be in for a treat if you were to investigate “Stories from the Clippings” on the OHSU Historical Collections & Archives blog. Some of the murders reported were some of the most notorious in Oregon history. For those of you who prefer not to know of intrigue, mayhem and gross violation, there is plenty of warning of what’s coming up.  

Dr. Homer Harris

Referenced article: “Sleuthing with Science”, Lee Clifford. Sunday Journal Magazine, 1953 August 30. f1_p15_a4

By Karen Lea Anderson Peterson, OHSU Archivist, Assistant Professor

Editor’s note: The School of Medicine Dean’s office would like to thank Karen Peterson for her many contributions to the From the Archives column. OHSU’s Historical Collections & Archives are an invaluable repository of this institution’s rich history, and Karen’s expertise has allowed us to share countless compelling stories with our faculty, staff, students, alumni and community friends. We wish Karen well upon her impending retirement.