Who Was Detective X? Secret Forensics Investigator Of The 1930s Revealed To Be A Physicist From National Bureau Of Standards
Crime investigation series highlighting forensic science's role in solving crimes have gained popularity in the past decade, but the discipline has actually been lending a hand in law enforcement since the first half of the 20th century. One of the most remarkable minds who efficiently employed methods in forensic science to officially solve cases has remained a mystery until now, but a quick search in the archives of the National Institute of Standards and Technology — formerly National Bureau of Standards — finally revealed that he was the last person anyone would suspect to be involved in it.
Detective X Mystery
In 1951, Reader's Digest ran a story about the famed but mysterious Detective X who helped send Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the defendant and main suspect in the kidnapping and murder of the 20-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh, to jail in 1935 and to the electric chair the following year. Hauptmann was found guilty after experts positively identified his handwriting as a definite match with the ones in the ransom notes.
In the following years, one of those experts continued to lend his forensic expertise to law enforcement, becoming one of America's first forensic scientists. To avoid becoming the target of revenge by criminals he helped send to jail, however, the scientist was only known as "Detective X."
Detective X's identity has long been a puzzle to many, but when Kristen Frederick-Frost went down to the NIST archives in search for possible exhibit pieces for the NIST Museum in 2014, she discovered nine notebooks belonging to the quiet and meticulous physicist named Wilmer Souder.
"It took me about ten minutes of reading before I realized how big a deal this was," Fredrick-Frost said.
It's Always The Quiet Ones
The people working with Souder knew that he was a mild-mannered but excellent physicist who studied the physical properties of dental fillings at NBS and always required precision in his work. Souder's work was actually really excellent that an award on dental research was named after him.
For most of his career at the NBS — after earning his PhD — Souder received cases by post, and when he accepts a case, law enforcement agents would come to him with evidence to examine. In his entire career as Detective X, Souder was reported to have worked on 838 cases from the federal government and about 300 cases for the Treasury Department.
Another scientist affiliated with NIST and who has contributed to forensic science, John Butler, was looking into Souder's past at the time Fredrick-Frost found the notebooks, so when she was directed to him, Butler immediately made his way to NIST to look them over. Together, they pored over the notebooks and searched for more of Souder's works, even going so far as to visit the National Archives in Maryland.
"[I]n terms of his scientific approach, he was way ahead of his time," Butler said of Souder.
Souder Takes The Spotlight
After examining the notebooks and doing further research, Souder's work as a forensic expert is finally brought to light. In June 2016, NIST mounted an exhibit dedicated to the mysterious great detective who worked in the institute.