multi-storied #16: The boy in the Thames
Earlier this year, my editor at the Guardian sent me a short newspaper article that touched on a 20-year-old murder case, and on some of the forensic science that developed out of it. The elements in our planet are distributed unequally everywhere, so a particular location’s signature mix of elements can work itself, through the soil and water, into the produce of that region—and thence into our bodies, when we consume that produce. We ingest these elements, process them, and use them to build flesh, teeth and bones. So the elements making up our bodies can tell us something about the food we’ve eaten and the land that supports us. Life is a periodic table made into flesh.
This science of element analysis has been valuable for other purposes for decades, but only around the turn of the century was it used to settle questions of origin. You could test a sample, determine its elemental signature, and work out in reverse where it likely came from. That technique is still common in criminal cases, but it’s also deployed in the world of commerce, to test organic products and determine if they’re really from the place they advertise as their origin. I wrote a Longread about this science, which can get incredibly specific. “We can distinguish between two tea estates that just have a dirt road between them,” one person told me.
But the murder is where this story, and my interest in it, began:
In 2001, a pedestrian on Tower Bridge spotted a body in the Thames, although in the tricky light of a September evening, he mistook it for a barrel. Then he recognised his error and rang the police. Twenty minutes later, a patrol boat arrived to scoop the body out of the water. Someone had cut the head and limbs off the boy, and the torso wore only a pair of fluorescent orange shorts. When Will O’Reilly, a detective inspector with the Metropolitan police, was called in, he recalled other bodies from the Thames that he’d seen, several mangled by boat propellers. But after he saw the torso, he realised this was something he’d never encountered before.
Postmortems supplied one gruesome mystery after another. The child, between five and seven years old, had no blood remaining in his body. His stomach was empty, as if he’d been starved for days. The body was cut up in such precise, unusual ways that the surmise of a ritual sacrifice emerged in the very first postmortem. But none of this solved the essential question of who the boy was and where he’d come from. O’Reilly had no fingerprints or dental records to examine. Running the boy’s DNA through a database showed no relatives in the UK. Gene sequences suggested that he was of northern or western African descent, but they couldn’t spell out when he had last been in that part of the world, or if he’d ever been there at all. He was so profoundly, tragically anonymous that the police investigators called him Adam, to accord him the dignity of a name.
I tracked O’Reilly down through the National Association of Retired Police Officers, and after spending an age talking to him, I bought a textbook on criminal forensic techniques. The murder of Adam seemed to me, at the time, to be the spine of this piece. The first couple of drafts of the piece opened with a fat, detailed section about the murder investigation; then I returned to it a couple of times through the piece, and ended it in this way:
O’Reilly retired from the force in 2009. The investigation into Adam’s murder remains open still, technically, so the Met Police refused to comment on any progress that has since been made. “How much work is being done on it now, I don’t know,” O’Reilly said. He still thinks about Adam sometimes—about the places where he may have grown up, or his arrival in England, or his curtailed life and appalling death. He recalls how the police cast a wreath into the Thames a year after Adam was found, and how they eventually took his body to a Southwark cemetery in August 2005, burying him there in the soft, clayey, strontium-thin earth.
But as tragic and compelling as this material was, the unsolved nature of the case presented a narrative problem. There was no new progress to report—indeed, there hasn’t been any for years. Meanwhile, the things I’d found on the commercial use of the science had turned that into a tale with more substance, more relevance.
The beginning of my draft now presented almost an ethical problem in writing. It is, invariably and perhaps regrettably, easier to draw a reader into a piece by promising a story about a horrific crime. But by the end of that first section, I was pivoting towards something else entirely—towards the complicated science of isotopes and the tangles of supply chains, fascinating in their own right but certainly not in the same rank as the grisliness of Adam’s death. However smooth the pivot, the question arose: Would it be a unfair trick to use a murder to the opportunistic end of getting people to read about isotopes?
It would, we decided; leading with that discovery of Adam’s torso didn’t just feel wrong, it also made the piece structurally frail and untrue to itself. Even to take that decision was to realise something afresh: that the ethics of a piece of writing cannot just rest in the accuracy of the facts or the methods by which they were procured.