Infamous historical cold cases get a scientific face-lift in The Curious Life and Death Of…, a new documentary series from the Smithsonian Channel. Hosted by author and medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris, each of the six episodes takes a fresh look at a famous death with a mystery attached to it and sifts through the scientific clues to (hopefully) arrive at fresh insights.
Per the official synopsis:
Author and medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris will use science, tests, and demonstrations to shed new light on famous deaths, ranging from drug lord Pablo Escobar to magician Harry Houdini. Using her lab to perform virtual autopsies, experiment with blood samples, interview witnesses and conduct real-time demonstrations, Dr. Fitzharris will put everything about these mysterious deaths to the test. Along the way, she’ll be joined by a revolving cast of experts, including Scotland Yard detectives, medical examiners, weapons gurus and more.
A noted science communicator with a large Twitter following and a fondness for the medically macabre, Fitzharris published a biography of surgical pioneer Joseph Lister, The Butchering Art, in 2017. (It’s a great, if occasionally grisly, read.)
“I was a strange child and I kind of grew up to be a stranger adult,” Fitzharris told Ars. “I’ve always been fascinated with the past and with death.” As she says in the trailer (embedded above), “I think the way people died tells us a whole lot about how they lived.”
Fitzharris has found that even people who typically don’t like history tend to be fascinated by medical history, and that has become her brand, so to speak. “The space I try to fill is, what would happen if you had a toothache in 1792 or broke your leg in 1845?” she said. That brand caught the attention of the Smithsonian Channel, who tapped Fitzharris to host their new series. She’s joined on the show by former New Scotland Yard detective Brian Hook, as well as forensic chemist Raychelle Burks and forensic pathologist Judy Melinek when their specific expertise is needed.
Halfway through production, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the series was put on hold for a few months. Eventually, the team was able to complete the necessary reshoots while taking all the recommended precautions, although Fitzharris admits the experience was a bit anxiety inducing.
Each episode focuses on one famous death that still has a mystery attached to the departed, and over the course of the episode, Fitzharris and her team revisit the evidence, conduct their own experiments, and ultimately come to a verdict based on their findings. Each episode also includes small side segments, dubbed “Curious Case Files,” to elaborate on smaller, quirky historical details—like the urine wheels medieval physicians often used for diagnosis, or the legend of the chief baker aboard the Titanic whose blood alcohol level was so high he miraculously survived the icy waters after the ship sank. ‘I wanted to bring that kind of weird history [to the show],” she said.
There’s a mix of historical and contemporary cases, from Lizzie Borden, Harry Houdini, and the “Unknown Child” who died aboard the Titanic, to Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones, actress Brittany Murphy, and Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The Borden case is, of course, quite famous, and even though Lizzie was acquitted, questions have always remained about whether she was actually guilty. Fitzharris gets physical in the segment, taking a small axe to a ballistic gel body and then analyzing the damage and blood spatter with Hook’s help.
“They’re fantastic—they react just like human bodies,” she said of the synthetic cadavers, confessing, “It was a lot harder to break through the skull than I could have imagined.”
I won’t spoil the “verdict,” but even though Fitzharris takes her own stand, she acknowledges that there is very little surviving forensic evidence, given that the murders were committed in 1892. “People will debate this to the end of time,” she said. “But one of the things that bothers me about Lizzie Borden is that, when she died, she requested that her body be buried next to her father, and in fact it is. So if she did [the murders], that is a very uncomfortable level of psychopathy.”
RIP Brittany Murphy
The relative recency of Brittany Murphy’s tragic death in 2009 posed a different kind of challenge. “I’m a historian used to dealing with the very dead, not the recently dead, and I wanted to ensure that we did this in a respectful way,” said Fitzharris.
There’s more of a debunking emphasis in the Murphy episode, including a revelatory interview with Murphy’s mother-in-law. “There were so many conspiracy theories that sprung up, because she died under very strange circumstances,” said Fitzharris. “And her husband died just a few months later under almost identical circumstances in the same house, in the same room.” She hopes the episode will help put those crazier theories to rest.
It remains to be seen whether The Curious Life and Death Of… will get a second season, but if so, there are plenty of other famous cases Fitzharris is keen to revisit—like the Old West outlaw Jesse James, for instance, or the labyrinthine conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963—assuming she can uncover new knowledge or a fresh angle.
“I’m not shocked that people are attracted to these kinds of stories, even today,” said Fitzharris about the human tendency toward morbid curiosity, particularly when it comes to shocking deaths. “We’re not really exposed to death in the same way that we once might have been, so there is a natural curiosity about it. We gravitate toward shows like this for that reason. But I hope it’s more than just your typical true-crime show. It’s a bit of forensic science, a bit of true crime, a bit of weird history. And hopefully we can give a much more nuanced view of each of these cases.”
New episodes of The Curious Life and Death of… air on Sunday nights at 9pm on the Smithsonian Channel through October 11, 2020. Episodes that have already aired are available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Listing image by Smithsonian Channel