Metaphysical Murder: The Strange Theory of the Duplicate Crime

Inspector Byrnes

One of the most accomplished detectives in history, Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes, developed an unusual theory which he called the Law of Duplicate Crimes. He believed that every unusual crime in which passion or intelligence played a role was psychically mirrored in another part of the world. While the two crimes may occur days apart, the crimes were virtual duplicates of each other, right down to remarkable coincidences and minor details.
Since Byrnes' pet theory had a ring of the supernatural to it, his Law of Duplicate Crimes is little remembered today, But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the rise of spiritualism and theosophy, many leading detectives of the era adopted the famed inspector's theory, and even achieved remarkable results by putting it to use. Other contemporary supporters of Byrnes' theory included the likes of French statistician Jacques Bertillon and Hungarian social critic and author Max Nordau.

While modern criminologists may refer to perpetrators of duplicate crimes as copycats, the Law of Duplicate Crime stipulates that the actions of initial perpetrator are entirely unknown to the second. Or, as the renowned detective (and colleague of Inspector Byrnes) James E. Wilkinson wrote in 1910:

"The Duplicate Crime Law operates without the aid of printed suggestion. The parallel offenses follow each other before any of the principals could know of the acts of his criminal double."

In many cases, these crimes are the result of an "irresistible impulse" which even the perpetrators are unable to explain. The famous murder cases of Dr. Crippen and Porter Charlton were often cited by detectives as an example of Byrnes' theory. Both men had married women that bore striking resemblances to each other, who were physically larger than their spouses, who had similar tastes and dominant personalities. Both killers had come from prominent families, had gone abroad to live and had to be extradited. Charlton killed his wife, hid her body in a trunk and tossed into Lake Como in Italy. Crippen dissected his wife, burned the bones and buried the flesh in his cellar. Although the deeds were different, the victims possessed remarkable similarities. Apparently, something about these women caused Dr. Crippen and Porter Charlton to snap in early 1910.

Dr. Crippen

James Wilkinson argued that Charlton's mind was a weaker duplicate of Crippen's, and a psychic message of criminal suggestion sent out by Crippen vibrated through the ether of the universe, to be picked up by Charlton like a radio signal. Yet Wilkinson was careful to make the distinction that this was not an act of telepathy, as telepathy implies a conscious effort to implant a thought into the mind of another. The Law of Duplicate Crime, stated Wilkinson, is independent of any conscious effort.

"Somewhere in the world there is a mind keyed to the same pitch as that of the first criminal," declared Wilkinson. Just as the Germans believe in the doppelganger-- a person's physical double-- Byrnes, Wilkinson, Bertillon and others believed that every criminal mind has a double, or an exact duplicate mind that is responsive to the same vibrations.

Porter Charlton

Another example of this phenomenon occurred in December of 1909. A girl from Louisville named Alma Keller disappeared and no trace of her was found until June of the following year. Her body was discovered in the cellar of a school. She had been clubbed to death and raped. A janitor, Joseph Wendling, was arrested for the crime. At around the same time, an eerily similar murder occurred hundreds of miles away in New York.

The cases of Hyde and Pantchenko occurred almost simultaneously, in two different counties-- one in America, the other in Russia. In both cases, physicians murdered men of wealth for financial gain. Hyde killed his victim, Colonel Swope, by intentionally exposing him to typhoid. Patchenko killed his victim, Baron Buturlin, with cholera bacillus.

Another striking instance of duplicate crimes were the Runyon and D'Apree embezzlements. Chester B. Runyon, a married bank teller, walked out of Windsor Trust Company one Saturday afternoon with nearly $100,000 packed inside his briefcase. He eluded authorities by hiding out in an apartment occupied by a girlfriend named Laura Carter. She was the one who turned him in, in order to collect a reward. On the very same afternoon in Marseilles, a married bank teller named Lucien D'Apree walked out of Villon Freres with two hundred thousand francs in his briefcase. He hid from the police at the apartment of his girlfriend, Mathilde Laurons. After Mathilde had spent all of her lover's money, she turned him over to the police.

These cases lend considerable weight to Inspector Byrnes' private belief that cleverly planned crimes are often committed in duplicate, with no material connection between the two perpetrators other than a metaphysical mode of communication which still defies scientific explanation.