Book Review: ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How grim was life in London, with the Industrial Revolution (and for that matter the British Empire) in full swing? Behind the bright, prosperous façade of Regent Street, who were the mudlarks, toshers and the original Dustmen, and how did they live? What kind of landscape did they move through: its sights, its sounds; its smells? The opening scenes of Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’ plunge us right in. They could be straight from Dickens. We even get to meet Karl Marx – or at least, his filthy, squalid rented room.

And what happened when, in the torrid late summer of 1854, cholera struck?

You could almost paraphrase this story as ‘A Vicar, a Yorkshireman, and a bureaucrat walk into a pub’ – because had the rapid growth of London never happened – the very growth that put urban lives in peril – then Henry Whitehead, John Snow, and William Farr would never have met, and the problem of how to stop Cholera in its tracks not have been solved. Or at least, not before tens of thousands in another generation had suffered.

We follow these characters both in their daily rounds of work and in their pursuit of answers – and then irrefutable proof – of Cholera’s mechanism, as they go door-to-door for detailed information in the stricken and incongruously named Golden Square and its surrounding sewage-ridden, impoverished streets.

We find out why the detailed work and irrefutable proof was needed, as we meet the characters of the medical establishment: from a small local committee, through the newly-formed public health apparatus, all the way up to ‘The Lancet’. Why did they doubt this straightforward and obvious explanation which we, nowadays, take for granted: that Cholera is water-borne? What was the fault at the medical establishment’s heart, and how was it eventually overcome? Steven Johnson takes us effortlessly from microscopic, to urban, and worldwide, scale.

Within walking distance of where I live, near his birthplace in North Street, York, is a monument to John Snow – a replica water-pump, complete with removed handle. I picked up ‘The Ghost Map’ through wanting to know the story behind it. It is beautifully and thoroughly told, complete with references and index.

My only tiny gripe would be that it was never ‘translated from the American’ – references to ‘sidewalks’, ‘diapers’ (yes they play a crucial role!) and ‘stories’ (as in, floors of buildings), when talking about Victorian London, can jar a little.

I’d recommend ‘The Ghost Map’ to anyone who enjoys a look into history, a classic detective story and, although it was written in 2006 (making some of its descriptions of contemporary epidemiology and mapping a little dated), a thought-provoking and prescient take on where we are now.

Oh – and the pub? It’s still there. It’s now called ‘The John Snow’.




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The Third Kingdom

What is it?

It’s an alien growing out of a dead tree-stump. Not animal or plant. I spotted it on New Walk.

New walk has a strange history: it was constructed along the riverside, a mile or so outside town, with no obvious origin or destination. Its purpose was solely to enable grand, Regency types to promenade of a warm evening and show off their finery. So it was basically a glorified catwalk (or runway, if you’re from the USA.)

It was planted with stately horse-chestnut trees of which this, in the picture, was once one. Most of the rest are still thriving, and the path has since been extended all the way to Skeldergate Bridge to the north and beyond our allotments to the south. So it’s basically my walk into town – which is why bits of it feature on this blog so often.

This time of year and the next month or so are the best for spotting fungi of both the edible and inedible sort. Telling the former from the latter is a black art mostly lost to us Brits. But some of us are married to Central or Eastern Europeans, so we get to cheat a bit. We get our other half coming home from ‘a quick bike-ride’ with things like this little lot:

(The egg-box is for scale)

Peeled and stewed, Boletus Mushrooms are great with gently-fried onions and mashed spuds. They have, ounce-for-ounce, a protein content that’s not far shy of the best steak.

And our Unidentified Fungal Objects at the top of this post? Apparently they’re Dryad’s Saddle – at least, according to the first answer to my query to The Facebook Hive-Mind. And they’re edible, but not once they get as huge and tough as the one in the picture…

Unless, of course, you know different.

War and Peace

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You’re out of luck. The raid that your Squadron Leader said would be a walk in the park has gone wrong: they were waiting for you and you’ve been shot down. You’re injured – no idea, as yet, how badly. And they’ve found you before you could get to shelter.

You’re carted off to some unknown place in the dark by men whose language you don’t understand but about whom you’ve heard… well, you’d rather not think about it.

The Enemy.

You’re thousands of miles from home.

After a preliminary roughing-up, you find yourself alone in a cell. Nothing happens, for what seems like hours.

The cell door opens. You feel a sick lurch.

You’ve already given your name, rank and number when you first got here.

What now?

But nobody’s shouting at you and, apart from the guards at the door who haven’t moved from their posts, there’s only one of him.

“Hi. My name’s Hans.”

He gestures to imply you needn’t bother rising from your bunk. He pulls up a chair. It occurs on you, as he recounts the events of the previous night and how your people were caught out, that he doesn’t even have that harsh accent. He sounds just like you.

You gather, as he carries on talking, that they must’ve known all about the raid days, maybe weeks, in advance. Hell, about the entire history of the Squadron, sounds like. You don’t know it, but you’re nodding agreement with some of the stuff he’s saying.

He asks when you last ate: you realise how hungry you’ve gotten.

We don’t get much in the way of decent food round here, but I’ll see what we can rustle up…

You find yourself joking about your food – about the guys responsible for getting it to you. The rats. The QM who’s always on the make. Yeah, same here.

He leaves, returning later with food, even a few magazines. Film stars. You haven’t been to the movies in months. You get nostalgic. He asks about your favourite films. Their lads, he tells you, stencil the Divas on their planes: how about you..? You banter a little, about the planes. He tells you there’s a movie theatre here at the camp, and as soon as the medic’s treated that burn…

You find yourself talking, over the food. You’ve been careful: not given anything away. No numbers, no strategies, no tactics…

Or have you?

His name was Hans Joachim Scharff. A successful salesman in civilian life, he became one of the Luftwaffe’s top interrogators: the very antithesis of the harsh, ‘we have ways of making you talk’ trope of war films.

On the other side of the world, at roughly the same time, former missionary Marine Major Sherwood Ford Moran, an American Japanophile who spoke the language perfectly, was working the same magic on captured Japanese soldiers following failed raids on Pacific islands.

They’d sit in the shade on folding wooden chairs not far away from the immediate battlefield, and just talk – about places, about food.  The captives were often grateful for someone who spoke their language: who understood them and knew the rhythm of their lives back home. It would almost be rude not to talk…

It got so sometimes they’d even seek him out, for a chat.

Because whether in the pub just down the road, or in mortal peril halfway round the world, everybody loves to witter about themselves, really.

Which brings me to my turn, and Kate in Portsmouth.

I was not a captured soldier in dread of what might happen next, and of course my job was to give information: not withhold it.

But shock has an unexpected effect on the mind and on your ability to deal with direct questions. You blank out. The people needing the facts are working against obstacles, but these obstacles are not of your deliberate making: they lurk in the hidden parts of the mind, with our species’ other survival instincts.

I don’t remember the room. I couldn’t recall her face for the life of me – not even hair colour – but I do remember that it was she who eased me in to the talking and that all else, bar the street incident, left my mind.

Someone brought me a coffee. I remember wondering how they knew I took sugar.

We ran through it, all of it, in the present tense. The only interruptions would come if I stopped for lack of inspiration. They generally took the form “and what happens now?”

I don’t recall giving any details about appearances at this stage: only actions. I’m poor at remembering appearances.

Or so I thought.

We came to the end of my run-through of the incident: to my arrival at Geordie-Man’s house.

I thought that was that – I’d failed almost completely to give any useful details…

Then we went back and ran through it all again: but different this time.

“He’s coming towards you. Can you hear his footsteps?”

“What’s his hair like?

“What sort of clothes is he wearing?”

And back I was, in Burnaby Road…

MRI scans have since that time shown that the brain activity of someone imagining a situation is all but indistinguishable from that of the same person perceiving it in real life. This, it’s my guess, is how the true victims – those less lucky than I was that night – find their interviews so traumatic. I can only hope that, like ‘therapy’ is supposed to do, it helps get some of the awfulness out of their minds.

My interview, as mentioned before, took a whole three hours. It didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like any time at all. I became kind-of suspended: taken out of the normal flow of time, re-playing bits of reality like an eighties film fan would re-play action highlights of a video.

And that is how it’s done: the technique now accepted as ‘best practice’ in police stations throughout the U.K. for victims, witnesses and suspects alike. Kate – who’d ‘been on a course’ recall – must have been one of the earliest pioneers.

Its name is PEACE:

Prepare – Engage/Explain – Account, Clarify & Challenge – Close – Evaluate

There’s a free course here, for the curious.

And for the skeptics – of whom I admit I was once one – I give you experts from Liverpool who’ve demonstrated how well this kind of interviewing works, even on hardened criminals and terrorists.

I leave you with two quotes from top interrogators:

“The best (interviews) suspended moral judgment and conveyed genuine curiosity.”

“Rapport is the closest thing interrogators have to a truth serum.”

Nine steps to Guilty

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So, we return from our brief intermezzo in York Magistrates’ Court to the matter in hand: how, in the face of overwhelming odds, to get at the truth.

We’ve progressed from the inciting incident, through primitive attempts to beat or twist the tale out of people, to the first science-based monitoring of the signals inadvertently given out by a body under stress – a process which carries with it the rather less scientific assumption that heightened stress implies lying.

The road now takes us to Chicago, a city still bruised from the beatings led by its recently-deceased Chief of Police, one Jon Graham Burge, and native city of one John E. Reid.

John Reid started out ‘on the beat’, but also trained in using the polygraph. A physical giant of a man, he enthusiastically embraced the idea of telling an interrogee that they were lying – ‘The polygraph says you are lying’ – in order to put them under stress. Recall, the philosophy that lies behind polygraph use is that constructing a fake tale is more physically stressful than recounting the truth. The interrogee doesn’t get to see the traces and these days, with electronic displays instead of pens on rolls of paper, they can’t even use sound as a clue.

Reid used this particular gambit in a gruelling interrogation which culminated in the confession, by one Darrel Parker from Nebraska, to the murder of his wife, Nancy. Darrel Parker was found guilty at his trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The successful case launched Reid’s career. He developed and polished the method, now adopted throughout the U.S.A., which still bears his name.

In the preliminary phase the interviewer simply chats, in a non-threatening way, with the suspect. From this they ‘calibrate’ their body language: how the interviewee looks when relaxed, under stress, or puzzled. Questions about the crime are then worked into the conversation, and signs of stress and lying are sought. One of these signs, quoted in the manual, has an almost superstitious ring to it: a person trying genuinely to recall an event will look up and to the right, whereas one lying will look down and to the left. No-one, as far as I know, has proven this scientifically, nor indeed specified whether it’s the other way round for left-handers.

We now come to the meat of Reid’s method. It takes us down nine steps:

  1. The interviewee, having been left alone for a time, is re-joined by the interviewer, who is now carrying an impressive-looking file. This file is said – or implied – to hold solid evidence of the interviewee’s guilt.
  2. ‘But you’re, kinda innocent’ – perhaps there’s some excuse for the crime, such as desperation, impaired judgement, or being ‘put up to it’ by someone else, the ‘real’ criminal. The interviewer watches or listens for signs that one of these get-outs resonates with the interviewee, while all the time…
  3. Stymieing any of their attempts to deny guilt altogether.
  4. By this time the interviewee will want to try and explain why, or how, they couldn’t possibly be the guilty party. They’ll do this because none of their outright denials will have been acknowledged. This might take some time. Two hours without food will take its subtle toll on most civilians, without being outright inhumane.
  5. At this point the interviewer has to appear to soften. The manual advises lowering position, approaching the interviewee; speaking quietly and appearing comforting. Using clues from the previous discussion, the interviewer can then…
  6. Present the interviewee with a ‘soft’ and a ‘hard’ version of why, or how, they committed the crime.
  7. By now the interviewee would have to muster quite some will-power to dismiss the entire conversation and revert to protesting their innocence. They may think all grounds for protest have been exhausted.
  8. Other people can now come in to the room, and the interviewer encourages the interviewee to confirm what has already been said.
  9. The interviewee signs their ‘confession’.

Most juries to this day regard a confession, more even than forensic or eyewitness evidence, as definitive proof of guilt.

Variations on the theme crossed the Atlantic to the United Kingdom in the seventies. I still remember a Police representative in a TV documentary from that time describing their interviews using the delightful English euphemism of ‘leading the criminal into a walled garden’ – note the implied assumption of guilt.

But there’s a twist to the tale.

Recalling ‘Frenchie’ (Byrnes’ first case), and then the mystery of the missing diamond ring among those comprehensively-polygraphed young women from Berkeley, can you guess what it might be, before peeking?

To crown it all, psychologists have now found that the only difference between a typical person and an ‘expert’ in determining whether someone is lying is the degree of confidence expressed in the result – not its accuracy. To reiterate: a psychology professor, a police inspector, and others whom you may think would have some secrets gleaned from a career of experience, are no better at detecting a new acquaintance’s porkies than you are.

The problem of ‘false positives’ – guilty confessions by innocent people – has not gone away. Here in the UK it has brought us the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, and a slew of other miscarriages of justice.

And compared with certain techniques developed on both sides during the Second World War, we have gone backwards – away from our Navy Base encounter with Kate.

I cannot Tell a Lie

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Her chest constrained in broad straps, one arm bound in a tight black band, the other tied by the hand, the crime victim sits in the windowless basement, looks at the man and tries to remember to breathe normally.

Her heartbeat spurts out in jagged red…

But this is not the scene of the crime.

This is the interview afterwards.

Welcome to the next stage of our efforts to get the truth straight from people’s minds: the first in which Science takes a hand.

Around the turn of last century, just as our man Byrnes was on the wane, several advances in tehnology conspired to enable monitoring of the inner workings of our bodies in real time. Investigators – scientific and otherwise – couldn’t resist the chance to take a peek at how, exactly, our involuntary metabolism reacted to the various emotions and stresses of real life.

Early Heath-Robinson (or to use the more local, American term – Rube Goldberg) attempts led to the ‘cardio-pneumo psychograph’ developed by John Augustus Larson, the first individual in American law-enforcement to hold a Ph.D.

His guinea-pigs, in the spring of 1921, were a cohort of young college girls accused of petty theft.  The case became a media sensation.

Thus the concept of the ‘Lie Detector’ was born.

The device used in the USA today monitors breathing rate using bands round the chest and stomach (top two lines in the illustration), skin conductance (dampness of skin –  smooth green line) and instantaneous blood pressure, hence also heart rate – red jagged line.

Stress ‘tells’ in the person being monitored include raised blood pressure and heart rate, raised skin conductance, and irregularity in breathing. Certain kinds of stress ‘tells’ – but not all – are taken to be signs that the subject is grappling with the process of telling a lie: a more complex business, the polygraph’s underlying philosophy assumes, than simply allowing the truth to come out.

Two ‘pre-tests’ are carried out before any serious questions are asked.

First, the interviewer chats with the subject about their past. From this, information is gleaned that can be used to devise ‘Control’ questions – questions which any normal person would like to lie about. For example, “Have you ever stolen anything from your workplace?”

Second, once the pick-ups are in place, the interviewee is asked to tell a deliberate lie. This usually involves them writing down a number and then having to conceal which number it is in the face of simple yes-no questions.

Most people think the questions in the main session come in two types: Relevant, and ‘Control’.

But there’s more.

Both Relevant and ‘Control’ questions are designed to put our subject on the spot, but in different ways. The Relevant questions refer to the particular crime being investigated and are assumed more stressful if the subject is lying, whereas the ‘Control’ questions are assumed just plain stressful regardless – the subject either has to lie, or to admit some misdeed in their past.

A third type of question, ‘Irrelevant’ – the type most people believe to be ‘Control’ questions – are those which are easily answered without lying. For example: ‘Are the lights on in here?’

So far so good. Under these conditions a guilty interviewee will generally, short of having mastered some arcane technique of body self-control, not be mistaken for innocent.

But here are you: you’re innocent, and you never lie – or at least, not about anything that matters. You’ve been picked up in error and you’re telling the truth without much sign of nerves. The lie-detector works, right? Else they wouldn’t use it.

Then this happens:

‘Did you hide the blood-stained dagger in the shrubbery?’

‘No.’

(after a long silence)

‘The polygraph says that you are lying.’

Your stress-levels go through the roof. And you know full well they’ll be showing on the traces behind you – the traces you, as an American citizen, have been brought up to believe never make mistakes.

What are you to do, now?

Do you cave and change your answer? Lie, and say you’re guilty?

Or do you double down on what you originally said, thus betraying a lack of faith in your country, its technology and its fairness?

Your thoughts twist in knots. A term whose origin is an old word for ‘twisting’ might come to mind. It may occur to you that no other country uses polygraphs – why does yours? You might even happen to know that the guilty party among those college girls was never found, the intense questioning into her personal life precipitated a nervous breakdown in one of the ‘suspects’, and that Dr. Larson, horrified by what his invention had spawned, went on to refer to it as ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’.

You might not believe it, but this last way of using the Polygraph – making false statements to the interviewee – forms part of the next ‘step’ in the erratic progress towards Portsmouth, and Kate.

Early chapters

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The lyrics, over the rock anthem’s pounding heartbeat, are gruesome – and likely horribly familiar to anyone who has ever worked with victims of domestic violence.

She won’t give him what he wants. So he’s tied her to the railway in the path of an oncoming train. And so on. The night of crime only comes to an end when he throws her off a cliff.

You wouldn’t think so, but it’s a moral tale – almost a ballad. The man is eventually hauled in and ‘given the third degree’-

How many times have I, or anyone else, used the expression ‘third degree’ at someone who’s asking too many questions and sort-of wondered what it meant, but not thought any more of it?

The tale, of course, is fascinating. And particularly topical given this week’s Supreme Court situation

‘Third degree’, meaning the extreme of something, is a term with a long pedigree. It turns up in places as varied as Shakespeare’s plays and old medical manuals – ‘Rue is hot and dry in the third degree…’ (1578). It’s also a term in Masonic ceremonies, and in the Spanish Inquisition.

Aha: now we’re getting closer.

Of all the theories about how the phrase came to be used about asking questions, this one has to be my favourite:

New York at the turn of last century was a brutal place. Crime rates in the USA at the time were said to be anything from four to ten times those in Europe. Into this den of iniquity strode the impressive figure of one Thomas F. Byrnes. A former engineer and firefighter, he became notorious for beating suspects in order to extract confessions from them. His colleagues – or possibly himself – awarded him the nickname ‘third degree’ as a pun on his surname. All right, officer I confess: I can’t resist a story with a pun.

With such an impressive record of finding and putting-away the guilty he rose rapidly through the ranks.

As Inspector, he faced a case not unlike that of London’s ‘Jack the Ripper’.  Unlike his counterparts across the Pond, though, he caught his man.

Except he didn’t.

Eleven years later, the evidence against him being his confession and hardly anything else, Ameer ‘Frenchie’ Ben Ali was pardoned. Meanwhile Byrnes had been forced to resign. Better ways of catching criminals – ones which would not also indiscriminately sweep-up witnesses and other innocents – were needed.

Sad to say that incidents like the one that opened this story are still with us and so – and not always in the metaphorical sense, either – is the ‘third degree’.

But we’re one step nearer to Portsmouth – and to Kate.

(Oh and, bonus points if you know the ‘ballad’.)

 

Beyond the Dark Arches

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It’s a walk out of Leeds, along the canal tow-path.

The word on the street is…

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But there’s something lurking in the past.

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A path runs to the garden of plants used for making dyestuffs.

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My guess is most of the people who worked here wouldn’t remember it as this pleasant.

More like this:

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Safety at Work: a tree planted as a memorial – and a reminder to keep what we have.

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Better days.

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