Q&A: Buried Alive or Bleeding Corpse?

03 Oct

Q: Crime author Lee Goldberg responded to my tweet and said you might be able to help. I’m also an author and am writing a series of mystery stories for kids called The Western Mysteries. During my research I came across this real-life account in a diary entry from 1861:

Nov 5 1861 – Campbell came this AM & got my pick to dig a grave – Miss Abby nash died this morning around 9 oclock, of typhoid fever… She was 17 yrs old –

Nov 6 – Cloudy – Morning I rode Ben to Peacock’s – learned that Miss Nash is to be buried at 10 AM – rode home – hitched Ben & Poncho to wagon – got ready – David and I rode to Peacocks – Took Mrs Peacock & Annie and a gentleman friend of theirs on board – drove to Nash’s – friends & neighbors had assembled – Mr Barquay from Berreyessa officiated as clergyman – he read from the Bible, prayed, exhorted & we sang a hymn to the tune of Wyndham – four of us brought out the coffin & put it in Jim Smith’s spring wagon – She looked very natural – procession moved to grave which was dug over next the fence on the line between Nash’s and Valpy’s farms – a very lonely out of the way place – opened the coffin that all who wished might take last look at corpse – her head was not properly pillowed so that in crossing the rough field I heard it knocking against side of coffin, and a large quantity of blood came from the right nostril – I helped lower her into the grave – funeral over – drove round & left our Peacock passengers & drove home – This funeral was got up on the very cheapest possible scale, and cost old Nash very few dimes – quite a saving

Was she buried alive?

Caroline Lawrence

A: Corpses do not bleed and I doubt she was buried alive. She could’ve been since the determination of death at that time wasn’t all that easy but most likely she was dead and what came from her nose was not blood.

She could have had trauma to her face and blood could have collected in the sinuses. Blood initially clots and then begins to break down and separate into a contracted clot and serum. The serum, the liquid part of the blood, is usually tinged reddish brown in this circumstance and when they altered her position some of this could have leaked from her nose. This would simply be separated blood following the dictates of gravity but could easily have been confused with active bleeding.

Also this could have been purge fluids. These appear as part of the decay process. These fluids result from decay of the tissues within the head, are blackish in appearance, and flow from the nose and often the mouth. They usually appear a couple of days after death since it takes that long for the decay process to get that far. There are circumstances under which this process is sped up such as in a very warm environment. Another is when someone has an infection. Here bacteria are already scattered throughout the body and therefore the decay process does not depend upon the intestinal tract breaking down first and releasing the bacteria within the bowel into the system. The young lady in this case would already have bacteria in her bloodstream from her typhoid fever and therefore the decay process would proceed much more rapidly.

So she was not buried alive and she did not bleed but rather this was either a broken down clot from her sinuses or purge fluid.


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