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Category Archives: Cause & Manner of Death

Coffin Birth: An Ancient Egyptian Mystery and the Solving of a Famous Case

Coffin Birth is a term used to describe the delivery of a baby postmortem. That is, the mother is dead and sometime later the child is expelled from the uterus. How does this happen?

During human decomposition, which begins almost immediately at death, the bacterial destruction of tissues leads to the formation of gas within the tissues as well as within the abdominal cavity. Most of the bacteria of decay reside within the G.I. tract so abdominal gas accumulation would be expected. As this accumulation progresses, the intra-abdominal pressure rises. If the victim is a pregnant woman, this pressure can collapse the uterus and force the fetus through the cervix, the vaginal canal, and out into the world. This is called a coffin birth. This can occur days or even weeks/months after death. The timing mostly depends on the speed of the decay process, which in turn depends on the ambient temperature.

Italian researchers have recently found a medieval grave that suggests exactly that. From the arrangement of the maternal bones and those of the near-term child, it appears a coffin birth may indeed have occurred.

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Remember the famous Scott and Laci Peterson case? This is what happened to Laci and her unborn son.

Laci Peterson

Laci Peterson

Once the eight-month pregnant Laci was dumped into the San Francisco Bay, the decay process began. The coldness of the water caused a slowing of the decomposition so it took several months before enough gas accumulated to cause two important events that ultimately led to solving the case. First, her corpse became buoyant and floated to the surface and washed ashore, where it was found. The second is that a coffin birth occurred and her unborn child, Connor, was delivered and also washed ashore nearby. The location was near where Scott had said he had gone fishing on that Christmas Eve day. Locating the bodies placed him squarely at the disposal site. Gruesome and sad. Fortunately, Scott now resides in San Quentin.

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The Recovery of Laci and Conner

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Did “Tourista” Kill the Aztecs?

Many people who travel to other countries end up suffering from Tourista, or Traveler’s Diarrhea, a gastrointestinal upset that is manifested by diarrhea and sometimes nausea and vomiting. It’s due in many cases to E. coli, which is found everywhere. Various regions will have different strains of E. coli. Residents of the area are able to live quite compatibly with it. The problem arises when you travel to a new area and are exposed to a different strain. Until the body readjusts to this foreign strain, gastrointestinal symptoms can occur. Usually, this is mild and inconvenient and after a few days everything settles down and life goes on.

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Not so with the Aztecs. In 1545, an epidemic swept through the Aztec nation killing millions, perhaps as much as 80% of the population. Twenty years earlier an epidemic of smallpox had come through and damaged the population and 20 years later another epidemic swept through killing another huge portion of the population. There have been many infectious processes indicted for the 1545 plague, which the Aztecs called cocoliztli. Smallpox, measles, mumps, and various other infectious entities have been blamed for this. But what if it was actually a gastrointestinal bacterium that did the damage?

The symptoms the victims suffered seem to have been gastrointestinal. Apparently, there was bleeding, vomiting, diarrhea, and splotches on the skin. These symptoms and signs suggest a form of enteritis and that’s exactly what the bacterium salmonella does.

New evidence suggests that it might be a strain of salmonella that caused this problem, in particular, salmonella Paratyphi C. Genetic research using DNA obtained from the teeth of those who succumbed to the epidemic indicate that this might be the case. Where it came from is another question. Did it come with the influx of Europeans? Or perhaps extend south from northern Mexico? This is still being debated and researched but it does appear that salmonella may have been the culprit in the epidemic that destroyed the Aztec Empire.

Salmonella has been responsible for other public health crises, one of the most famous being Mary Mallon, aka  Typhoid Mary. In this situation, the type of salmonella was salmonella typhi, which causes typhoid fever.

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The Mystery of Chopin’s Heart

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Did Frederic Chopin die from Tubercular Pericarditis? And what the heck is that anyway?

Pericarditis is an inflammation has occurred of the pericardium, the sac that contains the heart. Most often it is due to a viral infection but there are many others causes. One of the worst is tuberculosis (TB).

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Tubercular Thickening of the Pericardium

 

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X-Ray Showing Thickened Pericardium
(White ring around heart shadow)

Tuberculosis has wreaked havoc in humans for centuries. It has been found in Egyptian mummies and has devastated entire populations. Treatment didn’t appear until the 20th century and in recent years new, more malignant forms have appeared. Even after several millennia, it remains a difficult medical problem.

It attacks the lungs and slowly destroys the tissues, leading to cough, fatigue, weight loss, and muscle wasting—-the reason it was called “the consumption.” It, at times, literally consumed the sufferer.

When it spreads to the heart, particularly the pericardium, it can quickly become deadly. A thick viscous fluid collects in the pericardial sac, compresses the heart, and interferes with its function as a pump. This fluid can also solidify into a leathery trap around the heart so that even survivors of the initial infection can suffer severe, long-term problems that we term constrictive pericarditis—-the encasement restricts cardiac filling and thus effects pumping.

Recent studies suggest that this is what happened to Chopin. His heart took a strange and convoluted journey. He had requested that at his death that his heart be removed and returned to his native Warsaw, Poland. When he died in Paris in 1849, his heart was indeed removed, placed in a crystal jar, and encased in a stone pillar at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. In a recent examination, researchers found evidence that suggested he had suffered from TB pericarditis.

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Holy Cross Church

 

Burking Still Lives After 200 Years

Asphyxia is the interruption of oxygen (O2) supply to the body, particularly the brain. Normally, air contains O2 and, when breathed in, it passes into the blood, using hemoglobin as a transport molecule, where it is distributed to the tissues. Any interruption of this delivery chain can lead to death from asphyxia.

The air might be deficient in oxygen such as at high altitude or when another gas such as carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulates, depressing the O2 content to dangerous levels. Or flow into the mouth and nose could be restricted by smothering, choking, or strangulation, or by anything that restricts the expansion of the chest. Or the inhaled air could contain a toxin such as carbon monoxide (CO) or cyanide (CN), and these, in turn, interfere with O2 delivery to the tissues.

Burking is the term applied to asphyxial deaths that result from someone sitting on another in a fashion that restricts breathing. The victim dies from asphyxia. This is a form of Mechanical Asphyxia, where the movement of the chest wall is restricted to the point that breathing isn’t possible. Burking refers to the famous case of Burke and Hare.

 

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From FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES:

Applying Pressure: Mechanical Asphyxia

Mechanical asphyxia results when some external force applied to the body prevents the expansion of the chest and leaves the victim unable to breathe. A person trapped beneath a heavy object, such as a car or a collapsed wall or ceiling, can die because the force of the external pressure prevents the victim from taking in a breath.

A boa constrictor kills in exactly this way. This muscular species of snake wraps itself around its prey. Each time the prey exhales, the snake coils a little tighter. So, each successive breath becomes increasingly shallower until the prey can’t take another breath. Death follows quickly.

 

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Suffocation by “Burking” 

Experts have come to know a particular form of mechanical suffocation as Burking. William Burke was a merchant of sorts around Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 1800s. In 1827, he hooked up with William Hare, who ran a beggars hotel in the village of Tanners Close. In December of that year, a resident of the hotel died, and Burke arranged to sell the body to a Dr. Knox, who needed corpses for his dissection demonstrations. Burke and Hare loaded a coffin with bark and buried it in front of many witnesses. They then delivered the body to Dr. Knox and received seven pounds and ten shillings. The men struck an arrangement whereby Burke and Hare would deliver the doctor more bodies for eight pounds in summer and ten in winter. (Apparently grave robbing was more difficult when the ground was cold.)

Burke and Hare began digging up fresh corpses for their new enterprise, but the local populace refused to die fast enough for the greedy men. They began kidnapping and killing people who were not likely to be missed. Burke sat on his victims, holding their mouths and noses closed until they suffocated, after which Burke and Hare delivered the corpse and collected their fee.

A lodger at the hotel notified authorities when she discovered the sixteenth and last victim beneath a bed. Police arrested the two men. Hare then cut a deal and testified against Burke. Burke was convicted and experienced asphyxia for himself when he was hanged on January 28, 1829, an event attended by as many as 40,000 people.

 

Burking is alive nearly 200 years later. It seems that 325-pound woman sat on her 9-year-old cousin to punish her for some indiscretion. Unfortunately, the child died from mechanical asphyxia—-“Burking.”

 

What Killed the Aztecs? Lessons From Typhoid Mary.

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History tells us that in 1519 Hernando Cortes reached the shores of Mexico where he encountered the Aztecs. It has been estimated that around 25 million Aztecs existed at that time. But the arrival of the conquistadors changed everything. History also indicates that two epidemics, one in the 1540s and the other in the 1570s, crippled, essentially destroyed, the Aztec Empire. It is estimated that 10 to 20,000,000 Aztecs succumbed to some form of infectious process.

The Aztecs called these epidemics cocoliztli, their word for pestilence. Historians have long argued about what caused this horrific outbreak. At various times, researchers have suggested that the culprit was measles, mumps, smallpox, and several other disorders.

It’s important to note that epidemics of this size occur when an organism is introduced into a population that has no immunity to it. The Aztecs had never confronted such infectious agents and therefore had no individual or community resistance. The same thing happened in Europe when the Plague made its appearance. The most famous of these epidemics we call The Black Death. It killed millions and changed history. Same was true for the Aztecs.

But what exactly happened?

A new study suggests that the pathogen responsible just might be Salmonella, specifically S. Paratyphi C. DNA analysis indicates that this organism can be traced back to Europe and might indeed have traveled in the bodies of the conquistadors and infected the unprotected Aztec population. More research is needed but this is an intriguing development.

You’ve heard of salmonella I’m sure. It’s occasionally picked up in contaminated food and water by travelers to foreign countries and on some occasions. it can become a devastating illness and can even be deadly. A famous US epidemic occurred in the early 1900s when Mary Mallon, a healthy carrier of the organism and a cook, spread typhoid to numerous people. She became known as Typhoid Mary and her story is very interesting. Typhoid is caused by the organism Salmonella typhi, which places it in the same family as the organism that might have taken down the Aztec Empire.

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TYPHOID MARY

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Posted by on September 28, 2017 in Cause & Manner of Death, Medical History

 

Beware: Health Food Can Kill You

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Aconite, also known as monkshood or wolfsbane, is beautiful and looks harmless. Not true. It’s a deadly poison. When ingested, it has potentially deadly cardiotoxic and neurotoxic effects. Its most often kills through the generation of deadly changes in the cardiac rhythm. Victims suffer shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, numbness and tingling of the face and other body parts, nausea, and ultimately paralysis, cardiac arrest, and sudden death. Pleasant, huh?

Aconite is easily available, not only at your local nursery but also at various health food stores where it comes in many varieties, including herbal teas. Several recent poisonings related to an aconite-containing herbal tea sold by a San Francisco company show how dangerous this chemical can be. Of course, other health food stores sell aconite and you can easily buy it on the Internet.

I always tell my patients that the second most dangerous place on earth, after a aircraft carrier deck during flight operations, is a health food store. Though most of the products they sell are mostly harmless, and mostly not helpful, some are downright deadly. Many years ago there was a Ma Huang crisis in that several people died from taking supplements laced with this material. Ma Huang is basically an amphetamine and, like aconite can cause deadly cardiac arrhythmias as well as a marked elevation of blood pressure and strokes.

The point is, none of these are regulated. The FDA, for all its warts, does indeed protect consumers. It’s very difficult to create, test, and bring a new drug to market. It cost billions and takes many years, sometimes more than a decade. The FDA requires strict proof that the medicine actually does what it’s designed to do and that its side effects and toxic potential are acceptable and well understood. This is not the case in products you buy at your local health food store. Many are mixed up by a guy named Joe in his garage in a cat box. Trust me, Joe is not a chemist, or a pharmacist, and he possesses no medical training. He might not even have a GED. But he can mix up some cool stuff and put it in fancy packaging and make it look real. And safe. And it might be. But of course, it might not.

The take-home message here is that do not accept the packaging, the product description, or its prime location at eye level on the display rack. Do your research. Find out what’s really inside and what its toxic potential is. And do not buy anything from a guy named Joe.

 

DNA Solves the 80-Year-Old Death of Belgium’s King Albert I

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Belgium’s King Albert I was found dead on February 17, 1934. The experienced rock climber was found at the base of a large formation with a gash to his head. Speculation that he was murdered ran rampant. During World War I, he had resisted Germany and attempted to block German troops from entering his country. They eventually did, but he fought them every step of the way. Was Germany somehow complicit in his untimely death?

Many felt that he had been killed elsewhere and his body dumped where it was found. The evidence suggested otherwise. His glasses were found nearly 40 feet above him – – he was very far-sighted – – and his climbing rope was still attached to his body. But, the most important evidence that suggested a fall rather than a murder was blood on the leaves near the King. If this blood was indeed Albert’s, then he must have shed it at that location, meaning he was at least briefly alive when he reached the ground at the base of the rock formation. If he had been killed elsewhere and dumped, there would have been no blood around the body. Dead folks don’t bleed. The leaves were apparently collected and preserved.

Flash forward to 2014. The blood of the leaves was tested. Not only was it human blood and but also it was matched against two relatives of the King. These results suggested that the blood was indeed the King’s blood and it had likely been shed from a head injury he received from his fall. This 80-year-old “murder” case seems to be a tragic accident.

 
 
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