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Category Archives: Medical History

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.”

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

 

In the 1800s, Wagon Train Travel Could Be Deadly

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Many brave souls headed West during the 1800’s, often by wagon train. They fought weather, disease, starvation, hostile folks of all types, and potentially deadly injuries. Medicine was crude, basically non-existent, and many died along the way.

Check out my latest Q&A on the Suspense Magazine Blog:

Could Death From Bleeding Be Delayed For Several Days After a Frontier Wagon Wheel Accident?

Read the answer and listen to the expanded audio information here:

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2017/07/01/could-death-from-bleeding-be-delayed-for-several-days-after-a-frontier-wagon-wheel-accident/

This was one of the many clever questions included in my first Q&A book—MURDER & MAYHEM

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Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Check out the new posts John Raab of Suspense Magazine and I put together. Read the Q&As and listen to the expanded discussions. Hope each proves helpful for your crime fiction.

Can DNA Be Used To Identify Multiple Assailants In a Three Decade Old Rape?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/20/d-p-lyles-forensic-file-episode-1/

In 1863, Could An Autopsy Accurately Determine the Cause of Death?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2017/01/09/in-1863-could-an-autopsy-accurately-determine-the-cause-of-death-d-p-lyle-answers-this/

Can My Female Character Cause Her Pregnancy To Become “Stone Baby” By Shear Will?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/31/can-my-female-character-cause-her-pregnancy-to-become-stone-baby-by-sheer-will/

More to come.

Want more cool questions from crime writers? Check out my three Q&A books.

M&M 200X300

More Info and List of Included Questions

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More Info and List of Included Questions

MF&F 200X320

More Info and List of Included Questions

 

King Henry the VIII’s Brain Injury and Behavioral Changes

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King Henry VIII was often a bad boy. I mean, he had two of his many wives executed, for starters. But he was an historical giant—-he took on the Pope and established the Church of England—no small feat in the 1500’s.

But he also developed erratic behavior later in his life. Many date his significant personality change to a head injury following a fall beneath a horse in a 1536 jousting match. He apparently remained unconscious for two hours.

But could a blow to the head cause a dramatic personality change? Absolutely.

There are many types of brain injuries that could lead to such an outcome: Concussions (usually multiple such injuries are needed before personality changes would occur—if at all); Cerebral contusions (brain bruises); intracerebral bleeds (bleeding into the brain tissue; and subdural hematomas (bleeding in the space between the brain and the skull). In Henry’s case, I suspect the later might be the case.

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Subdural Hematoma

Subdural hematomas follow blows to the head and here blood collects in the dural space—between the brain and the skull. It can be small and inconsequential or larger and compress the brain. It can occur immediately or be delayed by hours, days, weeks, and even months. The increased pressure on the brain can lead coma and death. Less dramatically, it can cause headaches, visual impairment, weakness, poor balance, sleepiness, confusion, and, yes, personality changes.

 

Dr. Frankenstein Lives. Sort of.

Dr. Sergio Canavero wants to be the modern-day Victor Frankenstein. Create a human from parts. Two parts anyway. A head and a body. Yes, he wants to do a head transplant. His proof that it works? Stimulating the nerves of the spinal cord to test his efforts.

Remember high school biology? That poor frog with his head cut off? Yet applying a current to its spinal cord made the legs jump. It’s what nerves and muscles do when stimulated. It’s not life; it’s a parlor trick—-for lack of a better word.

So, could Dr. Canavero’s experiment work? This head transplant? Maybe, anything is possible. But smart money is on not a chance.

What of the original Frankenstein? Art and life often intertwine and had it not been for a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world Marry Shelly’s classic might never have been written.

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I’ve blogged about this before:

https://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/frankenstein-and-creativity/

https://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2009/09/14/more-decapitation-and-reanimating-the-dead/

 
 

Maybe Columbus Wasn’t “The Father of Syphilis” After All

 

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It has long been believed that the sailors who crewed Christopher Columbus’s ships in his famous 1492 voyage contracted syphilis from the natives and transported the deadly disease back to Europe. But was this disease already in Europe long before Columbus was even born? According to a recent article in the Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology that just might be the case.

Of course, now most cases of syphilis are treatable and curable with antibiotics, but in 1492 things were a bit different They didn’t know what caused it and indeed that bacteria even existed. Antibiotics? Still centuries away. So syphilis was often deadly, and, if not, it was very disfiguring and incapacitating.

The real culprit is a spirochete called Treponema palladium. And it might have been in Europe as early as 1320.

 

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Posted by on January 19, 2016 in Medical History

 
 
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