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10 Medieval Tips to Solve a Murder

It might surprise readers to learn that the founding father of forensic science lived in the Middle Ages. Song Ci (1186–1249 AD) was a physician and judge working in Sung Dynasty China. His book, The Washing Away of Wrongs, is a guide for law enforcement officials on how to report and solve cases of unusual deaths.

Song Ci believed in carefully examining bodies for evidence of how they died and how injuries could be caused. He even reported about several homicides he was able to solve using his forensic skills.

Cain murdering Abel in a medieval manuscript – British Library MS Royal 19 D II f. 10v

Here are ten of the observations he made when it came to dealing with people who may have been murdered.

1. The victim

“The eyes and mouths of those who have died from murderous injuries will be open, and their hair will be in disarray. Their hands will be clenched. Where the mortal injury was inflicted, the injury will be relatively large, the skin and flesh much curled and protuberant. If the membranes of the abdomen were penetrated, the bowels will protrude.”

2. Death from suffocation

“When someone has blocked a person’s mouth and nose so that he cannot breathe and so suffocates, the eyes will be open and the eyeballs protruding. From the mouth and nose a clear bloody fluid will flow. All over the face there will be subcutaneous blood of a reddish-black color, the bowels will protrude, and the insides of the clothing will be soaked in urine.”

3. A victim who is defending himself

“When the victim saw the assailant coming with a sharp object to injure him, he will certainly have struggled, using his hands to ward off the assault, and so there will be cuts on the hands.”

4. Being thrown into a well

“The similarities between those who jump into wells, those who are thrown in, and those who lose their footing and fall in are very great. The differences are slight. In all these cases there will be marks on the head from the victim’s having struck the bricks or stones. There will be sand or mud in the hair and under the fingernails, and the belly will be swollen … If the victim was thrown in or fell in accidentally, then the hands will be open and the eyes slightly open, and about his person he may have money or other valuables. But, if he was committing suicide, then his eyes will be shut and the hands clenched. There will be no valuables on the body.

“Generally, when some deliberately jumps into a well they enter feet first. If a body is found to have gone in head first, it is probable that the victim was being chased or was thrown in by others. If he lost his footing and fell in, you must check the point where his feet slipped to see if the ground has been disturbed.”

5. Being beaten to death

“If a person has been beaten to death, the mouth and eyes of the corpse will be open, the hair disordered, the clothes in disarray, and the hands not curled up. Sometimes, the insides of the clothes will be soaked with urine.”

Illustrations of bones from The Washing Away of Wrongs by Song Ci.

6. Using a blunt instrument

“If the assailant used a staff, bludgeon, or some such instrument to beat the victim, then the marks will mostly be on the non-fleshy parts of the body. The person suffering the injuries may die in as little as two to four hours, or after one or two days, three or five days, or even as many as seven, eight, or ten days. When hard objects class as ‘other weapons’ were used in the beating and caused death, pay even more attention to the severity of the marks. If the two parties first scuffled, and he assailant seized the victim’s hair and after this struck him with hand or foot, then frequently the injuries will be on fleshy vital spots. Sometimes a single blow from hand or foot is sufficient to cause death. If the death resulted from a kick to a vital spot, carefully investigate to determine whether the assailant was wearing shoes or not, to guard against questions arising at some later time.”

7. How to tell if one was beheaded alive or dead

Again, when the head of a living victim is cut off, the muscles shrink back and stiffen. But if the head is cut off a corpse, the neck will be long. There will be no contraction.”

8. Death by burning

“When a living person is burned to death, there will be sooty ashes in the mouth and nose of the corpse and the hands and feet will be drawn up. Because the victim, while still alive, with the fire crowding in on him, will be gasping with an open mouth. Therefore, he will inhale sooty ashes which will be found in the mouth and nose. If the burning occured after death, although the hands and feet may be contracted, there will be no sooty ash in the mouth or nose. If the elbows and knees were not burnt, the hands and feet will not be drawn up.”

9. A murder disguised as a burning

“If someone was killed with a sharp-edged weapon, and then a fire was made and the body burned in order to cause people to believe that the victim died of burns, have the coroner’s assistant pick up the bones and sweep the ashes and dust. On the cleaned spot where the corpse has been, sprinkle a thick decoction of rice cooked in vinegar and wine. If the victim was murdered there, the spot where blood soaked into the ground will be fresh red in color.”

10. A test for poisoning

“When investigating the swallowing of poison using the silver needle technique, scrub the needle using pods of the soap bean plant and water, and then insert it into the throat of the corpse, sealing the mouth with paper. Withdraw the needle after a considerable period of time. It will have turned a bluish-black color which cannot be scrubbed off using pods of soap bean and water. If the victim was not poisoned, the color will remain clear white.

“If a person who died from poisoning ate food while still alive and kept it down so that the poison and food entered the bowels, then the needle test in the mouth will be without result. In such cases, use the test at the anus and the color will appear.”

You can read Song Ci’s entire work in The Washing Away of Wrongs: Forensic Medicine in Thirteenth-Century China, translated by Brian E. McKnight (Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1981)

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