Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/September 1884/Chinese Coroners' Inquests


THE method of conducting coroners' inquests in China seems admirably adapted to facilitate the escape of criminals. The feeling of the country is abhorrent to dissections, and magistrates, consequently, find the prosecution of their inquiries attended with great embarrassments, unless the case is of the plainest character. The law-makers, however, have always, from the earliest times, recognized the importance of human life by directing that an inquest be made in every case of sudden death. A number of books have been prepared, containing the instructions needed by the magistrate in the performance of this part of his duties. The best known of these collections was published in the thirteenth century, by the direction of the officers of the Bureau of Penalties, and is a kind of official manual for the inquiring magistrate. It is called the "Se Yen Luh," or treatise on the redress of wrongs. In it is expounded the whole system of legal medicine in use among the Chinese. A few extracts from it will be of interest.

The first advice given in the "Se Yen Luh" is that the magistrate must be sure he has a dead body before he issues his order for the inquest. The reason given to make this advice seem pertinent is hardly less curious than the advice itself. "It sometimes happens," says the manual, "that unscrupulous sharpers demand an inquest on an imaginary deceased for the sole purpose of extorting money from the person they will denounce as the author of the death; and the latter, in fear of falling into the claws of the law, readily pays all that is required of him, in order to arrest the process." The officer then, having assured himself that there is a real case, goes to the spot, taking with him a good provision of onions, red pepper, white plums, and vinegar, articles that he will almost certainly have use for. If death has taken place recently, the first step is to examine the top of the head, behind the ears, the throat, and other vital parts, for marks of a sharp instrument. If this examination does not reveal the cause of death, the friends and neighbors of the deceased are questioned. An attentive examination is then made of the wounds.

"A sure means of fixing the date of a wound may be found by noticing the color of the bone that has been attacked. If the wound is recent and slight, the bone will be red; if old and severe, the color will be dark blue. It is, however, necessary to be assured that the color is real, and has not been applied so as to square with the deposition of the relatives. A red color may be given to a bone by staining it with a composition of saffron, pine-wood, black plums, alum, and boiling vinegar; and green alum or gall-nuts mixed with vinegar will give a dark-blue or black tint; but the counterfeit is generally betrayed by the absence of luster. A false wound may also be made on a body with bamboo-coals, but such wounds are always of little depth and soft. If birch-bark has been used for the burning, the flesh is black and soft, and the edges of the wound are livid. Burning with paper produces a wound like a fist-blow; but a red and burned spot may be remarked around the wound, while the flesh within appears yellowish and tumefied, but without consistence. A true wound can also be recognized by the clear color of the surrounding flesh. The edges of the wound resemble a kind of rainbow, something like rain seen at a distance, like clouds with a vague and indistinct aspect."

After having thus defined the characteristics of a wound, and the means of exposing every kind of deception, the manual passes to the consideration of the motives for crime. "Murders," it says, "are rarely premeditated; they are sometimes the consequence of intoxication. The magistrate," it continues, "should remember that the relatives of a wounded man may have an interest in dispatching him, so that they may demand a more considerable indemnity from the murderer. He must also inform himself, in the case of a man who was severely wounded in a brawl, whether he was honestly taken care of. In case of death, examine the body carefully from head to foot; see whether the ears have been pulled and torn, whether the nostrils have been hurt, whether the lips are open or closed, count the teeth, inspect the cheeks, carefully feel the limbs to the finger-nails and toe-nails. If the coroner can not find a visible mark of a wound, he should pour on the part vinegar with its dregs, and then put a piece of oiled, transparent cloth between the sun and the body, and look carefully. If nothing appears, let him make another trial, with powdered white plums added to the vinegar. If this, too, fails, he should prepare a cake of white plums, red pepper, onions, salt, and vinegar, and apply it boiling hot on the part of the body where the wound ought to be. An attentive examination having been made of the body, and the marks of wounds on the skin, their shape, size, and position having been noted, death should be attributed to the wound that is found in the most vulnerable spot."

It is one of the curious features of this system that, if the death is due to a blow on the lower part of the abdomen, a clew to it may be obtained from the state of the roots of the teeth in men and of the gums in women. When the inquest is held over a body in so advanced a state of decomposition that nothing is left of it but the bones, a clear day is chosen, and the bones, after having been exposed to the vapor of hot vinegar, are examined through a red and transparent cloth. The blood having been coagulated in the wounded parts of the bones, they will be brought out, and the marks—red, dark blue, or black, as the case may be—will be made visible. A long and dark mark indicates a blow made by the arm; a round mark, a blow of the fist; a smaller mark, a kick. Extravasation of blood in the bone indicates a wound made before death. If doubts exist as to the identity of the remains, a son or grandson of the deceased is required to shed some of his blood upon it. If there is relationship, the blood will penetrate the bone, otherwise it will not. This kind of test may be compared with the ancient custom of barbarous people based upon the belief that the blood of relatives poured into the same vessel will mix, while that of strangers will remain separate. A like custom also is used in China to prove in court contested relationships; but the officer must be particularly careful that no salt or vinegar is put into the vessel, lest those substances should promote a mixture of the blood. It is believed to have been shown by experiment that men slain with a knife die with the mouth and eyes open and the hands closed, and that their skin and muscles are drawn up. If the victim has been decapitated, the muscles are tense, the skin is flabby, and the shoulders are drawn up. These features are not found when the decapitation has taken place after death. It is very important to discriminate between the effects of wounds made before or after death, for accomplished murderers seek to give their crime the appearance of a suicide.

The general aspect of the body is relied upon to give an evident indication of the state of mind in which a suicide was committed. If the teeth are clinched and the eyes are partly open, the act was done in a fit of violent passion; if the eyes are shut, the mouth open, and the teeth not clinched, the case was one of suppressed anger. If fear of punishment induced the suicide, the eyes and the mouth will be closed, and the body will have an air of repose, "for the unfortunate one regarded death as the end of his journey, as the term of rest that should disengage him from the responsibilities of life." The hands of a suicide continue soft for some time, and after a day or two the skin draws up—symptoms that are not observed in cases of murder.

In case of strangulation, which is very frequent, it is the officer's duty to inform himself with especial particularity respecting the exact position of the body, the signs on the neck, the existence or absence of the mark of the rope, the expression of the face, and a thousand other details.

The directions to be observed in cases of drowning are, on the whole, sensible, but the habit of generalizing here also leads to some strange conclusions. Thus, it has been discovered that bodies require a longer time to come to the surface of the water in the winter and the beginning of the spring than at other seasons.

With no aid from dissection, the inquests in cases of poison are, of course, very incomplete. The most usual test is to introduce into the mouth a silver needle that has been dipped in a decoction of Gleditschia sinensis. If, after a certain time, the needle receives a blackish tint that resists washing, poisoning is concluded to have been the cause of death. Sometimes a handful of rice is put into the mouth of the deceased and then given to a fowl, and the effect upon the bird of eating it is noticed.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.