CEPI Curiosities: The Washing Away of Wrongs

Kevin here again, and I hope your hunger for medico-historico oddities has yet to be satiated because I am back for another installment of CEPI Curiosities. Last time, we investigated the case of the Persian Princess, a fake historic artifact that led to a real murder investigation. This offers a great jumping point to bring us back to the subject of study for the current cohort of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program: forensic science.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were an instrumental period in the history of forensic science, as several cultures lent more scientific weight to death investigation. In 1194, England established an official office of the coroner to investigate cases of sudden death or murder (As an aside early English coroners also had the power to perform arrests as well as the power to collect taxes). Around the same time in Bolonga (in modern-day Italy), the first criminal cases emerged where medical professionals were brought in as expert witnesses. Medical autopsies gradually gained favor in Europe around the same time as scientists challenged earlier taboos against examining human remains.

However, the first formalized procedures for forensic investigation originated in Song Dynasty China.  In 1247 Song Ci (Sung Tzu in Wade-Giles), wrote and published the first known forensic handbook: Collected Cases of Injustices Rectified, or The Washing Away of Wrongs (Xi Yuan Ji Lu). Directed at local coroners, the book mapped out detailed guidelines for investigating sudden or mysterious deaths. At a time when coroners required no formalized training, his guidelines provided clear methods for conducting investigations.

Song based his guidelines on practical observation and inferences based on crime scene evidence and body examination. He explained how to examine bodies under certain conditions, such as buried vs. non burial, various stages of decomposition, and skeletal remains. He provided detailed guidelines for conducting autopsies, including diagrams. He showed how to identify evidence of stabbings, blunt force trauma, strangulation, the presence of various poisons, and even lightning strikes, tiger bites, and death from excessive eating, drinking, or sex. He also went into extensive detail on how to determine murder from suicide. Song Ci’s treatise served as the standard manual of forensic investigation in China for centuries and was translated into numerous languages, including English, German, French, and Japanese.

Nomenclature of Human Bones from the 1843 edition, Image in the Public Domain

Nomenclature of Human Bones from the 1843 edition, Image in the Public Domain

As interesting as The Washing Away of Wrongs is on its own as a practical manual of crime scene investigation, this wouldn’t be CEPI Curiosities without some medical weirdness. In addition to all the benefits Song Ci’s work gave for the novice or experienced coroner, Song also gave advice on how to undo the effects of death. In his penultimate section, titled “Methods for Restoring Life,” Song enumerated various tried and true methods to reanimate dead subjects. These remedies covered different specific instances of death, such as drowning, freezing, and death from fright and often involved massaging the limbs, blowing air into the victim’s ears, or forcing the (dead) subject to ingest something. For example, a victim of what Song described as the “five deaths” (death from childbirth, fright, strangulation, nightmare, and drowning, presumably not all at the same time) could be revived, even if they had been dead for more than a day, provided the following:

“First take the dead person and place him on the ground with knees bent, like the posture of a Buddhist monk in meditation. Have someone take the dead person’s hair and pull it down towards the ground. Using a bamboo or paper tube, blow a quantity of raw powdered Pinellia ternata [an herb which is a deadly toxin in its raw form]…into the nose. If he revives, administer a dose of raw ginger juice, which will counteract the poisonous effects of the Pinellia” (Sung Tz’u, The Washing Away of Wrongs, Brian E. McKnight, trans., Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, the University of Michigan, 1981, 161).

Among my favorites is a remedy he prescribed for sudden deaths by “Repulsive Factors” (most likely a heart attack) which involved “thrust[ing] the yellow heart of a leek six or seven inches into the nostril (the left for men, the right for women), causing the blood from [the part of the nostrils] between the eyes to flow. The victim will then revive”(Ibid. 158-159).

If you would like to know more, the Library of the College of Physicians has a copy of the English translation. It provides a fairly quick and definitely informative and entertaining read. Until next time!

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2 thoughts on “CEPI Curiosities: The Washing Away of Wrongs

  1. Pingback: CEPI Curiosities: The Holmesburg Prison Experiments | CEPI@CPP

  2. Pingback: CEPI Curiosities: The Death of William Henry Harrison | CEPI@CPP

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