Issue 36 Friendship Winter 2009/10

Death and Sudden Death (After Dr. Brouardel)

Steve Reinke

The body of a woman was exhumed and a living child, that actually survived and grew up, was rescued from the coffin.


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When the Opera-Comique was burnt down, twenty-nine bodies were found near the refreshment bar which showed no marks of burning or violence; the dresses, and even the finest lace, were intact; these persons had succumbed to asphyxia by carbonic oxide. When their faces had been cleansed from the black and grimy coating which the smoke had deposited, three of them were found to be young girls. In the case of two of them, their relatives could scarcely believe that they were dead when they saw them; for their complexions were rosy and the lips red, because the carbonic oxide had preserved the scarlet colour of the blood; even when putrefaction had set in, a few days afterwards, these girls still had a rosy look, because the red blood was 
propelled towards the head and face.


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Josat invented a pair of forceps with claws, with which he proposed to pinch the nipples of persons whose death has to be ascertained. Josat obtained the first prize of the Academy, but Briquet, repeating the same tests on the hysterical subjects under his care, proved that they did not react under Josat’s forceps any more than the dead.


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It was affirmed that in persons dying suddenly, the eye preserved the impression of objects which were in front of it. Photographs of the retina of a person supposed to have been murdered were shown to the Society of Legal Medicine. It is said that these photographs reproduced the figures of a man and a dog in the act of springing and making the attack to which the individual had succumbed. These images, which were said to be so clear, were really extraordinarily vague, and yet in his report, M. Vernois was quite positive about them. Kühne of Heidelberg has repeated the experiment. I have seen some of his photographs, and some of them are very distinct. He placed a grating in front of a rabbit, then killed the animal rapidly and removed its eye, exposed the retina and photographed it. In the print the transverse and vertical bars of the grating may be recognized. He has endeavoured also to reproduce a fence and a chair; but even when set in the full sunshine these objects gave only very indistinct images. Many obstacles besides stand in the way of these experimental results ever having a practical use in forensic medicine; the animal must as a matter of fact be killed rapidly, and the retina must be photographed immediately after death. These conditions are hardly to be realized in forensic medicine; and though these results in animals may have some little weight, we cannot admit that we should find, twenty-four or forty-eight hours after death, any copy on the retina of a murdered man of the last scene of the fatal drama.


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A young man called one day at a chemist’s, whose identity, happily for him, has never been traced, to ask for some strychnine to kill his cat. The chemist supplied him with the strychnine; but the young man changed his mind when he reached home, and no longer wished to kill the cat! Before shutting up the strychnine which the chemist had given him in a drawer, he thought he would like to see what the powder tasted like; so he wetted his finger, dipped it in the powder, and licked it; he died in the midst of horrible convulsions.


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Dr. Collongues attaches great importance to “dynamos-copy”; he affirms that, when you put into your ear the finger of a living person, two noises can be heard distinctly, two slight rolling sounds produced by the muscular system. When these sounds disappear, the individual is dead.


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You know what was called “the Judgment of God”? When a corpse was found near a village, and it was impossible to detect the murderer, the inhabitants were made to file before the corpse; if blood and gas escaped from the wounds, the person who stood before the body at that moment was arrested; that man, it was said, was the assassin, because the corpse revolted at the sight of him. 


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An individual hired a room with an adjoining dark closet, and suffocated himself in that closet. The owner of the house was not very much astonished at the disappearance of his lodger; but, seeing that he did not return, 
he decided to let the room anew, after giving it a thorough cleaning. The new lodger went into the little closet on the night of his arrival, and found there the body of his predecessor. Death had taken place two months previously, and yet the body did not present any trace of putrefaction. It is true that it was winter, and that the temperature of the closet had always been low.


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Of all the organs, the uterus putrefies last: for a long time after death its examination is capable of affording precise information. ... The body of a servant-girl, 18 years of age, was found at the bottom of a well. She was buried, but after more than a year had gone by, her master was suspected of having caused her to become pregnant and thrown her into the well, and he was arrested in consequence; however, he denied it strenuously. An exhumation was ordered, and ... the uterus eighteen months after burial had still the shape of one that had never been impregnated. The accused man naturally was acquitted.


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Some years ago a chimney in a house in the Rue de Tournon was pulled down; the mummified body of a newly-born child was found behind the chimney. A servant was the only person who could be incriminated, but there had been a succession of nurses in that room, and the precise settlement of the period of death was the only means by which justice could fix the true culprit. I then remembered the work of Dr. Bergeret.


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The body of a child seven or eight years of age was found in a soap-box; how long ago did death take place? It was then the month of July. M. Megnin had made a special study of the fauna of the dead body, and that he alone could enlighten me on certain points. M. Mégnin proved, by studying the succession of flies and larvae which were found among the remains, that the body had been placed in the soap-box in the second half of February of the preceding year. The mother, who suffered from phthisis, was accused, and, as she felt her end approaching, confessed voluntarily that the deed had happened on February 23rd.


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Gentlemen, corpses exposed to the air or improperly buried are sometimes devoured by dogs, wolves, or other carnivorous animals; you easily recognize this by the marks of their bites. But it sometimes happens that bodies, especially those of newly-born infants, are eaten by rats. The bites of rats are sometimes difficult to recognize. They always attack the parts that are fat, i.e., the cheeks and heels; they divide the skin in a straight line, which often has the appearance of having been cut with a knife; so close is the resemblance that it is often difficult to avoid a mistake. Rats will make a body disappear with extraordinary rapidity. At the Morgue, before refrigerating apparatus was introduced, the rats used to devour the bodies in spite of every precaution.


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Two children died suddenly in a cold bath. ... In both these children the heart was so loaded with fat that it was impossible to see the muscular fibre. What was the matter with these children? ... The children of large cities, such as Paris, Lyons, Marseille, Lille, etc., exist under certain peculiar conditions. Take the little Parisian for example: he is confined to very narrow surroundings; his intellect develops rapidly, and is precocious. That child will become towards his tenth or eleventh year the street-Arab (gavroche) of Victor Hugo, if he belongs to the lower classes, or a “little prodigy” if he is born in the middle class. ... At the same time the development of his testicles is arrested, and he grows fat; the breasts enlarge, and sometimes an abscess forms in them. I have had to open sixty or seventy while I was physician to Sainte-Barbe. The children ... are like bags of fat and ... ought not to undergo the douche or to enter a cold bath.


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A healthy woman was taken suddenly ill while walking in the street, and was removed to the hospital, where she died six hours afterwards. ... A large sewing-needle had worked itself into the heart and caused fatal haemorrhage.


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In England, ... the railway-station [is] one of the commonest places where sudden deaths occur. You know how many Englishmen live out of town; they are sometimes pressed for time, always keeping in mind the hour of the train, and have to run to catch it, and they sometimes die at the very moment of entering the carriage.


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“A man is as old as his arteries” is an aphorism which has, I think, been attributed to Cazalis, but which I now know to be much more ancient; from the point of view of sudden death, it is absolutely exact. A man actually is as old as his arteries.


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An old woman ... sold some snuff to a little urchin. While he was waiting for his screw of snuff, the boy, tickled by the sight of the old woman’s pomum Adami moving up and down in her neck, struck her a blow on the larynx as if he were trying to catch a butterfly; the woman died instantaneously.


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Some students at Aberdeen thought that they had reason to complain, rightly or wrongly, of the conduct of the University porter, and resolved to play him a trick in return. They carried him off, led him into a dark room in which there was a block of wood, blindfolded him, and told him that he was going to die. The porter was naturally very much agitated. He was made to lay his head on the block, then, by means of a wet cloth twisted into a lash, one of the students gave him a blow on the nape of the neck. The man died immediately.


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At an execution in Paris on August 19, 1792, in the early days of the guillotine, a beardless young man, who wore the red cap, came forward and, mainly out of curiosity, volunteered his assistance. Sanson, the head executioner, being shorthanded, took him at his word, made him ascend the scaffold, and gave him the cord to pull which liberated the knife, “in order that he might display his patriotism.” He then directed him to pick up the severed head and exhibit it to the crowd. “He took the head by the hair and advanced to the edge of the scaffold; but, as he was raising his arm to show the bloody trophy, he staggered and fell back. M. Sanson came to his assistance, thinking he was fainting; but he discovered that he was dead.


• • •


A girl complained of rheumatic pains. She was put to bed, and ten loaves of bread fresh from the oven were placed around her. At the end of three hours, the unfortunate girl was dead. She had succumbed to the hot vapours exhaled by the loaves of bread.


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Towards the end of the Empire, an old lady was seized with uncontrollable vomiting.


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A great inventor, who had amassed a large fortune, but whose name I shall not mention, habitually suffered from obstinate constipation; he soothed his pain with chloroform. One day he received a visit from two friends who were not so well off, and after their departure he was found dead on the sofa; his brother, with whom he had not lived on the best of terms, suspected that he had been murdered by these friends; the bottle of chloroform and a folded cloth had been found by the side of the body. ... I found the intestine loaded with very hard faeces. 


• • •


The alcoholic subject does not make attempts on his own life merely. He is a dangerous man both to his relatives and to his neighbours. He sleeps badly; he imagines that he sees glittering objects, and fancies that he is surrounded by animals, which make offensive remarks and insult him; he has hallucinations of touch, and believes that he is exposed to violence of greater or less severity.


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Allow me to remind you of a certain butcher-boy, who imagined one night that his wife struck him on the head with a boot; he got up, took his knife and cut her throat; then he chopped her in half, as if she were a carcass of veal or pork, and set to work to cut her body into joints as if he were preparing meat for sale. He was arrested, and confined in Mazas Gaol, and at the end of three weeks his alcoholic delirium had entirely disappeared.


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When I was a young doctor, I was called in to a child in convulsions. As my mind was deeply imbued with the teachings of my masters, Trousseau especially, I reassured the parents, telling them that it was an everyday occurrence, and that there was no danger. Before I had finished speaking the child died.


• • •


It happened in a child 20 months old, whose father had just returned from work, and gone to bed. The child, which was on its nurse’s lap, began to cry. The father was out of temper, and went towards the child and said: “Will you not be quiet, then, you ugly little monkey!” The child became silent, drew a deep breath, and died immediately.


These excerpts from Death and Sudden Death, a collection of lectures by the eminent French pathologist Paul Broaurdel, follow verbatim the English translation first published in 1896.

Steve Reinke is an artist and writer best known for his work in video. He is the co-editor (with Chris Gehman) of The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema (YYZ Books, 2005). Everybody Loves Nothing, a book comprising texts drawn from his videos, was recently published by Coach House Press.

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