Archive for the ‘Death Investigation’ Category
Hangings have been a staple in mysteries for as long as we can remember. The Wild West featured them at high noon, and even the United States government used hanging as a means to execute condemned prisoners—the last being a fellow from the state of Delaware named Bill Bailey, which finally answers the never-ending question from that song. He’s not coming home, so feel free to stop singing.
Most writers who attempt to pen death by rope or other “twisted” cord, have never seen a victim of strangulation, or hanging (sometimes they’re the same). That lack of first-hand experience, of course, makes describing a strangulation a bit more difficult, leaving authors to rely on books, TV, film, and the word of experts. So, before we look at an actual photo straight from the morgue (I snapped the image), let’s take a moment to discuss why something as small as a shoelace has the ability to end a life.
*Warning – graphic images below.
The human neck, although sturdily perched on a set of nicely toned shoulders, is actually quite vulnerable to life-threatening injury.
After all, there’s a lot of important stuff packed into a fairly small space—spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels. And, unfortunately for murder victims, there’s not a lot of extra protection surrounding those vital body parts.
Hangings are either complete (the entire weight of the body is suspended by the neck), or incomplete (a portion of the body is touching the ground/floor).
A judicial hanging (execution) is normally a death by internal decapitation, where the weight of the body combined with the fall causes the neck to break, separating the skull from the spine (a separation at C2 is the classic hangman fracture).
The muscles of the neck, such as the sternocleidomastoid muscle, remain intact during an incomplete decapitation.
Rarely, as I’ve often read in novels, does a complete external decapitation occur. However, it is possible to see an external decapitation (the head completely separates from the body—two individual pieces) in cases where the drop is much further than the length of the victim’s body. For example, the victim is 6′ tall and is dropped from a height of 30 feet, or more, before the rope tightens.
Strangulation by ligature, tool, or mechanism is a little different, however. Death is normally caused by obstruction of blood flow to the brain, which first causes loss of consciousness followed by arterial and possible airway obstruction.
However, pressure applied to the neck for mere moments doesn’t always cause death. Martial arts “strangle holds” often involve a compression of the major neck arteries, causing a temporary unconsciousness.
The trachea (windpipe) is generally not compromised during the application of choke-hold techniques.
The above post-autopsy photo (note the stitching used to close the “Y” incision) shows a deep ligature mark on the neck (upper left). The murder weapon was an extension cord, the kind typically found in many homes.
Other items used to strangle include, but are not limited to, shoestrings, belts, bedsheets and pillow cases, speaker wire, lawn mower pull cords, t-shirts, underwear, draw strings, phone cords, window blind cords, curtains, Christmas tree light strings, flex cuffs/cable ties, twine, wire of various types, drip irrigation tubing, computer bag and luggage straps, purse straps, bras, stockings and socks, and if all else fails, rope.
Another form of execution in days long ago was to hang a man by his ribs. The hangman first made an incision between condemned person’s ribs, on either side. Next, he inserted an iron hook between the exposed ribs. A chain attached to the hook was used to hoist the soon-to-be-dead man, who was left hanging until he died. A process that could take several days.
Hugh Killdme let the spoonful of peas and carrots rest on his tongue. He closed his eyes, savoring the combined taste of his two favorite vegetables. In his mind, he pictured the green and orange delicacies as they danced and rolled in boiling hot water. He saw tendrils of wispy pea-carrot flavored steam shimmying and twisting their way from the blue porcelain Rachael Ray pot to the gleaming stainless steel hood above the range.
Hugh shifted his thoughts to the basement freezer. He’d ordered the Super-Duper Chill-Zero model from Acme (Wile E. Coyote isn’t the only character in the world who knows where to shop for a good deal).
The day after Acme’s number one best-selling frost-making machine arrived, he’d packed it to the brim with bags of frozen peas and carrots. Bought every single package within a twenty-mile radius. His lips split into a lopsided grin. Thirty seconds later he was graveyard dead.
The instant Hugh’s face crashed into his dinner plate, sending airborne little green pellets and perfectly cut squares of orange, his wife of thirty years scurried toward the basement to unplug the freezer, muttering along the way about never again cooking another pea or carrot as long as she was able to draw a breath. For that she was thankful. She was also thankful that the poison had worked so quickly. Not because her husband hadn’t suffered long, though. Instead, she had plans to play Bingo at the Presbyterian church over on Save-a-soul Drive, and to have her husband flopping around on the kitchen floor for hours would have absolutely ruined her evening. Probably would’ve ruined the shine on her brand new linoleum too. Her mother always said things have a way of working out. She, too, went quickly…bless her heart.
Questions about poisons. I get them all the time, and the number one question that most often pops up is, “What’s the best poison for a wife to use that would act quickly and be difficult for police to detect?” So lets dissect this one by visiting a current situation, one that’s making headlines.
First of all, police officers won’t be the folks who detect the poison. That’s the job of the medical examiner and/or laboratory scientists. Next, to detect a specific poison the medical examiner would have to request specific testing for the substance/toxin/chemical/etc. A tox screen is not a one-stop-shop and does not detect most poisons. This is where the police can be a big help to the M.E. and lab technicians and scientists. For example, a savvy detective may notice a bottle labeled “Husband Killer” on the kitchen table next to the head of the deceased. If so, he/she would collect the bottle as evidence and report his/her discovery to the M.E., who would then order testing for the potentially deadly concoction.
Another huge clue that sharp detectives should pounce on would be the fact that the widow works as a scientist for a bio-pharmaceutical company. And that’s sort of what happened in the case of Tianle Li, the Chinese woman who was recently convicted of murdering her husband, Xiaoye Wang. Her weapon of choice—thallium.
Thallium, a metal that’s used in electronic switches and some medical devices, was once used as a major component in insecticides and rat poisons. It’s basically odorless and tasteless. And it is well known as the “poisoner’s poison” because it is so difficult to detect in the human body. Thallium use as a pesticide was banned in the U.S. in the early 70′s.
Biotech and pharmaceutical companies are permitted to conduct research using dangerous chemicals, toxins, poisons, extracts, etc. That’s how Tianli Li obtained the thallium she used to murder her husband. As a chemist for Bristol-Myers Squibb, Li ordered thallium to research its effect on humans.
After receiving doses of thallium (how Li introduced the thallium into her husband’s body is not clear) Wang became ill with flu-like symptoms and checked himself into a local hospital, where he lapsed into a coma and died two weeks later.
Had it not been for a quick thinking nurse who’d read about a thallium poisoning case in China, Li would have gotten away with murder…the “perfect murder,” using the “poisoner’s poison” as her instrument of death. The nurse alerted officials who then conducted tests and indeed found thallium in Wang’s body.
So there you have it, my writer friends—two very important bits of information for possible use in your work (writing, that is). One – thallium is the poisoner’s poison because it is difficult to detect. Two – people who work in biotech and pharmaceutical research are able to purchase just about anything in the name of “science.”
By the way, it takes a while for most poisons to get the job done. Having your character go as quickly as Hugh Killdme is, well, fictional.