PostHeaderIcon Back By Popular Demand – Jonathan Hayes: Notes On Forensic Medicine…Smell

Jonathan Hayes ( is a senior forensic pathologist in the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, and author of PRECIOUS BLOOD (Harper 2007) and A HARD DEATH (Harper, 2009).

Notes on Forensic Medicine: Smell

by Jonathan Hayes MD.

My sense of smell is pretty acute, an extremely useful attribute in my food writing career but a double-edged sword in my career as a forensic pathologist. For example, it’s pretty easy for me to tell when a particular decedent has been drinking heavily, but I will admit that I had a pretty rough time with decomposition when I began in the business.

I should be more specific in my terms: decomposition is the natural breakdown of tissues after death. We divide decomposition into putrefaction (damp rot under the influence of bacteria), mummification (where the body shrinks as it dessicates in a dry environment) and adipocere formation (typically occurring in cool, damp places, like waterlogged coffins or bodies recovered from a lake, adipocere is a condition in which the body fat is chemically converted into a soapy material sometimes called “grave wax” – it’s an odd process, because the body decays, yet its form is preserved, almost “cast” in odd, cheesy-looking material.)

In the early stages after death, cellular metabolism slows as the internal systems begin to break down. Lack of oxygen in the tissues triggers an explosive growth of bacteria, which feed on the body’s proteins, carbohydrates and fats, producing gases that cause the body to smell and to swell. In 1885, the German physician Ludwig Brieger identified two nitrogenous compounds – putrescine and cadaverine – as the chemical basis of the smell of putrefaction; there are, in fact, a host of volatile compounds involved, including substances related to butyric acid. While together these chemicals may be characteristic of putrefaction, they’re encountered in other places, giving odor variously to bodily fluids, rancid butter, bad breath and stinky cheeses.

A body may release gases within hours after death, even without visible signs of decay. In cities, bodies are often found when a “neighbor complains of a foul odor”, a history so common it’s occasionally shortened to “NCFO”. More poetically, I’ve heard the smell of decomposition referred to as “the stench of loneliness”; those who have partners or family are usually discovered before their bodies rot.

It was in Boston that I encountered my first putrefied body. A resident in General Pathology at Boston University Medical Center, I spent a lot of time at forensic autopsies – the medical examiner’s office autopsy room was on the top floor of our building. My first winter there (thanks to indoor heating, bodies decompose all year round in temperate zones, too; the extreme dry heat means that we tend to see more mummification in winter than in summer), I wandered up to the autopsy room and opened the door to find them working on a very putrefied body.

A well-run mortuary doesn’t really smell; it is washed frequently and properly ventilated, and most bodies examined are fresh. But I’d never smelled anything like that putrefied body; it was an overwhelming odor, dense, wet, vile, almost shockingly sweet, like the vomit of a drunk; it seemed to coat the skin and settle into clothes. I felt nauseated, and stepped back outside the room, closed the door behind me and leaned against the wall, retching.

When I felt better, I went back into the autopsy room. The stench grew stronger as I approached the body and watched; a couple minutes later, I had to go back out and retch again. Then I went back in. I’m embarrassed to admit it took me a couple of years to get used to it. This makes me something of a lightweight: in NYC, each month we teach forensic pathology to large numbers of junior doctors, medical students, paramedics and EMT’s, and I’ve only rarely seen anyone have to leave the room.

The response to the odor, then, is very subjective; most people are surprised by their lack of an intense reaction the first time they see an autopsy. The context is important, of course – in an autopsy room, the surroundings are so clinical, and everyone is so matter-of-fact about the work that there isn’t much emotional space to abreact – the opening sequence of the TV show Quincy, where the cops are dropping like flies, is wholly fictitious.

My own intense response to the smell of putrefaction was fascinating to me. I’d never encountered it before; the closest I’d come was the smell of rotting grass in a compost pile back in my days on a country club grounds crew while I was in medical school. But humans are wired to find the smell repulsive for biological reasons – we know immediately when meat has gone bad, and we do not eat it. (An interesting contrast: I learned on a wildlife documentary that hyenas thrive on rotten carrion. Apparently, the digestive tract of the hyena is so robust that it can happily consume anthrax-infected flesh without problem – a superb evolutionary advantage, because that limits competition for their food. Indeed, the hyenas in the film weren’t just wolfing down the rotting flesh, they were rubbing themselves on it, rolling in it like cats with catnip.)

Occasionally I’ve heard medical examiners joke that the smell of decomposition is “the smell of job security”. With time, it’s got that I don’t mind the smell any more – I may still wince a little when I first encounter the body, particularly when it’s an exhumation, where the body has been sealed tight with its gases for years, decades even. But after the first couple of minutes, I barely notice the smell – the overwhelmed nose shuts down quickly. So, yes, I’m better about it now. But still a very long way from the hyena’s embrace of decay…

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The huge Indonesian corpse flower (titan arum) blooms once every six years, and attracts insects by releasing chemicals including putrescine and cadaverine. It’s a pretty spectacular trick: not only does the broad petal that wraps the pollen-bearing spadix have the ruddy maroon color of rotting flesh, the plant generates temperatures equivalent to the temperature of the human body, volatilizing its scent to attract even more insects.

*This is a repeat article brought back in response to an overwhelming number of requests.

PostHeaderIcon Judge Bill Hopkins: When Bail, Bond, and Divorce Make Me Growl

Photo of Bill Hopkins

As a sitting judge on a general trial court for twenty years, I ran across many things that made me wonder if anyone knew anything about the law. There is, of course, no secret that lawyers and their co-conspirators in all levels of government work daily and diligently to make the law incomprehensible. (CPAs are also guilty, but that’s another blog post.) So if we lawyers make things difficult, we shouldn’t complain when people don’t understand it, right? Wrong.

Here are but three of many things that make me growl.

(1) “A divorce (or dissolution of marriage or whatever your state calls it) is not a lawsuit.”

This one baffles me. Once I was speaking to a non-lawyer and I said, “John sued Mary for divorce.” The fellow answered, “No, he didn’t sue her. He filed a divorce. That’s different.”

If you are married and you do not want to be married, the only legal way I know of to accomplish that is to file a lawsuit asking the court to unhitch you. You must file a petition (or complaint or whatever your state calls it) and the court that hears divorce cases. That makes you the plaintiff (or petitioner or whatever your state calls it). The other party to the lawsuit (your soon to be ex-spouse) is called the defendant (or respondent or whatever your state calls it).

In some states, if you’ve agreed on everything, you can file a notice of settlement and some judge will sign a judgment, declaring you and your sweetie to no longer be married.

If you can’t agree, there could be a knock-down, drag-out courtroom battle that concerns everything from child custody to who gets the matched salt-and-pepper shakers from Hawaii.

That, my friends, is a real lawsuit, the same as if it was Standard Oil and the EPA.

(Note: I heard a divorce case where two judges were getting a divorce. They couldn’t agree on the disposition of a manure spreader. [Insert manure spreader joke here.] I decided it for them and they haven’t complained since.)

(2) “If you have a will, you don’t need to go through probate court.”

As far as I know, there is no such thing as an automatic will anywhere in any state or territory of the United States. (Correct me if I’m wrong. I’d love to see how that works! And, keep reading.)

When you die, there are two ways your stuff (if you have any stuff leftover from paying taxes all your life) is split one of two ways: You have a will or the government decides where your stuff goes.

This one I shouldn’t get too upset about because of the growing prevalence of trusts and other non-probate transfers of property. Such things keep you away from the probate division of the court to some degree or the other (depending on your state).

Free legal advice: Go to a competent—meaning you’ve done your research on the person—estate planning lawyer. Get a financial power of attorney, a healthcare power of attorney, a will, a trust, and advice on how transfer/pay on death works in your state. This can save you a lot of money and heartache. If you don’t care where your stuff goes and you don’t care if you have heartache and grief, then don’t do anything or use forms you found on the Internet.

And there’s no “reading of the will” except on soap operas. In fact, after you make out all your estate-planning documents, you should give photocopies to your potential heirs—you don’t have heirs until you die—and make sure they know how to get to your safe place after you pass. Protect your valuable documents from fire, flood, wind, earthquake, and critters (four- and two-legged).

(3) “Bail and bond mean the same thing.”

BAIL is generally how much the judge wants before you get out of jail and BOND is generally how the bail is made. Don’t ever expect journalists to get this right. And judges and lawyers often confuse it also.

The best way to knock this one flat is to give you three scenarios.

ONE: Danny Defendant has been arrested for a felony and the judge says, “You’ve always shown up in the past when you’ve been arrested so I’ll let you out on your own recognizance and we’ll take your word for it that you’ll be back for your trial.” This is a recognizance bond (or signature bond or whatever your state calls it).

TWO: Danny Defendant has been arrested for a felony and the judge says, “$10,000 cash only bail.” Danny’s decrepit grandmother who barely scrapes by on Social Security, sells her great-grandmother’s diamond ring and forks over $10,000 in cash to the court and gets a receipt made in Danny Defendant’s name. When he shows up, she gets the dough back. If he doesn’t show up, the government keeps the money. This is cash bond (or whatever your state calls it).

THREE: Danny Defendant has been arrested for a felony and the judge says, “$10,000 bail.” Chico leaves the Little League game he’s sponsoring and hustles down to the jail. Chico sells Danny a bail bond for $1000 which is paid for by Danny’s decrepit grandmother who gets a receipt made out in Danny’s name. If Danny shows up when the court tells him to, then the bond is cancelled. If Danny does not show up when the court tells him to, the bond is forfeited and Chico sues the decrepit Grandma for all she’s worth since Danny is gone. This is a bail bond (or whatever your state calls it).

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New Picture (1)

After two decades on the bench, Bill Hopkins captures readers with his Judge Rosswell Carew murder mysteries. How does a judge manage to wrangle his way into investigating so many crimes? And can he do it without crossing into the dark side himself? Find out by reading the complete series beginning with Courting Murder, followed by River Mourn and Bloody Earth.

Bill Hopkins is retired after beginning his legal career in 1971 and serving as a private attorney, prosecuting attorney, an administrative law judge, and a trial court judge, all in Missouri. His poems, short stories, and non-fiction have appeared in many different publications. He’s had several short plays produced. A book of collected poetry, Moving Into Forever, is available on Amazon. Bill is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dramatists Guild, Horror Writers Association, Missouri Writers Guild, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. Bill is also a photographer who has sold work in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He and his wife, Sharon (also a published writer), live in Marble Hill, Missouri, with their dogs and cats. Besides writing, Bill and Sharon are involved in collecting and restoring Camaros.

Please take a moment to visit Judge Bill Hopkins at


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