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Death: its causes and phenomena. With special reference to immortality online

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recover its strength. White and livid colouring at the
poijits of the fingers : — An antiquated and misleading

Belctxation of the sphincters and the pupil ; glazed eyes and
haziness of the cornea ; insensibility of the eye in regard to the
action of a strong light ; bending of the thtcmb towards the
2mlm of the hand : — All given up nowadays as unreliable.

Discqopearance of the elasticity of the muscles — also takes
place in dropsy and other diseases.

Non-coagulability of the blood : — Unreliable ; in scurvy
and certain other diseases the blood remains incoas^ulable
for several days.

Absence of a humming noise in the auscultation of the finger
joints: — Unreliable. If the finger is not held in just the
right position, nothing will be heard, even if the patient
is alive. Further, humming noises, internal noises in
the body of the physician, &c., are apt to be mistaken
for the sounds going on in the body of the patient.

Galvanism has been considered sufficient to furnish
a test that is certain. Irritability is extinguished first in
the left ventricle; then in the intestines and stomach,
next in the bladder, afterwards in the right ventricle,
then in the oesophagus, and after that in the iris. The
muscles of the trunk finally give way — the extremities
and the auricles. The collapsed edge of a wound in
a dead body, in distinction from a gushing wound in
a living one, is the result of a peculiar irritability — the


extinction of which is one of the indications of death.
Flaccidity is an uncertain sign of death ; putrefaction is

Within recent years, two or three additional tests have
been devised. X-ray machines have been employed to
ascertain whether any vital action was taking place
within the body. It was found that, if all the internal
functioning had come to a complete standstill — bowels,
liver, lungs, heart, &c. — the shadow cast on the screen
would come out clear and distinct ; if, on the other
hand, some of these organs were working (and conse-
quently moving) the outline or shadow would be blurred
and indistinct. We do not know to what extent this test
has been carried; and its value and reliability would
depend (1) upon the clearness of the shadow; and (2),
upon the extent to which the internal organs can sus-
pend their functioning, in such states as trance, and yet
life be present, or possibly recalled. We must always
remember that the entire vital machinery might stop,
for some considerable time, and yet be enabled to resume
its functioning. This fact must be taken into considera-
tion when discussing this test.

Still more lately, Dr. Elmer Gates has published an
article in the Annals of Psychical Science (June 1906),
entitled, " On the Transparency of the Animal Body to
Electric and Light Waves : As a Test of Death and a
New Mode of Diagnosis, and a Probable New Method of
Psj'chic Research." He says in part : —

" Several years ago ... I discovered that certain wave lengths
of electric waves (not X-rays or ultra-violet light) pass more freely
through a body of a dead than of a living organism, and I pro-
posed this as a test of death. This greater transparency at death
I found to be due to the absence of the normal electric currents,
which are always present in functionally active nerves and muscles.

. . When the body is alive, it is a bundle of electric currents, and


electric waves cannot pass through these currents ; but when they
cease, at death, the body becomes transparent to electric waves."

How far these electric currents would be reduced in
trance and kindred states, is a matter for further inquiry.
The objections previously raised must not be lost sight
of in this connection.

There is yet another test of death of a somewhat
" occult " character, which its votaries declare infallible 1
It is the following : —

" The Aura after Death. — It will readily be understood that
death produces an immediate great change in the human auras.
All the higher principles, together with the auric egg that envelopes
them, disappear, leaving the doomed material body with only its
lifelong and inseparable etheric double floating over it ; the caloric
aura gradually ceases with the disappearance of animal heat ; the
pranic aura, which had begun to fade before the actual dissolution,
turns to an ashen-grey light ; all the electric emanations, already
broken up during the sickness, cease ; the magnetic flow alone con-
tinues, though in a sluggish and stationary manner ; the Tatwic
ribbons lose their colour, leaving only dead, colourless lines, as in
mineral matter, whereby it can be said that the auric manifestation
which remains around the body is only that which belongs to the
dead material compounds, until decomposition sets in. Then the
aiu:ic effluvium again becomes alive, and assumes the aspects and
hues of the new lives that issue out of death. Thus, the study of
the human aura will bring out new and more reliable signs of real
death, because to a psychic sight, the aura of a person in coma or
cataleptic trance — however well this may otherwise simulate death
— will never be mistaken for that of a body in which life is really
and positively extinct. . . . " ^

Without discussing the reality of these phenomena in
this place, it may only be said that the diflPiculty of find-
ing a seer possessing the requisite psychic sight might be

^ 2Vte Human Aura, by A. Marques, pp. 5j, oG.


sufficiently difficult to render this method of diagnosis
impractical under all ordinary circumstances ! Of course,
such theories would have to be rigorously demonstrated
before science could even tolerate them for a moment,
in a life and death problem such as this. It is hardly
necessary to add that this demonstration has so far failed
to appear either in the desired quality or quantity.

2. Odor Mortis; or, the Smell of Death.

In the Cincinnati Clinic of September 4, 1875, was
published a paper on " Odor Mortis ; or, the Smell of
Death," read by Dr. A. B. Isham before the Cincinnati
Academy of Medicine, August 30, 1875. The paper was
based upon observation made while an inmate of one of
the surgical wards of the Stanton Hospital, Washington,
during the summer of 1863, as well as upon instances in
which the " odor " had been met with in private practice.
The character of the odour was muskiferous, yet it appre-
ciably, though almost indescribably, differed from that of
musk. In this paper he presented two recent instances
where this odour attracted notice, together with some new
observations concerning it.

Instance 1. — July 13, 1878, on the eve of Dr. Bartho-
lomew's departure for Europe, Dr. Isham was requested

to assume charge of his patient, Mr. . The patient

was unconscious, with irregular, noisy respiration, with
only a feeble trace of pulse, indistinguishable at times,
and ^V2LS dying slowly from effusion within the membrane
of the brain, the result of chronic alcoholism. He was
with him through the middle of the night, and during
this time he noticed upon his right hand a smell resem-
bling that of musk. This hand was exclusively used in
examining the patient's pulse and in noting the tempera-
ture of the body. Earlier in the night there had been


no smell upon it. The left hand acquired the same
smell from handling the body, and it was also communi-
cated to the handle of a fan held in the hand. A gentle-
man from Chicago, who had volunteered as a night
watcher, and whose attention had been called to the odour
without any suggestion as to its character, promptly
distinguished it. The ladies of the household did not
use musk, and no perfumery had been in the room or
about the patient. Neither had Isham handled nor come
in contact with anything other than the patient from
which the odour could have been derived. Death
occurred thirty-three hours later.

Instance 2. — About midnight. May 21, 1879, Dr. Isham
was called to see Mrs. G. She had several months pre-
viously been under his care with acute duodenitis, but
with impaired digestion and defective assimilation ; but
she had subsequently passed into the hands of an irregular
practitioner. He found her in articulo mortis, with general
anasarca, the result of blood dilution. Upon entering
the room there was a plainly perceptible musky odour.
There was no musk about the house, nor had any other
perfumery been employed. Death ensued in about half-

The smell, as stated, was closely allied to that of musk,
yet the impression on the olfactory organs was more
delicately subtle. Besides, there was an indescribable
feature pertaining to it which seemed to impress the
respiratory sense and trouble respiration — a vague sensa-
tion of an irrespirable or noxious gas. To the convales-
cent loungers of sharp olfactory sense about the wards of
Stanton Hospital the smell was familiar, and was termed
the death smell. It was not uncommon to hear the expres-
sion, " Some one is dying, for I smell him ! " ^

It was rare to find the odour widely ditfused, and

^ See Appendix E.


where it appeared to be it was probably due to a con-
tinuance of the first impression upon the olfactory organs.
As commonly encountered, it has suggested the idea of
gaseous aggregation or body containing odoriferous par-
ticles possessing an attraction for each other, and so
held together. In the hospital ward, while present in
one place it was not experienced in another slightly
removed. It also quickly disappeared from the first
place — probably moved along by atmospheric waves.
Thevapour in which the odorous molecules were suspended
appeared, in some instances at least, heavier than the
atmospheric air. Thus, Dr. Isham had sometimes recog-
nised the smell in lower hallways — the patient occupying
the upper portion of the house; and in " Instance 1,"
already detailed, it was only detected on handling the
body. This affords one explanation why it may not
claim more recognition. From its heaviness it subsides,
and does not enter the nose. Other reasons why it may
escape attention are, that the olfactory sensibilities may
be blunted by long continuance in an ill-ventilated, bad-
smelling sick-room ; or the air currents may carry the
odour in a direction not favourable to observation.

The only mention of an odour which might be analo-
gous is reported by Dr. Badgely, of Montreal, in a report
on " Irish Emigrant Fever." It is thus quoted by Drake
in his work on the " Principal Diseases of the Interior
Valley of America," as taken from the British Medical
Journal : —

" I hazard the idea that the ammoniacal odour emanating from
the living body, so strong on opening the large cavities and so
striking on receiving some of the blood of the vessels — arteries as
well as veins — into the hand, were all due to the same condition
of this fluid — the actual presence of ammoniacal salts, one of the
surest proofs of the putrescent condition of the vital fluid ; in fact,
to speak paradoxically, of the existence of death during life."


Here the source of the smell is indicated as coming
from the development of ammonia in decomposing blood.
It is known that musk contains ammonia largely, together
with a volatile oil. Robiquet holds that its odour de-
pends upon the decomposition of the ammonia, liberating
the volatile matters of the oil. The blood also contains
a volatile oil, and it is well known that it possesses odour.
This odour may be developed by adding sulphuric acid to
blood and boiling it. This process was formerly resorted
to in order to distinguish blood in questionable cases, but
it has been rendered obsolete since the discovery of the
blood corpuscles by the microscope. Such a method
would be well suited to drive off the ammonia, free from
decomposition, together with the volatile oil — to which
substance the odour is very likely due.

Originally, Dr. Isham was inclined to limit the occur-
rence of the manifestation to within a very short time of
death. That it cannot be so restricted is evidenced by
''Instance 1," when it was noticed thirty-three hours
before death. The conditions here were not unfavourable
for its development. From the state of circulation,
chemical changes were evidently proceeding in the blood,
elevating its temperature and liberating those matters
to which we would ascribe the origin of the death smell.

Richardson and Dinnis have shown by experiments
that ammonia salts added to blood preserve its fluidity
by preventing the decomposition of fibrin. This is not
without a bearing upon the origin of the odor mortis.
In gradual death coagulation commences first in the
capillaries, and proceeds towards the heart. The escape
of ammonia from the blood in the peripheral vessels,
liberating the volatile principles and engendering smell,
permits local decomposition of fibrin long before the
heart has ceased its action.

But La.nge has more recently investigated the action


of ammonia in living and dead blood. He found that
carbonate of ammonia added to living blood was only
given off at a temperature of 176° F. to 194° F. When,
however, ammonia was added to blood from a dead
animal, it was evolved at a temperature of from 104° to
113° F. It is well ascertained that in many diseases,
just previous to death, the blood temperature is raised
above the lowest figure given by Lange. In some
diseases, too, the blood falls below the normal bodily
temperature. This affords another and principal explana-
tion why the odor mortis may not be appreciable. These
experiments of Lange also show why this smell is not
developed by diseases characterised by great elevation of
temperature — simply because the blood has lost none of
its vital properties.

Such is the attempt of science to account for this
remarkable fact. When we come to consider " death
coincidences " in Part III., wo shall, we think, find that
another interpretation of the facts may be put upon such
cases. However, we will not anticipate.

3. Rigor Mortis.

Next to putrefaction, rigor mortis may be considered
the surest sign of death that we know. Unless the
burial clothes are put on the corpse soon after death,
it is almost impossible to get them on at all, owing to the
stiffening of the body. Yet it is contended by certain
authorities that frequently there is no rigor mortis what-
ever. Bichat found that in cases in which an individual
had been struck dead by lightning, or had been suffocated
by charcoal, there was no rigor mortis. When complete,
rigor mortis is very severe ; the body becomes as stiff as
a board, and it is next to impossible to bend or flex the
arms and legs.


Generally, it may be said that rigor mortis appears
in from three to six hours after death. Quite frequently
it appears before the bodily heat has passed away.
Niederkorn gives us the following table, the result of
103 cases observed by him : —

Rigor mortis within 2 hours after death, 2 cases

From 2 to 4

„ 4 to 6

6 to 8

8 to 10

„ 10 to 13




It is evident, therefore, that the length of time that
elapses between death and rigor mortis varies con-
siderably. It is asserted that " after poisoning by a
large dose of strychnine, rigor mortis follows imme-
diately upon the phenomena of contracture which
existed at the time the patient died."

" With regard to the duration of rigidity," says Dr. Brouardel,^
" \ye are also obliged to make allowance for different influences. It
lasts on an average twenty-four to forty-eight hours. It may, how-
ever, last for a few hours only ; at other times, it persists for
five, six, or seven days. Our data with reference to this subject
are very scanty. We know that in exhausted individuals, such as
those dying with cancer or phthisis, rigor mortis appears early,
l)ut does not last long; on the contrary, in an individual dying
while in good health, it appears late, and is of long duration. . . .
Cadaveric rigidity appears first in the muscles of the lower jaw,
then in those of the neck and eyelids, then the lower limbs, and
lastly the upper limbs. . . . The muscles of the intestinal walls
may present a certain degree of rigidity."

The heart becomes rigid after death also ; a fact

^ Death and Sudden Death, p. GU.


observed by the illustrious Harvey, and noted by him
in his Second Disquisition}

When persons die from the result of sun-stroke or
heat-stroke, they are already half rigid, and it is stated
that the heart becomes rigid immediately upon the
death of the body. Vallain states that when he was
in Algeria, he opened the bodies of dogs dying from
sun-stroke, and, Avhen he cut into the heart, it yielded
a sound like that of wood ! Generally speaking, rigor
mortis appears much sooner in a warm and moist atmos-
phere. Indeed, it has been asserted that it takes just as
many hours to effect the same result in the summer time
as it does days in the winter. When the body is fatigued,
rigor mortis appears much more rapidly.

Dr. Brown-Sequard, writing on this subject, said :

" In rabbits, guinea-pigs, cats, and birds, as well as in dogs, I
have ascertained that when they are killed by poisons causing con-
vulsions, the more violent and the more frequent the convulsions
are, the sooner cadaveric rigidity sets in, and the less is the time
it lasts ; the sooner also does putrefaction appear, and the quicker
is its progress." ^

What is rigor mortis ? What is its nature ? In what
does it consist ? This has been a very vexed question ;
and only of late years has it been satisfactorily settled.
Kuhne believed that it was due to the coagulation of
myosin, an albuminous substance contained in the mus-
cular tissue. Brown-Sequard objected to this, that no
amount of such coagulation would account for the facts.
Microscopic examination of muscles has frequently re-
vealed no structural difference whatever between those
in a state of rigidity, and those that were flaccid. Some

* Harvey's treatise on the circulation of the blood should be read by
every one, as it is a model of sound, logical argument.
2 Quoted by Savory, Life and Death, pp. 190, 191.


observers ascertained that an acid reaction was found in
the muscles at such times ; and conchided that rigidity
was due to the conversion of alkahne substances into
acids ; but Achtakaweski has proved that in tetanus
the muscles are not rigid, and that the injection of an
alkali into the muscular tissue does not prevent rigidity.
It has even been ascertained that rigidity will take place
as usual, even if all posthumous circulation be cut off!
Brown-Sequard removed the spinal cord from an animal,
and found that no rigidity resulted. His researches,
however, have been largely disproved by recent experi-

While much still remains uncertain, it is now generally
admitted that rigor mortis is the first stage of putrefac-
tion — of which we shall presently treat — and is hence
the result of bacterial decomposition. Herzen proved
that there is found in the muscular tissue of a dead
animal, an acid, which he called " sarcolactic acid." By
injecting some drops of this acid into the muscles of
dead animals, he caused rigor mortis to appear in cases
which had not as yet exhibited it. Rigor mortis is
doubtless the result of certain micro-organisms, which
secrete toxins in the muscular tissue, causing rigor mortis
in this manner. The subject will become more clear
when we consider the phenomena of putrefaction. To
this we accordingly turn.

4. Putrefaction.

The phenomena of putrefaction are of great interest and
importance, since they frequently enable the practitioner
to tell almost exactly how long a certain body has been
dead, and for that reason are of great value to forensic medi-
cine. The subject may appear an unpleasant one to many
readers ; but, rightly considered, it is not so, and aftbrds a


field for very interesting experiments and important de-
ductions. Bear in mind the fact, that putrefaction is merely
the process of returning the body to the native, mineral
elements, and there should be no objection to studying
this process from the scientific point of view. Remove
from the mind the idea of a '' corpse," and replace it by
the following: here is an organic compound; let us
watch its gradual disintegration and return to mother
earth !

It has been proved that if a body be perfectly pre-
served from the air, it will not, cccteris paribus, decay or
putrefy at all. Pasteur experimented with blood and
urine, the most fermentable and putrescible of all organic
fluids. These fluids he sealed up hermetically in glass
tubes. Although these tubes are in his laboratory yet,
having been placed there in 1854, there is to-day not
the slightest trace of putrefaction in any of them. The
presence of air is therefore necessary, in order that
putrefaction may proceed. Why is this ?

When a body dies, three different and distinct sets of
micro-organisms occupy it, one after the other. First,
there are the " aerobic " organisms, so called because
they cannot live without the presence of oxygen, which
they obtain from the air. Following them, there is the
second set, able to live either with or without oxygen ;
and these M. Bordas, in his thesis on " Putrefaction,"
has called " amphibious." These produce carbonic acid,
also hydrogen and hydro-carbons. Lastly, there comes
another category of micro-organisms, the " anaerobic "
class, which do not live in oxygen, and which produce
hydrogen, nitrogen, and more or less compound ammonias.
These organisms follow one another, for the reason that
each class secretes a poison in the presence of which it
is unable to live. It then disappears, and is replaced by
other colonies, and so on, until the destruction of the


body is complete. This explains why it is that air is
necessary to render putrefaction possible ; the first set of
micro-organisms can only exist and set up their char-
acteristic effects when there is a certain amount of free
oxygen, and this they have to obtain from the atmos-
phere. If this be shut off, putrefaction can be prevented
for a very long time. It illustrates, also, the beautiful pro-
vision of nature ; the method employed to disintegrate
the body and return it to its elements as speedily as

Putrefaction takes place at a different rate and in a
different manner, according to the medium in which the
body is placed. We have already seen the effects of
withdrawing the body from a medium altogether, placing
it in vacuo. If the body be in the air, it will decompose
in one way, if in water in another ; it will putrefy in a
different manner still in the earth — and even here there
is a great difference, according to the nature of the soil
in which the body is placed.

" Micro-organisms can, of course, enter the body through the
epidermis, but they seem to be very slow in doing so in the
majority of cases. Usually putrefaction begins in the digestive
tract. It is especially a function of the processes which take place
in the intestines. M. Duclaux, who has paid much attention to
the ' vibrios ' of the intestines, has succeeded in determining the
part they play in putrefaction. At death they swarm ; they
penetrate into the intestinal glands, which they destroy, find their
way into the veins and peritoneum, and produce gases there, and
secrete diastase, which liquefies the tissues. What is the conse-
quence of this formation of gas and diastase % The quantity of
gas produced is considerable, its tension is sometimes equal to
that of li atmospheres ; it also pushes up the diaphragm to the
third intercostal space, and drives the liquid contained in the deep
vessels towards the periphery ; that is what I have called the
posthumous circulation."


The significance of this fact will be apparent when we
come to a discussion on " Vampires." (See Appendix A.)

If a person dies from suftbcation from carbonic acid
gas, his tissues contain very little oxygen, and, in conse-
quence, the first set of micro-organisms have great
difficulty in gaining a foothold within the body.
Brouardel gives a case in which a corpse was found
to be in a perfect state of preservation two months after
death — the man having committed suicide in this

Of course, other causes influence putrefaction greatly.
The state of health at the time of dying is known to be

Online LibraryHereward CarringtonDeath: its causes and phenomena. With special reference to immortality → online text (page 3 of 44)