ForensicMedical Jurisprudence



A medical examiner before proceeding with an autopsy, especially if called before the body has been removed from the place where it was found, should carefully note certain facts. These should be entered by himself or an assistant with great care, in a note-book, as this book can be introduced as evidence in any trial. A satisfactory way is to dictate to the assistant as the examination proceeds, and at the conclusion the assistant reads the notes taken, and the examiner verifies them.


These should be first noted. The character of the soil; the condition of the ground, and whether it shows footprints; if so, their direction; the evidence of any struggle; the presence of any weapon; and finally, the exact position in which the body lies, especially the position of the hands and feet. This is important, for the body may be found in a position which the deceased could not have assumed on the supposition of the wound or injury having been accidental or homicidal. If possible a photograph should be taken of the body in the exact position in which it is found. If it is absolutely necessary to remove the body, it should be done with great care, keeping the body in as horizontal a position as possible.

The character of the surrounding soil should be noted. This is of special importance when the body to be examined has been exhumed: for the question of preservation of the body and the ability to recognize pathological changes may be brought up at a trial. This was an important point raised in the Buchanan case (New York, 1893).

If a body be found in the water, examine the character of the water and the temperature, and if found near the shore, the character of shore and bottom.

Blood.—The situation of blood-stains, and their number and extent, on clothing or surrounding objects should be noted. This will often show whether a struggle has taken place after receiving the fatal wound, and is also of medico-legal importance if made at the time the body is found, for it may be so situated as to show that the body has been interfered with after death.

Again, spots of blood found upon articles of clothing or upon surrounding objects should be noted as to their form and direction, for they may serve to furnish an indication of the position of the person with respect to them when the wound was inflicted. For example, if the spot was oval, the presumption is that the person was placed obliquely with respect to the stain while the hemorrhage was occurring. The force with which the blood was thrown out will in some measure be indicated by the obliquity or length of the spot. The amount of blood will also often indicate whether the person has died suddenly, the exact spot where death occurred, whether a struggle took place, and will also preclude the possibility of a person moving after receiving the fatal injury. When we examine a body, especially when found in a room, care must be taken not to be misled by the accidental diffusion of blood by persons going in and out, or touching the body (see Blood-Stains, Vol. II.)

Clothing.—The examination of the clothing should be thorough. A description of each article should be noted, and the order in which it is removed; for often it is important to prove that the garments were worn by or belonged to the deceased. If any blood is on the clothing, note whether the blood is in large patches, or whether it is sprinkled over the garment: the amount of the blood and what garments are stained by it. Note and examine whether the blood has flowed down the front of the clothing, whether it has soaked the inner garments, or again, whether it has collected along the back; for these appearances will sometimes demonstrate whether a wound was inflicted while the person was sitting, standing, or lying down. For example, if the throat is cut while the person is lying down, the blood will be found on each side of the neck along the back and not down the front of the body. Few suicides cut their throats in a recumbent position, and this distribution of the blood may serve to distinguish a suicidal from a homicidal wound.

The condition of the clothing may also serve to show whether there has been any struggle, and the presence of dry spots or mud on it may sometimes serve to connect an accused person with an act of murder. This is well illustrated in the case of Reg. v. Snipe, reported in Beck’s “Medical Jurisprudence,” where evidence was adduced to show that some spots of mud on the boots and clothing of the prisoner, when examined microscopically, contained infusoria, shells, and some rare aquatic vegetables. The mud of the ditch close to where the body was found, as also the mud on the clothing of the dead body, presented the same microscopical appearances. The medical expert who gave this evidence swore that in his opinion the mud spots on the body and on the prisoner’s boots were derived from the same ditch, for the mud of all the other ditches in the locality was found, on microscopical examination, to be different. The well-known case which occurred in New York a few years ago, known as the “Shakespeare case,” furnishes an example of the importance of carefully examining all stains on the clothing found on bodies.

If there are several stabs or cuts on the body involving the dress, it should be noted whether they are blood-stained, and if so, whether the stain is on the inside or outside of the garments, for sometimes in simulated personal injury a stain of blood may be inadvertently applied to the outside of the dress, as in wiping a weapon.

Weapons.—If a weapon is found, the character of the weapon and its exact position should be noted. This is frequently of importance in telling whether a person has died from an accidental or self-inflicted wound. In a case where death occurs immediately or within a few minutes, the weapon is found near the body, or often so tightly grasped in the hand that it can be with difficulty removed. If the weapon is found near the body it should be noted on which side and at what distance, and it must be questioned whether it could have fallen on the spot or been thrown there by the deceased. It is compatible with suicide that the weapon should be found at some distance from the body. An instance has been recorded where an individual was discovered in bed with his throat cut, and the bloody razor was found closed and in the pocket of the deceased. If a weapon cannot be discovered, or is concealed,[354] it is strong presumptive evidence of homicide; especially when the wound is such as to produce speedy death.

Note whether the weapon is sharp or blunt, straight or curved. If a knife, the handle and inner portion should be examined, for the blade may have been washed.

If the wound has involved any large vessels, it is improbable that the weapon can have been thrown any distance from the body, and when it is, there are always fair grounds to expect interference with the original position of the body. One circumstance which always strongly points to suicide is the finding of the weapon firmly grasped in the hand of the cadaver. The hand of a dead person cannot be made to grasp or retain a weapon as does the hand which has grasped it at the last moments of life. The amount of blood on the weapon should be noted, but it must be remembered that a knife may have produced a fatal stab wound and still no blood be found on it. This is explained by the fact that in a rapid plunge the vessels were compressed, and only after the drawing of the knife and relieving of the pressure blood began to flow, or possibly the blood may have been wiped off the knife by the elasticity of the skin.

When a person has died of a gunshot wound, especially at close range, it is important to look for any wadding or paper found in the wound, as in a number of instances the finding of such has led to the detection of the criminal. For example, handwriting has been found on the paper, or it has formed part of a printed page the rest of which has been found in possession of the accused. When a gun is discharged near the body, a portion of the wadding is almost always found in the irregular wound produced.


Having completed the examination of the surroundings, one next proceeds with the post-mortem examination, which should be conducted according to a well-defined plan, following which the results obtained will always be satisfactory.

If possible the body should be removed to a large, well-ventilated, and especially well-lighted room. No artificial light, if it can possibly be avoided, should be used when performing the autopsy; artificial light is especially bad on account of its yellowness and its power to modify natural color. Many diseased conditions cannot be satisfactorily determined by artificial light. The body should be placed on a high table, and the facility with which the autopsy is made will often depend on having the table high enough to render stooping unnecessary. Never make an autopsy, if it can possibly be avoided, on a body while in a coffin, as the examination is always unsatisfactory. The size and surroundings of the room, and how it is lighted, should be entered in the note-book.

Instruments.—If possible the following instruments should be at hand before proceeding with an examination, although some of them may be dispensed with:

(1) Large section knife; (2) scalpels; (3) enterotome (for opening intestines and stomach); (4) costotome, or large bone forceps (for cutting ribs); (5) scissors, large and small (one blade blunt); (6) saw; (7) chisel; (8) dissecting forceps; (9) probe; (10) blowpipe; (11) curved needles and strong twine; (12) measuring and graduated glass; (13) small scales.

Besides the above instruments, some basins containing water; sponges, bottle of flexible collodion, Lugol’s solution of iodine for the amyloid test, will be needed.

Post-Mortem Wounds.—Various plans have been proposed to protect the operator’s hands from the post-mortem wounds which are often so dangerous, such as wearing rubber gloves, smearing the hands with carbolized vaselin, both of which have their disadvantages: the gloves being too clumsy, and the vaselin rendering it almost impossible to hold the knife steady. Gloves should always be worn, however, where the body has undergone much decomposition, or where the person may have died from any septic disease. A method which I have found satisfactory is to cover all cuts and hangnails with flexible collodion, and then to have a basin of clean water at hand, and from time to time to rinse one’s hands in the water. It is from bathing the hands in the cadaveric fluids and not from cuts that most of the danger comes. If possible an absolutely new board, large enough upon which to examine the organs, should be at hand, for it may be claimed at a trial that the organs and tissues, if placed and examined on surrounding objects, have become contaminated.

Toxicological.—If a chemical analysis of the various organs and tissues is to be made, and it is impossible to have the chemist present, the medical examiner should obtain some new glass jars of suitable size, with close-fitting glass covers. These jars should be rinsed with distilled water, and in them the various organs are to be placed; if possible with no preserving fluid on them. But if it is found impossible to deliver the jars to the chemist at once, alcohol may be poured over the organs in the jars, but it is specially important that a sample of this alcohol should be retained, that a chemist may at a future date test the same for any impurities. After the organs and tissues have been placed in the jars, the mouths should be closed and sealed, and the seal remain in the custody of the examiner until the jars are delivered to the chemist.

Parts to be Preserved for the Chemist.—In cases of suspected poisoning, it is not sufficient that the stomach and intestines alone should be preserved for the chemist as has been indicated, each part by itself; for it should be remembered that the portion of poison remaining in the alimentary tract is but the residue of the dose which had been sufficient to destroy life, and if the processes of elimination have been rapid no trace of the poison will be found in the alimentary canal but can readily be detected in other organs. Again, the poison may not have been introduced by the mouth, in which case none may be found in the digestive tract.

The chemist should receive, besides the stomach and entire intestinal canal, the liver, one or both kidneys, the spleen, a piece of muscle from the leg, the brain, and any urine found in the bladder.

When it is impossible for any reason to obtain the whole of any organ, the part removed should be carefully weighed and its proportion to the rest of the organ noted.

It is also of extreme importance to preserve in sealed and labelled jars those parts of a body which may show the evidence of disease, or on the appearance of which one’s evidence is founded.


In making the autopsy, the operator should stand on the right side of the body and make the incision by grasping the knife firmly in the hand, and cutting with the whole of the blade and not with the point. The knife should be swept along from the shoulder rather than from the wrist, thus making a long, smooth, deep cut; never a jagged one.

The method of examining the human body after death will vary somewhat according to the objects in view. These objects may be threefold: (1) To ascertain whether a person has died from violence or poison; (2) to establish the cause of death, especially if it has been sudden; and (3) to ascertain the lesion of a disease, or to confirm a diagnosis.

The only difference between a medico-legal and pathological autopsy is that in the former case everything which might subserve the ends of justice should be carefully noted, and the changes found most accurately described; especially any abnormalities found on the external examination of the body. A photograph should be taken of the body.

The head should be opened and the brain examined first, and not last, as is often done in the ordinary autopsy.

Careful notes should be taken during each step of the examination, to be reread, verified, and signed at the completion of the autopsy.

It must be remembered that most of the lesions of disease which are found, indicate the disease rather than the cause of death; that often the lesion found will seem hardly extensive enough to cause death, and that from accidents and injuries apparently trivial, death may result. It must often be acknowledged that no sufficient cause of death can be found, but the more accurate and careful the examinations (especially when a microscopical examination of the organs is made) the fewer will be the number of such cases. If no apparent lesion is found, it must not be forgotten that many poisons destroy life and leave no trace that the pathologist can discover.

Care should always be exercised not to mistake the ordinary post-mortem appearance which we find at autopsies for the lesions of disease.

The examination of the human body, whether it be made from a medico-legal or pathological standpoint, is divided into two main divisions:

(1) The external examination, and

(2) The internal examination.


Its minuteness will depend on the character of the case, as when the person is unknown, or when suspected to have died from unnatural causes. In such cases the external examination is very important.

The following are the steps to be followed:

(1) Give a general description of the body; apparent age, height, and weight of the individual; color of the hair and eyes; condition of the teeth; and the evidence of any personal peculiarities or abnormalities.

(2) Note the color of the skin and observe whether there are any spots of CADAVERIC LIVIDITY, and if present where situated.

(3) Contusions.—Note whether there are any contusions, and, if present, their character, situation, length, breadth, and depth should be described, and whether they are accompanied by inflammation or by the evidences of gangrene.

It is often important to determine whether a contusion has been inflicted before or after death. This is to be done by cutting into the ecchymoses and if the extravasated blood or the coloring matter of the blood is found free in the tissues, one can be almost certain that it is an ante-mortem injury. In post-mortem discolorations the blood is found in the congested vessels. The situation of ante-mortem contusions will not generally correspond to the discolorations produced by decomposition; the latter being confined to the most dependent parts. It should be remembered that the contusions produced by blows on a body dead only a few hours cannot be distinguished from those which were received during life; and also that putrefactive changes make it well-nigh impossible to distinguish between ante-mortem and post-mortem injuries. It should also be borne in mind that blows or falls sufficient to fracture bones or rupture organs may leave no mark on the skin (see Wounds, Vol. I., pp. 467, 474, et seq.).

(4) Wounds.—The situation, depth, extent, and direction of any wound should be recorded, as also the condition of its edges; the changes in the surrounding tissues, and whether inflicted by a cutting, pointed, or rounded instrument; or by a bullet. In the latter case the course and direction of the ball should be[359] ascertained by dissection rather than by the use of the probe, and the character of foreign bodies, if any are found in the wound, should be noted. What nerves or blood-vessels, particularly arteries, have been injured, should be ascertained. It is often important to determine whether a wound was made before or after death. The following may serve as a differential point: In all wounds made after death there is slight bleeding, non-contraction of the edges, and absence of blood in the tissues. This is the opposite of ante-mortem wounds. Again, wounds inflicted within two hours after death cannot be differentiated from those made during life (see Gunshot Wounds, Vol. I., p. 610 et seq.Wounds, Vol. I., p. 476 et seq.).

(5) Fractures.—If there are any evidences of fractures, the situation of the bones involved should be noted, and whether they are accompanied by contusions of the soft parts. Fractures which are inflicted during life are always accompanied by much more extravasation of blood, more injury to the soft parts, and more evidences of reaction than those occurring after death. It is a well-known fact that it is much more difficult to produce a fracture in a dead than a living body (see Wounds, Vol. II., p. 482 et seq.).

(6) The temperature of the body should be taken.

(7) The rigidity and flexibility of the extremities should be ascertained.

(8) The state of the eyes should be noticed, and the relative size of the pupils.

(9) Attention should be paid to the condition of the cavities of the mouth and nose. The neck should be specially examined for marks of external injury, or signs of ecchymosis or compression.

(10) Genitals.—The external genitals should be very carefully examined for evidence of injury, the presence of syphilitic lesions, and in the female the condition of the vagina should be particularly ascertained.

(11) Œdema of the Feet.—If there is evidence of œdema in any part of the body, especially about the ankles, its situation and extent should be noted.

(12) Ulcers and Abscesses.—The situation and extent of any ulcer found on the body should be recorded, as also the presence and situation of any abscess.

(13) Burns.—The extent of a burn, as also the state of the parts involved, should be noted. For example, whether they are inflamed or show blisters, etc. (see Heat and Cold, Vol. I., p. 647 et seq.).

(14) Hands.—In medico-legal cases the hands of a dead person should always be examined for the presence of cuts, excoriations, or foreign substances found upon them; especially should the dorsal extremities be examined. This examination will often indicate that there has been a mortal struggle before death. The impression of a hand or of some of the fingers is often found on the skin of a dead body. The exact situation where found should be noted. This may be of importance, as when it occurs where it would have been impossible or improbable for the deceased to have caused it.

For appearances in death from lightning or electricity, see Vol. I., p. 701 et seq., and in death from hanging, strangulation, and garroting, see Vol. I., pp. 713, 746, 781, et seq.


Having completed the examination of the external parts of the body, the next proceeding is to open the body and make an internal examination.

This should be done by following a regular method, so as to examine the relations of parts and not to injure one organ while removing another.

In opening the various organs an incision should be made which will expose the greatest amount of surface at one cut. Never make a number of small and always unsatisfactory incisions in an organ. In opening certain organs like the brain and heart, the incisions are so planned that the parts of the organ may be folded together, and, if necessary, their relations to one another and the whole organ studied. Such organs are opened as one would open a book to examine its pages.

It is important to remember that after death the blood leaves the arteries and left side of the heart, and collects in the veins and the right cavities of the heart. Especially does it collect in the vessels of the most dependent portions of the body and of the various organs, so that local congestions may often disappear after death; and again, they may be found at an[361] autopsy where they were not present during life. Especially is this true of the mucous membranes such as those of the trachea and bronchi, and also of the blood in the sinuses of the dura mater.

In making autopsies it is a cardinal rule that all the cavities of the body should be examined, and not alone the one where one might expect to find a lesion. At medico-legal autopsies, the great cavities—the head, the thorax, and the abdomen—should be examined in their successive order from above downward. The reason for beginning with the head is that the amount of blood in the brain and its membranes may be determined accurately; for, if the heart and great vessels of the neck are opened first, the blood will drain away from the brain and local congestions disappear. In pathological autopsies, the opening of the head first is not so important, and often the vertebral column need not be opened at all, for it is a complicated process and takes time; but in medico-legal cases, especially where a question as to the cause of death may arise, and has not satisfactorily been determined, after all the other cavities are examined the vertebral column should always be opened and the cord removed.

The Head.

Make an incision across the vertex of the skull from ear to ear. Dissect the anterior flap forward until within about three inches of the bridge of the nose, and the posterior flap backward to the external occipital protuberance. Examine the internal surface of the scalp for ecchymosis and evidences of injury. A circular incision is then made with a saw through the cranium as far backward and forward as the flaps have been reflected. An incision through the temporal muscle is necessary so that the teeth of the saw may not become clogged by the muscle fibres. When the cranium has been sawed through, a stout hook is inserted under its upper edge and it is removed with a quick jerk. If the dura mater is very adherent to the calvaria, it may be necessary to remove it with the bone, by cutting through it at the level of the cranial incision. Examine the calvaria as also the other bones of the skull after the brain has been removed and the dura stripped off, for evidence of fracture.

Note the symmetry, thickness, and density of the cranial bone, and remember that depressions along the sagittal suture are for the Pacchionian bodies, and are not pathological.

Dura Mater.—The dura mater may be slightly adherent to the bone of the cranium. This is especially seen in old people and does not indicate disease. The Pacchionian bodies are seen along the longitudinal sinus. Examine the internal surface of the dura mater for the presence of clots, tumors, or inflammatory lesions. Open the longitudinal sinus and examine for thrombi. Remove the dura mater by an incision following the cranial incision, the falx cerebri between the anterior lobes being drawn back and divided. Note whether the dura mater is adherent to the pia mater, and the condition of its internal surface.

Pia Mater.—The brain, covered by the pia mater, is now exposed. Note the degree of congestion of the membrane, its adherence, and the existence of pus, blood, or serum on its surface or in its meshes. Remember that a considerable amount of serum may be present within normal limits, especially in cachectic subjects, without indicating disease, but when the serum is so extensive as to raise the pia mater and to depress the convolutions, we have a pathological amount which may be a simple dropsy due to some general cause, or the result of a chronic meningitis. Enough serous effusion in the pia mater to produce a condition which has been called by some writers “serous apoplexy,” I believe never occurs as a primary condition.

Loss of transparency and thickening of the pia mater, especially along the longitudinal fissure, is often seen in old people and does not indicate disease.

Brain.—Remove the brain by raising the anterior lobes with the fingers of the left hand and cutting through the nerves, vessels, and the tentorium as they appear. The medulla is cut as low down as possible, and the brain as it rolls out is caught in the left hand.

After being placed on a clean board or in a large clean dish, it is minutely examined. The average weight of an adult male brain is forty-nine and one-half ounces; of the female, forty-four ounces. Its proportional weight to that of the rest of the body is as 1 to 45.

Lay the brain first upon its convex surface and examine the arteries at the base for atheroma, thrombi, emboli, and aneurisms. Examine the pia mater of the base, especially for the evidences of hemorrhage, tumors, tubercles, and inflammatory lesions. Next turn the brain over on its base, and proceed to open its various cavities and examine its internal structure. Separate the two halves of the cerebrum, until the corpus callosum is exposed. Make an incision downward and outward at the junction of the corpus callosum with the cerebrum, and the roof of the lateral ventricles will be cut through and their cavities exposed. Prolong the incision forward and backward so as to expose the cornua. The size and contents of the ventricles should be noted, as also the condition of the ependyma. The floor of the lateral ventricles being the most frequent spot of hemorrhage, if one is found its extent and the parts involved by it should be noted; especially its relation to the internal capsule.

Transverse incisions (about one-sixteenth of an inch apart) are made through the ganglia seen on the floor of the lateral ventricles. Thus any lesions in the substance of the ganglia will be disclosed. Three or four longitudinal incisions are now made outward into the hemispheres nearly to the pia mater. These will divide the hemispheres into long, prism-shaped pieces held together by the pia mater and a little of the cortex, thus enabling the brain afterward to be folded together, and the relations of lesions to the brain as a whole studied. The third ventricle is now examined by cutting through the fornix and corpus callosum at the foramen of Monroe. Next, the fourth ventricle is opened by a longitudinal incision through the lower portion of the vermiform process; its contents, the condition of its vessels and ependyma noted. Then the floor of the fourth ventricle is divided by transverse incisions one-sixteenth of an inch apart, and careful examination made for the presence of minute hemorrhages: for here is a place in the body where almost a microscopical lesion (hemorrhage) may cause sudden death. Each hemisphere of the cerebellum is now opened by a number of incisions starting from the fourth ventricle and passing outward into its substance. The presence of any tumors or hemorrhage in the cerebellum will now be recognized.

In opening the brain, when clots, areas of softening, tumors,[364] etc., are discovered, their exact location in relation to surrounding parts should be noted and the blood-vessels examined for areas of degeneration or aneurism. This examination can be facilitated by allowing a stream of water to flow over the affected part. This will wash out the affected area and allow the vessels to appear.

Eye.—In rare cases it may be necessary to remove the eye. This can be done by breaking through the roof of the orbit with a saw or chisel and dissecting away the muscles so as to expose the optic nerve and the posterior portion of the organ.

Thorax and Abdomen.

The body being placed on its back, and the operator standing on the right side, an incision is made through the skin, fascia, and muscles from the top of the sternum to the pubic bone, passing to the left of the umbilicus and dividing everything down to the sternum and the subperitoneal tissue. A small incision is now made through the peritoneum below the ensiform cartilage. Into this opening two fingers of the left hand are inserted, and by spreading the fingers and holding the knife horizontally the peritoneum can be divided to the pubes without injuring the intestines. The skin and muscles are now dissected from the chest as far back as the false ribs. This dissection may be facilitated by keeping the skin and muscles on the stretch and cutting with the flat part of the knife. In order to better expose the abdominal cavity, the recti muscles are divided beneath the skin at their insertion in the pubic bone. Examine the cut surface of the chest and abdominal muscles, and note their color, amount, and consistency. Observe whether the chest muscles show the evidence of any parasitic disease such as trichinosis. The mammary glands are now examined from behind and opened if necessary.

Superficial Examination of Abdominal Cavity.—This should be done before opening the chest cavity, because the position of organs may become modified, and blood and other fluids are liable to find their way from one cavity into another; and again, the blood in the presenting portion of the abdominal organs will change its color after exposure to the air.

Note the Following Points: (a) The relative position and general condition of the abdominal organs.

(b) The color and amount of blood in the presenting parts.

(c) Whether there are any signs of inflammation or the evidence of foreign bodies or tumors.

(d) Examine the vermiform appendix.

(eThe amount of fluid in the abdominal cavity. Normally a small quantity of reddish serum will be found, particularly in warm weather, at the most dependent portion of the abdominal cavity. If the quantity is small it can only be ascertained by raising the intestines from the pelvis. When the fluid is considerable, the exact amount should be ascertained and its character noted.

(fPerforationinvagination, and hernia of the intestines should be looked for.

(g) Determine the height of the diaphragm. Normally, on the right side, it is at the junction of the fifth rib with the sternum, and on the left it reaches as high as the sixth. A variety of pathological conditions change its position. For instance, it may be raised when the contents of the abdomen are greatly increased in volume, and in new-born children who have never breathed. It may be depressed by enlargement of the lungs, disease of the heart, or fluid in the pleural or pericardial cavities. The presence of air or gas in the pleural cavity can be determined either by filling the abdomen with water and puncturing the diaphragm beneath the fluid so that the air will bubble up, or a puncture may be made through the thorax between the ribs, and the flame of a match will be deflected by the escaping air.


The thorax is opened by cutting the sterno-costal cartilages as close to the end of the ribs as possible, the cut being made downward, outward, and backward, and the knife held obliquely so as not to injure the underlying parts. Quite often the cartilages will be found ossified and it will be necessary to divide them by a costotome. Next, separate the clavicles by a semi-lunar incision at their attachment to the sternum.

Raise the sternum with the left hand and separate it from the underlying parts. If there is any adherence of the sternum a slight twist will be sufficient to remove it.

Superficial Examination of Thorax.—Observe the position, color, and degree of distention of the lungs. It should be remembered that healthy lungs, as soon as the chest is opened, owing to their inherent elasticity, will collapse, and when this normal collapse is not seen it is generally due to a loss of elasticity as occurs in emphysema, to inflammatory diseases binding the lung to the chest wall, or to the alveoli being filled with solid or fluid substances or pent-up air. Most complete distention is seen when death is due to drowning or suffocation.

The area of the heart uncovered will vary according to the degree of collapse of the lungs and to the abnormal size of the heart. Normally the cardiac area exposed is quadrangular in shape, and about three and a half inches in its longest diameter. Examine the pleural cavities for the presence of adhesions, foreign bodies, or fluid. If fluid is found it should be removed, measured, and its character noted. It is to be remembered that in warm weather, or when putrefaction has commenced, a moderate amount of reddish serum is found in the pleural cavities which has no pathological significance. Lastly, examine the mediastinum as to the condition of the thymus gland and great vessels outside the pericardium.

Pericardium.—Open the pericardium by an oblique incision along the anterior wall, and prolong this incision downward and outward toward the diaphragm and upward to its reflection from the great vessels. Normally, about a drachm of clear serum, sometimes, however, blood-stained from decomposition, will be found in the pericardial sac. The amount is best ascertained by raising the heart. Note next the contents of the pericardium and whether there is any serous, fibrous, or purulent exudation. If an abnormal amount of fluid is present, remove, measure, and note its character. Observe whether there are any adhesions between the two surfaces of the pericardium. White patches are often seen on the visceral surface of the pericardium, especially over the ventricles. These have no pathological significance and are due to slight thickenings of the pericardium.

The Heart.—Having passed the hand over the arch of the aorta and noticed whether there is any evidence of aneurism or dilatation, we grasp the heart firmly by the apex, raising and drawing it forward. We remove it by cutting through the[367] vessels at its base. Test the sufficiency of the aortic and pulmonary valves by allowing a stream of water to flow into these vessels, the heart being held in a horizontal position and care being taken not to pull the valves open.

To apply the water test to the mitral and tricuspid valves, the auricles are first opened so as to expose the upper surface of these valves, and by allowing a stream of water to flow through the aortic and pulmonary valves into the cavities of the ventricles, the degree of sufficiency of these valves can readily be ascertained.

Another rough test is what is known as the “finger test.” The mitral valve will normally allow two fingers, held flat and in contact, to pass through its opening. The tricuspid in the same way allows, normally, three fingers to pass; or if a more accurate test of the degree of insufficiency is desired, the valvular orifices should be measured. Normally, the aortic orifice is one inch across; the mitral, one and eight-tenths inches; pulmonary, one and two-tenths inches; and the tricuspid about two inches.

We open first the cavity of the right ventricle by making an incision over its anterior border close to the septum. Prolonging the incision downward to the apex and upward through the pulmonary artery, the cavity of the ventricle will be fully exposed. The left ventricle is similarly opened by an incision through its anterior wall which is prolonged upward through the aortic valve. The cavities of the auricle and ventricle, especially those of the right side, will often contain blood-clots. These clots are usually post-mortem clots formed during the last hours of life or after death. It may sometimes be necessary to distinguish these post-mortem clots from what are known as ante-mortem clots. The latter are usually of firm consistency, dry, of a whitish color, and closely entangled in the trabeculæ, while the former are succulent, moist, of a reddish-yellow color, and are easily detached from the walls of the heart cavities. Ante-mortem clots are rarely seen, and the medical examiner should be careful not to attribute the cause of death to the post-mortem clots which are so often seen. After the heart is opened we can with more care and greater accuracy examine the condition of the valves and recognize the extent of valvular lesions.

The condition of the endocardium should now be examined and any abnormality noted. Often it will be seen stained a deep red color. This is not due to disease, but is caused by the absorption of the coloring matter of the blood which has been set free by decomposition. The size of the heart cavity and the thickness of the heart walls should be noted, as also their consistency and color. It should be remembered that the heart walls may appear unusually flabby as the result of decomposition, or apparently thickened when death occurs in extreme systole. The interior of the heart can be further examined by passing the enterotome into each auricle, carrying the incision through the mitral and tricuspid valves to join at the apex with the previous incision, which has been prolonged through the ventricles to the apex. Thus the auriculo-ventricular valves are completely exposed.

Having removed the blood from the heart it is next weighed. The average normal weight of the human heart is about twelve ounces in the male, and a little less in the female: its size roughly corresponding to the closed hand of the individual. Normally, the thickness of the walls of the left ventricle about its middle is five-eighths to two-thirds of an inch, and of the right ventricle one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch.

Note the condition of the aorta above the heart, whether it is dilated, atheromatous, or shows calcareous deposits. Examine the coronary arteries by opening them with a blunt-pointed scissors. Disease of these vessels with thrombosis is one of the causes of sudden death which is often overlooked.

The Lungs.—The lungs are removed by lifting them from the pleural cavity and cutting through the vessels and bronchi at their base. If a lung is very adherent it is sometimes better to remove the organ with the costal pleura attached so as not to tear the lung substance. Examine the external surface of the lung as to its shape, color, and consistency. Next open the large bronchi with a blunt-pointed scissors, and prolong the incision into the pulmonary substance along the minute bronchi. Observe the contents of the bronchial tubes, the appearance of the mucous membrane, and their relative thickness. Remember that it is very difficult to tell the condition in which the mucous membrane was during life on account of the early post-mortem changes which affect it, and also because the contents of the stomach may have been forced after death up the œsophagus and down the bronchi, giving the tubes a peculiar reddish and gangrenous appearance.

Having examined the bronchi, the lung is turned over and its base grasped firmly in the left hand. An incision is made from apex to base, which will expose at a single cut the greatest extent of pulmonary surface. Note the color of the lung substance, and whether the alveoli contain blood, serum, or inflammatory products. Blood and serum can easily be forced from the lungs by pressure between the fingers, while inflammatory exudations cannot. Examine carefully for the presence of miliary tubercles.

If a question should arise whether a portion of a lung is consolidated, this part can be removed, placed in water, and if the air cells are consolidated the portion will sink; if there is only congestion it will float. By squeezing the lung between the fingers an inflammation of the smaller bronchi (bronchitis) can be recognized by the purulent fluid which will exude at different points. It should be remembered that in normal condition the lower lobes and posterior aspect of the lungs will apparently be very much congested as a result of gravity.

Neck, Larynx, and Œsophagus.—Throw the head well backward, and place a block beneath the neck. Make an incision from the chin to the upper part of the sternum. Dissect the soft parts away on each side from the larynx and thyroid body, then cut along the internal surface of the lower jaw from the symphisis to its angle. Through this incision introduce the fingers into the mouth, and grasp and draw down the tongue. By dividing the posterior wall of the pharynx and pulling downward these parts, the trachea and œsophagus can readily be removed together, a ligature having been first placed around the lower portion of the œsophagus. Open now the pharynx and œsophagus along their posterior border. Examine the mucous membrane carefully for the evidences of inflammation, caustic poison, tumors, foreign bodies, or strictures. With an enterotome open the larynx and trachea along their posterior wall. Observe if there is any evidence of œdema of the glottis, and note the condition of the mucous membrane. Remember that redness of the larynx is very commonly the result of post-mortem changes and is also seen in bodies which have been kept cold. Dissect off and examine the thyroid gland.


Having completed the examination of the organs of the thorax, we next proceed to examine those contained in the abdominal cavity. We first raise and,dissect off the omentum, noting if it is abnormally adherent.

The first organs to be removed are:

The Kidneys.—Drawing the intestines aside we cut through the peritoneum over the kidneys, and introducing our left hand we grasp the organs with their suprarenal capsules attached. Raising first one kidney and then the other, we easily divide the vessels and the ureters as close to the bladder as possible. The kidneys are often found imbedded in a mass of fat which must first be removed. Their surface is sometimes of a greenish color owing to the beginning of putrefaction. We note the size of the organ, its color and weight. A normal kidney weighs from four and one-half to five ounces. Grasping the kidney firmly in the left hand, we make an incision in its capsule along its convex border, and with a forceps strip off the capsule and note its degree of adherence and the condition of the surface of the organ; whether it is smooth or granular. Prolonging our incision already made through the cortex of the organ, inward toward the pelvis, we divide the organ into two halves and now closely examine the internal structure. The average thickness of the cortex, which should be about one-third of an inch, is noted; as also its degree of congestion, and whether the normal light (tubes) and reddish (vessels and tufts) lines are seen running through it. If these alternate light and dark markings are lost and the organ has not undergone decomposition, the presence of some of the forms of Bright’s disease may be suspected. If the cut surface of the organ presents a waxy appearance, the amyloid test should be applied by first washing the cut surface of the organ and dropping upon it a few drops of Lugol’s solution of iodine, when the amyloid areas will appear as dark mahogany spots on a yellow background.

The pelvis of the kidneys should be examined for calculi and the evidence of inflammatory lesions. The suprarenal capsules readily decompose, but if the autopsy is not made too late hypertrophy, tuberculosis, tumors, and degeneration in them may be recognized.

The Spleen.—This organ will be found in an oblique position at the left side of the stomach. Grasping it firmly in the left hand and drawing it forward, it can easily be detached. Normally in the adult it is about five inches in length by three inches in breadth by one inch in thickness, and weighs about seven ounces. The size, color, and consistency of the organ should be noted, as well as abnormal thickenings of its capsule and the presence of any tubercles or tumors in its substance. The spleen softens very early as the result of decomposition, and this decomposition should not be mistaken for a pathological condition.

The Intestines.—In cases of suspected poisoning the greatest care should be taken in the removal of the intestines and the stomach. Double ligatures should be placed in the following situations so as to preserve the contents of the organs intact: (1) at the end of the duodenum; (2) at the end of the ilium; and (3) at the lower portion of the rectum; and an incision should be made with a pair of scissors between these ligatures. The jejunum and ilium should first be removed together by seizing the gut with the left hand, keeping it on the stretch, and cutting with a pair of scissors through the mesentery close to its intestinal attachment. The cæcum, colon, and rectum should then be removed in a similar manner.

The intestines being placed in large absolutely clean dishes, which have previously been rinsed with distilled water, are opened; great care being taken that none of the intestinal contents are lost. The small intestines should be opened in one dish and the large intestine in another. A portion of the intestines where morbid appearances are most likely to be seen in cases of poisoning are the duodenum, the lower part of the ilium, and the rectum. The comparative intensity of the appearances of irritation should be especially noted. For example, if the stomach appears normal and the intestines are found inflamed the possibility of poison from an irritant may be denied.

The intestines are opened along their detached border by the enterotome. Care should be taken to distinguish the post-mortem discolorations which are usually seen along the intestines[372] from those produced by disease. The former are most marked in the dependent portions. They are apt to occur in patches which can be readily recognized by stretching the wall of the gut. The darkish brown or purple discolorations which are sometimes seen as the result of decomposition are due to the imbibition from the vessels of decomposed hæmoglobin. Much care and experience are necessary to tell the amount of congestion which is within normal limits and to recognize changes of color produced by decomposition.

The pathological lesions ordinarily looked for in the examination of the intestines are ulcers, perforation, hemorrhages, strictures, tumors, and the evidences of various inflammations. To obtain an accurate idea of the various portions of the mucous membrane of the intestines, it is sometimes necessary to remove their contents. When very adherent this should be done by allowing as small a portion of distilled water as possible to flow over their surface. If any abnormalities are noticed along the intestinal tract, an accurate description should be given of their situation and extent; as also the amount of congestion seen in different portions of the intestinal tract.

If possible the different portions of the intestines, as well as the stomach, should be examined immediately after being exposed to view, as under the influence of the air those parts which are pale may become red, and slight redness may become very pronounced. In this way only can we estimate the degree of vascularity of the various parts after death. However, in cases of suspected poisoning, when it is impossible for the chemist to be present at the autopsy, the medical examiner should not open the stomach and intestines, but place them in sealed jars. As soon as possible afterward, the chemist being present, they should then be examined in the manner indicated. What may be lost by waiting, in changes of color which have taken place, will be more than counterbalanced by the data which the chemist will obtain from observing the contents and mucous membrane of the stomach and intestines when they are first exposed. The characteristic odors of certain poisons are so evanescent that they quickly disappear after opening of the stomach and intestines.

After a thorough examination of the intestines, they are to be put with their contents into wide-mouthed vessels, each part by itself, and the basins in which they were opened washed with distilled water and the washings put into the same bottle. As soon as the intestines are transferred to the jars they should be sealed.

The Stomach.—The stomach and duodenum are removed together. They are opened by passing the enterotome into the duodenum and dividing it along its convex border, the incision being continued along the greater curvature of the stomach as far as the œsophageal opening. They should be opened in a large glass dish which has been carefully washed with distilled water. The chemist and medical examiner will carefully note the quantity, odor, color, and reaction of the stomach contents; also whether luminous or not in the dark; the presence or absence of crystalline matter, foreign substances, undigested food or alcohol.

Portions of the contents should be placed in a small glass bottle and sealed, so that at a future time they may be examined microscopically. Only in this way can an absolute knowledge of the character of the stomach contents be obtained. In certain medico-legal cases the ability to decide the character of the stomach contents is of the utmost importance. The mucous membranes of the stomach and duodenum must be next carefully examined for evidences of hemorrhages, erosions, tumors, and of acute or chronic inflammations. The appearance of the rugæ and their interspaces, principally in the region of the greater curvature, should be noted; because here traces of poison and its effects are most frequently seen. If the stomach is inflamed, the seat of the inflammation should be exactly specified, as also that of any unusual coloration.

The condition of the blood-vessels are also noted. Vascularity or redness of the stomach after death should not be confounded with the effects of poison or the marks of disease. It may occur in every variety of degree or character and still be within normal limits. Vascularities which we might call normal are seen in the posterior part of the greater end and in the lesser curvature, and may cover spaces of various extent. Rigot and Trosseau have proven by experiment that various kinds of pseudo-morbid redness may be formed which cannot be distinguished from the varieties caused by inflammation; that these appearances are produced after death and often not until five or eight hours afterward, and that they may be made to shift their place and appear where the organ was previously healthy, merely by altering the position of the stomach. Ulcers, or perforations of the stomach as the results of disease, as also the digestion of the stomach after death, have been mistaken for the effects of irritant poisons.

When perforation of the stomach is the result of caustic poisons, the edges of the opening are very irregular, and are of the same thickness as the rest of the organ. The parts not perforated are more or less inflamed, and traces of the action of the caustic are found in the mouth, pharynx, and œsophagus. This is the opposite condition to that seen in spontaneous perforation.

In considering perforation of the stomach the following points given by Taylor are well to remember:

(1) A person may have died from perforation of the stomach and not from poisoning.

(2) A person laboring under disease may be the subject of poison.

(3) A person laboring under disease may have received blows or injuries on the abdomen, and it will be necessary to state whether the perforation did or did not result from the violence.

(4) The perforation of the stomach from post-mortem changes may be mistaken for perforations from poison.

Corrosives, if they do not produce perforation of stomach, will generally cause intense inflammation accompanied by softening of the inner coat, sometimes ending in gangrene. The inflammation varies as to its extent and intensity, sometimes affecting principally the mouth and œsophagus, but generally the changes are more pronounced in the stomach and duodenum, while in rare cases the inflammatory process may extend through the whole alimentary canal. The mucous membranes are sometimes bright red with longitudinal or transverse patches of a blackish color, formed by extravasated blood between the coats. Carbolic acid often produces in the stomach and œsophagus white patches—when these patches are carefully examined, an ulcerated surface beneath them is generally seen.

Narcotic Poisons.—It is a common but mistaken idea that these poisons produce some mark or characteristic effect upon the stomach walls; that they induce a rapid tendency to putrefaction; that the blood is in a fluid state; that hemorrhages are seen in various parts; that the stomach and intestines show sloughing without any inflammation. Some of these conditions may and probably do occur, but they are far from being invariable in their appearance. Experiments made by Orfila on animals with narcotic poisons prove the above statement. In conclusion, I would emphasize the fact that the narcotic poisons produce no characteristic changes in the stomach that can be detected.

The Liver.—The liver should be removed from the body and no attempt made to examine the organ in situ. After raising first one lobe and then the other, the diaphragm should be cut on either side and the suspensory and lateral ligaments divided, then the organ can easily be removed. The weight of the organ is ascertained, as also the measurements of its size recorded. The normal weight is from fifty to sixty ounces. The organ is normally about twelve inches in length by seven inches in depth by three and one-half inches in thickness.

The gall bladder is first examined to determine the character and amount of the bile and the presence or absence of gall stones, inflammatory lesions, and tumors.

At autopsies the surface of the liver, especially along the free border, is generally seen to be of a greenish or dark-brown color. This discoloration is due to the action of the gases developed by decomposition on the coloring matter of the blood, and has no pathological significance. The character of the surface of the liver is now noted, whether smooth or rough. The organ is opened by deep incisions in various directions, and the color, consistency, and blood supply of the liver tissue carefully recorded. The presence of new connective tissue, amyloid degeneration, abscesses, or tumors should not be overlooked. It should be remembered that, of all the poisons, phosphorus alone leaves characteristic appearances in the liver.

The Pancreas.—The pancreas is now easily removed, and its size and weight recorded. Normally it should weigh three ounces and measure eight inches in length by one and one-half inches in breadth by one inch in thickness. The organ should be opened by a longitudinal cut and examined for evidences of acute or chronic inflammation, fat-necrosis, tumors, calculi, and amyloid degeneration.

Genito-Urinary Organs.—It is very important in medico-legal cases that all the urine should be preserved and obtained uncontaminated; therefore before the bladder is opened a catheter should be introduced and the urine drawn off into a clean bottle which has previously been rinsed with distilled water. If more convenient the bladder itself can be punctured at its upper portion, a pipette introduced, and the urine drawn off in this manner.

The genito-urinary organs are removed together. This is done in the following manner. The body of the penis is pushed backward within the skin and cut off just behind the glans penis; the remaining portion of the rectum is raised. This with the prostate gland, bladder, and penis attached is removed by carrying the knife around the pelvis close to the bone and separating the pubic attachments. The organs are then laid on a clean board and the urethra is opened on a grooved director passed into the bladder, and the incision prolonged so that the internal surface of the bladder itself will be completely exposed. Examine the urethra for strictures, inflammatory lesions, and ulcers. Examine the bladder for congestion, hemorrhages, inflammation, and ulcers of its mucous surface, and note the thickness of its walls. Open the rectum and examine for ulcers, strictures, tumors, and the evidence of hemorrhage. The prostate gland is opened by a number of incisions into its substance. Examine for hypertrophies, tumors, and inflammatory lesions. Force the testicles through the inguinal canal, and cut them off. Weigh, open, and examine them for evidence of inflammation, tuberculosis, and tumors.

Female Organs.—Before removing these organs, any abnormalities such as adhesions, malpositions, and tumors should be noted. Dissect the organs away from the pelvic bones by carrying the point of the knife around the pelvis close to the bone. Cut through the vagina at its lower third, and the rectum just above the anus. The organs can now readily be removed. Examine the vulva for ulcers, hypertrophies, and tumors. Open and examine the bladder. Open the vagina along its anterior border and carefully examine its mucous surface for evidences of inflammation.

The Uterus.—Before opening the uterus, its size and shape should be recorded. The average normal weight of the organ is about one and one-quarter ounces; its length three inches, breadth two inches, and thickness one inch. Open the organ along its anterior surface by a blunt-pointed scissors passed through the cervix, and the incision carried as far as the fundus. Note the thickness of its walls and any abnormalities of its mucous membrane. During menstruation, the mucous membrane of the body is thickened, softened, and covered with blood and detritus. Retention cysts are found in the mucous membrane of the cervix and are not generally of pathological significance.

Remove, measure, and weigh the ovaries. Their normal weight is about one drachm each; their size, one and one-half, by three-quarters, by one-half inch. Open the organs by a single incision and examine for the evidences of acute and chronic inflammations, tumors, and cysts. The corpora lutea in various stages can be easily recognized in the substance of the organ. Open the Fallopian tubes and examine their contents and the condition of their membranes (see Disputed Pregnancy and Delivery, Vol. II.).

The Spinal Cord.

To remove the cord, the body should be placed on its face with a block beneath the thorax. An incision is made through the skin and muscles along the entire length of the vertebral column and the soft parts dissected away so as to expose the transverse process of the vertebræ. The lamina are divided with a saw through the articulate process (a double-bladed saw specially adapted for this work can be obtained). After the lamina have been completely severed, these together with the spinous process can now be readily torn away with a stout hook and the cord exposed. A long chisel with a wooden mallet will often greatly facilitate this work. Great care should be exercised not to injure the cord. The roots of the spinal nerves are now severed, and the cord removed within its membrane. It should be remembered that serous fluid within the membranes of the cord, as also intense congestion, especially along its posterior aspect, is often seen as the result of post-mortem change. The cord is laid on a clean board and the dura mater opened with a blunt-pointed scissors along its anterior aspect, and an examination made for the presence of hemorrhage, inflammatory lesions, and tumors. Softening of the cord can generally be detected by the finger passed along it. This, however, is not a perfectly accurate test, especially if the body has been dead some time. The cord is now cut by transverse incisions about half an inch apart throughout its entire length, and the cut surface examined for the evidences of disease such as hemorrhages, softening, and inflammatory lesions.

After the cord has been removed, examine the vertebral column for the evidences of fractures and displacements.


Late autopsies are those performed after partial or complete destruction of the soft parts of the body, through the natural processes of decomposition, or the examination of bones exhumed long after interment. The term may be employed also to mean the inspection of an embalmed body, dead for some time.

The object of late autopsies is to determine identity, or to establish the guilt or innocence of suspected persons. An examination of the skeleton even many years after death may give important information as to the manner in which the deceased came to his end. This cannot better be illustrated than by the citation of one or two cases.

In the celebrated case of “Eugene Aram,” the bones of his victim were discovered thirteen years after the crime had been committed. A man who afterward proved to be Aram’s accomplice was arrested on suspicion. He confessed the crime, and the opinion formed by the medical witnesses was confirmed by his statements. The skull presented evidence of fracture and indentation of a temporal bone. Aram argued the case in his own behalf, but the testimony was too strong against him: he was convicted and executed.

Taylor records the case of a man, Guerin, who was convicted of the murder of his brother from evidence obtained from an examination of the skeleton three years after interment. Here, again, blows upon the head were the cause of death, and the fractures were plainly perceptible upon the exhumed skull.

An autopsy upon a body before the soft parts have been entirely destroyed, or upon an embalmed body, should be conducted in much the same manner as ordinary autopsies. In these cases the method of burial should be noted. If it be a case of murder, and the body has been hurriedly put into the ground, it is not likely that the custom of Christian nations has been observed—that of laying the body full length, with the head to the west.

In the case of partially destroyed bodies, the remaining soft parts will give little evidence of the mode of death unless the violence has been very extensive, and even then it may be impossible to determine whether a wound was inflicted prior to or after death. Recourse must be had to the skeleton, and the only evidence it can furnish is of fractures, unless, as happened in one case, a rope be found about the cervical vertebræ.

When the skeleton only is found, Taylor lays stress upon the following points:

(1) Whether the bones belong to a human being or one of the lower animals.

(2) If a human being, whether male or female.

(3) The length of time they have probably remained in the ground.

(4) The probable age of the individual to whom they belonged. If the maxillary bones be found, much information may be obtained from an examination of the teeth.

(5) The probable stature of the individual during life.

(6) The race to which he belonged. The conformation of the skull and thickness of the bones will give important information on this point.

(7) It should be determined whether solitary bones belong to the right or left side, and whether they form parts of one or more than one skeleton.

(8) Whether they have been fractured, and if so, whether it occurred during life, or by accident at the time of the exhumation. If it occurred during life, whether it be recent or of long standing.

(9) The presence or absence of personal deformities, of supernumerary fingers or toes, of curvature of the spine, of ankylosis of one or more joints.

(10) Whether they have been calcined, as murderers sometimes try to make away with the bodies of their victims by burning. Especially is this the case in infanticides (see Identity, Vol. I., p. 408 et seq.Time of Death, Vol. I., p. 452 et seq.).


These cases are usually cases of murder in the perpetration of which the criminal has mutilated the body with a view to destroying all traces of identity.

The importance which attaches to autopsies of fragments rests upon the fact that parts of a body may be found widely separated, and that one portion may be found before the others. In such cases it will be necessary to determine if they belong to one and the same body. The examination is conducted chiefly with a view to establishing this.

The examiner must note the manner in which the fragment has been separated; whether it is clean cut, as by one who understood something of anatomy, or, whether it has been separated roughly and by one ignorant of the body structure. The determination of this point will be one link in the chain of evidence which may lead to the detection of the criminal, or the acquittal of one accused. An anatomist or a butcher would be likely to cut through at a joint, and to do it neatly. The exact point at which the severance has taken place should be noted. The place of finding, the circumstances under which found, the condition and general appearance of the fragment should all be carefully recorded. The color of the skin will indicate with some accuracy the race to which the individual belonged. The probable sex may be determined by the presence or absence of hair, and the general conformation. This, however, will not apply in the case of children. The probable age may be fixed upon from the size and degree of development of the fragment. The cut surface should be carefully described, and if possible a drawing should be made of it.

There are special considerations which apply to certain parts of the body.

The Head.—The exact point of severance should be recorded. The number of vertebræ which remain attached to the head should be counted, and if the section pass through a vertebra, its number and the amount of it missing should be stated. The sex will be apparent in all instances; the race may be determined both by the color of the skin and by the shape of the head; the age may be approximated, though care must be had in expressing an opinion, for the manner of living is well known to affect the appearance of age. Evidence of violence prior to death should be noted, and the presence or absence of fractures ascertained; also observe the color of the hair and whether it be thin or abundant; the presence or absence of beard or mustache, and if present the color; and the color of the eyes.

The Arm.—The following points should be determined: the color of the skin as indication of race; the probable sex from its shape and general conformation; the probable age from its size and degree of development; marks of any kind, such as tattooing; and deformities, such as signs of old or recent fracture, or dislocation; and supernumerary fingers.

The Leg.—The examination of the leg should be conducted in much the same manner as that of the arm.

The Trunk.—An examination of the trunk will reveal the race, sex, and probable age, and may give evidence as regards the manner in which the deceased came to his or her death. Any marks or deformities should be recorded, and in all cases the viscera should be examined.


After making a medico-legal autopsy, it will be necessary for the medical examiner to draw up a report of his findings, and the conclusions based thereon. The report should be clear and concise, and the language such as a coroner’s jury can understand. Technical terms should be avoided, and when their employment is necessary they should be explained in the margin or in parentheses.

The report should be drawn up in somewhat the following manner:

1- When and under what circumstances the body was first seen; stating hour of day, day of week and month.

2. When deceased was last seen living, or known to be alive.

3. Any circumstances that would lead to a suspicion of suicide or murder.

4. Time after death at which the examination was made, if it can be ascertained.

5. The external appearance of the body: whether the surface is livid or pallid.

6. State of countenance.

7. Any marks of violence on the person, disarrangement of the dress, blood-stains, etc.

8. Presence or absence of warmth in the legs, abdomen, arms, armpits, or mouth.

9. Presence or absence of rigor mortis.

To give any value to this point it is necessary for the witness to observe the nature of the substance upon which the body is lying; whether the body be clothed or naked, young or old, fat or emaciated. These conditions materially influence the rapidity of cooling and the onset of rigor mortis.

10. Upon first opening the body the color of the muscles should be noted. Carbon monoxide poisoning causes them to be of a cherry-red color.

11. The condition of the blood and its color.

12. The state of the abdominal viscera, describing each one in the order in which it is removed (see p. 370). If the stomach and intestines are inflamed the seat of the inflammation should be exactly specified; also all evidences of softening, ulceration, effusion of blood, corrosion, or perforation. The presence of hardened fæces in the rectum will bear evidence that no purging occurred immediately before death.

13. The state of the heart and lungs. (For special consideration of the lungs in cases of suspected infanticide, see Vol. II.; and of persons drowned, see Vol. I., p. 805 et seq.).

14. The state of the brain and spinal cord.

After a thorough consideration of the results of the examination, conclusions must be drawn from this examination; never from the statements of others. The conclusions commonly relate to whether death was due to natural or unnatural causes; if to unnatural causes, what are the facts which lead the examiner to this opinion. As the conclusions are intended to form a summary of the whole report, they must be brief and tersely stated.

MEDICO-LEGAL AUTOPSIES BY H. P. LOOMIS, A.M., M.D., Professor of Pathology in the University of the City of New York; 1894

SOURCE: MEDICAL JURISPRUDENCE FORENSIC MEDICINE AND TOXICOLOGY BY R. A. WITTHAUS, A.M., M.D. Professor of Chemistry, Physics, and Hygiene in the University of the City of New York AND TRACY C. BECKER, A.B., LL.B. 1894

Categories: Medical Jurisprudence

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