Episode 124

Ancient Autopsy Techniques
1 week ago
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What met their eyes when the coffin was opened wasn’t a pile of white bones or a normal dead body with flesh and blood. Instead, it was entirely dry, with darkened skin around the bones and seemed as hard as bone…

How could one conduct an autopsy on a corpse like that?

This question dominated everyone’s minds more than their fear as they all turned to look at Song Caitang.

Some were curious. Some were doubtful.

Wen Yuansi had some doubts too, so he looked at Song Caitang and asked quietly, “It might be a bit difficult to inspect this dry corpse. Do you have a way to do this?”

He didn’t asked if it was possible or not, so that even if it turned out to be impossible, it wouldn’t look bad on her.

But Song Caitang didn’t need that.

“Of course,” she raised her head and chin, her eyes sparkling and her hair reflecting the light from outside the cave brightly, exuding a dazzling confidence, “Since I’ve agreed to be your coroner, I’ve got to make sure I can do something like that too.”

Everyone was stunned.

Not only did the servants of the Mi family who had come along freeze, but even the runners who had come with Wen Yuansi did not immediately support her.

They knew that this female coroner was an expert in dissecting bodies, pulling out hearts and cutting stomachs open, and she was certainly a very impressive and capable person. But this body here was completely dry, and anything inside, including the organs, would be dry too. Was it really possible to conduct an autopsy?

Could her confidence be…misplaced?

Song Caitang ignored the way everyone was staring at her and didn’t care about what thoughts might be running through their heads. She had already opened her toolboxes and started prepping.

“Inspecting a dry corpse will be different from a fresh corpse, and it will take quite some time, so I hope Magistrate Wen is alright with that.”

The fact that an inspection was even possible was already a pleasant surprise to him, so Wen Yuansi wasn’t going to demand for anything more. “There is time today, so you can go ahead and do what you need,” said Wen Yuansi as he looked in Mi Xiaowen’s direction, “I’m sure Squire Mi would like this case to be resolved as soon as possible.”

They had already made the journey here, so even if it was going to take a long time, it didn’t matter as long as it was settled at one shot.

Even Mi Xiaowen smiled and said, “I agree wholeheartedly with you, Magistrate Wen.”

Song Caitang looked at her tools, paused to think, then made a request, “These boxes are too small to contain everything I need, so I will need your help to get me a few more things, Magistrate Wen.”

“Sure. What else do you need?”

“I need hot ashes, a thin cloth, fire, a spray bottle and a pot.”

These were not difficult things to find, so Mi Xiaowen could help prepare them. But this pot…

Song Caitang also realized she had to be a bit more specific about that, “I want to heat up some vinegar, so it doesn’t really have to be a pot. I just need something that can hold liquid and withstand boiling without any leaks.”

Mi Xiaowen did not even look at Song Caitang and just said to Wen Yuansi politely, “I will get my servants to prepare these things immediately.”

He just didn’t have any regard for women.

Song Caitang raised an eyebrow, but put it down again quickly.

Ignore that! Tolerate it!

She turned back to retrieve things from her toolbox.

In order to inspect this dry corpse, she opened the box filled with items meant for ancient autopsy techniques.

Without the help of modern equipment, it would be difficult to conduct an autopsy of a dry corpse. But Song Ci’s Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified recorded a pretty good method to do just that, so today was a good chance to try that out!

She had wine, distiller’s grain, vinegar, spring onions, ginger, salt, pepper, white plums…

One by one, she took them out of her box.

Song Caitang would always bring two boxes along for autopsies. One had all her scalpels and similar tools, while the other kept such things. She was an expert in dissection, so she usually needed to slice a body open and used most of the tools in her first box. The second box…used to just sit there without being opened. But now, it finally came in handy.

Everyone’s expressions slowly fell as they watched her retrieve these items from her box.

Wine and vinegar were understandable, since these things could help to remove smells and disinfect things. Other coroners used these items too. But ginger, spring onions, salt and pepper?

Was she here to conduct an autopsy or cook a meal?

A fire was started quickly, so it didn’t take long for her to get hot ashes. She could have as much as she like.

It wasn’t easy to get a cooking pot so quickly, so a large ceramic pot was washed and could be used.

They couldn’t get an entire bale of thin cloth right now, so some clean clothing was good enough.

Song Caitang immediately started giving instructions, “Put the hot ashes on the ground, make sure it’s a layer that’s as tall and wide as the victim’s body. Also make sure there are no sparks or fire, as long as it’s warm.”

She took the thin cloth and waited by the side. Once the layer of ashes had been laid down on the ground, she spread the thin cloth over the ashes and used the spray bottle to wet the thin cloth slightly.

It was wet to the touch, but not wet enough to be wrung out.

“Squire Mi, please help to carry your mother’s body out of the coffin and place her on the cloth.”

Mi Xiaowen had no idea what she was trying to do, but since he had agreed to this autopsy…he had no choice but to follow her instructions.

He still refused to look at Song Caitang or talk to her. He just quietly kowtowed to the coffin, then carried his mother’s body out.

Everyone looked on nervously and wished they could help as he carried her very carefully.

Not because the body was too heavy, but because it was too dry. If he accidentally touched something too hard, it might just break right off!

“Remove the clothing, put her down facing up.”

Song Caitang got Mi Xiaowen to handle the body and put it down, then used the excess cloth on the ashes to wrap the body completely.

“Warm ashes.”

She covered the body with yet another layer of ashes and cloth.

Then she sprayed more water on.

Wen Yuansi watched her do all of this with much curiosity.

He had seen quite a lot of techniques himself, but this was one he had never seen before.

Wrapping the dry corpse, spraying water and covering it with warm ashes was an attempt to moisturize the dry skin? What was she going to do next?

“And now, we wait.”

Song Caitang had a calm look in her eyes, “I will be able to inspect for injuries after about two hours.”

During this time, Song Caitang did not just sit by and do nothing.

She mixed the spring onions, pepper, salt and white plums with distiller’s grain, used a stick to mash everything up, then kneaded the mixture into patties and put them over the fire.

It was easy to mash the ingredients, since you just had to keep using the stick to crush and mix the ingredients together. But making them into patties was a little more difficult. She could make them around the same thickness, but the shape…

Song Caitang frowned slightly as she stared at the little patties roasting. How was Wanwan able to do this?

No matter how many little cookies or pastries Wanwan made, they were always exactly the same size and perfectly round.

Everyone thought she was thinking about something very important because her expression was stern, and did not dare to say anything. They then looked at the body that was well wrapped in ash and cloth and thought that this autopsy was probably too difficult and even the usually amazing Miss Song was going to find it hard to get impressive results.

As the fire continued to burn, the temperature in the cave rose quickly. Before two hours was up, Song Caitang felt that the body was good to go. She walked over, unwrapped a small corner, and reached in to feel the softness of the corpse.

“It’s done.”

She got some men to sweep away the ashes, then pulled the cloth away to reveal the body.

There was no way any blood or flesh could return to this dried body, and the body was still flat in the right places, and it was still just skin around bones. But the body was clearly not as stiff as before, and not as brittle, so nobody felt like it would crumble with the slightest exertion.

“We can inspect the body now?”

Everyone was focused on her with looks of anticipation in their eyes.

“Not yet.”

Song Caitang carried the pot of warm vinegar she heated up earlier over, drenched a cloth in it, then wiped the body.

She wiped it more than once.

Was it good to go now?

Song Caitang shook her head. Not yet. “Corpse paper.”

Most coroners would bring completely white paper that was good for writing as one of their inspection tools. The runners knew what it was and brought some to her immediately.

Song Caitang checked the body carefully, then covered it with the paper. She turned to grab the distiller’s grain patties, then put them on top of the paper that was on the body.

Wen Yuansi asked, “Miss Song, this…”

“I’m using the patties to increase the temperature. If there are wounds on the body, they will become apparent.”

In history, the famous judge, Song Ci, had used this method several times, and modern forensic science had explained why it worked. The patties were able to make the skin become softer, more permeable and denature hemoglobin, which would make wounds appear very obviously.

If Madam Liang had passed away purely from her illness, then nothing would appear on her body. But if that wasn’t the case…

“Ah! There’s something!”

“There’s really something!”

After Song Caitang pulled the paper away, everyone noticed the marks even faster than she did.

One part of the victim’s shoulder was much darker than the rest, and it clearly formed the shape of a hand. Traces of two fingers could be seen very clearly!

Someone must have held the victim down very hard in order to cause such marks!

“There’s more!”

“The hand! Look at the fingers!”

The color around the victim’s right hand fingers was dark, but these did not look like external injuries, but more like the result of the victim grabbing something too hard.

Everyone stared at Song Caitang with admiration in their eyes.

Miss Song was as impressive as ever! She was so capable! Not only was she able to dissect bodies time and again with her tiny knives, but she knew what to do with a dry corpse too!

Song Caitang bent down to look and narrowed her eyes, “According to the case files, the nail on the middle finger of her right hand was broken…”

Upon closer inspection of the victim’s middle fingernail, she confirmed it was missing part of the nail.

Wen Yuansi looked at Mi Xiaowen with a grave look on his face, “You mean nobody noticed that she had such a severe bruise on her shoulder when you buried her?”

“Please, let me explain…” Mi Xiaowen had no idea why there was a wound there at all. This revelation was new to him too. “This wasn’t there before!”

“So, this was caused after her death? Who would have pressed down so hard on her?”

“That’s even more impossible. After my mother died, a lot of people were constantly around her as they prepared for her funeral and burial. It’s impossible for anyone to have done this secretly…”

Song Caitang suddenly remembered something, “She had been ill for a long time, right?”

Mi Xiaowen wiped away the sweat on his forehead and spoke to Song Caitang for the first time, “That’s right.”

“What illness was it? What did she look like before passing away?”

“She was just getting on in age and her health was deteriorating, so she relied on supplements to stay healthy, but she couldn’t recover after that one time she got the flu…my mother felt terrible during that period of time. The doctor said that she also suffered from a heat rash, so she was red all over, not only her face..”

Mi Xiaowen suddenly remembered, “On the day she died, her body was also red. Is that why we didn’t notice the bruise?”

He needed answers badly and wasn’t concerned with the fact that he was talking to a woman anymore.

Song Caitang was a lot more forgiving than he was, so she did not make any snarky remarks or laugh at him, but looked at him calmly and said, “That’s possible. There are some bruises that aren’t obvious at death because of the state of the body at that time, but become more obvious after some time.”

Madam Liang probably fell into this category.

If Song Caitang made fun of Mi Xiaowen or said something nasty, Mi Xiaowen might have an excuse to say that women were petty or something along those lines. But now…he could only glare at her and couldn’t say anything bad about her.

She had clearly been unaffected by everything that happened before and was focused on conducting the autopsy!

What did that make him?

But Song Caitang didn’t care about his selfish thoughts. She picked up the victim’s right hand and checked it very carefully, “It seems like there’s a red silk strand in the nail.”

“That would be the blanket my mother used,” said Mi Xiaowen, “The coroner back then noticed it too and it was consistent with the thread of the blanket, so it might have been caught on her finger.”

Song Caitang had noticed this observation in the case files, but it only noted that one nail had broken off, and this piece found on the bed had a red silk strand caught in it that was consistent with the blanket. It didn’t state that there was more under the rest of the nail still on her hand.

But regardless of that…

“The handprint on the victim’s shoulder is apparent, so someone must have pressed down very hard on her. The broken nail, the strand found in the nail and the bruises on her fingers could have been caused by her fighting back with all her might when she was attacked.”

Song Caitang’s eyes shone clear and bright as she concluded, “This was a murder.”

That was not the result Mi Xiaowen wanted.

His mother had passed on for so long and he just wanted to move on. He wanted the authorities to just finish whatever necessary procedures they had to do, then close the case so that it would stop being an unsolved case.

“Do you have proof?!” said Mi Xiaowen angrily with a fierce look on his face.

Song Caitang raised an eyebrow slightly but did not speak.

Wen Yuansi narrowed his eyes and said in a deep and serious voice, “That handprint is very obvious. That’s not enough proof for you, Squire Mi?”

The runners next to him chuckled too, “It’s so obvious from the handprint that someone had held her down, and those bruises on her fingers, the unnaturally broken off nail and the strand in the nail are proof too. If that’s not enough, what else does Squire Mi need?”

Mi Xiaowen retorted, “I don’t care, if you can’t find something concrete, you can’t say that my mother was murdered!”

Wen Yuansi ignored him and turned to Song Caitang, “Do you have any guesses on what might have happened?”

She looked at him, “I’m sure you have a good guess.”

“She was bedridden because she had been ill for a long time, and it happened at night. Based on these bruises, there seems to be only one quick and fast way possible…”

Her nose and mouth had been covered and she had been suffocated to death.

Why else would the victim have struggled so hard to the point of breaking a nail? Wouldn’t she have shouted for someone instead?

It wasn’t because she couldn’t shout, but because her shouts could not be heard.

Song Caitang nodded.

Mechanical asphyxiation showed many signs in a corpse. For example, the head would be swollen and the cornea would have bloody dots. Her eyes were all dried up, so it was hard to tell. Her neck should have tiny spots indicating hemorrhage, but given the color of this corpse…

There were a few spots that were quite obvious, but it was going to be hard to convince everyone that these were definitely a result of hemorrhage…

Wen Yuansi was not as experienced as Song Caitang, but he had seen several corpses and read many autopsy reports himself, so he did know a few signs of mechanical asphyxiation. He looked at Mi Xiaowen and said, “According to the case files, the victim’s head was swollen.”

Mi Xiaowen didn’t know anything about what dead bodies ought to look like, but he knew what Wen Yuansi was insinuating and retorted, “Men’s legs often swell up when they’re ill and women’s heads often swell up when they’re ill – wouldn’t that be the case for an ill person when they die? My mother is a woman, so it’s only normal for her head to be swollen just before she passed on.”

Wen Yuansi frowned.

Song Caitang asked, “What about her bowel movement? When her body was removed from the bed, was there any urine or feces found as a result of incontinence?”

“My mother was severely ill! Doesn’t that happen to every old person who’s ill?!”

In other words, that had happened.

Song Caitang’s mind moved quickly as she looked at the corpse.

Once she put everything together, the probability of the victim suffocating to death was even greater now.

If the killer had used a hand to cover the victim’s nose and mouth and the victim struggled, there would be some bruises around the nose and mouth. But the body did not have any…

So, the killer could have used something else to do it.

Something soft that wouldn’t leave any bruises behind.

A soft pillow, for example.

“Perhaps Squire Mi is not really familiar with what happens when someone dies from suffocation,” Song Caitang stared at Mi Xiaowen with her clear, beautiful eyes that gleamed like a lake in the summer sun and looked like they could reflect every truth in the world, “I can explain it to you in detail.”

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