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36: Inquests

Inquests in China serve, unfortunately, but to illustrate one more phase of the folly and ignorance which hopelessly overshadow the vast area of its Empire. For although the Chinese justly regard such investigations as matters of paramount importance, and the office of coroner devolves upon a high functionary--the district magistrate--yet the backward state of science on the one hand, and the necessity the ruling classes have been under of supplying this deficiency on the other, have combined to produce at once the most deplorable and the most laughable results. Two good-sized volumes of "Instructions to Coroners," beautifully printed on white paper and altogether handsomely got up, are published under the authority of the Government, and copies of this book are to be found in the offices of every magistrate throughout the Empire. It is carefully studied even by the underlings who play only subordinate parts on such occasions, and the coroner himself generally carries his private copy with him in his sedan-chair to the very scene of the inquest. From this work the following sketch has been compiled, for though it has been our fate to be present at more than one of the lamentable exhibitions thus dignified by the name of inquest, and to have had ocular demonstration of the absurdities there perpetrated, it will be more satisfactory to stick closely to the text of an officially-recognised book, the translation of which helped to while away many a leisure hour.

The first chapter opens as follows:--

"There is nothing more sacred than human life: there is no punishment greater than death. A murderer gives life for life: the law shows no mercy. But to obviate any regrets which might be occasioned by a wrong infliction of such punishment, the validity of any confession and the sentence passed are made to depend on a satisfactory examination of the wounds. If these are of a _bona fide_ nature [i.e., not counterfeit], and the confession of the accused tallies therewith, then life may be given for life, that those who know the laws may fear them, that crime may become less frequent among the people, and due weight be attached to the sanctity of human existence. If an inquest is not properly conducted, the wrong of the murdered man is not redressed, and new wrongs are raised up amongst the living; other lives may be sacrificed, and both sides roused to vengeance of which no man can foresee the end."

On this it is only necessary to remark that the "validity" of a confession is an important point in China, since substitutes are easily procurable at as low a rate as from 20 to 50 pounds a life.

The duties of a Chinese coroner are by no means limited to _post mortem_ examinations; he visits and examines any one who has been dangerously wounded, and fixes a date within which the accused is held responsible for the life of his victim.

"Murders are rarely the result of premeditation, but can be traced, in the majority of cases, to a brawl. The statute which treats of wounding in a brawl attaches great weight to the 'death- limit,' which means that the wounded man be handed over to the accused to be taken care of and provided with medical aid, and that a limit of time be fixed, on the expiration of which punishment be awarded according to circumstances. Now the relatives of a wounded man, unless their ties be of the closest, generally desire his death that they may extort money from his slayer; but the accused wishes him to live that he himself may escape death, and therefore he leaves no means untried to restore his victim to health. This institution of the 'death-limit' is a merciful endeavour to save the lives of both."

One whole chapter is devoted to a division of the body into vital and non-vital parts. Of the former there are twenty-two altogether, sixteen before and six behind; of the latter fifty-six, thirty-six before and twenty behind. Every coroner provides himself with a form, drawn up according to these divisions, and on this he enters the various wounds he finds on the body at the inquest.

"Do not," say the Instructions, "deterred by the smell of the corpse, sit at a distance, your view intercepted by the smoke of fumigation, letting the assistants call out the wounds and enter them on the form, perhaps to garble what is of importance and to give prominence to what is not."

The instructions for the examination of the body from the head downwards are very explicit, and among them is one sentence by virtue of which a Chinese judge would have disposed of the Tichborne case without either hesitation or delay.

"Examine the cheeks to see whether they have been tattooed or not, or whether the marks have been obliterated. In the latter case, cut a slip of bamboo and tap the parts; the tattooing will then re-appear."

In cases where the wounds are not distinctly visible, the following directions are given:--

"Spread a poultice of grain, and sprinkle some vinegar upon the corpse in the open air. Take a piece of new oiled silk, or a transparent oil-cloth umbrella, and hold it between the sun and the parts you want to examine. The wounds will then appear. If the day is dark or rainy, use live charcoal [instead of the sun]. Suppose there is no result, then spread over the parts pounded white prunes with more grains and vinegar, and examine closely. If the result is still imperfect, then take the flesh only of the prune, adding cayenne pepper, onions, salt, and grains, and mix it up into a cake. Make this very hot, and having first interposed a sheet of paper, lay it on the parts. The wound will then appear."

Hot vinegar and grains are always used previous to an examination of the body to soften it and cause the wounds to appear more distinctly.

"But in winter, when the corpse is frozen hard, and no amount of grains and vinegar, however hot, or clothes piled up, however thick, will relax its rigidity, dig a hole in the ground of the length and breadth of the body and three feet in depth. Lay in it a quantity of fuel and make a roaring fire. Then dash over it vinegar, which will create dense volumes of steam, in the middle of which place the body with all its dressings right in the hole; cover it over with clothes and pour on more hot vinegar all over it. At a distance of two or three feet from the hole on either side of it light fires, and when you think the heat has thoroughly penetrated, take away the fire and remove the body for examination."

It is always a great point with the coroner to secure as soon as possible the fatal weapon. If a long time has elapsed between the murder and the inquest, and no traces of blood are visible on the knife or sword which may have been used, "heat it red hot in a charcoal fire, and pour over it a quantity of first-rate vinegar. The stains of blood will at once appear."

The note following this last sentence is still more extraordinary:--

"An inquest was held on the body of a man who had been murdered on the high road, and at first it was thought that the murder had been committed by robbers, but on examination the corpse was found to be fully clothed and bearing the marks of some ten or more wounds from a sickle. The coroner pointed out that robbers kill their victims for the sake of booty, which evidently was not the case in the present instance, and declared revenge to be at the bottom of it all. He then sent for the wife of the murdered man, and asked her if her husband had lately quarrelled with anybody. She replied No, but stated that there had been some high words between her husband and another man to whom he had refused to lend money. The coroner at once despatched his runners to the place where this man lived, to bid the people of that village produce all their sickles without delay, at the same time informing them that the concealment of a sickle would be tantamount to a confession of guilt. The sickles were accordingly produced, in number about eighty, and spread out upon the ground. The season being summer there were a great quantity of flies, all of which were attracted by one particular sickle. The coroner asked to whom this sickle belonged, and lo! it belonged to him with whom the murdered man had quarrelled about a loan. On being arrested, he denied his guilt; but the coroner pointed to the flies settling upon the sickle, attracted by the smell of blood, and the murderer bent his head in silent acknowledgment of his crime."

Inquests are often held in China many years after the death of the victim. Give a Chinese coroner merely the dry and imperfect skeleton of a man known to have been murdered, and he will generally succeed in fixing the guilt on some one. To supplement thus by full and open confession of the accused is a matter of secondary difficulty in a country where torture may at any moment be brought to bear with terrible efficacy in the cause of justice and truth. Its application, however, is extremely rare.

"Man has three hundred and sixty-five bones, corresponding to the number of days it takes the heavens to revolve. The skull of a man, from the nape of the neck to the top of the head, consists of eight pieces--that of a Ts'ai-chow man, of nine; women's skulls are of six pieces. Men have twelve ribs on either side; women have fourteen."

The above being sufficient to show where the Chinese are with regard to the structure of the human frame, we will now proceed to the directions for examining bones, it may be months or even years after death.

"For the examination of bones the day should be clear and bright. First take clean water and wash them, and then with string tie them together in proper order so that a perfect skeleton is formed, and lay this on a mat. Then make a hole in the ground, five feet long, three feet broad, and two feet deep. Throw into this plenty of firewood and charcoal, and keep it burning till the ground is thoroughly hot. Clear out the fire and pour in two pints of good spirit and five pounds of strong vinegar. Lay the bones quickly in the steaming pit and cover well up with rushes, &c. Let them remain there for two or three hours until the ground is cold, when the coverings may be removed, the bones taken to a convenient spot, and examined under a red oil-cloth umbrella.

"If the day is dark or rainy the 'boiling' method must be adopted. Take a large jar and heat in it a quantity of vinegar; then having put in plenty of salt and white prunes, boil it altogether with the bones, superintending the process yourself. When it is boiling fast, take out the bones, wash them in water, and hold up to the light. The wounds will be perfectly visible, the blood having soaked into the wounded parts, marking them with red or dark blue or black.

"The above method is, however, not the only one. Take a new yellow oil-cloth umbrella from Hangchow, hold it over the bones, and every particle of wound hidden in the bones will be clearly visible. In cases where the bones are old and the wounds have been obliterated by long exposure to wind and rain or dulled by frequent boilings, it only remains to examine them in the sun under a yellow umbrella, which will show the wounds as far as possible.

"There must be no zinc boiled with the bones or they will become dull.

"Bones which have passed several times through the process of examination become quite white and exactly like uninjured bones; in which case, take such as should show wounds and fill them with oil. Wait till the oil is oozing out all over, then wipe it off and hold the bone up to the light; where there are wounds the oil will collect and not pass; the clear parts have not been injured.

"Another method is to rub some good ink thick and spread it on the bone. Let it dry, and then wash it off. Where there are wounds, and there only, it will sink into the bone. Or take some new cotton wool and pass it over the bone. Wherever there is a wound some will be pulled out [by the jagged parts of the bone]."

A whole chapter is devoted to counterfeit wounds, the means of distinguishing them from real wounds, and the manner in which they are produced. Section 2 of the thirteenth chapter is on a cognate subject, namely, to ascertain whether wounds were inflicted before or after death:--

"If there are several dark-coloured marks on the body, take some water and let it fall drop by drop on to them. If they are wounds the water will remain without trickling away; if they are not wounds, the water will run off. In examining wounds, the finger must be used to press down any livid or red spot. If it is a wound it will be hard, and on raising the finger will be found of the same colour as before.

"Wounds inflicted on the bone leave a red mark and a slight appearance of saturation, and where the bone is broken there will be at either end a halo-like trace of blood. Take a bone on which there are marks of a wound and hold it up to the light; if these are of a fresh-looking red, the wound was afflicted before death and penetrated to the bone; but if there is no trace of saturation from blood, although there is a wound, if was inflicted after death."

In a chapter on wounds from kicks, the following curious instructions are given regarding a "bone-method" of examination:--

"To depend on the evidence of the bone immediately below the wound would be to let many criminals slip through the meshes of the law. Where wounds have been thus inflicted, no matter on man or woman, the wounds will be visible on the upper half of the body, and not on the lower. For instance, they will appear in a male at the roots of either the top or bottom teeth, inside; on the right hand if the wound was on the left, and _vice versa_; in the middle of the wound was central. In women, the wounds will appear on the gums right or left as above."

The next extract needs no comment, except perhaps that it forms the most cherished of all beliefs in the whole range of Chinese medical jurisprudence:--

"The bones of parents may be identified by their children in the following manner. Let the experimenter cut himself or herself with a knife and cause the blood to drip on to the bones; then, if the relationship is an actual fact the blood will sink into the bone, otherwise it will not. N.B. Should the bones have been washed with salt water, even though the relationship exists, yet the blood will not soak in. This is a trick to be guarded against beforehand.

"It is also said that if parent and child, or husband and wife, each cut themselves and let the blood drip into a basin of water the two bloods will mix, whereas that of two people not thus related will not mix.

"Where two brothers who may have been separated since childhood are desirous of establishing their identity as such, but are unable to do so by ordinary means, bid each one cut himself and let the blood drip into a basin. If they are really brothers, the two bloods will congeal into one; otherwise not. But because fresh blood will always congeal with the aid of a little salt or vinegar, people often smear the basin over with these to attain their own ends and deceive others; therefore, always wash out the basin you are going to use or buy a new one from a shop. Thus the trick will be defeated.

"The above method of dropping blood on the bones may be used even by a grandchild, desirous of identifying the remains of his grandfather; but husband and wife, not being of the same flesh and blood, it is absurd to suppose that the blood of one would soak into the bones of the other. For such a principle would apply with still more force to the case of a child, who had been suckled by a foster-mother and had grown up, indebted to her for half its existence. With regard to the water method, if the basin used is large and full of water, the bloods will be unable to mix from being so much diluted; and in the latter case where there is no water, if the interval between dropping the two bloods into the basin is too long, the first will get cold and they will not mix."

Not content with holding an inquest on the bones of a man who may have been murdered five years before, a Chinese coroner quite as often proceeds gravely to examine the wounds of a corpse which has been reduced to ashes by fire and scattered to the four winds of heaven. No mere eyewitness would dare to relate the singular process by which such a result is achieved; but directions exist in black and white, of which the following is a close translation:--

"There are some atrocious villains who, when they have murdered any one, burn the body and throw the ashes away, so that there are no bones to examine. In such cases you must carefully find out at what time the murder was committed and where the body was burnt. Then, when you know the place, all witnesses agreeing on this point, you may proceed without further delay to examine the wounds. The mode of procedure is this. Put up your shed near where the body was burnt, and make the accused and witnesses point out themselves the very spot. Then cut down the grass and weeds growing on this spot, and burn large quantities of fuel till the place is extremely hot, throwing on several pecks of hempseed. By and by brush the place clean, and then, if the body was actually burnt in this spot, the oil from the seed will be found to have sunk into the ground in the form of a human figure, and wherever there were wounds on the dead man, there on this figure the oil will be found to have collected together, large or small, square, round, long, short, oblique, or straight, exactly as they were inflicted. The parts where there were no wounds will be free from any such appearances. But supposing you obtain the outline only without the necessary detail of the wounds, then scrape away the masses of oil, light a brisk fire on the form of the body and throw on grains mixed with water. Make the fire burn as fiercely as possible, and sprinkle vinegar, instantly covering it over with a new well-varnished table. Leave the table on for a little while and then take it off for examination. The form of the body will be transferred to the table and the wounds will be distinct and clear in every particular.

"If the place is wild and some time has elapsed since the deed was done, so that the very murderer does not remember the exact spot, inquire carefully in what direction it was with regard to such and such a village or temple, and about how far off. If all agree on this point, proceed in person to the place, and bid your assistants go round about searching for any spots where the grass is taller and stronger than usual, marking such with a mark. For where a body has been burnt the grass will be darker in hue, more luxuriant, and taller than that surrounding it, and will not lose these characteristics for a long time, the fat and grease of the body sinking down to the roots of the grass and causing the above results. If the spot is on a hill, or in a wild place where the vegetation is very luxuriant, then you must look for a growth about the height of a man. If the burning took place on stony ground, the crumbly appearance of the stones must be your guide; this simplifies matters immensely."

Such, then, are a few of the absurdities which pass muster among the credulous people of China as the result of deep scientific research; but whether the educated classes--more especially those individuals who devote themselves in the course of their official duties to the theory and practice of _post mortem_ examinations--can be equally gulled with the gaping crowd around them, we may safely leave our readers to decide for themselves.