Medico-legal tales from the Raj

Snake from Thanatophidia

I’m working on a book project on medical jurisprudence (or forensic science) in colonial India. While doing this research, I’ve come across some truly bizarre phenomena. Three of the most striking are: soap corpses, giving birth after death, and the snake-and-banana trick.

Here are some of the very strange details:

(1) soap corpses: Ever heard of saponification? Of a dead body? From the French “savon” (soap), the term refers to a process in which a decomposing fat meets an alkali to form soap. Usually dead bodies decompose and putrefy. But when circumstances are right (often involving water), the body instead saponifies. For instance, one “soap mummy” in India from the early 20th c. was described this way:”The body was that of a boy, aged nine, exhumed four days after burial. The skin of the abdomen, chest, and extremities was found to be mottled and waxy-looking, and free from offensive odour. Portions were sent to the chemical examiner, Calcutta, who reported that ‘partial saponification had taken place in the tissues.'”

(2) giving birth after death: Forensic experts reported cases of “cadavric spasm,” where the dead body of a woman (in one case, poisoned by strychnine while trying to abort) expelled a fetus post-mortem. Often, nobody realized the woman was pregnant. Treatise authors Hehir and Gribble commented that “cadaveric rigidity” caused the birth. Our view now of “coffin birth” or post-mortem fetal extrusion is that the gases created inside the body through decomposition expel the dead fetus.

(3) the snake-and-banana trick: How might a cow be poisoned with snake venom? By British reports, cattle poisoners in colonial India used an unusual method. It involved a cow, a cobra, an earthen jug, a rag, and a banana.

As a bit of background: cattle poisoning was an offense with a complicated, caste-related history. Upper caste Hindus sometimes accused dalits of poisoning cattle so the latter could turn the hides into leather. See Ramnarayan Rawat‘s excellent book to learn more. Although arsenic was most commonly used, snake venom could also be employed. In the late 19th-early 20th c., there was no lab test that could detect snake venom in a dead body, whether human or bovine.

Here are instructions for the method (borrowing from treatise authors Waddell and Lyon):

1. Put the cobra and the banana into the jug. Use a jug with a very small mouth.

2. Heat it over a flame. The heat makes the cobra angry. It will bite the banana.

3. Remove jug from heat.

4. Remove cobra from jug.

5. Remove banana from jug.

6. Smear venom-infused banana on rag.

7. Insert rag into unfortunate cow’s rectum.

The Chemical Examiners (military medical figures who tested samples for the state) could not test for venom. But when they found the telltale rag up a dead cow’s rear end, they assumed the worst.