A Morbid Taste for Forensics

There has been a deal written recently in all kinds of communications regarding forensics and dead men: Richard III has been the prime subject of all types of discussion. His DNA has been laid bare, the manner of the wounds that his skeleton bears witness to have been discussed – although those which have no testimony in bone were ever so delicately tip-toed around by the  television documentary. We are about to have more  secrets of the Ice Man laid  open for all to discuss– his last moments so many millennia ago  a matter of modern conversation.

These teams, as they laboured, must have wished that a contemporary record existed. But there were no war correspondents on Bosworth Field, and no freelance photographer at the last moments of the Ice Man. However, detailed forensic reports are nothing new. Cast your eye, dear reader, upon the autopsy report of Archbishop Sharp, killed by a group of Covenanters. Avoid any further reading, if your constitution tends to towards the delicate and infirm.

Sharp’s death caused outrage among the opposing party, the manner of his death moreso. Yet, despite the heroic images from men such as John Opie, his death is more clearly accounted by those surgeons who examined the body after death:

We Undersubscribers, being called to visit the Corps of the late Lord Archbishop of St. Andrews, do find that he had received a wound by a sword over the left eye, extending two inches above and one below, making a great suffusion of blood upon the cheek, and upper and lower eyelid. Next, we found many wounds upon the posterior part of his head, insomuch that the whole occipital bone was shatter’d all in pieces, and a part of the brain lost thereby upon the place, which certainly being so great, could not but occasion his present death. There were only two wounds to be seen upon the body; the first, two or three inches below the right clavicle, betwixt the second and third rib, which was given by a shot not reaching the capacity of the breast. The next was a small wound upon the region of the kidneys, given by a small sword. Likewise we found three wounds upon his left hand, which might have proved mortal tho he had escaped the former. Also another upon the right hand, as dangerous as the former. As witness our hands at St. Andrews, the 5th day of May 1679.

George Pitillo, M.D.
William Borthwick, Chir.
Henry Spence, Chir.
James Pringle, Chir.


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