Posts Tagged ‘autopsy’

Memory Serves

June 14, 2018

“Memory Serves”

E.J. Wagner

One cold gray March day back in the 80’s, I made my usual trip to Manhattan to meet my pathologist cousin Teddy, to share lunch and discuss murder.

We were both late, having each walked past the restaurant, in spite of having met at the same spot for months.

He blames our mutual lack of directional sense on genetic inheritance -jovially reminding me that our grandparents were cousins.

(Our grandparents had died years before I was born, but Teddy, 27 years my senior, has happily shared details of their eccentricities)

“Cousins? Did matchmakers allow sort of thing?”

“Matchmakers had nothing to do with it. They arranged it themselves-a true love match. They remained a very romantic, demonstrative couple all their lives. The family would tease them. She never called him ‘Lev’ which was his name-it was always ‘Mein Lieb ’.”

Due to the age gap between us and the fact that he had spent years in France, India, China and Burma working for the OSS, I didn’t get to know Teddy until I was an adult.

When I needed information on autopsy techniques for a Museum presentation ay Stony Brook University, I phoned him. He invited me to the medical examiner’s office to observe.

I watched, fascinated, as this soft spoken, gently humorous man neatly sliced a human liver and dropped the bits into what seemed to be a take out food container.

Intrigued, I became a frequent visitor to the Office.

Over time, Teddy became my mentor.

During our lunches, he convinced me that with his help I could write a valuable book on the history of forensic science.

“And it’s important to do-“ he’d tell me “if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past we’ll repeat them”.

So I was shaken when he leaned across the table that March day and said-

“about the book-we’ll have to find someone else to mentor you. I’ve developed some neurological issues-memory gaps- definitely getting worse. I’ll help as long as I can-here’s a reading list..

(I notice it’s an inch thick and single spaced)

He describes the sort of forensic specialist I need to work with-who sounds like a mash up of Albert Schweitzer, Sherlock Holmes, and a particularly well disposed Saint Bernard.

“I’ll give you my notes-you can serve as my memory” he finished.

Teddy had presented a perfectly succinct well organized plan.

Sure he was suffering a case of mistaken self diagnosis, I was trying to say this tactfully when he suddenly demanded ;

“Our grandparents-did you know they were cousins? First cousins? She used to call him… what did she call him? What was it? I can’t remember!!”

“She called Mein Lieb” I told him.

The End

“Science of Sherlock Holmes”new updated edition!

February 21, 2017

Fall River Press  has published a new,updated edition with new chapter  of “The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases… by E.J. Wagner
Average rating 4.5

B&N Cover.jpg

available at Barnes and Noble

This new, updated edition of the Edgar® Award-winning The Science of Sherlock Holmes is as fascinating and eye-opening as any Holmes mystery.  

“Fascinating.” –The Christian Science Monitor
“A double triumph…masterful.” –The Toronto Star
“Utterly compelling.”–Otto Penzler
Take a wild ride by hansom cab along the road paved by Sherlock Holmes—a ride that leads you through medicine, law, pathology, toxicology, anatomy, blood chemistry, and the emergence of forensic science during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Author E.J. Wagner delves into gripping real-life mysteries such as:

How Jack the Ripper’s brutal 1888 murders could have been solved, if detectives had followed the example of the Holmes mystery A Study in Scarlet, published the year before.

How a clever detective proved the butler did it.

Dr. Watson - registered as Wagners' The Game's Afoot - photo by W.R.Wagner

Dr. Watson – registered as Wagners’ The Game’s Afoot – photo by W.R.Wagner

How early forensic science failed in the Lizzie Borden Case

How  Black Dog  ghost tales   are linked to haunting murder case
In examining the Great Detective’s remarkable adventures—along with gripping real-life mysteries such as the disappearance of Dr. George Parkman, wife-killer Kenneth Barlow, Jack the Ripper, and Lizzie Borden—Wagner gives readers a new perspective on both Holmes and modern-day forensic detection.

Fall River Press
Publication date:

Meet the Author

E.J. Wagner is a crime historian, lecturer, teller of suspense stories for adults, and moderator of the annual Forensic Forum at Stony Brook University’s Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences. Her work has been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the New York Times,  the Lancet, Smithsonian, among others. E.J’s website is

Discovered at the Autopsy

May 6, 2010

Forensic history is rich with cases in which the manner of death (natural, accident, homicide or suicide) seemed obvious, but in which post mortem examination established a very different conclusion.

A few that spring to mind:

In 1978, Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident and journalist who worked in the UK, was rushed to a London hospital with what appeared to be a raging infection. Despite sophisticated and attentive treatment he expired.  At post mortem, a pellet was recovered from his buttock. It was determined to have contained the powerful poison ricin, The pellet had evidently been injected by an assailant Markov had encountered while waiting for a bus. The motive for the crime was political.

In Chicago of 1982, the sudden death of a twelve year old—thought to be a natural death caused by a stroke—was eventually discovered by a medical examiner to be the result of cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules.

Dr. Michael Swango, a medically trained serial poisoner, aroused suspicion in 1984, early in his career, when a patient observed him tampering with an IV line. The Ohio hospital which employed Swango investigated and announced they found “no cause for alarm,” thus leaving the doctor free to continue his unsavory career for many years. He traveled widely, eventually arriving on Long Island, where he continued to ply his trade. The evidence establishing his guilt was collected by the Suffolk County Medical Examiner from a number of exhumed bodies, whose physicians had believed their deaths due to disease, and had signed death certificates to that effect.

In 1678 the English magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was embroiled in an intense political dispute. When his body was found on Primrose Hill in London, impaled upon his sword, his demise was assumed suicide due to great emotional distress. A post mortem, by two surgeons, however, disclosed that Godfrey had been strangled, and that the sword had been inserted after death.

If a thorough post mortem was thought important in a high profile case in 1678, why was a similar examination not considered appropriate in the matter of Bruce Ivins? Particularly when Dr. Ivins remains were to be cremated?

Questions persist. Was Dr. Ivin’s bizarre behavior due to disease? Undiagnosed strokes? Incipient Creutzfeldt-Jakob? Drugs other than Tylenol? If this was indeed suicide, was it due to guilt? Or to a sick human being badgered to death.

Without the post mortem, there are major pieces missing from the investigation. There are many reasons to have done a complete autopsy in the Ivins case. It is hard to think of a good reason not to.

Autopsy means “to see for oneself.” Why didn’t we get the chance?

E. J. Wagner – as always – pursuing verity

Pursuing Verity

Anthrax, Dr. Ivins, and the Missing Autopsy

March 29, 2010

On July 27, 2008, Dr. Bruce Ivins, the subject of intense investigation by the FBI in the anthrax poison case of 2001, was found unconscious in his Maryland home.  Removed by ambulance to the hospital, he died there on July 29.  Based on hospital blood tests and police reports, it was concluded that death was caused by an overdose of Tylenol® PM, and that the manner of death was suicide. No autopsy was performed, and the body was promptly cremated. Investigators insisted that evidence showed Dr. Ivins was the anthrax killer, that he acted alone, and that suicide implied guilt.

The lack of autopsy shows a curious lack of curiosity on the part of authorities. Autopsies are performed not only to establish the mechanism and manner of death, but to explore the health, condition and circumstances of the deceased prior to the terminal event.

Given Dr. Ivins’ history of bizarre behavior, the considered opinions of a forensic pathologist, a neuro-pathologist, and a forensic psychologist would have been appropriate. Was Tylenol® the only drug in the blood? Were disease processes present that might have accounted for his bizarre behavior?  If this were truly a case of suicide, was the pressure of scrutiny—rather than guilt—the trigger? Was this a matter of ignoring Sherlock Holmes famous directive “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. …”

On February 19, 2010, the US Department of Justice released a report which, it claimed, proved that Dr. Bruce Ivins, acting alone, committed the anthrax poisonings . The 92 page document (available at ends emphatically: “Based on the evidence set forth above, the investigation into the anthrax letter attacks of 2001 has been concluded.”

But the DOJ report is not evidence. It is a collection of statements and observations made by largely unidentified individuals, whose credibility is not established. Damning interpretations are placed on each of Dr. Ivins’ eccentric actions. Alternative possibilities are simply not considered.

The absence of an autopsy report was not mentioned. The lack of forensic attention in a case of such historic importance inevitably raises reasonable doubt as to the FBI’s conclusion.  Autopsies are routinely done even when the manner of death appears evident. Hospital investigations, orchestrated by personnel with no forensic training have a history of dangerous mistakes. The next post on this blog will delve into cases solved by autopsy.

E. J. Wagner – as always – pursuing verity

Pursuing Verity