The history of criminal justice and forensic science is really interesting because of all the absurd rituals and superstitions courts relied on to determine guilt or innocence right up until the 19th century. Before the advent of blood tests, fingerprint analysis, and DNA testing, many cultures used various trials by ordeal to help decide a suspect’s guilt. To prove a murderer was guilty, for example, many European courts relied on a type of trial by ordeal that involved a “bleeding” corpse.
A trial by ordeal is an ancient method of ascertaining guilt or innocence and can be found in cultures all over the world (Roth 2010 and Primm 2013). Societies that used a trial by ordeal believed that a god or gods would protect the innocent from harm and punish the guilty. They were used for crimes like murder, heresy, and witchcraft (Roth 2010).
There were various kinds of ordeals that a court could use to test the innocence of a suspect. During a trial by fire, the accused had to walk across hot coals or pick an object out of a fire. If he or she did not emerge unscathed they were found guilty. In a trial by water, a suspect was bound then submerged in water. If they were innocent, they would sink; if guilty, they would float (Roth 2010).
One ordeal, dating to the end of the Roman Empire, was reserved for accused murderers (Brittain 1965). The bier-right, or cruentation, was based on the belief that the body is still able to hear and act a short time after death, so that if a murderer approached or touched the corpse of their victim then the corpse would bleed or froth at the mouth (Roth 2010 and Brittain 1965). Bier-right got its name from the stand or barrow, called a bier, which held or carried a corpse or coffin. Cruentation comes from the Latin word cruentatio meaning staining of blood or cruentare meaning to make bloody (Brittain 1965).
In Cruentation: In Legal Medicine and Literature (1965), Brittain discusses how a cruentation was performed.
“…the suspect was placed at a certain distance from the victim who had been laid naked on his back. He approached the body, repeatedly calling on it by name, then walked around it two or three times. He next lightly stroked the wounds with his hand. If during this time fresh bleeding occurred, or if the body moved, or if foam appeared at the mouth, the suspect was considered to be guilty of murder.”
The substance that these people were likely seeing was purge fluid, or decomposition fluid. Purge fluid, which drains from the mouth, nose, and other orifices during putrefaction, looks a lot like blood and is often mistaken for it (DiMaio & DiMaio 2001).
The bier-right was so well-known that the ritual made its way into poetry and plays. The best example is probably in Shakespeare’s Richard III, in Act I, Scene II (Fitzharris 2011). During the funeral of King Henry VI, Lady Anne confronts Gloucester, the man who murdered Henry:
“Foul devil, for God’s sake hence, and trouble us not;
For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell,
Fill’d it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.
If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.
O! gentlemen; see, see! dead Henry’s wounds
Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins, where no blood dwells:
Thy deed, inhuman and unnatural,
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.
O God! which this blood mad’st, revenge his death;
O earth! which this blood drink’st, revenge his death;
Either heaven with lightning strike the murderer dead,
Or earth, gape open wide, and eat him quick,
As thou dost swallow up this good king’s blood,
Which his hell-govern’d arm hath butchered!”
England stopped using the bier-right at the end of the 17th century, and German courts abandoned the cruentation at the end of the 18th century (Fitzharris 2011 and Brittain 1965). But there are still records of courts in the U.S. using it until 1869 (Lea 1878).
In New Jersey in 1767, a bier-right was used to discover the murderer of Nicholas Tuers, despite the fact that the coroner thought the whole thing was ridiculous.
“In 1767, the coroner’s jury of Bergen County, NJ, was summoned to view the body of one Nicholas Tuers, whose murder was suspected. The attestation of Joannes Demarest, the coroner, stated that he had no belief in the bier-right, and paid no attention to the experiment, when one of the jury touched the body without result. At length Harry, a slave, who had been suspected without proof, was brought up for the same purpose, when he heard the exclamation ‘He is the man,” and was told that Tuers had bled at being touched by Harry. He then ordered the slave to place his hand on the face of the corpse, when about a tablespoonful of blood immediately flowed from each nostril, and Harry confessed the murder in all particulars (Lea 1878).”
In Philadelphia in 1860, a body was actually exhumed for a bier-right after being buried for weeks.
“In 1860, the Philadelphia journals mention a case in which the relatives of a deceased person, suspecting foul play, vainly importuned the coroner, some weeks after the internment, to have the body exhumed, in order that it might be touched by a person whom they regarded as concerned in his death (Lea 1878).”
Last, but not least, probably the largest bier-right ever performed happened in 1869 in Lebanon, IL.
“…in 1869 at Lebanon, IL, the bodies of two murdered persons were dug up, and two hundred of the neighbors were marched past them, each of whom was made to touch them in the hope of finding the criminals.”
Brittain, RP. (1965). Cruentation: In legal medicine and in literature. Medical History. 9(1): 82–88.
DiMaio, VJ; DiMaio, D. (2001). Forensic Pathology, 2nd Edition. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Fitzharris, L. (2001). ‘Crying to heaven for revenge’: The bleeding corpse and its significance in history. Retrieved from: http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2011/03/30/crying-to-heaven-for-revenge-the-bleeding-corpse-and-its-significance-in-history/
Lea, HC. (1878). Superstition and force: Essays on the wager of law-the wager of battle-the ordeal-torture. Philadelphia, PA: Collins, Printer.
Primm, A. (2013). A History of “Trial By Ordeal.” Retrieve from: http://mentalfloss.com/article/50161/history-trial-ordeal
Roth, M. (2010). Crime and punishment: A history of the criminal justice system, 2nd Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.