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How a bloody corpse was used in a 17th century forensic test


People used to believe that the corpses of murder victims could identify their killers – sort of a zombie testimony.

Courts all over Europe, up until the 19th century in some places, practiced a ritual called the bier-right. The bier-right was a type of trial by ordeal during which an accused killer was forced to touch the body of a murder victim. If the corpse bled, then the accused was found guilty. It was believed that a dead body could intentionally make its wounds weep because a corpse could still act a little while after death.

Historians think that the last time a bier-right was practiced in Scotland was during the investigation of the murder of Sir James Standsfield in 1688. In this case, James Standsfield’s bleeding corpse led to the conviction and execution of his son, Philip Standsfield. A pamphlet titled, “A True relation of a Barbarous Bloody Murther, Committed by Philip Standsfield upon the Person of Sir James Standsfield his Father…” explains the gory details.

The body of Sir James Standsfield was found floating in a river near Edinburgh in 1688. Many people considered James’ death suspicious so surgeons were summoned from Edinburgh to view his body.

“The Corps being taken up in Morum Church, two Chyrurgeons were appointed to view it, who making an Incision about the Neck, found in one part under the Ear much stagnated or clotted Blood, and that the Joynts had been distended, also by the blackness of the Face many symptoms of strangling appeared, finding at the same time no water in the Stomach or Bowels, with many other Observations, up which they concluded him to be murthered before he was thrown in the water…”

James Standsfield’s corpse supposedly identified his killer when his relatives had to move his body to the coffin after the autopsy.

“And what further happened was exceeding remarkable, in which the finger of God, to discover more plainly the Murtherer visibly, appeared was, that a Speech being made, after the Wounds were sewed up, that some of Sir James’s nearest Relations should take him up off the place where he lay and lift him into his Coffin, the son, viz Philip Standsfield, attempting to raise the left side of his head and shoulders, whilst one Mr. Row raised the other side, the Blood sprung out upon Philip Standsfield’s Hand, at which wiping it upon his Coat and struck with terror and remorse, he cried out, Lord have mercy upon me, and so retired to a Pew, where the Chyrurgeon ordered him some Treacle-water to prevent his swooning away.”

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