What Do Apes, Humans, and Koalas Have in Common?

While researching an unrelated topic last year, I found a cool tidbit and tucked it away (as I often do) to use in a story someday. Since I doubt I ever will, perhaps one of you can put this research to good use.

First, a question.

What do you think is a forensic investigator’s worst nightmare?

Did anyone guess a cute ’n cuddly koala? No? I didn’t think so. In all fairness, I would never have guessed it either, but the koala could keep investigators on their toes. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

Apes & Chimpanzees

As children, we’re taught apes and chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. The similarities are obvious. No one can stare into the eyes of these gentle beings and deny their humanity. Both animals also have astonishing intelligence.

Remember Koko?

Koko, the western lowland gorilla that died in her sleep in 2018 at age 46, stunned researchers with her emotional depth and ability to communicate in sign language. She garnered international celebrity status with her vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and the ability to understand 2,000 words of spoken English.

National Geographic magazine featured Koko on its cover twice. First in October 1978, with a selfie Koko snapped in a mirror. Then in January 1985, when National Geographic ran a story about Koko and her pet kitten.

“Because she was smart enough to comprehend and use aspects of our language, Koko could show us what all great apes are capable of: reasoning about their world, and loving and grieving the other beings to whom they become attached,” Barbara King, a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary

In addition to language, Koko’s behavior revealed human emotions. She also seemed to have a sense of humor, and even a bit of playful mischievousness, as portrayed in this video of Koko and Robin Williams.

There’s no denying the human qualities of apes and chimps. But did you know a koala’s fingerprints are so similar to humans the Australian police once feared they’d cause confusion at crime scenes? It’s true.

Similar confusion occurred in the UK during a time when unsolved crime was at an all-time high. In fact, in 1975, British police raided the ape houses at London and Twycross Zoos. According to The Independent, the police targeted “Half a dozen chimpanzees and a pair of orangutans.”

The objective was to fingerprint these animals, partly because the UK police referred to smudged or unclear fingerprints as “monkey prints.”

“If you passed a chimpanzee print to a fingerprint office and said it came from the scene of a crime, they would not know it was not human.” Steve Haylock, City of London Police fingerprint bureau

The chimpanzees and orangutans didn’t mind being fingerprinted. If you’re curious, none of the prints led to solving the string of unsolved crimes. All the furry suspects appeared to be upstanding members of society. 😉

Meanwhile, in Australia

Police feared koalas may have contaminated a criminal investigation. Why? Because like apes and chimpanzees, koalas possess freakishly human fingerprints. The deltas, loops, and whirl patterns of a koala’s fingerprint are as individual as our own. Yet most tree-dwelling mammals don’t possess humanlike prints.

“It appears that no one has bothered to study them in detail,” said Macie Henneberg, forensic scientist and biological anthropologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia. “Although it is extremely unlikely that koala prints would be found at the scene of a crime, police should at least be aware of the possibility.”

Some researchers believe that even after closely inspecting the fingerprints under a microscope, investigators would not be able to distinguish a human print from fingerprints left by a koala. Even their closest relatives—kangaroos and wombats—don’t possess fingerprints. The weird part is Koala prints seemed to have evolved independently, and much more recent than primates.

Can you guess which print is human?

Photo credit: Macie Hennenberg, et al. and naturalSCIENCE

Click the image to enlarge.

Top row: Standard ink fingerprints of an adult male koala (left) and adult male human (right).

Bottom row: Scanning electron microscope images of epidermis covering fingertips of the same koala (left) and the same human (right).

 

 

What do humans, apes, chimps, and koalas have in common?

The need to grasp. Yes, it could be that simple.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide discovered koala prints in 1996 and wrote a paper on their findings:

“Koalas … feed by climbing vertically onto the smaller branches of eucalyptus trees, reaching out, grasping handfuls of leaves and bringing them to the mouth… These forces must be precisely felt for fine control of movement and static pressures and hence require orderly organization of the skin surface.”

Makes sense, right?

But wait—there’s more!

I discovered one other fascinating tidbit about fingerprints that I never knew.

Genetics form the base of a fingerprint, but they are personalized when the baby touches the inside of their mother’s womb, resulting in unique whirls, deltas, and loops. Hence why identical twins don’t share identical fingerprints. Each baby touched the womb wall in his or her own unique way, swirling and drawing like finger paints on a bathtub wall.

Maybe it’s me—I do tend to get overly sentimental around holidays—but I find it heartwarming to think the tips of our fingers forever preserve the unbreakable bond between momma and baby, imprinted for eternity.

I hope my discoveries kickstart your creativity in new and unsuspecting ways. Happy Labor Day to our U.S. readers! May your burgers be sizzlin’, the buns toasted to perfection, and your beverages be cold. 😀 

Be the Mouse

A recent exchange with the hubster went something like this.

Him: What’d you do today?

Me: Same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Him: You’re a persistent little bugger, aren’tcha?

Me: *shrugs* I’m a writer.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Persistence can be grueling at times.

If someone told me ten years ago that in 2021 I would stumble across a true story that’s so meaningful and important it might forever change my writing trajectory, my first reaction would’ve been: Ten years is a lifetime away.

But the truth is if I found this case ten years ago, I wouldn’t know how to do it justice. Today I do. 🙂 This narrative nonfiction/true crime project has so many parallels to my own life, my passion is at an all-time high. Which brings me to persistence. Persistence while researching. Persistence while re-investigating the crime. Persistence while interviewing witnesses. Persistence while submitting the proposal.

The Big Dream

When I wrote my first novel—longhand, by candlelight—the Big Dream was all I could think about. I remember searching for other writers’ interpretation of success and how long it took them to “make it” in this business. Most said a new writer won’t make any money until they’ve written five novels. If they’re lucky, they’ll sell a few hundred copies of their debut. That’s the last thing an aspiring writer wants to hear.

The aspiring writer thinks: If you build it, they will come.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad mindset if it drives the writer to the keyboard. I’m a dreamer. Always have been, always will be. As long as we offset the dream with a dose of reality, I say dream big, dream often, dream without limits.

Now, with a backlist of 17 titles and 5+ trunk novels, I look back on that early advice and it means something completely different.

Writing five novels isn’t only about building an audience. It means the writer has honed their craft. They’ve let their passion lead them on a journey of self-discovery (Think: Who are you as a writer?). It means the writer never gave up. Or quit. S/he continued for love, not money. S/he kept her head down, fingers on the keyboard, butt in chair, and created, edited, rewrote passages, scenes, or whole chapters, and finished five manuscripts.

What else happened?

S/he learned the business side of writing—found an agent, publisher, or learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Lastly, it means s/he learned how to market a product, build a brand and an audience. S/he persisted, even though the odds seemed insurmountable. S/he leaped out of the nest and learned to fly.

Sometimes this biz can be disheartening, other times it’s super exciting. The ups and downs are all part of this amazing journey. The minute we stop trying to achieve future goals, we’ve already lost. Aside from creatives—writers, singers, artists, actors, musicians, etc.—I can think of no other field that requires as much persistence.

What is persistence?

The dictionary defines persistence as:

  • continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
  • continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period

The definition clarifies how difficult it is to persist.

What happens in the brain during the act of persistence?

Serotonin is a neurochemical in the brain important for feelings of happiness. It’s also known for:

  • promoting good sleep by helping to regulate circadian rhythms (a 24-hour inner clock running in the background to carry out essential functions like the sleep-wake cycle)
  • helping to regulate appetite
  • promoting memory and learning
  • helping to promote positive feelings and behavior

If you have low serotonin, you might:

  • feel anxious, low, or depressed
  • feel irritable or aggressive
  • have sleep issues or endless fatigue
  • become impulsive
  • have a decreased appetite
  • experience nausea and digestive issues
  • crave sweets

Scientists have studied serotonin levels and persistent behavior in mice.

During foraging, all wildlife explores an area for food and/or water. But at some point, they must move on to a different area. Thriving animals exhibit patience and persistence before exhausting their search at each location.

In the study, researchers required water-restricted mice to “nose poke” while foraging to obtain water as a reward. The probability of obtaining water in each area lessened with each nose poke. The higher the number of nose pokes equaled more persistence in that individual mouse. Scientists also used video tracking to measure how long it took for the mice to switch to a different foraging area.

Mice exhibited optimal foraging behavior. Meaning, they optimized the trade-off between time spent searching an area for water and leaving to find a water source in a different area.

The mice who received serotonin neuron stimulation performed a greater number of nose pokes compared to mice who didn’t receive stimulation. They also took longer to leave an area, suggesting they were more persistent.

This is the first study to show a correlation between serotonin neuron firing and active persistence. Previously, scientists hypothesized that serotonin was involved in patience. We now know a rush of serotonin is involved in persistence, as well.

If our persistence starts to wane, we need to increase our serotonin level.

Here’s how:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Bright light
  • Massage

The list is almost meaningless without more explanation. So, let’s dive into each tip.

Healthy Snacks

We can’t get serotonin from food, but we can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in the brain. High-protein foods contain tryptophan. For example, turkey and salmon. But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, thanks to the blood-brain barrier—a protective sheath around the brain that controls what enters and exits. Isn’t the human body amazing?

Like with most life hacks, there’s a shortcut around the blood-brain barrier.

Research suggests eating carbs along with tryptophan-rich foods pushes more tryptophan into the brain, thereby raising the serotonin level.

Some tryptophan-rich snacks include:

  • oatmeal with a handful of nuts
  • plums or pineapple with crackers
  • pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk

Exercise

Exercising creates an ideal environment for serotonin by triggering the release of tryptophan in the blood and decreasing the amount of other amino acids. Thus, more tryptophan reaches the brain.

Aerobic exercise of any kind releases the most tryptophan. Don’t fret if you’re unable to do aerobics. The main goal is to raise the heart rate. This can be accomplished by:

  • a brisk walk
  • a light hike
  • swimming
  • bicycling
  • jogging
  • blaring the music and dance

Bright Light

This surprised me, but it makes sense when you consider seasonal affective disorder. Serotonin levels dip in the winter and rise in the summer. What should we do? Spend 10-15 minutes in the sunshine. Or, if you live in rainy climate or can’t get outside, use a light therapy box. Both will increase serotonin levels.

Massage

Massage therapy increases serotonin and dopamine levels. It also reduces cortisol, a hormone produced when stressed. If paying for a professional massage therapist isn’t within your budget, ask a friend/spouse/partner to swap 20-minute massages.

Be the Mouse

Writers cannot achieve goals without some form of persistence. Be persistent, dear writer. Be the mouse.

How and Why Reading Improves Writing

To master the art of writing we need to read. Whenever the words won’t flow, I grab my Kindle. Reading someone else’s story kickstarts my creativity, and like magic, I know exactly what I need to do in my WIP.

“Read” is the easiest writing tip, yet one of the most powerful. And here’s why.

 

READING BENEFITS OUR WRITING 

  • Reading strengthens our skills and storytelling abilities.
  • Reading helps us become more persuasive, which is an essential skill when pitching a book to an agent, editor, producer, etc.
  • Fiction reading helps us hone the skills to draw the reader into the story and engage the reader.
  • Nonfiction reading helps us learn how to condense research into an authoritative proposal. And ultimately, into a storyline.
  • Reading expands our vocabulary, improves grammar, and shows how to use words in context.
  • Reading helps us find the right word!

READING IMPROVES BRAIN HEALTH 

Narratives activate many parts of our brains. In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. — New York Times

Whenever participants read words like “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex (the part of the brain that processes smell) lit up the fMRI machine. Words like “velvet” activated the sensory cortex, the emotional center of the brain. Researchers concluded that in certain cases, the brain can make no distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Pretty cool, right?

4 TIPS TO READ WITH A WRITER’S EYE

1. Look for the author’s persuasion tactics.

How does s/he draw you in?

How does s/he keep you focused and flipping pages?

What’s the author’s style, fast-pace or slow but intriguing?

Does the author have beautiful imagery or sparse, powerful description that rockets an image into your mind?

2. Take note of metaphors and analogies.

How did the metaphor enhance the image in your mind?

How often did the author use an analogy?

Where in the scene did the author use a metaphor/analogy?

Why did the author use a metaphor/analogy? Reread the scene without it. Did it strengthen or weaken the scene?

In a 2012 study, researchers from Emory University discovered how metaphors can access different regions of the brain.

New brain imaging research reveals that a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch, the parietal operculum, is also activated when someone listens to a sentence with a textural metaphor. The same region is not activated when a similar sentence expressing the meaning of the metaphor is heard.

A metaphor like “he had leathery hands” activated the participants’ sensory cortex, while “he had strong hands” did nothing at all.

“We see that metaphors are engaging the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses even though the metaphors are quite familiar,” says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University. “This result illustrates how we draw upon sensory experiences to achieve understanding of metaphorical language.”

 

3. Read with purpose.

As you read, study the different ways some writers tackle subjects, how they craft their sentences and employ story structure, and how they handle dialogue.

4. Recognize the author’s strengths (and weaknesses, but focus on strengths).

Other writers are unintentional mentors. When we read their work, they’re showing us a different way to tell a story—their way.

Ask, why am I drawn to this author? What’s the magic sauce that compels me to buy everything they write?

Is it how they string sentences together?

Story rhythm?

Snappy dialogue?

How they world-build?

Or all of the above?

I don’t know about you but I’m dying to jump back into the book I’m devouring. 🙂 What’s your favorite tip?

Wishing you a safe and happy Memorial Day! In between cookouts and family get-togethers, squeeze in time to read!

Looking for a new series to love?

FOR TODAY ONLY, all four Grafton County thrillers are on sale!

MARRED 99c
CLEAVED 99c
SCATHED $1.99
RACKED $1.99

 

Tips for Distant Settings

Things I’ve learned about setting a book in real places, especially distant ones.

Distant SettingsWhen the Hubster and I decided to celebrate our 50th anniversary with a trip to the British Isles, of course I had “book” in the back of my mind. However, an international setting wouldn’t have worked with any of my existing series, and since I never plot in advance, I decided to enjoy our tour, taking pictures and notes of what we were seeing and doing and just wait and see what might bubble to the surface.

Distant SettingsOur trip began in Northern Ireland with a visit to our daughter, who had pointed out that she moved there 12 years ago and we’d never visited. From there, we had a couple days in London where I got to meet one of my critique partners face to face for the first time. Given we’d been in our little group for about 15 years, that was another “it’s about time” moment.

From there, we visited Scotland, and then Ireland. When we got home, I decided I’d write a short and sweet romance. Write it quickly, understanding that it’s not my true “brand” but that I had to publish something to justify writing off at least part of the trip.

Well, I soon discovered I’m not a short and sweet romance author, and mystery elements insisted on working their way into the story. What I ended up with is Heather’s Chase: an International Mystery Romance which is closer to my brand, although it’s a stand alone and still a bit of a one off. Nevertheless, it was an educational experience.

My Tips

Distant SettingsLess is more. My first drafts went into phenomenal detail about absolutely everything. Airports. Train stations. Hotels. Food. All the places we stopped, what we saw on the drives. Given we were traveling for well over two weeks, that would have been a LONG book. A sense of place is good. Overwhelming readers is not. I had to keep reminding myself to make sure everything related to the plot and characters. I wasn’t writing a travelogue.

Stay true to time. Readers familiar with the area will know that you can’t get from A to B in two hours, or that when you’ve had your characters on their bus for five hours, it’s really a twenty-minute drive.

Distant SettingsYou’ll always miss something. Unless you’ve got your plot mapped out before your trip, once  you start writing, you’ll have a scene to write and—lo and behold—you missed taking a picture, or didn’t take the right notes. I spent a LOT of time on the internet rechecking facts, looking at maps, and refamiliarizing myself with some of the attractions we visited. If I couldn’t find exactly what I needed, I reminded myself I was writing fiction—another reason not to name real places. On the occasions where my characters were eating in real, named places, I made sure I had pictures and menus. Same for attractions.

Distant SettingsDon’t make up real stuff. One of the reasons I made this book a stand alone was because our trip didn’t include visits to police departments (although I snapped a picture of a vehicle in Ireland, “just in case”). Also, it would be unrealistic for my American characters to have any access to law enforcement in several different countries.

Be nice. I also opted not to name the specific hotels or restaurants (mostly). For one thing, it gave me the freedom to change the décor, layout, amenities, or the restaurant menus. And, if something “bad” happened, I wasn’t going to incur the wrath of those establishments.

It’s about flavor. Although my characters didn’t visit Northern Ireland, I did include a character from the same town we’d visited when we stayed with my daughter. I made sure she vetted all his dialogue. For example, people in Northern Ireland use the word “wee” as a meaningless adjective. I was asked for my wee credit card, given a wee receipt, offered a wee bag for my purchases. My British critique partner was very helpful with vocabulary as well.

All in all, I had a great time ‘revisiting’ my trip to the British Isles while I was writing the book, and being able to incorporate my experiences into Heather’s Chase.

Want to see more pictures? Click on the book cover below, then scroll down to “Special Features.”


Heather's ChaseMy  Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is  available at most e-book channels. and in print from Amazon.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

What Really Goes On In The Morgue

I invited my buddy, Garry Rodgers, back to TKZ for a fascinating behind-the-scenes trip to the morgue. He’ll hang around for questions/comments, so don’t be shy. Now’s your chance to ask an expert something you might need for your WIP. Enjoy!

Most living people never visit the morgue.

Most never think of the morgue except when watching TV shows like CSI or some new Netflix forensic special. The screen may show in hi-def and tell in surround sound, but it can’t broadcast smell. That’s a good thing because no one would tune in and the actors would be looking for real-life morgue jobs like homicide cops, coroners and forensic pathologists.

I did two of those real-life morgue jobs for a long time. I’m a retired murder cop and field coroner who spent a lot of hours in that windowless place. Now, I’m a crime writer and thought I’d share a bit of what really goes on in the morgue with my crime-writing colleagues.

The morgue is strictly off-limits for anyone not having a specific reason to be there. That’s for a few reasons. One is the place can hold sensitive court evidence. Two is that it’s a somewhat disagreeable place due to the odor, temperature and the continual chance of contracting a contagious disease. The third reason is dignity. Even though the majority of the morgue occupants are no longer alive, they’re still human entities and not some sort of a morbid exhibit.

The morgue is a place of business. It’s a medical environment where the deceased are stored, processed and released to their final disposition. The morgue operates 24/7/365 as death pays no attention to the clock or the calendar. But, the morgue is busiest between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm Monday to Friday—holidays exempted. Morgue workers need time off like anyone else.

A city morgue, like I worked at in Vancouver, British Columbia, is an active environment. It has a dedicated shipping and receiving area with a loading dock much like a typical warehouse. Bodies arrive by black-paneled coroner vans or on sheet-covered gurneys brought down from the wards. They’re booked into a ledger, assigned a crypt and, yes, marked with a personalized toe tag.

Vancouver General Hospital’s morgue is like Costco for the dead. Stainless steel refrigeration crypts, stacked three-high in two rows of nine, have shelving for fifty-four. The freezer unit stores eight and isolation, for the stinkers, can take six sealed aluminum caskets or “tanks” as we called them. These tanks are also used for homicide cases, locked to preserve forensic evidence.

A grindy overhead hoist shifts cadavers from wheeled gurneys that squeak about fluorescent-lit rooms, touring them to and from roll-out metal drawers. Refrigeration temperatures are ideally set at 38-degrees Fahrenheit (4-degrees Celsius) while the ambient range in the autopsy suites is held at a comfortable 65 / 18. The storage rooms, laboratory and administration areas are normal office temperature, and they’re set apart from the main morgue region. Support staff, for the most part, have no sense of being so near to the dead.

Operational personnel in the morgue are highly-trained professionals. The workhorse of the morgue is the autopsy technician or attendant called the “Diener”. It’s a term originating from German that translates to “Servant of the Necromancer”. Dieners have the primary corpse handling and general dissection responsibility. They do most of the cutting.

Hospital pathologists are primarily disease specialists. They spend the majority of their day in the laboratory peering into microscopes and dictating reports. It’s a rare general pathologist who stays with an autopsy procedure from incision to sew-up. Usually, hospital pathologists come down to the morgue once the diener has removed the organs and has them ready for cross-section.

A hospital pathologist takes a good look for what might be the anatomical cause of a sudden or unexplained death. The main culprits are usually myocardial infarctions, or “jammers” as they called in the heart attack word. Aneurisms are another leading cause of dropping dead, and they’re often found in the brain.

Hospital pathologists sometimes do partial autopsies when they want to confirm an antemortem diagnosis. That might be a certain tumor or the extended effects of a runaway respiratory disease like Covid19. Sometimes, there’s no clear cause of death such as in a heart arrhythmia or a case of toxic shock.

Forensic pathologists are an entirely different animal. These are meticulous medical examiners with a tedious touch. It takes years of specialized training and understudy to become a board-certified forensic pathologist qualified to give expert evidence in criminal cases.

Forensic autopsies are peak-of-the-apex procedures inside the morgue. In a setting like Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), there are six autopsy stations in one open room. At any given time, the slabs are occupied and there more in the pipe. Not so with a forensic procedure.

There are two segregated and dedicated suites for forensic autopsies at VGH. Protection of the corpse, which is the best evidence in homicide cases, is paramount. So is maintaining continuity of possession, or the chain of evidence, that ends up in court. In a forensic autopsy, there’s utmost care to ensure the body is not compromised by contaminating it with foreign matter like DNA or losing critical components like bullets or blades.

In a homicide case, the body is taken from the crime scene in a sterilized shroud and locked in a tank. There’s an officer or coroner appointed to maintain continuity from the time the cadaver is bagged until the corpse is laid out on the slab. This is a critical element in forensic cases and one that is treated as gospel.

A forensic pathologist stays with the autopsy from the time the body is unlocked from its tank till the time the pathologist feels there is no more evidentiary value to glean. This is usually a full-day event but sometimes the body is put back in the tank, held overnight, and the process goes on the next day. This completely depends on the case nature such as multiple gunshot or knife wounds.

There are police officers at every forensic autopsy. Those are the crime scene examiners who photograph the procedure and pertinent physical properties. Detectives receive evidentiary exhibits like foreign objects such as fired bullets or organic particulates. There might be semen samples or other questionable biological matter. Then, there are usual suspects for toxicology examination like blood, urine, bile, stomach contents and vitreous fluid.

Radiography is done in almost all forensic autopsy cases. A portable X-ray machine scans the body as it lies on the table. In some situations, MRI / CT technology is helpful.

But, nothing beats the eye and experience of a seasoned forensic pathologist. They observe the slightest details that even a general pathologist would miss. However, don’t dismiss what a good diener can spot. It’s a treat to watch a forensic pathologist and a diener work when they’re in synch.

At day’s end, folks in the morgue are much like anyone else. They have a market to serve and they do it well. They’re also prone to talk shop in a social setting. There’s nothing like having drinks with a diener who’s into black humor.

 

What if six members—three generations—of your family were slain in a monstrous mass murder?

FROM THE SHADOWS is part of Garry’s “Based on True Crime” series. Available on Amazon and Kobo.

 

 

 

 

I couldn’t write a piece about what really goes on in the morgue without a few war stories. In my time as a cop and a coroner, I’ve been around hundreds of cadaver clients. Maybe more like thousands, but I never kept track. There were a few, though, that I’ll never forget.

One was “Mister Red Pepper Paste Man”. My friend Elvira Esikanian, a seasoned forensic pathologist of Bosnian descent who cut her teeth by exhuming mass graves, is a gem. She also has a wicked eye for detail.

I brought this old guy into the morgue after finding him dead in his apartment. Neighbors reported him screaming like someone was skinning a live cat. They rushed in and found him collapsed on the floor. No idea what killed him, but no sign of foul play.

Elvira opened his stomach and it was positively crawling. She knew what it was—botulism. Elvira told me to go back to the scene and look to see what he’d been eating. I found it. It was a jar of red pepper paste that was years past its expiry date, and the inside was a mass of organic activity.

Then, there was Kenny Fenton. He was found dead after being dumped beside a rural road and left to rot for a week in hot weather. I brought him into the morgue as intact as possible but it wasn’t easy. Kenny went into a stinker tank before Dr. Charlesworth could take him on.

As a routine, Kenny had a radiography session before his dissection. It showed a bullet in his gut. Not a run-of-the-mill bullet, of course. It was a .22 short with no rifling engraved on its sides.

Turns out, Kenny was accidentally shot in the neck by a Derringer dueling pistol. The bullet cut his carotid, hit his spinal cord, bounced back to his esophagus and he swallowed the dammed thing before bleeding out and dying fast. The crew he was with thought it was better to dump Kenny than report it.

And I can’t wrap up without a bit of spring foolishness that went on in the morgue. It involved my buddy—Dave the Diener.

Dave had about thirty years in the crypt before he met me. In fact, Dave had something to do with me getting hired by the coroner’s office because he thought I might be a good fit. Dave may, or may not, have been right.

It was the First of April and a Friday morning. Dave liked Fridays because he usually left early once his cutting was done. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and I’ve done it myself.

But this Friday was different—probably had something to do with the date. I snuck into the morgue real early and prepared Dave’s first case. I needed some weight so he wouldn’t suspect anything off the bat. I put a bunch of concrete patio blocks on the crypt’s drawer base. Then, I placed my cadaver inside a shroud and laid it on top. I even attached a toe tag and made the right entries in the ledger.

I wasn’t there but sure heard from the other staff who were in on it. Dave rolled-out his first subject-for-the-day and unzipped the shroud. Smiling at Dave was the puckering face of a blow-up sex doll.

That’s the kind of stuff that really goes on in the morgue.

Garry Rodgers has lived the life he writes about. Garry is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner who also served as a sniper on British SAS-trained Emergency Response Teams. Today, he’s an investigative crime writer and successful author with a popular blog at DyingWords.net as well as the HuffPost.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast where he spends his off-time around the Pacific saltwater. Connect with Garry on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his bi-monthly blog.

 

 

 

Executions Gone Wrong Or Divine Intervention?

If a prisoner survives multiple trips to the gallows, should he be set free?

Miss Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse lived in “The Glen,” a small village of Babbacome, England, with her servants, Jane and Eliza Neck, Elizabeth Harris, the cook, and Emma’s brother, John Henry George Lee.

In the early hours of November 15, 1884 Miss Emma’s lifeless remains were discovered with three knife wounds to her head. The murderer also tried to set the body on fire.

John Lee had worked alongside his sister at the The Glen since leaving school. In 1879, he joined the Navy. A medical discharge sent him home to Torquay to work as a footman. But he stole from his employer and was convicted. Upon his release from prison in 1884, he returned to work at The Glen.

As the only male in the household at the time of the murder, police zeroed in on Lee as the prime suspect. Along with other circumstantial evidence, an inexplicable cut on his arm sealed his fate. But did the police have the right man?

Attorney Reginald Gwynne Templar was a frequent visitor to The Glen. After Lee’s arrest, he offered to represent him for free. Which was highly unusual, considering Templar and Miss Emma were good friends. Lee told police Templar was also in the house that night. Odder still, folks wondered how he found out about the murder so soon after it happened.

Could Templar be the killer?

There was little evidence to prove Templar was guilty. Just as little to prove Lee was, either. Nonetheless, police believed they had their man.

“The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord,” Lee told the judge at trial, “and He knows I am innocent.”

John Henry George Lee was found guilty and sentenced to hang at Exeter Prison on February 23, 1885. That day, James Berry, the hangman, went through the usual testing of the trap door, the scaffold, and the rope. But when they slipped the noose over Lee’s head and pulled the lever, the trapdoor wouldn’t open.

They tried to hang him again. And the gallows misfunctioned a second time.

“It would shock the feeling of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death,” said Sir William Harcourt, British Home Secretary.

Three times a charm, right? Wrong. After the third failed attempt to hang John Lee, officials commuted his sentence to penal servitude (imprisonment with hard labor).

The public interpreted the gallows malfunction as divine intervention. Lee served 22 years for the murder of Miss Emma, describing his time as “moving from one tomb to another.” He was released from prison in 1907.

Numerous stories exist about how Lee spent his life from that point on. Some say he moved abroad; some say he moved to London. Two Lee enthusiasts conducted research in 2009 and placed his grave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That same research claimed Lee deserted his wife and children in Britain after his release from prison for a second family in the U.S.

Templar went insane and died at an early age. Witnesses say he “babbled about murder on his death bed.”

John Henry George Lee rose to infamy as “The man they couldn’t hang.” His name went on record as “the only person in the world to survive three hangings.” But was he?

A little digging led me to an English criminal named Joseph Samuels. In 1801, a jury convicted Samuels of robbery at the tender age of 15 years old and shipped him to Australia, to serve his time at a penal colony in Sydney Cove.

Security in those early penal settlements were reinforced by isolation—prison guards trusted the Australian wildlife to hunt and kill any escapees.

Despite the risk to life and limb, Samuels and his gang of thieves succeeded in escaping. Once they were safe from the confines of prison, the unruly bunch robbed a wealthy woman’s house. They were in the process of stealing a bag filled with gold and silver coins from her desk when a policeman showed up. One of the gang members shot and killed him. Because Samuels had some of the stolen coins in his pocket when he was eventually caught, the police believed they’d snagged a cop-killer. The wealthy woman also identified Samuels as one of the robbers.

After an intense interrogation, Samuels confessed to the robbery but claimed he had no part in the murder. Almost all of Samuels’ fellow gang members were acquitted due to lack of evidence, except one—Isaac Simmonds, who admitted nothing.

Samuels, however, was sentenced to hang.

On September 26, 1803, twenty-three-year-old Samuels and another prisoner stood before a crowd of onlookers, cheering for the event to begin. Back then, Australia didn’t employ a drop-hanging method of execution. Instead, they placed the prisoner on a cart pulled by a horse. Once the noose was slipped over the prisoner’s head and secured, the executioner would slap the horse to get him to take off. This resulted in the prisoner slowly strangling while being dragged to his death. Five thick cords of hemp made up the rope that reportedly could hold 1,000 pounds without breaking.

Could divine intervention save young Samuels, too?

The executioner slid the nooses around the necks of the two prisoners. Officials gave the men a moment to pray with a priest, and then offered them a chance to make a public statement. Samuels confessed to the robbery, but, he said, he was no killer. In fact, the real murderer was in the crowd right now. Isaac Simmonds, he pointed out, was the one who shot the policeman that night.

Since Samuels had just prayed with the priest and wouldn’t want to die with such an egregious sin on his conscious, the public believed him. Men in the crowd dove on Simmonds and held him for the authorities.

Once the crowd quieted, the executioner slapped the horse. The other prisoner strangled slowly while the noose around Samuels’ neck snapped, causing him to fall off the cart with only a sprained ankle. A second rope was brought in and Samuels was lifted back on the cart. This time, when the horse tugged the cart, the noose around Samuels’ neck unraveled.

The crowd went wild. God had spared his life a second time!

A third noose was secured around Samuels’ neck. Incredibly, the rope broke again. By then, the crowd had whipped into a frenzy, shouting, demanding the release of Joseph Samuels. It was then that the State Marshall ordered a stay of execution until he could track down the governor.

Later that day, the governor inspected all three ropes for tampering but found no signs of anything wrongdoing. Like the townsfolk, he also presumed three broken nooses must be proof of Samuels’ innocence. Things like this just didn’t happen… unless God had intervened.

Isaac Simmonds was arrested, convicted, and hanged for the murder of the police officer. His noose worked just fine. 🙂

I found another story of a teenager who got strapped to the electric chair twice, and survived. I’ll let the prisoner, Willie Francis, describe his ordeal…

I wanted to say good-bye, too, (Captain Foster had cheerfully said, “goodbye Willie”, before throwing the switch) but I was so scared I couldn’t talk. My hands were closed tightly. Then—I could almost hear it coming.

 

The best way I can describe it is: Whamm! Zst! It felt like a hundred and a thousand needles and pins were pricking in me all over and my left leg felt like somebody was cutting it with a razor blade.

 

I could feel my arms jumping at my sides and I guess my whole body must have jumped straight out. I couldn’t stop the jumping. If that was tickling it was sure a funny kind (He had been told it would tickle and then he’d die). I thought for a minute I was going to knock the chair over. Then I was all right. I thought I was dead.

 

Then they did it again! The same feeling all over. I heard a voice say, “‘Give me some more juice down there!’” And in a little while somebody yelled, ‘”I’m giving you all I got now!”

I think I must have hollered for them to stop. They say I said, “Take it off! Take it off!’” I know that was certainly what I wanted them to do—turn it off.

 

On Fan Mail And Diving Down
Into The Research Rabbit Hole

By PJ Parrish

One of the best things about being a published writer is getting mail.  Your day can be going to hell in a hand basket, your work in progress making none. And then you get an email from a reader.  It’s like a tonic.  Or, sometimes, after you read it, you need a gin and tonic.

Back in my salad days as a romance writer, before we had the internet machine and even before computers, I used to get real paper letters, written in long-hand. I took a class in handwriting analysis and it came in handy in trying to figure out my letter writer’s personality or mood.  I never got anything written in red crayon or worse. Mostly, readers were kind, supportive and, when I screwed something up, pretty forgiving.

Now, all we get are emails. Something has been lost in this process. I can’t discern the personality behind the letter anymore. Alas. Not all technological advances are good. Still, even emails can brighten my day.  Here’s a sample of some I got this week:

Is there anything new coming out soon for Louis. I have read them all. I getting withdrawals. I have loved them all. Benny

Hi, hope you are both enjoying writing another story for Louis to work his way through.

Thank you for all of your wondrous stories, which I have read over and over, and probably will get to again one day. God bless you both and may you keep on bring him and Joe to life for those of us who love them. Most Sincerely, Sheryl

And then there was this one:

I enjoy Louis Kincaid immensely. However, in the interest of authenticity, I feel the need to share a couple of disagreements in dialectic choices…in several places in the book, you used the word “kin” to describe relatives. In my experience as a 64 year old woman who has been a Michigander most of her life, (third generation), I have to say that I have never heard relations referred to in that way, except by southern transplants who came up for the auto industry jobs, in the middle and eastern part of the state. We, and everyone we knew, said “family” as in, “I have family in Michigan.” I know these are small details that may seem inconsequential, but they felt jarring to me and definitely took me out of the rhythm of the story.

Well, okay. Technically, she’s right. Maybe. Sorta. Perhaps. I need a gin and tonic.

Today, I got a really strange email. First thing, he identified himself as a professor at Ohio University Athens. Rut-roh. What grammar rule did I violate now? What lousy syntax did I use this time? Did I screw up my geography again?

I read on and breathed a sigh of relief. I was off the hook. And this one was really interesting.

Dear Ms. Montee. Forgive me for writing you out of the blue, but I am hoping you will agree to help me with a project I am working on this summer. I am producing a podcast about the life and work of the Austrian polymath Robert Eisler. This podcast is based on a biographical afterword I wrote for an Italian translation Eisler’s Man into Wolf (which appears in your novel Island of Bones), published by Adelphi Edizioni earlier this month. Part of the podcast will consist of conversations about how Eisler’s ideas have affected the work and thought of others. Is there some story of how you discovered Man into Wolf?

The book he is referring to is one of my favorites, not just for its convoluted plot but for the strange rabbit holes our research took us deep into. Like many books, this one started out with a “what if?”

About 15 years ago, Kelly and I were manning the card table at a Fort Myers Barnes & Noble signing and we weren’t exactly busy with a long line snaking out the doors. We used the time to brainstorm about the next book, but all of our ideas stunk.  Then a nice lady came up and in talking, we learned she was a sociologist writing a non-fiction book about the pressures exerted on large extended families forced to live together.

“Sometimes, they just can’t take it. They flip out,” she said.

That was the germ for ISLAND OF BONES.  We knew it had to be set on Southwest Florida’s coast, and that place has a wonderful geography.  Off the coastline are dozens of little islands, squatting out there in the Gulf like green turtles.  Some are privately owned.  What if...there was a weird family living on an island out there that had a dark secret?

Then I remembered one of my favorite songs by the J. Geils Band called “Monkey Island.”  Here’s the first verse:

No one could explain it
What went on that night
How every living thing
Just dropped out of sight
We watched them take the bodies
And row them back to shore
Nothing like that ever
Happened here before.

Oh yeah. A strange landscape. An isolated island. A family maybe going a little insane. I had heard of a rustic restaurant out on a private island in the Gulf so Kelly and I took the ferry over one day to check it out.  Yes…now we were beginning to see it. Here’s the second verse of “Monkey Island.”

On the east side of the island
Not too far from the shore
There stood the old house
Of fifty years or more
All the doors and windows
Were locked inside and out
The fate of those trapped in there
Would never be found out.

Because of Florida’s unique history, we knew our family had to be of Spanish origin, so we came up with the island’s name — Isla de Huesos, Spanish for island of bones. But over the centuries, the original name was lost, corrupted by the locals  into Away So Far Island. And the weird old family out there was left to do whatever it was they did.

Now comes the last piece of serendipity.  While we were plotting this book, I was scheduled for a long-planned trip to Spain. So off I went to Madrid. My husband and I are seat-of-the-pants travelers, so we just rented a car and headed north. We ended up, by happenstance, in a coastal region called Asturias. It’s gorgeous and mysterious, isolated between the Picos de Europa Mountains and the sea.  I knew I had found my family’s mother home.

When I returned home, I dove into the research rabbit hole. Asturias was influenced by the Celts and Romans and remains stubbornly isolated and rich in old traditions. Some of their ancient customs still survive in the villages today.  One of them is called the Beleno Ride. The village men go up into the mountains, put on wolf skins then ride down into the villages, simulating the abduction and rape of women. The custom comes from Roman times and is related to the pagan Lupercalia festival.

Wolves…

Oh yeah.

But I didn’t want to go into woo-woo werewolf territory, and the psychology of criminals fascinated me. So I pulled a couple more loose research threads, trying to figure out why these Asturian men still do this. Deep in Google, I found Dr. Robert Eisler.

Eisler was a renaissance man. He lectured on economics, philosophy, religion, art history, and philology, spent fifteen months in Dachau and Buchenwald, was once arrested for art theft in Italy, testified at hearings on currency reform in front of the British Parliament and U.S. Senate, and never held any university position beyond temporary lectureships at Oxford and the Sorbonne.

And he wrote a book in 1951 called Man Into Wolf. The subtitle tells you everything any writer needed to know: “An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy.”  Basically, Eisler believed that human urge to violence stems from Ice Age food shortages that forced ape-men to imitate wolves and take up pack hunting. He claims this is the historical basis of the werewolf legends found in many cultures.

I ordered the book from Alibris and read it. Louis finds it on the shelf of his prime suspect and his pursuit of the “wolf man” leads him right to the Island of Bones.

My Ohio professor, Brian, and I have exchanged several emails. Turns out he’s a big fan of crime fiction and read our book. We did a phone interview a couple days ago for his podcast and ended up chatting far longer than we meant to. Interesting postscript Brian told me: In Man Into Wolf, Dr. Robert Eisler used the term “serial killer.”  Which is a good 55 years before it is credited to FBI profiler Robert Ressler.

Cue a little woo-woo music. Or maybe some Warren Zevon.

________________________________

Special credit to the first person who can tell why I used that photo of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

 

How Can 1 Person Have 2 Different Sets of DNA?

Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

A human with two different sets of DNA is called a chimera, and it’s more common than you might think. Most chimeras don’t even know they have this strange phenomenon going on inside them.

You could be a chimera, and so could I.

As we go along, take note of the interesting tidbits you could twist into a plot to add conflict.

Without any help from the scientific community, the process of becoming a chimera occurs naturally. Numerous books and movies explore chimerism using a killer who’s had a bone marrow transplant or blood transfusion. But are these characters based in fact?

Let’s take a look and find out.

The tissue inside our bones is called bone marrow, and it’s responsible for making white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When someone has a bone marrow transplant, doctors use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy all the recipient’s diseased bone marrow. The donor’s healthy marrow is then introduced and continues to produce blood cells with the donor’s DNA, thereby transforming the recipient into a chimera.

In some cases, all of the blood cells in a person who received a bone marrow transplant will match the DNA of their donor. But in other cases, the recipient may have a mix of both their own blood cells and donor cells. A blood transfusion will also temporarily give a person cells from someone else, but in a bone marrow transplant, the new blood cells are permanent, according to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.

What if we’ve never had a transplant?

Doesn’t matter. There are other ways to become a chimera.

Early on in pregnancy a mother can be carrying fraternal twins and one of the embryos might die in utero. The surviving embryo may absorb cells from the deceased twin. When the baby is born, s/he can have two sets of DNA. Since twin loss occurs in 21-30% of multiple-fetus pregnancies, think of how many chimeras could be walking around. Are the story wheels spinning yet?

It can also happen with a normal pregnancy.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered that a pregnant woman may retain some DNA from her baby, if fetal cells happen to migrate into her bloodstream and travel to different organs. The New York Times referred to this as a “pregnancy souvenir”— but it’s more scientifically known as “microchimerism.”

A 2015 study suggests this happens in almost ALL pregnancies (you read that right), at least temporarily. The researchers tested tissue samples from the kidneys, livers, spleens, lungs, hearts, and brains of 26 women who died while pregnant or within one month of giving birth. The study found fetal cells in all of the women’s tissues. The researchers were able to tell the fetus cells from the mothers by searching for Y chromosomes (only found in males). The deceased mothers were all carrying sons.

Writers: Don’t take the obvious road. Think victims instead of killers.

  • What if a human brain washed up on the beach?
  • What if the Medical Examiner wrongly assumed the victim was male due to the Y chromosomes?

This is one way to use research to our advantage.

  • What if the brain contained animal and human DNA?

Remember, we’re thinking victim, not killer, which puts a different spin on it.

According to Live Science, fetal cells may stay in a woman’s body for years. In a 2012 study, researchers analyzed the brains of 59 deceased women ages 32 to 101. A shocking 63 percent had traces of male DNA from fetal cells in their brains. The oldest woman died at 94 years old, suggesting that these cells can sometimes last a lifetime.

The blood-brain barrier is the body’s defense system to block many drugs and germs in the bloodstream from entering the brain, but doctors have found this barrier becomes more permeable during pregnancy, which may explain how these fetal cells migrated into the brains of their mothers.

  • What if a serial killer only targeted people with chimerism because s/he viewed them as freaks of nature?
  • How might the killer find potential victims?

If you said the medical field, you’re not thinking outside the box.

Interestingly enough, 26 of the 59 women had no signs of brain disorders while alive. The other 33 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that women with Alzheimer’s were less likely to have male DNA in their brains than women without the disease.

Previous work on microchimerism suggested fetal cells might protect against breast cancer and aid tissue repair in the mothers, but could increase the risk of colon cancer. Microchimerism can also incite various autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases occur when a person’s body is mistakenly attacked by its own immune system.

Past research suggested Alzheimer’s is more common in women who had a high number of pregnancies than in childless women. One of the limitations of this research is that the number of brains studied was relatively small. Other researchers involved with microchimerism want to explore what effects a mother’s cells might have in her offspring’s development and health.

Imagine all the different scenarios? Parts of your writer brain must be on fire by now. No? Then check this out …  

Are you a chimera? 

You may never know. Unless you wind up in a similar situation to a woman named Karen Keegan. In 2002, her story became a report in the New England Journal of Medicine after doctors told her that she wasn’t the biological mother of her children.

Imagine? Think of all the ways this one conversation could implode an MC’s life.

  • Maybe the woman’s marriage broke up and the only reason her and her husband reunited was because she said she gave birth to his child while he was stationed overseas.

Turns out, the DNA in Karen Keegan’s bloodstream didn’t match the DNA in her ovaries. The doctors later determined she’d most likely absorbed a fraternal twin in utero.

How’s the ol’ writer brain feeling now?

 

Why Waiting is Difficult

By SUE COLETTA

It’s no secret that the writing biz requires patience. Sometimes, though, waiting can be agonizing. Recently, an exciting opportunity came my way. In order to make this dream come true, I had two weeks (two weeks!) to produce something I’ve never done before. Sorry for being so cryptic, but I don’t want to jinx it.

Now that I made my deadline, all that’s left to do is wait. And wait. And wait. Even with a new release, my mind keeps wandering back to this secret project … and the wait.

via GIPHY

That got me thinking, I wonder how or if waiting affects the brain.

Turns out, researchers recently asked the same question. For the first time, a research team at McGill University clearly identified the specific parts of the brain involved in decisions that call for delayed gratification.

Here’s how it works …

The hippocampus (associated with memory) and the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure) work together to make critical decisions where time plays a role. For example, suppose you send a query to a literary agent or publisher. You’re making a decision that requires you to wait for the outcome, thereby triggering both the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens.

Still with me? Okay, cool. Let’s look at exactly what these researchers did to prove or disprove their theory …

The researchers used rats trained to make choices between stimuli that resulted in rewards. Some rewards were delivered instantly, some meant delayed gratification. The rats had a choice between two identical visual shapes on a touchscreen (similar to an iPad). In exchange for sugar pellets, the rats had the choice to press their noses against the shape that delivered one sugar pellet immediately or the shape that would deliver four sugar pellets if they waited to receive the reward.

Over time, the rats learned to negotiate a trade-off between the smaller, instant gratification and a windfall, even if it meant waiting for a short period. Researchers argue that most people will also wait for a decision to pay off, if the reward is worth it.

Do you agree? she asks a community of writers whose dreams stand at the intersection of hurry up and wait.

Now, what do you think happened when the researchers disrupted the circuit from the rats’ hippocampus and nucleus accumbens? You guessed it. The rats became impatient and irritable, unwilling to wait even for a few seconds.

Why?

Our brains weigh the pros and cons of thousands of situations every day without conscious thought. The nucleus accumbens is made up of a group of tiny cells deep within our brains, and those cells are responsible for the release of dopamine. The amount of dopamine released depends on the size of the reward.

Is it any wonder why we hate waiting? Our bodies crave dopamine! Hence, why exercise is so important for good mental health.

What can we do to help with waiting for news? You guessed it. Get your body to pump dopamine. Which is why today (Saturday) I jumped on my husband’s tractor and mowed the lawn before writing this post. 😉

Yeah, he couldn’t believe it either. I’m not what anyone would describe as a manual labor type of chick. I like my fingernails too much to break them. But I needed a way to switch off my brain before I drove myself crazy by checking and rechecking my email. When I saw my husband on the tractor, it looked like fun.

You know what? I had a blast! Who knew mowing the lawn could double as an exercise in creativity? As my husband cringed, I sailed around the yard creating animal shapes with the blades. Always keep ‘em guessing, ladies!

Men, you can stop groaning now. You’ll be pleased to know I fixed the grass afterward by riding back and forth in military straight lines, but it was nowhere near as fun.

In other study, researchers at the University of Texas measured what occurs inside the brain during a long wait vs. a short wait. For the experiment they used two different tones. The first tone meant a 15-20 second waiting period, the second equaled wait times of 65-75 seconds. Both tones signaled the same reward. The only difference was the length of delay. What they discovered was the nucleus accumbens released more dopamine when the short wait tone sounded. Which means, we’re willing to wait for a reward if the wait doesn’t take too long.

Makes sense, right?

So, if you’re waiting for something to happen as a result of a decision you made, do yourself a favor and get outside, or hit the gym … anything that might help to release dopamine. If you follow this advice, the wait won’t feel as long.

Are you in the wait zone? Care to share what you’re waiting for? What are some ways that have helped you to wait?

 

It starts with an innocent stuffed animal. It ends with mind-numbing terror. 

RACKED, Grafton County, Book 4, is now available for pre-order! Only 99c.

 

 

 

ELVIS PRESLEY — WHAT REALLY KILLED THE KING OF ROCK ‘N ROLL

By SUE COLETTA

I invited my dear friend Garry Rodgers — retired homicide detective with a second career as a forensic coroner — to share a fascinating post about the real cause of Elvis Presley’s death. Prepare to be wowed. Welcome to TKZ, Garry!

Elvis Presley suddenly dropped in the bathroom of his Graceland mansion on the afternoon of August 16, 1977. Elvis was rushed to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was pronounced dead, then shipped to the morgue and autopsied the same afternoon. Three days later, the Memphis County coroner issued Elvis Presley’s death certificate stating the cause as hypertensive cardiovascular disease with atherosclerotic heart disease — a heart attack subsequent to high blood pressure and blocked coronary arteries.

It was a rush to judgment. Toxicology results soon identified ten pharmaceutical drugs in Elvis’s system. Codeine was at ten times the therapeutic level and the combination of other prescription drugs suggested a poly-pharmacy overdose. This revelation started immediate accusations of a cover-up and conspiracy theories quickly hinted at sinister criminal acts.

Four decades later, modern medicine and forensic science looked at the Presley case facts. The review indicated something entirely different from a heart attack or drug overdose really killed the King of Rock ‘n Roll. It said Elvis Presley accidentally died after long-term complications from earlier traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). TBIs are known as silent, stalking, and patient killers.

Looking back, it’s likely old accidental head injuries triggered events leading to Elvis Presley’s death.

From my experience investigating unexpected and unexplained sudden deaths, the accidental conclusion makes sense when you consider the totality of evidence in Elvis’ death. Setting aside media reports of gross negligence, arm-chair speculation of cover-up and fan accusations the King was murdered, there’s a simple and straightforward conclusion based on facts. But before examining the facts and knowing hindsight is 20/20, let’s first look at how coroners conduct sudden and unexplained death investigations.

Coroners are the judges of death. Their responsibilities include establishing five main facts surrounding a death. Coroners do not assign blame or fault. In the Presley case, the five facts determined at the immediate time were:

  1. Identity of Deceased — Elvis Aaron Presley
  2. Time of Death — Approximately 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16, 1977
  3. Place of Death — 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee
  4. Cause of Death — Heart attack
  5. Means of Death — Chronic heart disease

There’s a distinct difference between Cause of Death and Means of Death. Cause is the actual event. Means is the method in which death happened. Example: cause being a ruptured aorta with means being a motor vehicle crash, or cause being massive cerebral interruption with means being a gunshot wound to the head.

Once the facts are known, it’s the coroner’s duty to classify the Manner of Death. There are five universal manner of death classifications:

  1. Natural
  2. Homicide
  3. Suicide
  4. Accidental
  5. Undetermined

Elvis Presley’s death was ruled a natural event, thought at the time being an acute cardiac event from existing cardiovascular disease. If the coroner determined Elvis died from a drug overdose, the ruling would have been accidental. No one ever claimed it was suicide or homicide.

One principle of death investigation is to look for antecedent evidence—preexisting conditions which contributed to the death mechanism or was responsible for causing or continuing a chain of events that led to the death.

Another principle of death investigation is examining the cornerstone triangle of Scene—Body—History. This compiles the totality of evidence or case facts. Given that, let’s look at the evidence and case facts in Elvis Presley’s death.

Scene

Elvis was found on his bathroom floor, face down in front of the toilet. It was apparent he’d instantly collapsed from a sitting position and there was no sign of a distress struggle or attempt to summon help. When the paramedics arrived, Elvis was cold, blue, and had no vital signs. Rigor mortis had not set in, so he’d probably expired within the hour. He was transported by ambulance to Baptist Memorial Hospital where a vain attempt at resuscitation occurred because “he was Elvis”.

ER doctors declared Elvis dead at 3:16 p.m. He was then moved to the morgue where an autopsy was promptly performed. There was no suggestion of suicide or foul play, so there wasn’t a police investigation. The scene wasn’t photographed, nor preserved, and there was no accounting for what medications or other drugs might have been present at Graceland. There’s no official record of the coroner attending the scene as this was considered an in-hospital death and a routine occurrence.

Body

Elvis was in terrible health. His weight estimated at 350 pounds—gaining 50 lbs. in the last few months of his life. He was virtually non-functional at the end, being mostly bed-ridden and requiring permanent nursing care. Elvis suffered from an enlarged heart which was twice the size of normal and showed advanced evidence of cardiovascular disease in his coronary vessels, aorta, and cerebral arteries—certainly more advanced than a normal 42-year-old would be. His lungs showed signs of emphysema, although he’d never smoked, and his bowel was twice the length of normal, with a partially-impacted stool estimated to be four months old.

Elvis also suffered from hypogammaglobinemia, which is an immune disorder, as well as showed evidence of an autoimmune inflammatory disorder.

Toxicology tested positive for ten separate prescription medications but showed negative for illicit drugs and alcohol. The only alarming pharmaceutical indicator, on its own, was codeine at ten times the prescribed manner but still not in lethal range.

This is a quote from Elvis’s toxicology report:

“Diazepam, methaqualone, phenobarbital, ethchlorvynol, and ethinamate are below or within their respective ranges. Codeine was present at a level approximately 10 times those concentrations found therapeutically. In view of the polypharmacy aspects, this case must be looked at in terms of the cumulative pharmacological effect of the drugs identified by the report.”

History

Elvis was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi and had a twin brother who died at birth. As a youth, Elvis was active and healthy which continued during his time in the U.S. military and all through his early performing stage when he was a bundle of energy. He began experimenting with amphetamines, probably to enhance his performances, but shied away from alcohol as it gave him violent tendencies.

In 1967, Elvis came under the primary care of Dr. George Nichopoulos who was well-known to celebrities. Then, Elvis was 32 years old and weighed 163 pounds. His only known medical ailment was slight high blood pressure, presumably due to his high-fat diet.

Also in 1967, Elvis’s health took a sudden turn with progressive pain, insomnia, hypertension, lethargy, irrational behavior and immense weigh gain. Over his remaining years, Elvis was seen by a number of different doctors and was hospitalized a number of times, all the while resorting to self-medication with a wide assortment of drugs from dozens of sources.

Doctor Nick, as Nichopoulos was called, stayed as Elvis’s personal physician till the end. He was present at the death scene as well as during the autopsy. Doctor Nick concurred with the coroner’s immediate conclusion that the cause of death was a natural cardiac event resulting from an arrhythmia, or sudden interruption of heartbeat, and agreed that Elvis’s death was not due to a drug overdose.

When the toxicology report was released, it came with a qualifier:

“The position of Elvis Presley’s body was such that he was about to sit down on the commode when the seizure occurred. He pitched forward onto the carpet, his rear in the air, and was dead by the time he hit the floor. If it had been a drug overdose, [Elvis Presley] would have slipped into an increasing state of slumber. He would have pulled up his pajama bottoms and crawled to the door to seek help. It takes hours to die from drugs.”

Because the tox report appeared to contradict the autopsy report’s stated cardiac cause of death, a prominent toxicologist was asked to review the findings. His opinion was:

Coupled with this toxicological data are the pathological findings and the reported history that the deceased had been mobile and functional within 8 hours prior to death. Together, all this information points to a conclusion that, whatever tolerance the deceased may have acquired to the many drugs found in his system, the strong probability is that these drugs were the major contribution to his demise.”

The Tennessee Board of Health then investigated Elvis’s death, which resulted in proceedings against Doctor Nick.

Evidence showed that during the seven and a half months preceding Elvis’s death—from January 1, 1977, to August 16, 1977—Doctor Nick wrote prescriptions for Elvis for at least 8,805 pills, tablets, vials, and injectables. Going back to January 1975, the count was 19,012.

These numbers might defy belief, but they came from an experienced team of investigators who visited 153 pharmacies and spent 1,090 hours going through 6,570,175 prescriptions and then, with the aid of two secretaries, spent another 1,120 hours organizing the evidence.

The drugs included uppers, downers, and powerful painkillers such as Dilaudid, Quaalude, Percodan, Demerol and Cocaine Hydrochloride in quantities more appropriate for those terminally ill with cancer.

Doctor Nick admitted to this. His defense was because Elvis was so wired on pain killers, he prescribed these medications to keep Elvis away from dangerous street drugs, thereby controlling Elvis’s addiction—addiction being a disease.

One of the defense witnesses, Dr. Forest Torrent, a prominent California physician and a pioneer in the use of opiates in pain treatment, explained how the effects of this level of codeine would have contributed to Elvis’s death.

Central to misconduct allegations was the issue of high codeine levels in Elvis at the time of death—codeine being the prime toxicological suspect as the pharmaceutical contributor. It was established that Elvis obtained codeine pills from a dentist the day before his death and Doctor Nick had no knowledge of it.

The jury bought it and absolved Doctor Nick of negligence in directly causing Elvis Presley’s fatal event.

Continuing Investigation

Dr. Torrent was convinced there were other contributing factors leading to Elvis’s death. In preparation for Doctor Nick’s trial, Dr. Torrent had access to all of Elvis Presley’s medical records, including the autopsy and toxicology reports. Incidentally, these two reports are now the property of the Presley estate and are sealed from public view until 2027, fifty years after Elvis’s death.

Dr. Torrent was intrigued by the sudden physiological and psychological changes in Elvis starting in 1967. He discovered that while in Los Angeles filming the movie Clambake, Elvis tripped over an electrical cord, fell, and cracked his head on the edge of a porcelain bathtub. Elvis was knocked unconscious and had to be hospitalized. Dr. Torrent found three other incidents where Elvis suffered head blows, and he suspected Elvis suffered from what’s now known as Traumatic Brain Injury—TBI—and that’s what caused progressive ailments leading to his death.

Dr. Torrent released a paper entitled Elvis Presley: Head Trauma, Autoimmunity, Pain, and Early Death. It’s a fascinating read—recently published in the credible medical journal Practical Pain Management.

Dr. Torrent builds a theory that Elvis’s bathtub head injury was so severe it jarred brain tissue loose, which leaked into his overall blood circulation. Later additional head injuries exacerbated the problem. This is now known to be a leading cause of autoimmune disorder, which causes a breakdown of other organs. This progression was unknown in 1967 and Elvis went untreated. Side effects of TBIs include chronic pain, irrational behavior, and severe bodily changes such as obesity and enlarged organs like hearts and bowels.

Today, TBI is a recognized health issue in professional contact sports as well as incidental to motor vehicle accidents and workplace falls or other head injury events.

Dr. Torrent’s hypothesis holds that with a change in mental state and suffering chronic pain, Elvis Presley entered a ten year spiral towards death. He became hopelessly addicted to pain killers, practiced a terribly unhealthy diet and lethargic lifestyle, and resorted to the typical addict’s habit of sneaking a fix wherever he could. This led to early coronary vascular disease and, combined with his escalating weight and pill consumption, Elvis was a heart attack ready to burst.

Note that I used the term “antecedent,” like all coroners do when assessing a cause of death. Given Dr. Torrent’s observations—and all the facts compiled from forty years—if I were the coroner completing Elvis Presley’s death certificate today, I’d write it like this:

  1. Identity of Deceased — Elvis Aaron Presley.
  2. Time of Death — Approximately 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16th, 1977.
  3. Place of Death — 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee.
  4. Cause of Death — Cardiac arrhythmia, antecedent to hypertensive cardiovascular disease with atherosclerotic heart disease, antecedent to poly-pharmacy, antecedent to autoimmune inflammatory disorder, antecedent to traumatic brain injury/injuries.
  5. Means of Death — Cumulative head trauma.

Therefore, I’d have to classify Elvis’s death as an accident.

There’s no one to blame—certainly not Elvis. He was a severely injured and sick man. There’s no specific negligence on anyone’s part and definitely no cover-up or conspiracy of a criminal act.

If Dr. Forrest Torrent is right, there simply wasn’t a proper understanding back then to clearly determine what really killed the King of Rock ‘n Roll.

*   *   *

 

Garry Rodgers now works as an investigative crime writer with a number of publications to his credit.

 

In The Attic is based on a true double homicide he investigated involving a psychopathic ax-murderer. Garry also hosts a popular blog at DyingWords.net.

 

Note from Sue: I read IN THE ATTIC in August of 2016, and I doubt the story will ever leave me. It’s just one of those books that I’ll never forget. Visceral, raw, emotional, and true!