There are few things I enjoy more than researching the Haydn novels. I’ve shared anecdotes from the great composer’s earliest biographers with you, and I’m sure you’ll agree they’re all delightful. I’ve also enjoyed delving into Habsburg history, and seeing how decisions made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led eventually to an assassination and a world war in the twentieth century. The Habsburgs could never have guessed they were plotting their own demise!
There was however one aspect of my research that gave me nightmares: death and its many causes, or forensic pathology.
As a mystery writer I felt I needed to know more about forensic pathology and its history. While rigor mortis and livor mortis seem like alien concepts that only a medical examiner would be familiar with, such postmortem changes to the body would have been quite familiar to the eighteenth-century individual.
After all, death even more than birth was an everyday occurrence for both rich and poor. The Emperor Charles VI and his wife Elisabeth Christine, for instance, lost their first child, a boy, a year after he was born. Maria Theresa, the Empress you’ll encounter in the Haydn mysteries, was born shortly after.
Maria Theresa, who ascended the Austrian throne in 1740 the year Haydn joined St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna as a choirboy, gave birth to no less than sixteen children. Only ten of these survived to adulthood.
Interestingly enough, forensic medicine, or the use of medicine for legal purposes, came about as a result of the enormous devastation the plague caused. Having a Totenbeschauer, or medical examiner, view the dead body to ascertain the cause of death enabled authorities to take necessary precautions if it turned out that death had been the result of an infectious disease.
Mary Lindemann discusses some of the measures taken to prevent the spread of the plague. Later, these same measures would come in handy when authorities became concerned about containing diseases like dysentery and smallpox.
The house of the infected individual was set apart in some manner. In the Dutch city of Hoorn, according to Lindemann, a bundle of straw marked the house. The inhabitants were forbidden from frequenting public places such as the marketplace or church until several weeks after the sick individual had either completely recovered or had succumbed to the illness. Infected bedding was burned and houses were fumigated.
By the eighteenth-century, however, in Austria at any rate, it was common practice to have a Totenbeschauer examine the body and certify the cause of death when it occurred outside a hospital. We know, for instance, that a medical examiner was called in to view Vivaldi’s body when he died in Vienna.
If it was important to ascertain that the person had not contracted an infectious disease, it was also important to ensure that the individual had indeed died. There had been cases of people being buried alive!
There was also the possibility, of course, that the individual had died under suspicious circumstances. This might especially be the case with a corpse found abandoned in the streets or when an otherwise healthy individual had suddenly fallen ill and died. In such a case, poisoning might be suspected or that a quack passing himself off as a medical professional had tried to heal the individual.
In either case, a closer look was warranted. The medical examiner would report the matter to the authorities, who would then request an autopsy. Since this involved dissecting the body and getting one’s hands dirty, the gruesome task usually fell to barber-surgeons, who weren’t considered on par with University-educated physicians and surgeons.
Records of autopsies conducted during the period are still extant in the national archives in Vienna. In some cases, as in that of Princess Eleonore von Schwarzenberg, an autopsy was requested to counter assertions that the individual in question was a vampire.
One of the fascinating tidbits I learned as I researched the subject was that toxins in the body can cause bloating after death so that the corpse appears to have mysteriously fattened. That, coupled with the strange lack of decomposition in certain conditions, naturally fanned the vampire scare in Europe. It grew to the point that Maria Theresa had her personal physician, Baron Gerard van Swieten, examine these cases, so that the rampant speculations being bandied about could be finally put to rest.
A second interesting fact is that skin color can darken to the point that a Caucasian individual may appear, at first glance, to be of African origin. I, of course, incorporated both these facts into Haydn’s first mystery, A Minor Deception.
Although much of my interest in forensic techniques and investigation can’t be used in the Haydn mysteries, they do find an outlet in the contemporary short stories I write. One of them, “The Christmas Stalker,” will be published in the December 15 issue of Heater Magazine (Vol 4, Issue 11).
I enjoyed writing it, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.