A dead body can bleed

How "talking" corpses were used to solve murders

From unreliable hair analysis to poorly handled DNA samples, modern forensic science has its struggles. Still, one must be grateful for many of the modern ways that courts can gather evidence of crime. As recently as a few centuries ago, people were found guilty by the idea of ​​murder that a corpse began to bleed spontaneously in the presence of its killer.

From at least the 12th century until the early 18th century, men and women were tried in courts across Europe and colonial America using what is known as the bar test. (Worth reading: For science! Surreal cases of exhumations)

During this test, the suspect had to put his hand on a wound on the deceased. If this - or optionally eyes, nose or mouth - started to bleed again, this was considered evidence of guilt.

Nobody knows exactly where the belief in the trial of the bar began, but one of the earliest mentions comes from the heroic epic of the “Nibelungenlied”. The dragon slayer Siegfried is murdered in it and his body is laid out. When his murderer Hagen approaches, blood begins to flow from Siegfried's wounds again.

This idea was already firmly anchored in cultural consciousness by the time the epic was written.

It is hard to imagine nowadays that anyone would believe that corpses bleed on command. In fact, the dead usually cannot bleed for very long. The Livor mortis occurs shortly after death - the blood collects in the deepest parts of the body and "settles" within about six hours, says forensic scientist and author A.J. Study.

“During this time, the body doesn't really bleed. It might get wet, ”she says. In addition, after death the blood coagulates and thickens.

So what could people have seen then that convinced them? If a person has been dead long enough, fluid builds up in the lungs during the first stages of putrefaction. If the body was then shaken or nudged during legal proceedings, some of this fluid may leak from the nose or other body orifices.

However, people did not carry out the bar test because it seemed scientifically sound to them. They believe in proverbial miracles in the courtroom. The bar test was just one of various divine interventions that were considered solid evidence.

Such judgments by God were, for example, the famous water test, in which witches swim on the water and innocent people perish. During the trial by fire, a suspect had to hold red-hot iron or walk on it. The suspects were considered guilty if God did not heal their wounds within three days.

Such processes were not limited to the deepest provinces: none other than King James I of England was firmly convinced of the trial.