New Morbid Terminology: Cadaveric Spasm

Cadaveric spasm in a drowning victim grasping grass from the river bank, via Porbona

Cadaveric spasm in a drowning victim grasping grass from the river bank, via Porbona

Understanding the natural and biological processes that affect the human body following death can be extremely important for the interpretation of the skeletal remains following excavation. The way the body is found within a grave can be indicative of the type of burial container they had, whether they were buried in a shroud or with portions of their limbs tied, whether they were given a formal burial or hasty burial, and can be telling about their identity. However, body position can also be affected by the decomposition of the body. As a body decays, certain skeletal elements may move or shift in position. As an archaeologist we need to be able to determine what is associated with cultural acts and what is part of biological change. An interesting phenomenon that is seen in forensics cases, and that must be considered a possible within archaeology, is cadaveric spasm.

Cadaveric spasm is the instantaneous appearance of rigidity in a deceased body. It usually occurs in the hands and limbs of individuals who suffered a traumatic death. For example, Mason (1993) notes that hands amputated in airplane crashes have been found holding onto seatbelts, or knives found clutched within the hands of victims of knife fights. The condition is not part of rigor mortis, which is characterized by a progressive rigidity of the deceased body due to biomechanical changes in muscles occurring 10-12 hours after death. Cadaveric spasm is a persistent occurrence when it happens, and the individual will continue to hold that pose from death until putrefaction allows for decay of the affected limb. However, cadaveric spasm can be seen in archaeological remains if the affected limb is buried. It has been argued that cadaveric spasm is most likely associated with high muscular exertion prior to death in especially intense emotional situations. Often it is associated with violent deaths and major disturbance of the nervous system.

Historic Example- The Brides in the Bath Murders

Madame Tussaud's rendering of George Joseph Smith and the Bride in the Bath Tub

Madame Tussaud’s rendering of George Joseph Smith and the Bride in the Bath Tub

In 1915, George Joseph Smith was on trial for the murders of Alice Burnham, Margaret Lofty, and Bessie Mundy. All three women, though young and healthy, had supposedly drowned in the bath tub after fainting or having a fit, but suspicions were aroused when it was discovered that all three were illegally married to the same man- George Joseph Smith. Following this finding, all three women were exhumed from their graves. His first marriage was to Bessie Smith in 1910. In 1912, Smith had her purchase an iron bath tub, and soon after Bessie was found dead in the tub. Cause of death was drowning, and Smith inherited Bessie’s wealth. Alice Burnham and Smith were married in 1913, and one month later they took a trip to Blackpool for a honeymoon. During their vacation, Alice was found dead in the bathtub, again drowning was determined the cause of death. Margaret Lofty, his final victim, was married to Smith in 1914, and that night was found dead in the honeymoon suite bath tub. Smith made a total of £3,700, around £190,000 today, from these murders. 

However, Alice Burnham’s father read the papers regarding Margaret Lofty’s death, and reported the similarities to the police. Further investigation led to Smith’s arrest. As the connections between the women were made, witnesses became coming forward to describe the strange occurrences including the fact that all three women were taken to the doctor soon before their death with complaints of headaches or fits, all three were found in bath tubs, and in all of them, Smith had concocted detailed alibis that didn’t necessarily make sense. There was only one strong piece of evidence for foul play- cadaveric spasm. The Home Office pathologist Bernard Spilsbury had noted that Bessie Mundy was still holding on to a bar of soap when she died. If she had fainted or had a fit, she would have let go. Grasping onto an item after death is associated with sudden and traumatic death such as murder. He argued that their death was sudden and they were unable to put up a fight. The theory is the Smith pulled their legs sharply out of the bath, causing their head to go underwater causing instantaneous loss of consciousness. However, there are also theories of drug and hypnosis for how these deaths occurred. In August 1915, Smith was hanged at Maidstone Prison.

Archaeological Example- Roman massacre site in France

The remains of 12 individuals were found in a ditch outside a Roman fortification dating from the late 4th to early 5th centuries. They mass burial includes males, females and children, and the remains were found in contorted positions, intermingled with one another. All were deposited at the same time, evidenced by a single homogenous layer of soil on top of them, and there was little care in how they were deposited. Two of the males had suffered from deep depressed fractures in the skull, suggesting that all individuals perhaps were massacred. One of the males with the head trauma was found in a contorted supine position. His right forearm was flexed and the arm externally rotated, causing the hand to be positioned at the shoulder. Between his clenched fingers was a pig molar. It was suggested by the archaeologists that this was given to him after his death to confer some type of protection or luck in the afterlife, perhaps given to him by a female relative as pig canines had been associated with female ritual in other contexts. However, Knusel, Janaway and King (1996) argue instead that this is likely evidence of cadaveric spasm. The individual may have been clutching the item at the time of their death, which given the type of trauma present was definitely violent and likely sudden since there are no signs of defensive wounds.

Interpreting the past is difficult, though comparisons with forensics cases and known historic cases can be helpful. When we interpret archaeological sites, we need to be careful about assuming all items found in a grave were placed there by mourners. However, we also need to be careful when interpreting cadaveric spasm as this is a very rare occurrence. In fact, a recent article by Bedford and  Tsokos (2013) argues that cadaveric spasm doesn’t actually exist, and it is more a cause of the type of death and context. They argue that the gripping found in the dead can only truly be found in electrocution cases, and in all others is due to the situation of death- not a biological gripping. In fact, they propose that the Bride in the Bath found gripping the soap was actually planted there and was not due to her violent death. Obviously, more research into this phenomenon is needed.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgCHRISTOPHER J. KNUSEL, ROBERT C. JANAWAY, AND SARAH E. KING (1996). DEATH, DECAY, AND RITUAL RECONSTRUCTION: ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE OF CADAVERIC SPASM Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 15 (2) DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0092.1996.tb00079.x

MANT. A.K. 1984: Taylor’s principles and practice of medical jurisprudence (13th Edition), ed. A.K. Mant. Edinburgh and New York: Churchill Livingstone.

. London: Chapman & Hall.

Leafe. 2010. Solved: How the brides in the bath died at the hands of their ruthless womanising husband. Daily Mail.

6 responses to “New Morbid Terminology: Cadaveric Spasm

  1. This was great! I’d never heard of cadaveric spasm before. Another really interesting post-mortem phenomenon I’ve heard described is the ‘pugilistic pose’ characteristic of thermal trauma, when fire causes different flexor and extensor muscles to shrink and move the body in predictable ways.

  2. This was very informative ,thanks!
    Although I’m unsure of the mechanism relating the intense physical/emotional activity prior to death and the resultant cadaveric spasm.
    Some say it’s adrenocortical exhaustion.
    Any thoughts?

  3. Google brought me here. Thanks for the article! I was watching Columbo (episode Forgotten Lady) and the term cadaveric spasm was used to explain how the police knew that a man was holding the suicide gun in his hand when he was shot (as opposed to him being shot, then the gun placed in his hand). The fingers had to be pried open, they were so tight. Interesting stuff!

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