History’s first forensic murder investigation, China, 1235 AD
In 1247 AD during the Song Dynasty of China, a book called Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified also known as The Washing Away of Wrongs was first published by Song Ci, a Chinese coroner and detective. Essentially the book was a guide for early coroners, detailing how to determine cause of death based on forensic science. Divided into 53 chapters and five volumes, the work details the case studies and personal observations of Song Ci. Incredibly advanced for its time, the book covers topics such as anatomy, the decay of corpses, details the wounds made by different weapons, appearance of corpses from various causes of death, and postmortem examination methods.
Among the case studies of The Washing Away of Wrongs is an anecdote now considered to be the first case of forensic entomology in history. In 1235 AD a man was found stabbed, slashed, and hacked to death in a small village. The local magistrate inspected the victims wounds, then tested various types of blades on animal corpses, which allowed him to determine that the weapon used was a common farming sickle. According to Song Ci, a brilliant plan was created by the magistrate to determine who was the murderer,
The local magistrate began the investigation by calling all the local peasants who could be suspects into the village square. Each was to carry their hand sickles to the town square with them. Once assembled, the magistrate ordered the ten-or-so suspects to place their hand sickles on the ground in front of them and then step back a few yards. The afternoon sun was warm and as the villagers, suspects, and magistrates waited, bright shiny metallic green flies began to buzz around them in the village square. The shiny metallic colored flies then began to focus in on one of the hand sickles lying on the ground. Within just a few minutes many had landed on the hand sickle and were crawling over it with interest. None of the other hand sickles had attracted any of these pretty flies. The owner of the tool became very nervous, and it was only a few more moments before all those in the village knew who the murderer was. With head hung in shame and pleading for mercy, the magistrate led the murderer away. The witnesses of the murder were the brightly metallic colored flies known as the blow flies which had been attracted to the remaining bits of soft tissue, blood, bone and hair which had stuck to the hand sickle after the murder was committed. The knowledge of the village magistrate as to a specific insect group’s behavior regarding their attraction to dead human tissue was the key to solving this violent act and justice was served in China.
Today The Washing Away of Wrongs has been translated into several different languages, with modern forensic scientists adding their own anecdotes and studies. It has been esteemed by generations of public service officials and is often required reading in criminology today.