I've always been curious about old superstitious techniques used in days gone by to ferret out murders. One of the most interesting, mentioned in my Dictionary of Superstitions, is the "ordeal by touch" -- bring a suspect into the presence of the deceased. If the corpse bleeds, it was a murder, committed by that person.
There are many examples from Europe and from North America, including at least one death penalty case from Rhode Island in 1673 that included evidence of the "ordeal by touch" (see this post). There was another stunning American case in Plymouth Colony in 1675. it is explained in a letter by John R. Hall published in American Heritage Magazine:
It is alleged that King Philip of the Wampanoags ordered the execution of one John Sassamon, an Indian traitor. This was done. The colony, which had found Sassamon useful, rounded up several promising suspects and noted that, although Sassamon’s corpse had been interred for several months, it bled when one of the three suspects approached it. In George F. Willison’s Saints and Strangers, Dr. Increase Mather is quoted as reporting that Sassamon’s corpse “fell a-bleeding as fresh as if it had been newly slain, albeit it was buried a considerable time before that.” Naturally, this proof justified the quick hanging of all three Indian suspects.
To the Wampanoags, this interference with Philip’s discipline was not to be tolerated. After years of humiliation, the Indians rebelled and fell upon the neighboring town of Swansea. Thus, the hangings, justified by the bleeding, ignited King Philip’s War.
This curious feature of the old criminal law is also of interest to Bob Cerra, retired Massachusetts State Trooper, who found another interesting example. From a note that he was nice enough to send me:
Early investigative procedures were primitive such as using a diving rod to locate criminals. One of the practices that interested me is referred to as the “blood touching”, or as the Scottish called it the “Bahr-recht”. Investigators would either force or trick a suspect into touching the body of the murder victim. If the body bled when touched by the suspect, it was interpreted as a sign from God that the suspect was guilty.
One interesting case involving the Bar-recht, occurred in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1688. The victim, Sir James Stansfield, was murdered by his son Philip. Philip attempted to conceal the crime by claiming his farther drowned. Philip’s quick burial of his father raised suspicion among the local authorities and with Philip’s help they exhumed Sir James Stansfield, to examine his body.
When Philip helped them pick the body up the following events were recorded: “…In accordance with the Scots custom the son lifted his father’s head, but no sooner had he done so than the horrified onlookers “did see it darting out blood through the linen from the left side of the neck which the prisoner touched. Philip, astounded, let the head fall with a loud crash upon the “furm “ [bench], staggered back, wiping his bloody hands upon his clothes, and crying lamentably upon his Maker for mercy, fell fainting across a seat.
The watchers, “amazed at the sight,” looked at one another in awe. They had witnessed the immediate interference of the Deity-- ”God’s revenge against murder.” An examination of the body was conducted by James Muirhead, along with several other surgeons and they reported “….upon the neck “a large and conspicuous swelling, about three inches broad, of a dark red or blae colour, from one side of the larynx round backwards to the other side thereof,” which, on incision, was found to be full of bruised blood.
The investigation of Sir James Stansfield’s death also involved the torture of Sir James’ servants and Philip’s friends. They were subjected to the “Thumkbkin”, which in all probability was the thumbscrew. These tortures failed to reveal any other circumstances surrounding the death of Sir James.
Philip was tried, found guilty and “On the 24th the sentence was duly carried out. At the Cross of Edinburgh Philip Stanfield was hanged upon a gibbet. The tongue wherewith he had cursed his “natural and kindly parent” was cut out and burned upon the scaffold; the right hand raised by him against his father’s life was cut off and affixed to the East Port of Haddington, “as nearest to the place of the murder”; his dead body was hung in chains at the Gallow Lee, between Edinburgh and Leith.”
-- from a pamphlet True Relation of a Barbarous Bloody Murther, London, 1688s
Immortal true crime legend William Roughead also wrote about this famous Scottish case using the ordeal by touch, and The University of Texas law library was nice enough to put it online.
"In a secret Murther, if the dead carkasse be at any time thereafter handled by the Murtherer, it will gush out of blood; as if the blood were crying to Heaven for revenge of the Murtherer."
—Dæmonologie , King James VI, Scotland (James I of England)