Thursday, April 29, 2010

Murder by the Glass

by Deborah Blum

In one of my all time favorite experiments from the early history of forensics, a Chicago scientist persuaded a professional glass-eater from a carnival to drop by his office for a very crunchy dinner. To be exact, he offered the man: half a dozen six-inch test tubes, two lamp chimneys, a four ounce medicine bottle, two window panes (each approximately four inches square), and three small pieces of colored glass.

As Walter Stanley Haines, eminent professor of chemistry and toxicology at Rush Medical College, reported in 1917, the man cheerfully ate it all. “He bit the glass off, chewed it up, and swallowed it as much as if it had been any ordinary article of food.” Haines and his colleagues had examined their glass-eater’s mouth before the experiment and found it paler and thicker than normal. After he’d swallowed the glass, the scientists found numerous tiny cuts on his gums although the man did not complain.

In fact, he conversed with them for several hours, showing no sign of pain or discomfort until finally, wondering if they’d somehow been tricked, Haines induced the man to throw up his meal, revealing a rather revolting mess of mucus, partially digested food, and glass fragments. Their glass-eater explained that he always ate a hearty meal before swallowing glass, in order to protect his stomach.

All very interesting, you may say. But why was Haines – one of the most famous American forensic chemists of his time – spending his time feeding test tubes and window panes to a traveling carnival worker? Well, because in the early century glass – pounded, splintered, broken – had acquired a sinister reputation as both a murder weapon and a means of suicide.

Forensic scientists like Haines could easily cite criminal cases in which people attempted homicide by glass. A woman in Maryland had attempted to kill seven members of her family by serving them curried fowl laced with pounded glass. A woman in Michigan had been tried for mixing ground glass into her husband’s oatmeal; "poisoning by glass” trials had occurred everywhere from New Jersey to France.

Haines had an idea, though, that glass poisoners were wasting their time – and he hoped by proving that to reduce glass homicides. His glass-eater experiment was a case in point – despite swallowing a remarkable quantity of laboratory equipment, their glass-eater had not suffered any obvious damage.

Granted, the man had acquired the professional habit of chewing the glass into small, more digestible pieces. But over all, Haines and his fellow researchers were happy to report that swallowing sharp objects was an unreliable technique for doing real bodily harm. In fact, it was increasingly obvious that swallowing sharp objects was an unreliable way of ending a life.

One woman, after swallowing a dozen pieces of glass in a suicide attempt, then choked down two hairpins, nine sewing needles, several nails, and a key. She ended up in the hospital with acute abdominal pains, but after the doctors removed the bits and pieces from her stomach, she survived. So did “The Human Ostrich,” another professional glass-eater, who ended up in the emergency room after eating a light bulb. Injuries definitely occurred – lacerations of the stomach, internal bleeding, ulcers, infections – and these were often extremely painful but mostly survivable.

Not always, unfortunately. In one very sad case, a very disturbed mother managed to kill her child by feeding him a large teaspoonful of pounded glass. But the problem for most murderers was that to trick the intended victim into swallowing glass, it needed to be pounded into a fairly fine, hard to detect powder. And pulverized glass turned out to be largely harmless. One French scientist had swallowed several ounces of powdered glass himself with no ill effect. He’d verified that with animal tests as well – finding that dogs fed half a pound of pulverized glass a week showed no signs of ill effect. “It is impossible to state what the fatal dose of broken glass may be,” Haines wrote.

Glass poisonings faded away in the early 1930s, most probably not because scientists had proved them inefficient, but because killers had discovered the same defects on their own. Not that they never happen, but just not on the same scale. Glass-eating did not entirely disappear either - it still turns up in magic shows, for instance, but Haines recommended against it. No one stayed lucky swallowing glass forever. Many of the professional glass-eaters studied died of gastro-intestinal infections resulting from the constant irritation of their stomachs.

In fact, he was sorry to say, the glass-eater of his experiment died of such an infection not quite three years later.

Need a vacation?

Women in Crime Ink contributor and today's poster, Deborah Blum, is running a great contest on her Web site. The prize: a luxury trip to Chicago and a crime tour of the city by...ta da.... Deborah Blum. Click here to see details. Ends Friday, so don't delay


Kathryn Casey said...

I'm really enjoying your posts, Deborah. This is fascinating, a window into the past.

Dan said...

Thanks for a very well-written post, Deborah!

I am a glass eater, sword swallower, and the President of the Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) who was awarded the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine at Harvard for my paper "Sword Swallowing and its side effects" published in the British Medical Journal. As a result of winning the Ig Nobel Prize, I lecture around the world on sword swallowing, and to some degree, glass eating and fire-eating. I often mention the attempts people have made to commit murder by feeding ground up glass, and I then show how absurd this is by eating a lightbulb myself. But your posting gave me many wonderful examples with details, which are much appreciated.

Please let me know if you find more information on glass-eating, or if you know of anyone who would like a demonstration of glass-eating or sword swallowing.

You can find more information in some of my sites by Googling "Sword Swallower Dan Meyer science medicine"

Cate said...

Fascinating. Made me wonder about death by magnetic filings. Several years back there seemed to be a big problem with a children's building toy that uses magnetic spheres to hold building pieces together. If a child swallows one and the magnet breaks apart it can contort the intestines. Or something like that.

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