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Stomach contents, what can a pathologist learns about a person’s last moments alive or time of death from the partially digested food in their stomach?
We’ve all seen it on those cop shows, the pathologist pulls opens a corpse’s stomach, pokes about in the grub guts, has a quick sniff, and deduces (a New Yoik accent) “they died fifty-seven minutes ago, at Benny’s diner, and had the number 6 blue plate special”. But can you accurately determine a time of death and location based on the contents of a stomach? Well, no, but is can be a very useful guide to eliminate and establish some theories and facts.
The digestion of food - from ingestion via the mouth to excretion via the anus - varies between men and women, but on average food takes six to eight hours to pass through the stomach and small intestine, and to exit the large intestine, also known as the colon, the digestion of food takes on average 47 hours for women and 33 hours for men. Although, different foods digest at different rates; with meat and fish taking the longest, then fruit, vegetables and fibrous foods, with sweets and pastries digested the quickest, excluding any medical factors which could slow down the process further such as IBS and Crone’s disease, the digestion of food is slow, varied and indeterminate.
Once a person dies, although the stomach acids remain in-tact, with no muscles, blood flow or working organs, digestion effectively ceases, especially as – during rigor mortis and livor mortis – the body’s liquids sink to the lowest part of the body.
When a pathologist examines a corpse’s stomach; if the stomach is full (and the contents are easily identifiable) they can deduce that death took place less than two hours after the last meal, and can also identify a possible location for this last meal. In the case of Evelyn Hamilton, the first victim of The Blackout Ripper, because they knew what time she had eaten (11pm) and roughly in what area (Marble Arch), because her stomach contents mostly consisted of “beetroot”, Police determined that only one restaurant matched those factors which was Maison Lyonese, so (based on her stomach contents alone) they could trace her last known movements.
If the stomach is entirely empty, they can deduce that death took place at least 4 to 6 hours after the last meal. If the small intestine is also empty, death probably took place at least 12 or more hours after the last meal. And if the large intestine is empty, the victim hadn’t eaten for at least a day to two days.
It’s not very accurate, but it does give a rough timescale to a person’s last known movements, and the type of food digested can help establish other factors; what they ate, where they were, who they were with, were they traveling, were they anxious or relaxed, and by checking the stomach for swelling, infection or bleeding, that can also indicate the presence of poisons, toxins, bacteria, alcohol or drugs. So for a pathologist, it’s a valuable piece of their arsenal of indispensable tools.
If you found this interesting? Check out the Mini Mile episodes of the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast, or click on the link below to listen to an episode.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards 2018", and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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