Eating Corpses for Food and Science

I know what you're thinking: There just aren't enough jobs that involve picking maggots, beetles and flies from decomposing human remains. Well, I've got news for you. There are plenty. Anyone who i

Nov 16, 2000 at 2:06 pm

I know what you're thinking: There just aren't enough jobs that involve picking maggots, beetles and flies from decomposing human remains. Well, I've got news for you. There are plenty. Anyone who is interested should read M. Lee Goff's A Fly for the Prosecution: How Insect Evidence Helps Solve Crimes (Harvard University Press), published earlier this year.

Against a backdrop of tropical rainforests, Goff unapologetically cracks open a door to a less celebrated side of his native Hawaii ­ and it's a buzzing, rotting, many-legged side that waits for anyone brave enough to enter.

As a fresh-faced young entomologist, Goff first approached a local medical examiner in 1983 to express his interest in forensic entomology, or the use of insect evidence to solve crime. And there his strange journey began. In the intervening years he has, with a handful of other forensic entomologists he refers to as the Dirty Dozen, developed reliable techniques to determine the interval between the death and discovery of a body, using insect evidence.

Equal parts scientist and poet, Goff writes, "There's something a bit surreal in the sight of dew drops glistening in the morning sun on a spider web attached to a decomposing arm." You bet there is, folks; and whatever that something is, Goff seems to get a real kick out of it.

In A Fly for the Prosecution, he painstakingly outlines some common methods and applications of forensic entomology, including some gruesome and colorful case studies to prove their importance. And that means lots of dead bodies and lots of insects. Lots and lots of insects.

There are blowflies, houseflies, flesh flies and black soldier flies. And don't forget moths, chiggers, wasps, ants and mites. Or hide beetles, darkling beetles, spiders or scorpions. Each of these species plays a unique role in the decomposition of a body. The flies are the first to arrive, attracted early on by the smell. They colonize the soft parts of the corpse, such as open wounds or the ears, mouth, nose and eyes. Then come the social insects, such as predatory ants and wasps, which wait for the maggots and flies to arrive on the body so that they can feed on them. Others, such as the hide beetle, wait even longer before feeding on the cartilage and dried tissues that remain after all the other species have filled their bellies, laid their eggs and left.

Make no mistake. The next time you're walking through the woods, you'll remember this book, clamp your hands firmly over your soft parts and start running — actions that would make sense to you, me and just about anyone else but Goff.

For when the slick, humid rainforest offers up a bloated murder victim, it is Goff who pulls on his boots and heads out with specimen-collecting gear in hand, eager to find some meaning in the insects that have already made a home of the body.

Once at the crime scene, he collects samples of every insect developmental stage from the body, including eggs, maggots, pupa and adults, and takes them back to his laboratory for identification, preservation and hatching. Armed with photos from the scene, insect and weather data, and using pig decomposition studies as a reference, he calculates the time required for the body to reach the stage of decomposition in which it was found.

Without the pig-decomposition studies to provide clues to patterns of insect activity, none of this would be possible. With characteristic bluntness, Goff writes of an early investigation: "Since I was attempting to duplicate a homicide, in one of my first studies I wanted to shoot each pig through the head with a 38-caliber pistol."

Read on; it gets worse. To duplicate insect invasion of beached drowning victims, Goff threw a couple of dead pigs in the sea, strung dead pigs up in trees to imitate suicide by hanging and wrapped 'em up in blankets to re-create concealed bodies. Victims of arson? If you said he doused pigs with gasoline and set them on fire, you can give yourself a gold star.

"It is disconcerting to be collecting maggots from one end of a pig and look up to find a mongoose eating at the other end," writes Goff, reminding us to make sure our decomposing pig is sufficiently protected from non-insect predators. You don't get good pig-rotting advice from Martha Stewart.

While this all might sound like really bad news for pigs, the results provide Goff with data for comparing insect evidence in criminal cases. In examples included in the book, he is able to estimate the post-mortem interval to within a few hours, thereby discounting or supporting a suspect's alibi and providing testimony that leads to a conviction. Goff is a rare breed, a scientific adventurer and accomplished investigator.

Perhaps most striking is the realization that, when we die, little can stop insects from using us as a quick-and-easy food source. Goff's vivid descriptions of murder victims as centers of frantic insect activity remind us that we are just animals, as tasty as road kill to a passing blowfly. Within 10 minutes of a body drawing its final breath, the insects will be there and, as in some of Goff's more gruesome tales, they might not even wait for death to occur. They're hungry and neither fire nor water nor poison can slow them down enough to make a difference.

So the next time you're attending a late office meeting or schmoozing a boring client, think of M. Lee Goff as he drives to another crime scene and remember: Yours might not be the most exciting job in the world, and the weekends don't come quickly enough, but it probably beats picking maggots and beetles from rotting corpses.


contact Chris Kemp: [email protected]