A Mystery Story

Cynthia enjoyed mysteries, and collected the books of her favourite writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps this interest was sparked by another story told in her family, this time from her father’s youth. Here is her fictional version of a medical student’s experience.

The Prick of Death

by Cynthia Costain

My father was a medical student at Edinburgh University in the early 1900s. I imagine that medical students then were much the same as they are now –  an irreverent bunch of young men, determined not to show their feelings, no matter how gruesome and distasteful their work was. However they must have looked very different. Severe professional attire was required and suits, shirts and stiff white starched collars were worn, though not easy to maintain on a student’s budget. Another difference was that there was only one woman in the class. She must have been brave and determined. The stories my father told of the questions the Professors asked her concerning the male anatomy and the composition of various body fluids roused gales of laughter from the fellows, enjoying the Professor’s salacious smirks and the girl’s embarrassment.

One day the class was excited at the news that they were all to attend an autopsy. This was not just any autopsy but that of a man who had died a suspicious death, which had created much interest in the newspapers. He was a tailor called Alfred Maxwell. His father had built up a good business; skilful and popular among his middle class clientele for well-made, moderately priced business suits, as well as morning coats and evening wear. A few years previously the old man had had a stroke and the business was taken over by his son, Alfred. Before long rumours began to circulate- poor workmanship- delays in delivery- shoddy material- which soon turned away the customers with threats of court action in some cases. The various suppliers also found their bills unpaid and angry callers came to demand their money. Alfred was not only careless with his work but a poor businessman with a very high opinion of himself. He was good looking with sleek dark hair and a handsome moustache and always dressed in the height of fashion. Things were different for his young wife who wore the same old black coat and hat without even a different Sunday coat for church. And while Alfred enjoyed dining out at fine restaurants and patronized music halls he never took his wife with him. In fact it was noticed that she often had to wear a veil when she went out, in an attempt to hide a bruise or fading black eye. Her brother had angrily quarrelled with Alfred many times over his treatment of his sister.

One evening Alfred came home early from work complaining of feeling tired and having a pain. However he had a meal then went out, but returned in a short while and went to bed. Next morning he looked pale but ignoring his wife’s enquiries left for work. Although sometimes complaining of pain and feeling tired he continued as usual until one evening as he walked home he stumbled and fell to the ground. An acquaintance was passing, and after looking at Alfred’s white sweating unconscious face he called a cab and told the driver to take him to the hospital. He was dead on arrival.

Now began the mystery. A young man in good health had collapsed and died. He was not drunk, he was not known to have any disease, he had shown no previous signs of a weak heart until the last few days. On examination at the hospital the doctors could not decide what had caused his death. Could it be murder? There was not a mark on his body – he had not been hit, cut or stabbed, but what about poison? The newspapers picked up the story and with the earlier rumours of his business and marital misdemeanours the gossip was soon circulating.

An autopsy was to be performed by the best known forensic surgeon and because of the general interest some of his colleagues asked to attend and the older students were admitted to the examination room. For the students this was both an exciting mystery and a change from the usual routine. Their previous experience of cadavers had not yet been extensive but they felt they knew enough to both appreciate the surgeon’s skill and criticize intelligently. They watched the preliminary incisions being made and the grim task continued. Each organ was carefully removed, labelled and put in a separate container: the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, the stomach and finally the heart. After removing the latter the surgeon halted, placed it in the dish the attendant was holding and looked at it carefully. Motioning to his colleagues to join him they all began to examine the contents of the dish.

The students whispered to each other 

“What’s happening?”

“That was a very queer looking heart, I thought.”

“I didn’t get a good look at it but it seemed a very dark colour.”

“Look, they seem to be making an incision.”

As the whispering died away the surgeon and other doctors clustered around and then there was a sudden sharp exclamation. The surgeon straightened up and holding a small pair of forceps up to the light examined a minute silvery bloodstained object. Turning to the students he said, “Gentlemen, you may say that the tailor was killed by his work. This small needle was inserted into the pericardium, which as you know is like a bag around the heart. Each time the heart beat, blood was pumped through the tiny hole until finally the pericardium filled with blood and stopped the heart from beating.”

The mystery was solved. Like his father before him, Alfred had been used to keeping his needles securely anchored in the lapel of his jacket, but being careless and inclined to move around the shop with his work jacket still on he frequently lost needles and found them scattered around. What tailor worries about a few pricks when he sews and works with needles and pins every day? A sharper prick than usual as he bent over one day and a small thin needle pressed into his chest and gradually worked its way through his body until it pierced his heart.

The newspapers were sorry that it was not a more sensational ending to the mystery, but the students talked about it for weeks. I expect his poor old parents mourned for Alfred, but I doubt if his young wife did.

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