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IDENTITY is the determination of the individuality of a person. In jurisprudence the term is applied to the recognition of a person who is the object of a judicial action. The establishment of the individuality of a person is known as absolute identity; while the relations of a person with some particular act is known as relative identity.
The great number and variety of facts concerned in the investigation of questions of identity are of considerable gravity and importance in their juridical bearing, and at the same time they are among the most interesting and most useful of the applications of modern medicine to the purposes of the law.'
Among the varied researches of legal medicine looking to an interpretation of facts, no other question occurs in which the solution depends more upon morphological and anatomical knowledge, and none is more dependent upon purely objective, visible, tangible facts.
Personal identity often constitutes the entire subject-matter of dispute in a civil case. Upon it may depend the question of absence or of marriage, of kinship or of filiation involving the possession of an estate, in which case the court often requires the most subtle of scientific evidence to assist in its decision. Many anthropological and medical facts, now appropriated by criminology and penal science, are useful in proving not only the present but in attesting future identity, thereby preventing in great measure the dissimulation of prisoners, deserters, false claimants to life insurance, fraudulent pensioners, and the like.
Such matters are of daily occurrence. The special agents of the U. S. Pension Office detect and cause the punishment of
Recent attention to such sub- from our own, this fact does not lesjects by Italian writers places them sen the value of their medico-forenin the foremost rank. Although sic literature. their system of judicature differs
many fraudulent claimants. Stratagems and conspiracies to defraud life-insurance companies go much further than mere substitution. Instead of a "fraudulent" a positive death may come up for investigation, and in order to defraud an insurance company of a large amount, a body may even be procured by homicide to consummate the deception, as was done in the Goss-Udderzook tragedy near Baltimore in 1872.
A celebrated case now before the Supreme Court of the United States and involving the question of personal identity is that of the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, the New York Life Insurance Company, and the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut (Consolidated), plaintiffs in error, vs. Sallie E. Hillmon.
It is pre-eminently in criminal trials that the personal identity of the victim often constitutes an essential connecting link. Before it can move, the law requires, at the outset, proof of the individuality of both the author of a crime and of the victim. I shall, therefore, not touch upon such elusive individuals as Charlie Ross and Jack the Ripper, but limit my remarks to a synthetical exposition of the best-known facts regarding identification of the dead body and the interpretation of its organic remains.
The identity of a living person, or even our own identity, is often a difficult point to establish. It may also require medical evidence, oftentimes of a most involved character, to establish the fact of death. Hence the medico-legal process of con. necting a dead body, or the remains or traces of the same, with a human being once known to have lived and moved on earth, is beset with difficulties that may give rise to still greater antagonisms of evidence. The question of personal identity is one of the hardest that could possibly come before a court. Celebrated cases and judicial errors have given it great notoriety. There are consequently few questions in forensic medicine that require more attention and sagacity, and none upon which the medical legist should pronounce with more reserve and circumspection. Medical men are absolutely the only persons qualified to assist in resolving the really delicate question of personal identity; yet the physician and the lawyer pursue the same line of logic and of inquiry. As the former must have a subject to dissect or to operate upon, so must the lawyer in pursuing a criminal investigation first prove a visible material substance known in legal phraseology as the corpus delicti, which he must connect with some personality, with some human being once known to have lived. In this important process the physician's testimony being the indispensable guide of the court's inference, he should limit himself to purely anatomical and material knowledge. The medical expert has absolutely nothing to do with guilt or innocence, as that is a question for the jury. He should, above all things, be absolutely free from prejudice, suspicion, or undue suggestion, and should remember that in thus sinking his personality his sole function as a skilled witness in cases of identity is to furnish testimony which, when taken in connection with other evidence in the case, may establish such a corpus delicti as would justify the inference of a crime.
A nice point may arise as to dispensing with the proof from the body itself, when the substantial general fact of a homicide is proved aliunde, as in the case of a criminal causing the disappearance of his victim's body by means of its decomposition in lime or other chemical menstrua, or by submerging it in an unfathomable spot in the sea. Under' circumstances such as the following: a person is seen to enter a building and is not seen to leave it, although all means of egress therefrom are watched; another person is seen to ignite the building, which thereupon burns down, and the charred remains of a human body are found in the ruins; the proof of identity from the body itself might be dispensed with in view of the substantial general fact of a homicide having been committed. In a delicate case where the man of art hesitates and finds no corpus delicti, the investigation of imprints and stains may give a clew of great value to the expert. Yet it is only upon absolute evidence, and in the strongest possible case, that the fundamental principle of the corpus delicti is disregarded.
In the case of Ruloff, the child's body was not produced and no trace of it could be alleged to have been found; nevertheless the prisoner was found guilty of murder. This case was speedily overruled (18 N. Y., 179), on the ground that a dangerous precedent had been pronounced.
So indispensable is the showing of the corpus delicti in cases of recognition that lawyers have come to regard even the judicial confession of an accused as often the flimsiest and most unsatisfactory kind of evidence. Numerous cases of demonstrated fallibility of confessions are cited in the books, where the statement was utterly lacking in anything except motive or hallucination. In the Proceedings of the New York Medico-Legal Society, December 6th, 1876, Mr. James Appleton Morgan mentions the case of a German servant-girl who assured her mistress, whose little boy, a child of seven, had just died and been buried, that she (the servant) had poisoned the boy. The servant swore to her crime and was taken into custody, and it was only when no poison was discovered upon exhuming the child's body and examining its stomach that against her own protest she was acquitted of the possibility of the crime. Another case of the kind that has had medico-legal notoriety was tried a few years ago before a court in Brittany. The accused declared that he had killed his servant and thrown the body in a pond. His guilt seemed certain, when the alleged victim put in an appearance, thus reducing the evidence to the strange hallucination that had prompted the confession.
But the most wonderful of these is the celebrated case of Boorn, in which medico-legal evidence took no part. In view of the seeming hopelessness of his case, the accused confessed to murder in expectation of mercy from the court, but was finally acquitted on the alleged victim walking into court and confronting the man who had sworn to having killed him.
Although wisdom and experience point to the necessity of showing something corporal and material in cases involving questions of life and death, yet very small traces or minute remains of a human body may, in certain circumstances, constitute a corpus delicti that may lead to trial if not to conviction. In 1868 the Lambert case, for murder on the high seas, was tried before Judge Benedict in the United States Court, the only corpus delicti alleged being a large pool of blood and brains found on the forecastle of a ship at sea, out of sight of land or other vessel. Circumstances, acts, and words pointed strongly to the murder of one of the crew, who was believed to have been brained with an axe and thrown overboard. Notwithstanding the fact that animosity was known to exist be tween the accused and the missing man, it further appeared that the accused, in a state of great excitement, had followed
the missing man forward and returned alone with a hatchet in his hand, yet the jury in this instance were not satisfied as to the establishment of a corpus delicti beyond a reasonable doubt and accordingly failed to convict.
Two classical cases, that of Gardelle and of Dr. Webster, mentioned in many of the books, stand forth as instances of conviction where fragments of the human body were recognized after attempts to destroy them by intense heat. The conviction of Dr. Webster rested almost entirely upon medico-legal evidence; but it is probable that upon the same circumstantial evidence the increased industry of counsel would have so rung the changes in regard to its uncertain and unsafe nature, and would have so used the knowledge gained from advanced discoveries in the regions of the probabilities of science, as to have secured the acquittal of the prisoner had the trial taken place at the present time.
A similar affair of great medico-legal interest is the GossUdderzook tragedy, already referred to, an account of which is given by Drs. Lewis and Bombaugh among the "Remarkable Stratagems and Conspiracies for Defrauding Life Insurance Companies," New York and London, 1878.
IDENTITY OF BURNT REMAINS.
The medical jurist will no doubt find cremation a formidable barrier in elucidating the question of identity, although the entire destruction of a dead body is a matter of extreme difficulty.
In the case of calcination chemical analysis of the ash would detect the phosphate of lime, but this would throw no light upon the subject, since the ash of human bones and that of the lower animals is identical. If the burnt bone is entire, the state of the epiphyses may enlighten the question of the determination of age. The following two cases, in which fragments or portions of bone had been submitted to the action of fire, show how medical training and some knowledge of comparative anatomy may contribute to the establishment of guilt or may attest innocence.
In the case of The Queen vs. John Henry Wilson, for murder, the accused burnt his step-father in a lime-kiln for