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A Question for Medical Experts

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The victim's head was submerged in a pot of boiling water. Afterward his face was mangled by a kitchen mixer.

Question. Would autopsies reveal that he died from drowning? Burns? Would the medical experts be able to determine if he was already dead when the mixer was used?

Thanks in advance for any help.

Dave Freas:
Hi, Bob

It's possible the shock of having his head plunged into boiling water could trigger a heart attack.  But I think his attacker would have to be hugely stronger than the victim, or he'd have one hell of a time holding his head in the water.  The pain of having his head boiled would flood the victim with adrenaline.  The survival instinct and is very strong and the physiological changes it causes would make him immensely strong until the danger had passed.  One way around this would be to have the attacker drug the victim before giving him the plunge.

If the autopsy reveals water in the victim's lungs, the coroner would rule death by drowning.  If there is no water in his lungs, the finding would be death from some other cause.

I doubt the burns he would receive would be sufficient to cause death on their own.  However, inhaling the boiling water might cause damage to the lungs that could possibly be the cause of death.

But don't take my word as the ultimate.  Check out Dr. D. P. Lyle's website.  You can post your question there and he will answer it.

Hope this helps.


Hi Bob,

I'm no 'expert', but I am a med student with a decent amount of trauma and pathology knowledge.

The cause of death is likely to be asphyxiation from burns to the airway and larynx. If water is inhaled, or even if it isn't, the tissues of the neck and throat would swell and block the airway, which would kill the victim in about 3-5 minutes.

Also, who is your victim? Is he old or young? Is he fit or is he obese with furred-up arteries from smoking and junk food? If he's an older man or in poor health, Dave is absolutely right to suggest the stress may cause a heart attack. However, I suspect the primary cause of death would still be asphyxiation from airway burns.

I suspect that the autopsy would also reveal a number of fractures or bruises from the victim thrashing around in pain.

Hope that helps,


Thanks for your input

Well, it took a while, but I sold the story that this question came up in. It's going to appear later this year in Econoclash Review, a new pulpish/noir magazine. Thanks to Dave and McCarthy for the responses.



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