Published
Quarterly by
Lifeloom.com
ISSN: 1547-9609

"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott

Winter 2003
Volume I
issue 3

 

W M M New Issue W M M Archives

 

Dr. Anil Aggrawal is a professor of Forensic Medicine at the Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi-110002.
His Website address is http://www.geradts.com/~anil/index.html. Send snail mail to S-299 Greater Kailash-1, New Delhi-110048.
Phones (R): 26465460, 26291942, 26413101; (O) 23239271-4.

Direct email to Dr. Anil Aggrawal.


Dr. Anil Aggrawal's Forensic Files

photo of Dr. Anil Aggrawal
 An Unusual Case of Death

            On 29 August 1994, I was faced with one of the strangest cases of my life. A 39 year old male Bhure Lal was found dead in a garden in Vasant Vihar area of the capital. He had gone out in his Maruti car to meet his friend Ballo, on the previous night at about 8 pm. It was heavily raining when he went out, and his wife Monica implored him not to go out in such heavy rain. Heavy rain had caused electric failures in some parts of city. There were no streetlights on the road, and it was difficult to find one’s way in such dark night, especially as the heavy downpour had further reduced the visibility almost to a nil. Clouds were thundering and flashes of lightning could be seen among the clouds off and on, with great thundering noise. There had even been lightning strikes two times, with great crackling noise. The time was perfect to sit at home and enjoy a cup of tea. But Bhure Lal wouldn't listen. Ignoring his wife’s cautions he set out to meet Ballo.

            Bhure Lal's eagerness to meet Ballo wasn't entirely unjustified. He had lent Rupees two lakhs (Rs. 200,000) to Ballo about two years back, to help him start a new business venture. The deal was that Ballo would return the money along with appropriate interest within one year’s time. But even after one year, Ballo had been unable to repay even the original amount. Since then Bhure Lal had been pestering Ballo off and on for the sum. The final date that he had set was 28 August for the repayment of loan. On 29th morning, Ballo was leaving for Madras for a period of about 2 months. Bhure Lal knew that if he did not settle the matter on that very night, he would be held by another 2 months. So he wanted to settle the matter that very night itself. That was the reason he went out on that rainy, thunderous night without heeding to his wife’s advice.

            Bhure Lal had left the house at 8 pm. If everything had gone well, he should have returned by 10 pm, or at the most by 11 pm. But he didn’t return that night at all. At 12 midnight, Monica tried to phone Ballo, but the heavy downpour had disrupted all telephone lines, and she could not get through. She was worried the whole night. She couldn’t go out herself to look for him because of the heavy downpour. She thought that may be her husband had got late and decided to spend the night at Ballo’s house. The next day, the police found Bhure Lal’s dead body in the park as has been described earlier. His car was found parked on the outside of the park.

            This was the story when Bhure Lal’s body was found. Suspect number one was naturally Ballo. He owed Rs. 2 lakhs to Bhure Lal, and he was pestering him for money for a long time. Ballo indeed have a very strong motive to kill Bhure Lal. The police theory that Ballo had killed Bhure Lal was substantiated by many facts. Bhure Lal’s cloths were ripped open as if he had been involved in a struggle. His boots were also damaged. In addition, Bhure Lal had suffered head injury too.

            Ballo was not to be found in Delhi. He had left that very morning to Madras. This further strengthened police’s belief that Ballo had killed Bhure Lal. A police party was sent to Madras to track him down. He was soon brought to Delhi. But when he was asked about the murder of Bhure Lal, he seemed completely surprised. He not only strongly denied his hand in the murder, but asserted that he had not even met him the previous night. The police however did not believe his version, and put him under intense interrogation. But try hard as they would, Ballo would not come out with a confession.

            It was at this stage that the case was brought to me. I demanded to see the dead body at once. From external appearances of the dead body it did appear as if someone had killed him. Out of curiosity, I searched his pockets. There were some sundry objects in his pockets including his car keys, a fountain pen and some coins. What was most surprising was that they had distorted very badly. It appeared as if someone had melted them in a pot. I also found a pen knife in his pocket. When I opened the knife, the iron blade attracted small pins as if it were a magnet. It appeared as if someone had magnetized the knife blade. Like a flash of lightning, the whole story flashed in my mind. Nobody had killed Bhure Lal. He had been killed by lightning.

Facts about lightning

             A few facts about lightning first. It is a phenomenon when there is an electric discharge between the highly charged clouds and the earth. The undersurface of a cloud is usually negatively charged. Thus virtually all discharges are negative. Approximately 5% of lightning flashes, however, are positive discharges. These are most frequent in mountainous regions.

            During lightning, one can see a huge flash of lightning between the clouds and the earth. It appears as if light is “falling” on earth. That is why, in common parlance, it is also known as “Bijli Girna” (in Hindustani language). It is estimated that every year about 2 billion light flashes strike the earth, killing twenty people a day and hurting eighty more!

            Lightning releases tremendous amounts of electrical energy. As we have seen, it is an electrical discharge from a cloud to earth. The electric current from lightning is of the order of about 20,000 Amperes, and comes at a voltage of 100 to 1000 million (108-109) volts! A single flash lasts for a very small duration however - just about 1/1000th of a second.

             20,000 Amperes is a huge amount of current. In our normal daily life, currents of even 1 Ampere are not encountered, so scientists usually talk of a lesser quantity known as milliamperes. One ampere is equal to 1000 milliamperes. To get some idea of how much a milliampere is, one must know that in an ordinary household electric bulb of 100 watts running on 250 volts (in India), a current of only about 400 mA (milliamperes) flows (For the more mathematically minded, the formula is Wattage = Voltage x Amperage. So one could calculate the amount of current in one's own country. If, say, the current is supplied at 120 Volts, as in some countries, like USA, the current passing through the same bulb would be about 800 mA). From this one can get a rough idea as to what 20,000 Ampere means!

            Let us understand in another way what 20,000 Ampere means. When a current is flowing through a wire (or through the human body, for that matter), what is actually flowing through the wire (or the body) are tiny ball like structures known as electrons. These balls are too tiny to be seen with the naked eye or even with the strongest microscopes. More the number of electrons flowing through the wire, stronger the current. How tiny these electrons are, can be estimated from the fact that 6.25 quadrillion electrons (this number can be written by writing 625 and then adding 13 zeros after it!) must pass through a wire or through the body every second to set up a current of just 1 milliampere. Most people can voluntarily tolerate a current of only up to 30 mA applied to the hand, which results in painful muscle contractions. To put it another way, people can tolerate a flow of about 1.9x1017 electrons through their bodies, every second. However a current of 20,000 Amperes means a flow of almost 1.25x1023 electrons through the body every second, which is equal to 125 thousand million million million (the word “million” appears three times here; it is not a mistake) electrons!

            Voltage is like the “pressure” of electricity. This pressure is measured in units called volts. Just as more water pressure causes more water to come in our water taps, more electrical pressure (i.e. greater voltage) causes more electricity to flow through a medium (a human body in case of lightning). We can get some idea of the tremendous amount of voltage of lightning by the fact that the domestic supply in India is 240 volts, which is quite fatal. So in fact the voltage of lightning is almost 4,000,000 times stronger than the voltage supplied in homes!

            Although currents of such massive voltage and amperage are involved in lightning, yet surprisingly lightning is not always fatal. It has been estimated that less than half of the individuals struck by lightning are actually killed. There could be two reasons for this. First is that the current of lightning is direct in nature, which is less dangerous. The current is of two types-direct or alternating (we know it as D.C. and A.C.). Alternating current, which is supplied in our homes (in India), is more dangerous to life than direct current. The second reason for lightning being relatively less damaging is the fact that it lasts for a very small duration (just about 1/1000th of a second). It is well known that if a small amount of current passes through the body for a longer period, the net damage to the body may be more than when a large current passes through the body for a much smaller period. Thus it is wrong to believe that a large current is necessarily fatal. One can escape the ill-effects of a large current if the exposure to the current is for a very small period. This is exactly what happens in lightning.

            When death does occur in lightning, it is as a result of passage of electric current through either the heart or the brain. External burns may be very minor. Some scalp hair may be found singed. However, if there are any metallic objects in the possession of the victim, arcing may occur, as the bolt strikes the metallic object (Arcing is the jumping of spark between two charged objects). This arcing may lead to the development of tremendous amounts of local heat, which may cause the metallic objects to melt and get distorted in shape. Similarly synthetic fabrics, such as nylon shirts, pants or even socks may melt. In my professional life, I have seen objects like pen-knives, buckles, ear rings, car keys, getting distorted in deaths from lightning. Similarly passage of electric current, through objects made of iron can magnetize them. The heat produced may be so much that it may cause burns on the body.

            Adjacent to a lightning bolt, there may be extreme pressure changes. This may rip open the seams of shirts, pants and even shoes worn by the victim. I have seen many police officers mistaking this finding as an indication of foul play. A false interpretation of this finding may lead to prosecution of an innocent person.

Lichtenberg’s flowers

            One of the most characteristic findings in a lightning death is the finding of a fern like pattern on the body. This pattern is usually seen over the shoulders or the flanks. Sometimes it is seen on the front of chest also. In layman’s language, this peculiar pattern is usually referred to “lightning marks.” Technically they are known as several different names, some among them being “arborization,” “feathering,” “ferning,” “filigree burns,” “arborescent burns,” “Lichtenberg’s flowers,” or “keraunographic markings.” The phenomenon is also known as “keraunographism” from Greek keraunos, a thunder bolt.    
Fern Pattern:
an example of
keraunographism

(Keraunomedicine incidentally deals with medical aspects of lightning injuries and Keraunopathology with pathological changes seen in lightning injuries).


  flower pattern  

     A word about why they are called Lichtenberg’s figures or flowers. Similar figures were first noted by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), a preeminent German physicist and scientist during his experiments on static electricity. He did not discover these markings on a human body as many forensic pathologists seem to think.

            Lichtenberg entered Göttingen University in 1763, where six years later, in 1769 he became extraordinary professor of physics. This post he held until his death in 1799. Lichtenberg did research in a wide variety of fields — including chemistry, astronomy, geophysics, volcanology, meteorology, and mathematics — but most important were his investigations into physics.

Flower Pattern:
an example of
keraunographism

            Notably, he constructed a huge electrophorus and, in the course of experimentations, discovered in 1777 the basic principle of modern xerographic copying. He reproduced some images with the help of static electricity. These figures are today known as “Lichtenberg figures.” These figures are supposed to be valuable to electrical engineers because they enable qualitative as well as quantitative analysis of surface electrical discharges. Lichtenberg’s flowers as seen in the human body in cases of death due to lightning are supposed to be related (in some way) to the original Lichtenberg’s figures produced by Lichtenberg himself.

            These marks are NOT seen in all cases of lightning. Various studies quote different figures, but most state that these marks are seen in between one-third to one-fifth of all victims (20% to 33%). Curiously, these markings disappear in about 12 hours among survivors of lightning strikes and quite often in the postmortem state too. One might think that these lesions are burns, but they are not.

Origins of Lichtenberg’s flowers 

            Lichtenberg’s flowers constitute one of the biggest mysteries in forensic medicine. It is not entirely clear, how these marks arise. There are several theories though. Since this whole subject is so mysterious and has not been discussed in such detail before, let us discuss it here now in some detail.

Static electricity discharges

           Some early researchers considered them a representation of static electricity discharges along superficial vasculature (or perhaps nerves). If this were the case, they would be seen along the lines of vasculature, but they have been noted to cross body parts, for example, from chest to arm. Vasculature does not cross body parts in this manner, so this theory probably is not true.

Hemoglobin staining the tissues

             One popular theory of their origin is that these marks arise due to break down of red blood cells within the capillaries of the skin. The red colored pigment haemoglobin escapes in the surrounding tissues and stains them, in the pattern of a tree. It is thought that as time passes this blood dissipates away, and that may partly explain why these markings are so evanescent.

Electron showers eliciting an inflammatory response

             Some persons believe that these dendriform markings may result from electron showers eliciting an inflammatory response in the skin. However if this were really an inflammatory response, the markings would not disappear so soon. Their rapid dissipation without residual scarring thus goes against this theory.

Current following lines of perspiration and skin moisture

             Some workers have suggested that these markings are the result of current following the lines of skin moisture. However this theory also falls in problems as it is unable to explain their consistent shape under all manner of conditions (whether the person was perspiring or not).

Are these figures fractals?

             Fractals are an interesting mathematical concept, where figures exhibit increasing details with increasing manifestations. Many natural features exhibit fractal like shapes, one notable among them being coastlines. Some workers – probably with a mathematical bend of mind - have postulated that these figures may act like fractals, occurring with a branched structure regardless of underlying anatomic structures such as blood vessels or nerves.

            In their studies, positive discharges have produced fern-shaped arborization patterns, while negative discharges produced flower or sunburst type patterns. The arborization process is primarily determined by the magnitude and polarity of the discharge and secondarily by skin conditions, such as perspiration and the humidity of the surrounding air. As we have already seen, most lightning flashes are negative in polarity, suggesting that the flower form, instead of the arborizing patterns, should predominate in lightning strikes.

            This is however not in accordance with the observations. Mostly fern like patterns have been seen rather than flower like ones. This has led researchers to theorize that the markings are actually caused by positive secondary, or return, flashovers contacting the body. These positive flashovers come from the earth (meeting the negatively charged cloud undersurface). It is useful to remember here that if the cloud undersurface is negatively charged, as is usually the case, a lightning strike would initially involve a downward (cloud-to-earth) negative charge meeting with an upward (earth-to-cloud) positive charge. Hence, these markings may be a manifestation of this positive charge during the initial phase of a lightning strike. It is also possible that these discharges are the result of a more complex splash (earth-to-earth) discharge.

Value of these markings in forensic medicine

             Needless to say, these markings are very important in forensic medicine. They can help differentiate a natural death from murder (as in the current case). That is why, in every case of suspected death due to lightning, I carefully search for this mark. Thankfully, in the case of Bhure Lal this mark had not disappeared and was present over both shoulders.

            Another effect associated with lightning strike (especially in those who survive), is the development of intense swelling of the skin at points of current entry. This is due to the paralysis of local capillaries and lymph vessels as a result of electric injury. The resulting dilatation of the blood vessels allows fluid to escape and cause swelling.

            Now you can perhaps realize how I could say with dead certainty that Bhure Lal had died as a result of lightning. The finding of distorted metal objects and the magnetization of his pen knife led me to his cause of death. He had suffered head injuries probably as a result of fall subsequent to lightning strike. Finally I specifically searched for the tree like mark on the body of Bhure Lal. As already explained, I found this mark over both his shoulders. This virtually confirmed in my mind that Bhure Lal had actually died of lightning. I told about my findings to the police. They agreed to my findings and dropped the case against Ballo. This was yet another victory of forensic medicine.

             (To protect the identity of individuals, the names of persons and places, and the dates have been changed.)

Copyright 2003 by Dr. Anil Aggrawal


 

Published
Quarterly by
Lifeloom.com
ISSN: 1547-9609

"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott

Winter 2003
Volume II
issue 3

 

 

W M M New Issue W M M Archives

 

The Web Mystery Magazine (ISSN: 1547-9609) is an on-line quarterly dedicated to investigating the mysterious genre in print, in film, and in real-life. The Web welcomes well-researched, well-written articles, reviews, and fiction. Writers are invited to send letters and inquiries to editor@lifeloom.com. Copyright 2005, lifeloom.com