16 Death Tests Doctors Used to Determine If Someone Was Really Dead in the 18th and 19th Centuries

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A print diagram of a smoke enema device. Wikimedia.

3. Blowing Smoke Up Someone’s A**, Literally

In an era where nicotine was still viewed as a wonder drug and often prescribed to asthmatics and pregnant women, it is perhaps no considerable surprise that tobacco smoke enemas were considered a valid medical treatment. First devised as a treatment for drowning, tobacco smoke enemas were believed to warm the body of a drowning victim while also stimulating the instinct to breathe. Unfortunately for the mouth to…. you know, bum, respirators, the very act of performing artificial respiration could easily infect the medic with cholera, which was rampant during the 18th and 19th centuries.

However, the dangers of cholera couldn’t stop the juggernaut of the smoke enema treatment. Billows were invented merely to replace the need for human ventilation. With this safety device in place, the use of smoke enemas was expanded to testing for mortality. It was believed that someone only in a stupor would be, as in the case of drowning, warmed and driven to breathe by both the billows action and the stimulant effect of nicotine. This treatment likely killed far more people than it saved thanks to cholera, and it wasn’t an effective method to test for death either.