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Saturday, 13 October 2018

The drinking of gold

I am knee deep in work, the like of which I will reveal in the near future, but something described on an old-fashioned email list reminded me of a discarded story. Neek spoke of not being able to eat gold, I addressed the question of drinking gold, as follows:

A Roman named Crassus went to what is now southern Turkey to capture Parthian gold, and lost the battle of Carrhae. According to some accounts, Crassus survived, and the Parthian king, Orodes, executed him by pouring molten gold down his throat. Another version has Orodes filling the skull of the dead Roman general with molten gold. Agricola certainly believed this story in the 1540s and published it:

… his enemies … poured liquid gold into the gaping mouth of the slain Crassus, saying: “Thou hast thirsted for gold, therefore drink gold”.

Then there was Manius Aquillius, a Roman consul who had waged war on Mithridates VI of Pontus (also in modern Turkey) without getting approval from the Senate. The consul was captured and ridiculed by being paraded on an ass. Then according to Appian, King Mithridates poured molten gold down his throat at Pergamon, as a rebuke against the Romans for their bribe-taking.

This was probably just propaganda, but the theme remained popular. In 1599, a Spanish governor in Ecuador supposedly suffered the same fate. Members of the Jivaro tribe, objecting to Spanish taxation on their gold trade, attacked his town and executed the greedy governor by pouring molten gold down his throat.

The same tale surfaces, again and again. Alleged users include the Spanish Inquisition (accused of using molten lead and pitch), and Mongol invaders who were supposed to have killed Inalchuk, the Muslim governor of Otrar, a town in central Asia when they poured molten silver into his ears, eyes and throat. In most cases, the story includes the victim’s intestines exploding from the steam pressure.

Some critics (including me) wonder if nomadic tribesmen would be carrying the necessary furnace and crucibles to melt gold or silver. And would it really kill—and would the victim really explode? We have some evidence on that from a human case study.

In 1755, Henry Hall, then aged 94, was hurt during the burning of the Eddystone Light. He staggered home and reported in a hoarse voice that melted lead had fallen down and entered his throat. Edward Spry, a surgeon, reported on this in the Universal Magazine for July 1757. According to Spry, after three or four days, Hall was on the mend before he took a turn for the worse, and died.

The surgeon dissected the body and removed a “great piece of lead” which weighed seven ounces, five drachms and 18 grains. Spry explained that Hall had been helping fight the lighthouse fire when a large amount of lead fell from the roof, some of it covering his face and clothes, and some entering his mouth, “then lifted up and open”, and so it flowed into his stomach. There was no mention of Hall exploding, but molten lead is some 600°C cooler than molten gold.

In 2003, some Dutch pathologists wondered if the various accounts, which all stressed the bursting of internal organs, could be relied on, and they decided to test the situation. They made it clear that “no animal was harmed or killed specifically for this purpose”, explaining that they bought bovine innards from a local slaughter house.

They set up some cow parts on a board and closed the lower end of the oesophagus with a wad of tissue paper before pouring 750 grams of molten lead (at around 450°C) into the throat. The results were spectacular, with steam coming out of both ends and the tissue paper being blasted out of the lower end. Within ten seconds, the lead was solid, blocking the throat, which would have meant a tremendous build-up of steam pressure in a live animal. We must conclude that an explosion is possible.

Understandably, people who are being robbed of gold do not take kindly to the theft, because winning gold is hard work. It follows that rough justice may sometimes have been applied. Leaving aside the practical problems of getting enough gold in one place and then finding a furnace to melt it, the punishment would work, but the tales of its use must be regarded with some doubt.

* Reference: F R W van de Goot, R L ten Berge, R Vos, ‘Molten gold was poured down his throat until his bowels burst’, Journal of Clinical Pathology, 2003.

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