There is nothing better, I say, than a good, old fashioned, murder mystery. A whodunnit. It’s even better when it’s a cold case. And they don’t get any colder than the case I am going to tell you about. As cold cases go, this is positively Antarctic. Frozen.
That’s hardly a surprise. It’s old. How old? Well, try 700 years. And, how was this miracle achieved? Fair question. You could say modern day forensic investigators got lucky, with a lot of help from nature. The really interesting bit is how this mystery unfolded.
The year is 1329. Our story begins in the Italian city of Treviso, very recently conquered by the ruler of the day from Verona, as in two gentleman from, made famous by Will Shakespeare. But it’s unlikely that Shakespeare was writing about the man at the centre of this mystery, an Italian nobleman, called Cangrande Della Scala, (that is a pretty, impressive name in anyone’s language). Cangrande Della Scala has just gained control of the city of Treviso, after a fierce battle. Della Scala is 38 years old and at the height of his power. But suddenly he becomes ill and dies. And, as you would expect with such a sudden and unexpected death, there were rumors of foul play. Rumors that Della Scala was poisoned but, of course, no proof.
Fast-forward 700 years. And scientists begin looking into the Della Scala case. There are some written documents uncovered from the time that suggested the nobleman’s death had been ‘preceded by vomiting and diarrhoea,’ caused by drinking water from a polluted spring. Della Scala was buried in an impressive looking sarcophagus at the church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Verona. He was placed in a marble tomb at the front entrance of the church. The modern day forensic scientists could not help speculating on what might be inside that sarcophagus. It was a temptation too hard to refuse. Guaranteed to intrigue them or anyone else for that matter. So many questions but most importantly might there be a corpus of evidence, that suggested a serious crime had been committed? A case of good, old fashioned murder? It would be even better if there was a body that had somehow survived the ravages of time and decomposition and was still intact enough to obtain some forensic evidence. Sadly, there could be no guarantee with past experience suggesting, in all probability, there would be nothing left after such an extensive passage of time. Nevertheless, scientists were determined to take a look so they went ahead and opened his tomb. What they discovered, surprised, shocked and at the same time delighted them. Not only was there an intact body it was also in a remarkably pristine condition given that it had been buried for 700 years. The air tight nature of the tomb, combined with a lack of moisture, had dried out the corpse and turned it into a naturally preserved mummy, not unlike the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt. Scientists then set about giving the mummy a full court press as far as forensic examination was concerned. They gave it a modern, full post mortem. And when they opened up the body, to look inside, there was even more good news. They discovered faecal matter in Cangrande Della Scala’s rectum. That meant they were able to extract a sample and conduct a toxicology test on the specimen to see if there was any evidence of poisoning, which would confirm that the nobleman was murdered. When they got the results back from the sample, they discovered something very surprising. There were pollens of chamomile and black mulberry, as you might expect to find, inside someone who lived in the Middle Ages. Chamomile was used in those times as a sedative and to control spasms, the Black mulberry was an astringent or enema.
But scientists also discovered something they did not expect to find: traces of foxglove, a plant that contains a deadly poison called digitalis. The concentrations, found inside the sample, taken from Cangrande Della Scala, were considered to have been lethal. The scientists, doing the investigation, now believe that, in all probability, Cangrande was given a lethal dose of digitalis under the guise of legitimate medical treatment.
In fact, one of Cangrande’s doctors was later executed by Cangrande’s nephew because he was suspected of being involved in the nobleman’s death.
But having such a perfectly preserved body, also meant that scientists were presented with a treasure trove of personal information about Cangrande, the man. For example, he was around 5’7” had brown curly hair and may have suffered from a number of illnesses. His lungs showed evidence of coalworker’s pneumoconiosis, also known as “black lung,” probably because the houses during that time were heated by large braziers that produced even larger quantities of black smoke. He also may have suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and chronic sinusitis. There was evidence of mild arthritis, which was possibly due to his active lifestyle of fighting a lot of wars. Cangrande may have also had tuberculosis, which was a common ailment during those the times, according to the investigating scientists. But it was the remains of foxglove in his faeces that stood out as the most extraordinary revelation and the likely cause of death.
“It was a real surprise,” said study leader Gino Fornaciar, a paleopathology researcher from the University of Pisa. Fornaciar and his team speculate that it’s always possible Cangrande, was given the lethal dose of foxglove by mistake, but, on the balance of probabilities think it’s far more likely that he was deliberately poisoned. “The most likely hypothesis on the causes of death is that of a deliberate administration of a lethal amount of Digitalis,” the scientists said.
But having established that he was in all likelihood murdered, the next question to be answered is who would have been responsible for the crime?
The scientists speculate that the perpetrator may have been a rival ruler or Cangrande’s ambitious nephew, Mastino II who ordered Cangrande’s physician to be hanged. Was he trying to cover his own involvement in the crime by leaving no loose ends? or possible witnesses?
In addition to being ruler over key parts of northern Italy, Cangrande is remembered today as a friend and protector of famous Italian writer, Dante Alighieri, who had been exiled from Florence. In return for that benevolence, Dante praised Cangrande in his writing: “His generous actions will eventually be known, so that even his enemies will not be able to stay silent about them,” the poet wrote in ‘Paradiso.’
One of those enemies did remain silent, as silent as the grave, and that’s the way it remained for 700 years. But, with the help of modern forensics this ice cold case has now been cracked. We know how it was done even if we still don’t know, for sure, who did it.