Forensic Case Files: The Exhumation of H.H. Holmes


We’re ramping up toward the release of Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries #5, LAMENT THE COMMON BONES, so I thought it would be fun to do a forensic anthropology story this week. There was a big story last month that I didn’t review because we were busy with the launch of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, but it’s worth covering—the exhumation and the analysis of the body buried in the grave belonging to H.H. Holmes.

For anyone unfamiliar with Dr. Henry Howard (H.H) Holmes, he was a serial killer and con artist who operated against the backdrop of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Holmes, an alias of Herman Webster Mudgett, was born in New Hampshire in 1861, graduated from the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery in 1884, and was a bigamist, at one point being married to three women simultaneously while being engaged to several others.

Holmes settled in Chicago in 1886 and purchased a drug store on a busy intersection in the Englewood neighbourhood. He purchased a lot on the opposite corner from the drug store, designed, and then started construction of a multi-use, three-story building—a drug store on the ground floor with apartments and hotel rooms above that he claimed were part of the World’s Fair Hotel (though there is no evidence they were ever used for this purpose, or even fully completed). His own rooms were located on the third floor.


The upper floors of the building were a nightmarish design of soundproofed rooms, labyrinthine corridors, doors that locked only from the outside, air-tight spaces with installed gas vents, and chutes that transported room occupants to the basement for incineration or to be dissolved in vats of acid. Holmes was ingenious in his methods, even ensuring that no single builder understood the depravity of the building’s design—he would fire workers after short contacts, ensuring that no one ever fully understood the full horror of his plans.

Following the discovery of the building’s real purpose, it was christened ‘The Murder Castle’—a place where people went in, but never came out. Holmes himself admitted to killing twenty-seven individuals, though only nine deaths were confirmed. However, his legend has grown, and some accounts report over two hundred deaths at his hands. What is certain is that several of his paramours/fiancées lost their lives inside the Castle, as well as a number of women who responded to advertisements for employment.

Apart from the lives lost in 1893 during the World’s Fair, it was actually the death of a fellow con artist that finally convicted Holmes. The pair concocted a scheme to fake the death of an inventor in a laboratory explosion and fire. Benjamin Pitezel set up the fake persona and purchased a $10,000 insurance policy. Holmes was supposed to produce a body to be disfigured during the fire, but, instead, he killed Pitezel so he could make the insurance claim without having to split it with a partner. Holmes was eventually caught, tried for Pitezel’s murder, and sentenced to death. He was hanged in 1896.

Earlier this year, a request was made by the Mudgett family to exhume Holmes’s grave to ensure he was buried there. Family legend told that despite Holmes’s request to be buried in a coffin filled with cement and then interred under seven three-thousand-pound barrels of cement to deter grave robbers and infamy seekers, he had escaped execution. The exhumation order was granted and the body was recovered last spring.

Samantha Cox, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, completed the examination. Due to the method of burial within cement, the body had not fully decomposed. The man’s burial clothes were intact and he still sported a mustache, but the tissues were mostly putrefied but not fully liquefied. Due to the extent of decomposition, DNA could not be extracted from the remaining tissue slurry, but was instead extracted from tooth pulp for PCR and familial DNA profiling. Last month, the results were revealed: the body in the grave of H.H. Holmes was indeed Holmes himself. Despite his wily ways and life of crime, in the end, he was caught and punished. Holmes body was returned to his grave and buried once again.

As a side note, anyone who is interested in more on the life of H.H. Holmes would enjoy the narrative non-fiction novel ‘The Devil in the White City’ by Erik Larson. It’s a well-researched, fascinating account of both the 1893 World’s Fair ‘Columbian Exposition’ and the simultaneous, horrific career of H.H. Holmes.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Back From Bouchercon

Sorry about the radio silence last week. I was just back from Bouchercon, was up to my eyeballs in getting LAMENT THE COMMON BONES ready for our early readers, and three out of four of our cats were freshly vaccinated and not all were doing well. But I’m back on track and ready for an update on the past few weeks.


Bouchercon: Bouchercon 2017 was a great success. Louise Penny was, as always, a standout Guest of Honour. As popular and well-known as she is, she’s still gracious, funny, and down-to-earth. She talked about the loss of her beloved husband Michael with honesty and love, had insightful stories about her early days of writing and what she’s learned over the years, and had endless time for fans at all of her signings (each one that went on for hours at a time). The conference was in a great location, was well organized, and had something for everyone from fans, to beginning writers, to battle-scarred veterans.

Personally, I had a great time. My panel on the Critters of Crime was a blast, and a special thank you goes to moderator Michael Kurland, and fellow panelists Margaret Mizushima, Janet Finsilver, Eileen F. Watkins, and Kelly Oliver. It was great to get together with fellow Crime Writers of Canada authors, who were extremely well represented. Kensington also had a significant presence and we had an extremely popular author signing. It was a pleasure meeting so many authors I’d only interacted with on-line, as well as new readers. The Kensington authors even had a fun outing to the Penguin Random House head office in Toronto for a lovely wine and cheese open house. I came home from the conference pretty tired, but very satisfied with my time away.

LAMENT THE COMMON BONES: Back home again, my husband Rick and I continued to work on getting LAMENT ready to go out to early readers. Rick has put an immense amount of time into all the persnickety formatting that is required for CreateSpace as well as for .mobi and .epub file production. Thanks also to my daughter, Jess, the artistic mind and the skills behind putting the full cover together while dealing with CreateSpace’s finicky requirements and tackling the project every time we were slightly off target. I’m happy to say that the print copy is now ready to go. A proof copy is ordered and once I’ve reviewed that, it’s ready to print and ship. Early readers and bloggers now have their advance copies and we’re looking forward to early reviews in the coming weeks. We’ll also have buy links coming in the next few weeks.

LAMENT cover full - 2017-10-22 - FINAL.jpg

Newsletter: A new book coming out means that new editions of the newsletter will be coming out shortly. Want a sneak peak at the hit-the-ground running opening chapters that an early reader got sucked into today when she needed to get out and get things done (sorry, D!)? Then sign up for the newsletter at the bottom of the home page here at Skeleton Keys.

FBI K-9s #3, STORM RISING: Our fantastic crit team has returned their copies of STORM RISING, so we’re back at work on the final finishing touches before the manuscript is due to our editor at the end of next month. They made some really great suggestions, and, fortunately, have no major plot issues, so we’re in good shape with time to spare to make sure the manuscript is squeaky clean before we hand it in.

And just a reminder that Halloween is coming and when it comes to book or treat, we vote book! And may we suggest BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE as your book of choice? We continue to hold a 4.53 average on Goodreads and readers are loving it!

Halloween Book or Treat Promo.jpg

A Cover Reveal and Some Publishing News

We’ve got some great news about the fifth book in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries: it will release on Tuesday, November 21st. That’s only six weeks away!

Why such short notice? Well, publishing is a business and LAMENT THE COMMON BONES got caught in the crossfire of a difficult business decision. Five Star published DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH, and TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER (we self-published the novella, NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL). My editor read LAMENT THE COMMON BONES and loved it, saying it was our best Abbott and Lowell yet. The contract was even discussed. But then the publishing house made the decision to close down the entire mystery line and go forward only with westerns. That orphaned our book and the series. Hats off to our agent, Nicole Resciniti, who worked tirelessly to try to move the series to another pub house, but, realistically, selling the fifth book in a series when another house still has the rights to all the other full-length novels simply wasn’t possible. Once we knew that we had exhausted all our traditional options, we made the decision to self-publish. And since it was just our schedule that was the deciding factor around timing, we slotted it in after the launch of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE and just before the manuscript of STORM RISING is due to our Kensington editor on December 1st. Thus, November 21st. We also felt our readers had waited more than long enough for this series installment, so sooner was definitely preferable to later.

But a new book means that all-exciting moment when we get to release a sparkly new cover! Many, many thanks to the very talented Jess Danna for creating this cover for us. We love it and hope you will too! And now without further ado…


It’s been a while since we’ve spent some time with Matt and Leigh, so where were we?  When we last left them, they’d solved a series of murders in Boston dating all the way back to prohibition, and had just reunited an unjustly separated family. Their off-the-books investigation into the mysterious packages implicating Leigh’s murdered father in nefarious dealings had revealed a frightening possibility, causing Leigh to believe that she was in danger. And then a new investigation is discovered literally standing in the corner of a rival’s forensic anthropology lab…


When death hides in plain sight, only the most discerning eye can see the truth.

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Matt Lowell and his team of grad students don’t go looking for death—it usually comes to them. But when one of Matt’s students suspects the skeleton hanging in a top competitor’s lab is actually from a murder victim, Matt has no choice but to sneak in to confirm a suspicious death. Once the case comes to Massachusetts State Police Trooper Leigh Abbott, the team is back together again.

While trying to handle the new murder case, Matt and Leigh also uncover new evidence behind the mysterious deliveries intended to smear the name of Leigh’s father, an honored cop, fallen in the line of duty four years before. When the person behind the deliveries is finally uncovered, it becomes clear that lives are in jeopardy if they attempt to thwart him. At the same time, as the murder case delves into underground societies and grows complicated when the killer himself becomes a victim, it will take all of Matt and Leigh’s teamwork to solve both cases and escape with their lives.


LAMENT THE COMMON BONES, out in trade paperback and e-book on November 21st! Buy links coming soon!


I was happy to celebrate the launch of BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE this past weekend with family and friends. It was a lovely, intimate gathering at our wonderful downtown indie bookshop, A Different Drummer. We've had some big, raucous launches before, but this one had more of the air of a dinner party where people lingered chatting and eating long after the reading. It was a really nice affair, and it gave me the chance to really spend time with people which was enjoyable and relaxing. Many thanks to all who attended!

Gathering and loading up plates:


The wonderful Ian Elliott kicking us off for a speech and a reading:


Food for the humans:

Food to take home to the dogs:

A gift basket to win, and our other series was nicely highlighted as well:

Meeting new friends and hanging out with old friends:


Signing books!

Many thanks for my older daughter, Jess Danna, for once again lending me her considerable photographic skills, and my younger daughter Jordan, for being my right hand and spending hours in the kitchen with me!


Before it's Too Late HC.jpg

Whoo hoo! It’s publication day!! Ann and I are happy to announce that BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE is now available. It’s been getting some great early buzz on Goodreads, and one of the comments we’ve noticed most is early readers saying that you don’t need to have read LONE WOLF to follow along. This is really great to hear because we really tried to write this second series installment as much as a standalone as possible because you never know where a reader’s entry point will be. In fact, I’ve seen many comments from people who intended to go back and read LONE WOLF based on the strength of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.

BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE is available in hardcover and e-book (with the audio version coming in November) from these fine sellers:,,, Chapters/Indigo, B&N, BAM, IndieBound, Target, Walmart, Hudson Booksellers.

Happy reading!

In this powerful K-9 crime thriller, FBI Special Agent Meg Jennings and her trusted search-and-rescue Labrador, Hawk, must race against the clock before a diabolical killer strikes again…
Somewhere in the Washington, D.C., area, a woman lies helpless in a box. Beneath the earth. Barely breathing. Buried alive. In Quantico, the FBI receives a coded message from the woman’s abductor. He wants to play a game with them: decipher the clues, find the grave, save the girl. The FBI’s top cryptanalysts crack the code, and Special Agent Meg Jennings and her K-9 partner, Hawk, scramble to follow a trail of false leads to the scene of the crime. By the time they solve the puzzle, it’s too late. But the killer’s game is far from over . . .
Soon another message arrives. Another victim is taken, and the deadly pattern is repeated—again and again. Each kidnapping triggers another desperate race against time, each with the possibility of another senseless death. That’s when Meg decides to try something drastic. Break the Bureau’s protocol. Bring in her brilliant sister, Cara, a genius at word games, to decipher the kidnapper’s twisted clues. Meg knows she’s risking her career to do it, but she’s determined not to let one more person die under her and Hawk’s watch. If the plan fails, it could bite them in the end. And if it leads to the killer, it could bury them forever . . .

One Week to the Release of BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!

We’re only a week away from the release of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, the second book in the FBI K-9s and things are getting excited chez Sara Driscoll.

So what’s going on? Yesterday, I was featured on Alli Sinclair’s blog highlighting the story behind the FBI K-9s series. Next Monday, September 25th, the day before the release, LONE WOLF is going to be the Kindle Daily Deal on Amazon, so it will be a great opportunity to try out the book that started the series for a cheap and cheerful deal price the day before the second book comes out. It’s the big launch on Tuesday, September 26th, then I’ll be on Joan Reeves’s Slingwords blog on the 27th, and finally I’ll be throwing a big launch party here in Burlington, Ontario on Saturday, September 30th (details at the end of this post). Whew! Going to be a busy few weeks!

So, in anticipation of the launch of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, I have a special treat: the first chapter of the book so you can dive in for a taste of what’s to come next week. We toss you right into the thick of things as the first victim reported to the team goes missing and it’s a mad chase to save her life. Do they succeed? Let’s find out


Stay tuned for more on September 26th!

Before it's too late-flyer.jpg

It’s time for a party! If you’re in the Greater Toronto Area, please join me for the launch of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

Odds and Ends

Things have been pretty busy around here in the last few weeks. We’re not only getting ready to release the newest FBI K-9s novel, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, in two weeks, but Ann and I have been putting the finishing touches on the third book in the series, STORM RISING, which went out to our critique team yesterday.

Working on STORM RISING has been somewhat bittersweet lately. Earlier this year, when we planned the book to start with a brutal hurricane making landfall on the eastern seaboard, we never suspected we’d have two such hurricanes devastating parts of the United States while we were working on it. The research for STORM RISING was very heavily based on Hurricane Sandy, but both Harvey and Irma have confirmed everything we already knew in the worst possible ways. I’ve been watching the search-and-rescue K-9 teams sent in to Texas, Florida, and Caribbean islands, knowing how crucially important they are to the search efforts and recovering the missing. Our critique team is digging into STORM RISING now, but our readers will see it in the fall of 2018.

I’m running a few Goodreads giveaways in the next few weeks, with the first starting yesterday. Are you a Goodreads member and would like to get your hands on a free, advanced copy of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE? Then enter using the widget below.


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Before It's Too Late by Sara Driscoll

Before It's Too Late

by Sara Driscoll

Giveaway ends September 18, 2017.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Do you want to get a sneak peak at BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE? I’m sending out a newsletter this week with an exclusive early look, so if you’re interested, sign up at the bottom on my home page.

And, finally, I’m having a book launch! If you’re in the Greater Toronto Area in Ontario, and would like to have an author signed copy, please join me on September 30th at A Different Drummer. Hope to see you there!

Before it's too late-flyer.jpg

The Search Dogs of Hurricane Harvey


The headlines and videos of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey are horrific. Historic flooding displaced over 30,000 residents, damaged or destroyed an estimated 200,000 homes, and has caused up to approximately $180 billion dollars in damage.

On the short term, attention has rightly been focused on the 17,000 rescues that have taken place. When local law enforcement was unable to keep up with the calls for help, the public responded. Regular people, intent on simply saving lives, came from as far away as Florida bringing their own boats to put into the flood waters. People laid their lives on the line to save strangers and their pets. It’s been uplifting to watch these rescues and is a wonderful reminder that even during times of political chaos when every news story seems dark and foreboding, the human spirit continues to successfully rise to the challenge.

As in any natural disaster in modern times, search-and-rescue dogs have responded to Hurricane Harvey and will continue to do so over the coming weeks. The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) had ten teams dispatched to their San Antonia base of operations or on their way the day the hurricane made landfall. Within days, another four teams were activated, bringing the total number to fourteen, with teams responding from California, Nebraska, Texas, and Utah. As the water receded, the teams moved in, looking for anyone trapped who had been missed by rescuers in the initial rescues. It's incredibly hard work for the teams, but there is no question that lives have been and will be saved because of their presence on the ground.

SDF Mike Stornetta and Rocket.jpg

A heartwarming story about one of the SDF search-and-rescue K-9s has recently come to light out of Harvey's news cycle. Rocket, a border collie, was nearly euthanized at a shelter for being too high energy. But an SDF canine recruitment volunteer recognized something special in Rocky. He wasn’t right for search-and-rescue, but he might make a good agility dog, so she and her husband, an SDF handler himself, adopted Rocket. Within a year, however, Rocket was showing signs of being an ace search-and-rescue dog, so the SDF took him on and partnered him with Windsor Fire Engineer Mike Stornetta. Now the dog that nearly died because of his energy and drive is now using those same characteristics to save lives in Texas. Mike and Rocket were deployed to Wharton, Texas, and have been doing grid searches of flooded houses in conjunction with other task forces. Sometimes, an intuitive eye is what it takes to change and save lives, and Rocket is a prime example of this. We wish Mike, Rocket, and the other teams on the ground in Texas the very best of luck.

Photo credit: National Disaster Search Dog Foundation

I have a newsletter! Interested in getting a sneak peek at the first few chapters of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE before it launches later this month? Then just sign up at the bottom of the home page here on my website and you’ll be added to the list! More fun stuff coming in the newsletter such as cover reveals for the third book in the FBI K-9s series and Abbott and Lowell book #5, LAMENT THE COMMON BONES, as well as more sneak peeks, and early publishing news. Don’t miss out!

Teaming Dogs and Drones to Find the Missing

Before we start into today’s blog post, I just wanted to let you all know that LONE WOLF, the first book in the FBI K-9s series, is out today in mass market paperback. Prefer to read print and were curious about the series, but thought the hardcover was too pricy to try? This is your chance to jump into the series for a cheap and cheerful price. You can find it at local booksellers as well as, ,, and It’s a great time to jump into the series as BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE will be released in just four weeks!

REDOG and drones.jpg

A recent news story caught my attention for numerous reasons. Not only did it involve a real-life search-and-rescue dog team, but it also involved drones. For those of you who have read LONE WOLF, you know we used drones as a method to deliver chaos and anarchy in the form of high-energy explosives, leading to death and destruction. But this story is quite different.

The Swiss Association of Rescue Dogs (REDOG) was officially founded in 1971, but the use of mountain rescue dogs in Switzerland has been going on for centuries for avalanche rescues and to find missing climbers. Now one of the foremost rescue groups in the world, REDOG currently has 650 members and 500 active rescue dog teams, and is known for both it’s wilderness and urban disaster training. They deploy both nationally—where approximately 3,000 people go missing each year—and internationally, responding to natural disaster and missing person calls.

Recently REDOG has teamed up with the Swiss Federation of Civil Drones and this combination uses the best skills of each group to facilitate searches. Drones—often pilot-controlled octocopters which can cover distances up to five kilometers at 100km/hour—are used to search mountainous terrain which would be unsafe for both the dog and handler, as well as being able to cover open spaces encompassing large areas with high definition visuals that are then reviewed by a search specialist. If a victim is found, rescuers are sent in to that specific location. If evidence of a victim is found, search-and-rescue dog teams can be dispatched for a more localized search.  

The benefits of the two groups working together is clear. Combined searches are more efficient and save time and resources overall, significantly cutting down average rescue times.

In a turnaround from how drones were used in LONE WOLF, they are again used in our now drafted manuscript for the third book in the series. The book starts as we drop Meg and Hawk into a post-hurricane search-and-rescue mission, and it’s a shock for Meg to hear drones in the air when she’s been conditioned to recognize them as deadly. But in this case, as we are sadly seeing right now in Texas, drones can safely fly over flooded areas and can send back specific images to help pinpoint searches, potentially saving lives when time is of the essence.

Photo Credit: REDOG

Canine Descendance from Wolves


It’s been long recognized that the domesticated dog—known to many as man’s best friend—evolved from the wild wolf, but scientists are not clear as to when this might have occurred, and how many times. In a post last fall, we looked at the domestication of wild dogs approximately 15,000 years ago. But when did the ancestors of dogs evolve into the species we now know as Canis familiaris?

There are two main schools of thought. One theory, published last year in the journal Science, looked at the partial genetic profiles of 59 dogs from 3,000 to 14,000 years old, as well as the complete profile of an Irish dog from 4,800 years ago, and compared these sequences to hundreds of modern dogs. This data suggested that domesticated dogs actually arose twice in completely separate events, once in Asia and once in Europe.

However, a recent study published in Nature Communications suggests an alternate theory. This group studied two ancient German dogs, one 5,000 years old, and the other 7,000 years old. They combined these genetic sequences with those of the Irish dog used in the Science study, and compared them to the genetic makeup of 5,649 modern dogs and wolves. Based on the high degree of similarity between ancient and modern genetic signatures, their results conclude that dogs were domesticated from a now-extinct wolf population approximately 40,000 years ago, which then split into the European and Asian populations approximately 20,000 years ago.

Some interesting additional details came out of this study. While wolves are carnivores, dogs developed the ability to digest starches, making them more omnivorous than their ancestors. Living with agriculture-based human populations, this was a huge advantage, and this ability appears to have evolved at roughly the same time as it did for humans. Also interesting, unlike their 5,000 and 7,000 year-old ancestors, modern dogs have developed duplicate genes, allowing them more genetic flexibility.

So which of these two theories of canine domestication is correct? The researchers agree that the more recent study doesn’t preclude the possibility of a second domestication event; they simply don’t see evidence of such an event in their samples. Critics of this research point out that it doesn’t explain the huge divide between European and Asian subspecies, nor does it explain that while Europe and Asia were highly populated with dogs, the areas between were notably empty. Future research is planned to look at more ancient Asian dogs, more recent European samples—such as those from the time of the Roman Empire—and also American samples in a bid to narrow down the ‘where’ of domestication as well as the ‘when’.

Photo credit: Arne von Brill

Report From the Writing Trenches, August 2017

I’m really back! Not that last week wasn’t a real post, but now I’m really and truly back into blogging. And since it’s been a while since a real update, I’d like to catch everyone up. So what’s been going on with me in the last two and a half months and what’s coming up?

FBI K-9s #3—This has been 95% of my summer so far. I’d gotten the writing started in May, but my mother had a bad accident and the month of May involved a lot of time at the hospital. Once she was out at the end of May, that was my chance to really dive into this latest novel. As usual, I set personal daily/weekly word counts and tried really hard to stick to it. The original goal was to do 9,000 words per week (1,000 for each work day, 2,000 for each weekend day plus past chapter editing) and to have it all done by the end of July in about 9 weeks. I came super close, only missing that goal by a week. Though, to be fair, the first draft ended up being longer than I’d set as the goal, so maybe it all comes out in the wash after all. I’m happy to announce that I completed the first draft last Monday. Ann had a crazy 3 or 4 weeks, trying to stay up to date with my writing all while packing her house and moving her 5 dogs and herself from Texas to North Carolina, but once she arrived, she jumped right back into the 8 or so chapters she was behind. By the time I’d finished the last 3 chapters, she was back in time with me. Now we’re doing side-by-side first round edits. This round is the most important because this pass is about story and both of us tackling it separately is crucial. This way we can independently look at the story we outlined together and see if something isn’t working, and, if so, come up with suggested ways to tackle it. After that, I estimate 2 more rounds for writing/language/word choice and then for cleanup. Our critique team is expecting the manuscript in early September and then they’ll have their chance to tear it apart. This is the 8th book with us for most of them, so they are good at this, let me assure you. They pull no punches and that’s exactly what we and the book need.

LONE WOLF in mass market format—LONE WOLF, book #1 in the FBI K-9s, is coming out in mass market paperback format on August 29th, so we’re back into new marketing of that book with Kensington, who, as usual, is doing a great job! This copy of the book will also include a sneak peak at #2 in the series, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.

BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE in hardcover format—The second book in the FBI K-9s series will launch on September 26th. I’m really looking forward to this one as this book is a particular favourite of mine. More mystery than LONE WOLF, this story continues to examine the bond between Meg and her black Lab Hawk, as well as exploring her relationships with her sister Cara, Washington Post reporter Clay McCord, and DCFEM firefighter/paramedic Lt. Todd Webb, all against a backdrop of a serial killer who is kidnapping and killing women to get Meg’s attention in a sick game.

To remind you of where we are in the series at this point, this is the back cover copy of the book:

In this powerful K-9 crime thriller, FBI Special Agent Meg Jennings and her trusted search-and-rescue Labrador, Hawk, must race against the clock before a diabolical killer strikes again…

Somewhere in the Washington, D.C., area, a woman lies helpless in a box. Beneath the earth. Barely breathing. Buried alive. In Quantico, the FBI receives a coded message from the woman’s abductor. He wants to play a game with them: decipher the clues, find the grave, save the girl. The FBI’s top cryptanalysts crack the code, and Special Agent Meg Jennings and her K-9 partner, Hawk, scramble to follow a trail of false leads to the scene of the crime. By the time they solve the puzzle, it’s too late. But the killer’s game is far from over…

Soon another message arrives. Another victim is taken, and the deadly pattern is repeated—again and again. Each kidnapping triggers another desperate race against time, each with the possibility of another senseless death. That’s when Meg decides to try something drastic. Break the Bureau’s protocol. Bring in her brilliant sister, Cara, a genius at word games, to decipher the kidnapper’s twisted clues. Meg knows she’s risking her career to do it, but she’s determined not to let one more person die under her and Hawk’s watch. If the plan fails, it could bite them in the end. And if it leads to the killer, it could bury them forever…

Our street team, early readers and a number of bloggers already have their copies, and we’re starting to see some great early buzz starting. This is the fun part. After all the hard work, now is the time where we get to share our creation and hear readers’ thoughts on all that sweat and hairpulling. ;)

Launch of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE—Once again, I will be hosted by Ian Elliot of A Different Drummer Books here in Burlington on September 30th for the launch party. If you are local to the area, please stop by because I’d love to see you and sign your copy of the new book!

Word on the Street Toronto—This event isn’t definite, but I’ve applied to take part in it and hopefully will be chosen as part of the panel of Crime Writers of Canada authors attending. WOTS is a free event taking place in Halifax, Lethbridge, Toronto and Saskatoon to celebrate reading and to advocate literacy. I’ve taken part in it twice before in 2014 and 2015 and this year it will once again be at Harbourfront Center, right on the lake in Toronto. Taking place on Sunday, September 24, 2017, the event runs from 11:00 am - 6:00 pm and is great fun for readers of all ages and genres.

Bouchercon 2017: Passport to Murder—Bouchercon is the biggest North American fan mystery conference and, conveniently, this year it’s in Toronto! I previously attended Bouchercon in 2013 in Albany and was fortunate enough to be on their forensics panel. This year I will be appearing in several events. Right at the beginning of the conference, I will be involved in Author Speed Dating on Thursday, October 12 from 8 – 10am. Speed dating is exactly what it sounds like, except in this case, you’re not looking for an actual date. Instead, you sit for 2 minutes at 22 tables of 8 new and interested readers to tell them about your series. Should be great, chaotic fun, but I suspect I’ll need a nap afterwards. And then I’m thrilled to be part of a panel on Saturday, October 14 from 10 – 11am in the Sheraton B room. The panel is entitled ‘The Critters of Crime: K-9s, cats and cows, and their role in mysteries’ followed by a half hour signing in the book/deal room (Osgoode Room). Joining me are fabulous authors Margaret Mizushima, Eileen F. Watkins, Kelly Oliver, and Janet Finsilver, so it should be a super panel. I’m looking forward to seeing old readers, meeting new readers, catching up with author friends, and making some new ones!

So that’s what’s going on with me. Next week, I’ll be back to my regular blogging content. See you then!

The Truth About Dog People

I’m back! Sorry the hiatus has been so long, but I had to have my head down drafting the third book in the FBI K-9s series. The great news there is that the first draft of the book is complete, but I’ll get into that more next week when I catch everyone up as to where I am now and outline my schedule for the fall.

Today though, I have a really fun infographic to share. The nice folks at contacted me and asked if I’d like to share this infographic with my readers. And because so many of you are dog owners and lovers, I thought it might be a fun post as I’m ramping back into my regular blogging routine. There are some points that definitely ring true for me. How about you?

New Body Farm To Study Cold Weather Decomposition

Since the early 1980s, forensic anthropology research centers have been crucial to our knowledge surrounding human death and decomposition and their contributions to the scientific field have allowed for decades of successful criminal investigations.

Leading the field is the original facility, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Forensic Anthropology Research Center, better known by its original name, The Body Farm, a catch-all term that now applies to all similar research centers. Years ago, Skeleton Keys blogged about both the Body Farm and Dr. William Bass, the man who started the farm in 1980 with its first research subject arriving in May of 1981. Both law enforcement and the scientific community owe Dr. Bass a debt of gratitude for his efforts to dramatically expand an area of science that was just in its infancy.

Since the original body farm, a number of other American facilities have opened: the Forensic Osteology Research Center (FOREST) at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina; Texas State University-San Marcos’s Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS); the Center for Biological Field Studies at Sam Houston State University, near Houston; the Complex for Forensic Anthropology Research (CFAR) at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois; and the Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS) at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado.

A quick scan of the existing body farms reveals a significant issue: they are overwhelmingly situated in the southern United States. Since environment and climate play a crucial role in human decomposition, this has a major impact on results and leaves a large gap in our knowledge base.

Enter the newest facility to open at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. Recently, Michigan’s governor has granted the university 2.5 acres of land adjacent to the Marquette Branch Prison to open a facility that will focus on the yet-to-be-explored issues of freezing, thawing, and weathering of victims in northern climes. As important as human decomposition research is, it’s often difficult to find sites in a community to house what can often be an aromatic outdoor laboratory, and people are often uncomfortable knowing that research on human remains is going on nearby. What they may not realize is that many people donate their own bodies following death to these facilities specifically, knowing that they would be contributing to important research, and that all human remains are treated with respect and dignity.

Living in Canada myself, I see this research as being incredibly important and that it will only strengthen the legal and law enforcement community’s drive to find justice for victims of lethal crimes when they can’t speak for themselves. We wish them luck in their new venture.

Photo credit: Northern Michigan University

Blogging over the next little while is going to be somewhat sporadic for us. We’ll be back whenever we have news about our upcoming release BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, but we need to buckle down and concentrate on writing its sequel, the third book in the FBI K-9s series. As a result, the blog will be a little quiet for the next 4 or 6 weeks, but we’ll be back full time as soon as the first draft is complete. See you soon!

The Legacy of Mississippi Asylum Life… and Death

In 2013, while constructing a road on campus at the University of Mississippi in Jackson, workers uncovered sixty-six previously uncharted coffins. Work stopped to allow their removal to the university’s archeology center and the administration considered the matter closed. Then in 2014, during construction of a parking garage, approximately two thousand additional coffins were identified using ground penetrating radar; and the university realized it had a much larger issue on its hands. Now, three years later, the university administration believes it has finally discovered the scope of the bodies buried on campus after a larger radar investigation identified more than 7,000 coffins buried in twenty acres of land. Where did the bodies come from and how will the university deal with so many dead?

The source of the bodies is clearly based in the history of the area—the site was the location for the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, later called the Insane Hospital, which opened in 1855 and functioned until its closure in 1935. That hospital was later torn down to allow for the building of the current University of Mississippi Medical Center. People suffering from mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia were sent to live at the asylum where they could be treated as medical knowledge of the time dictated. Thousands died while still in the care of the state, and if their bodies were not claimed by family, they were buried in unmarked graves to the east of the asylum. The hospital kept records, and while some still remain, many are lost to history. While hand-drawn maps from the nineteenth century suggested the possible location of the cemetery, they did not indicate the scale—so the sheer size of the cemetery was a surprise to the university administration.

While the university is thrilled with the archeological and forensic treasure trove, practicalities must be considered. The cost of excavating over 7,000 coffins and reburying the remains is immense—an initial estimate placed it around $21,000,000 (approximately $3,000 per body). But the university plans to do the excavations in-house with their own Department of Anthropology, bringing the cost down to just over $3,000,000 over eight years. They intend to open a memorial and a new visitor center to highlight the history of the asylum, institutionalization, and healthcare in the pre-modern period. There are also plans to open a lab to study the remains.

Researchers hope to shed light on the institution itself and their methods of treating mental illness. Previous to the asylum, those suffering from mental illness were often jailed or kept prisoner in attics. Life in the asylum was likely not much easier, and the institution’s nineteenth century death rate averaged over twenty percent each year. Despite this, its population soared by 1900%—from approximately 300 patients in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century when it housed 6000 patients at its zenith. When the hospital closed, the patients were relocated to the state hospital in Whitfield, which is still open today.

There is a lot of personal interest within this discovery as well. Mental illness was so stigmatized in the past that suffering relatives simply ‘disappeared’ when they were shipped off to facilities such as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum. Within the local community there is a movement for possible descendants to donate DNA for comparison to the DNA of the remains in hopes of finding some of their own past.

Photo credit: University of Mississippi Medical Center


Crawling Fingerprints?

Fingerprints have long been one of the cornerstones of forensic crime scene analysis. From their early use in the late 19th century, to their first role in a murder conviction in New York in 1902, to their standard use as we know it today, fingerprints and their analysis have become crucial tools for investigators in their pursuit of criminal justice. Where some other techniques have come into question—such as bite mark analysis—fingerprints have always been considered reliable. There are surfaces that prove problematic, or visualization techniques may not be powerful enough, but the concept of the ability to match a single individual to a single print has never been shaken.

Fingerprints are, in essence, biological traces left by individuals marking their contact with a surface. As Matt Lowell put it in TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, a fingerprint is “an organic slurry of amino acids and fats with some inorganic compounds mixed in” we leave behind when we touch a surface. Patent prints are left when a substance is transferred by a finger, leaving a visible print behind i.e. ink or paint. Latent prints are invisible impressions of the slurry Matt describes that need to be processed to be visualized, and are the majority of the prints law enforcement deals with. Fingerprinting can be a difficult endeavor as a pristine, complete print is rarely deposited. Instead, prints overlap, only consist of a partial impression, smear or smudge, or are a mixture of different individuals. Adding to that is the composition of the surface the print is on, the age of the print, and the type of processing involved. It’s a complicated process, but when it works well, the answer is definitive.

A paper was recently released discussing how latent prints change over time, and how they change shape and can actually migrate over certain surfaces. Over time, any fingerprint will lose water content and the bulk of the print ridges will decrease. But it was the placement and positioning of those ridges that was the key to this study.

Some surfaces do not maintain fingerprints well—prints on certain types of plastics will disappear in about four days, where a similar print on glass will remain for months. Porous surfaces such as paper and wood absorb some of the oils and are excellent matrices for locking the print into place. But some materials actually allow the print structure to change as the ridges decrease in height, but increase in width, while the space between the ridges increases. In essence, the print spreads laterally, migrating outward, covering up to 140% of the original surface in just over a week. However, given sufficient time—up to eight weeks—the print will contract, eventually only taking up 69% of the original size.

How does this kind of migration affect a print in a criminal investigation? The authors suggest that this kind of print expansion and contraction could be responsible for a number of the print mismatches that still occur today. They also suggest that if a timetable of migration could be determined, digitized prints could be reverse-aged back to their original structure, which would allow for direct comparison to fresh suspect prints. The authors have suggested this technique would be particularly useful on new polymer banknotes which are already proving a challenge for traditional fingerprinting methods. This technique could prove to be beneficial as it could help investigators overcome a significant problem with fingerprints—a timeline. The presence of a print linked to an individual is a crucial piece of information. But knowing when that print was deposited—yesterday, last week, or last month—could be the difference between a suspect who was in the room at the time of a murder, or a week before, when the victim was still hale and healthy.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s Mystery Week at Goodreads!

May 1st to 7th is Mystery Week at Goodreads and we’re jumping into the fun to celebrate with two book giveaways.

Go back to the very beginning of the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries with DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT. This first book in the series joins Leigh Abbott and Matt Lowell at their very first meeting. Things are a little bumpy at first as Leigh and Matt try to figure out a way to merge their very different strengths in the quest to find justice for victims in a case that quickly starts to spin out of control.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Dead, Without  a Stone to Tell It by Jen J. Danna

Dead, Without a Stone to Tell It

by Jen J. Danna

Giveaway ends May 08, 2017.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Jump into our FBI K-9s series with LONE WOLF before the sequel, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE arrives on September 26th. Meet Meg Jennings and her black Labrador, Hawk, as they and the other K-9 teams of the FBI’s Human Scent Evidence Team track down a deadly spree bomber.


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Lone Wolf by Sara Driscoll

Lone Wolf

by Sara Driscoll

Giveaway ends May 08, 2017.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

We’ve got two copies of each book to give away and both giveaways run from May 1st to midnight on May 7th, so don’t miss out!

A New Complication in Determining Time Since Death?

In the last few weeks, a few forensics stories have broken, each taking an odd angle on what has previously been considered a tried and true forensic practice. We’re going to look at the first of these stories today.

Determining time since death in an unwitnessed death is a crucial part of any investigation, especially if the death is suspicious. In order to obtain an alibi, investigators need to know approximately when the death occurred so they can determine a suspect’s whereabouts at that specific time.

There are multiple ways to determine recent time since death, including the extent of rigor mortis (the stiffening of the body’s muscles up to approximately 12 hours after death), lividity (the settling and pooling of blood due to gravity), and a decrease in body temperature.

The human body normally functions at 37oC/98.6oF, but after death, with the body’s process of homeostasis interrupted, the body will cool until it reaches the temperature of its surroundings. By and large, the body will cool at a rate of approximately 2oC/3.6oF for the first hour postmortem, and then 1oC/1.8oF thereafter until it reaches ambient temperature. But there are a host of other complicating factors including extreme ambient temperatures, body position, whether it is clothed, humidity levels, fat content of the body, thermal conductivity of the surface beneath the body, and any disease that might raise the body’s resting temperature at the time of death. It’s a complicated set of conditions, but the key factor is that normally a body only cools; it doesn’t warm up after death.

An interesting paper was recently published in the Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology detailing a case of postmortem hyperthermia—a rare occurrence where the body temperature actually rises after death. The research team followed the case of a man who died in a Czech Republic hospital from heart failure. Hospital protocol required the deceased remain on the ward for two hours after death. An hour following death, as hospital staff started to prepare the body for transport in another hour, they noticed that the body was radiating heat and started to monitor temperature. An hour and a half after death, the body hit a maximum temperature of 40.1oC/104.2oF. Four hours following death, the body was still above normal at 37.6oC/99.7oF, but it then continued to cool as expected.

The ramifications of postmortem hyperthermia are clear—if it happened following a suspicious death, it would offset the time since death estimation by a number of hours (in this case, approximately 4 hours). For instance, if a murder happened at midnight, the person found dead at 6am might be assumed to have been alive until 4am. This could have serious repercussions as the killer could have a watertight alibi for four hours after the actual time of the murder, and the window of time around the murder itself would never be questioned. Currently, there is no way to predict this drastic postmortem change in body temperature, but researchers are trying to identify circumstances that might lead to this reverse temperature cascade.

Several causes for postmortem hyperthermia have been raised. Intoxication or drug overdoses may cause it. Violent deaths leading to brain trauma giving rise to cerebral oxygen deprivation or asphyxiation can be responsible. Low voltage current electrocution, heart attack, fever, or cancer can all result in hyperthermia at the time of death which could be mistaken for postmortem hyperthermia. Researchers hope to study more cases to be able to provide additional reasons for this often mysterious condition.

So where does this leave investigators? Should they question every time since death estimate? Postmortem hyperthermia certainly raises the argument that multiple metrics are required to inform investigators of an accurate time since death. Using other physical factors is the only way to ensure that in the absence of a witness, the accurate time of a suspicious death is established, giving investigators their best chance to find the individual responsible.

Of course, the author in me automatically thought this would be a great way to muddy the waters in a fictional murder investigation. Food for thought, mystery author buddies... :)

The Privilege of Authorial Control

'Truth' by Walter Seymour Allward, the Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

Ann and I are currently in the research stage of our new FBI K-9 book (#3!) and are just about to start outlining. We’re right on schedule to be writing by May 1st, aiming for a completed draft by the end of July.

I had an interesting conversation with my mother yesterday. Mom has been a bit laid up with a bum knee lately that has required more of my time than usual making sure that she could manage meals etc. Mom, in turn, has been more on top of my writing than usual, making sure that I’m staying on schedule. So, she knows more about the direction of this book than she usually does at this stage. Some of the research I’ve been doing for this book is, frankly, hard. It’s difficult material, highlighting a darker side of society, one I’ve never had any experience with personally. When we were talking about it yesterday, Mom commented on some of the movies my older brother has considered (Mychael Danna, composer for movies such as Life of Pi, Moneyball, Capote, and others), and how he’d turned some of them down when the content was particularly brutal, especially when the movie portrayed a true story.

It made me realize that I have a level of control in my art that isn’t possible in his. Yes, his music gives his movies a punch that is sometimes conveyed more emotionally than the written word, but he has no control over the story. His film compositions are strictly reactive—he scores the combined vision of the writer and the director. Conversely, authors are proactive—the story is literally in our hands.

'Justice' by Walter Seymour Allward, the Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

It made me realize how lucky I am. In a world which seems increasingly uncertain and where the common person has basically no control—i.e. the current chaos in America, as well as the looming specters of Russia, Syria, North Korea—writing allows an author the privilege of being in charge. So, when my mother commented on the darkness of that major aspect of the storyline, my response was that we would have the satisfaction of seeing justice done and of good trouncing evil. Honestly, there’s enough bad in the world that I don’t need to come out of a book feeling even more downtrodden (and I’m sure other readers feel the same), let alone immersing myself in that kind of storyline for months while I’m writing it. So, we get the luxury of seeing the kind of justice we’d like to see in the world if it were a more perfect place. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a straight plot line, or that the characters will have an easy time of it—where's the fun in that?—but that just makes the win at the end that much more satisfying. It certainly is a known fact that reading tastes tend to change depending on the political/world climate. Most of the time dystopian fiction tends to flourish when the world monetary markets are stable. However, interestingly, as the American government has moved to a more authoritarian stance, dystopian novels such as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have become more relevant and popular as readers are looking for parallels between the current administration and their world, and these fictional dystopian worlds of yesterday.

Where do you stand on it? Are you finding your own reading habits leaning in the direction of happier endings right now because just watching the news is enough to give you a stress-related ulcer? Or do you find comfort and relevance in dystopian worlds as we try to navigate through the uncertainty of our own times?

Photo credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

‘After the Plague’ – A Medieval Reconstruction

Last week we talked about how looking at past catastrophic plagues could help us prepare for a future plague. This week, we look at research done by the University of Cambridge examining medieval life following the Black Death in the 14th century. In a four-year project funded by the Wellcome Trust—the world's largest medical research charity funding research into human and animal health— their study ‘After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge’ cites skeletal evidence as well as DNA sequencing and isotopes to explain the health, life, and death among the poor of 14th century Cambridge. Dr. John Robb, a member of the University of Cambridge’s archeology and anthropology department, notes that there is a dearth of knowledge about the poor in medieval England as the majority of record keeping, and therefore study, has centered on the royalty and upper classes, specifically around the ownership of land .

Following the discovery of a burial ground during a renovation of the Old Divinity School of St. John’s College at Cambridge, Robb and his colleagues recovered over 400 complete skeletons from 1300 burials excavated between 2010 and 2012. The remains all date from between 1200–1400 CE and were buried in the cemetery belonging to the Hospital of Saint John the Evangelist, which stood across from the cemetery until its demolition in 1511. The hospital’s mission was to care for ‘poor scholars and other wretched persons’ which likely explains why the overwhelming majority of the remains recovered are those of men and included only a few women and children. But the poverty of the inhabitants is obvious from the burials themselves—no coffins, few bodies were shrouded, and there are almost no grave goods included with the burials. These were poor people indeed. However, researchers do not believe these were plague deaths, further strengthening the idea that the hospital cared for the poor and infirm, rather than the sick and dying.

Context 958, found in an unusual face-down burial position

Context 958, found in an unusual face-down burial position

Scientists have focused on a single set of remains for more detailed examination. Given the uninteresting name of Context 958, the skeletal remains tell the story of a life of poverty and struggle. He was male and lived between 40 and 70 years (this range surprised me; between the skull sutures and the pubic symphysis, they should have been able to narrow the range from there, which indicates some skeletal weathering to me). He had fine lines in the enamel of his teeth, indicating growth interruptions due to two separate famines while he was a child. He showed additional dental disease leading to an abscess, several cavities, and a number of missing teeth. He was taller than most of his 14th century counterparts and isotope analysis of his bones illustrated a diet enriched with both meat and fish. This is quite unusual in the poorer classes of the time, who consumed mostly a grain-based diet, suggesting one of two explanations: he died and was buried below his station, or, more likely, he was involved in food trade around the university and had access to food above his station. His skeleton showed robust muscle attachments indicating a muscular build and a life of labour, also supported by significant wear in his vertebrae. He had several healed fractures: a lumbar vertebra, a rib, and a depression fracture at the back of his skull that left him with a permanent dent and likely a significant concussion. He also showed signs of gout.

But Context 958 really came to life when the University of Dundee joined the project to build a facial reconstruction. The University of Dundee is well-known for having reconstructed the face of Richard III following the discovery of his remains. In this instance, they did a virtual 3D reconstruction of the skull of Context 958 leading to an amazingly life-like image of the face of a man dead for 800 years.

Project researchers hope that they will be able to build significantly on knowledge of the time, not only for Cambridge’s urban poor, but for all of England, telling the story of not just the rich and successful, but of the common folk who were the base of England’s prosperity and success.

Photo credit: University of Cambridge

Puzzles in the Pattern of Plague

This past weekend, my husband and I attended a lecture at my university on ‘Puzzles in the Pattern of Plague’. Being an infectious diseases specialist in my day job, and having talked about plague a number of times on the blog, the topic really caught my attention. As my husband is also a science geek, he good naturedly tagged along.

The talk was about using mathematical modeling of historic plagues to be able to predict future epidemics. And before you starting thinking Ugh, math… it was a very down to earth talk without a smidge of calculus (though you know for a fact that this kind of modelling overflows with calculus in the background), so it was fascinating from both a historical and scientific viewpoint. We’ll come back to a modern standpoint at the end as we touch on SARS and what the outbreak in 2003 might have meant for humanity.

Dr. David Earn, a mathematician at McMaster University, was the evening’s speaker. He focused on plague—bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic—with an emphasis on the Great Plague of London from 1665.

There have been multiple waves of plague over the past two millennia:

  • Justinian, starting in 541CE and lasting 200 years.
  • Black Death (which includes the Great Plague of London), originating in China in 1334 and lasting more than 350 years, finally ending in the late 1600’s after killing over 60% of Europeans.
  • Modern plague, which started in China in 1860 before spreading to kill 2–10 million worldwide, but which finally enabled scientists of the day to isolate the responsible bacterial agent, Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis).

There are three main forms of plague known to modern man:

  • Bubonic plague—an infection of the lymphatic system by Y. pestis leading to swollen lymph nodes, or buboes. If untreated (as it was historically), the death rate is approximately 66%. Treated with modern antibiotics, the death rate is approximately 11%.
  • Pneumonic plague—a Y. pestis infection that spreads to the lungs resulting in pneumonia. Untreated, the death rate approximates 100%. Surprisingly, even with modern antibiotics, the death rate is still nearly 100%. This is the kind of plague that defense experts worry about as a bioterrorism threat. There is a vaccine, but it is extremely inefficient.
  • Septicemic plague—a Y. pestis infection which enters and spreads via the circulatory system leading to blackened and gangrenous extremities. The death rate from septicemic plague falls between that of bubonic and pneumonic plagues, but tends to approximate that of pneumonic plague even with modern treatment.

When it comes to identifying the type of plague through the ages, historians have no choice but to fall back on records of the time, which are often vague, and mostly date after the Justinian plague. However, it is clear that at least part of the second wave of plague was likely partially septicemic since it was known at the time as the Black Death, a reference to the black fingers and toes resulting from the systemic infection.

Considering the differences in plague properties, how can we be sure that the Justinian, Black Death, and modern plagues were caused by the same modern Y. pestis agent? Another McMaster researcher, Dr. Hendrik Poinar, has sequenced ancient DNA found in plague victims from both of these epidemics and has confirmed that Y. pestis was responsible for both.

So how does mathematical modelling help us use plagues of the past to possibly save us during a plague of the future? Information is power, and, in this case, knowledge of previous pandemics can help us design better control strategies for the next pandemic. This paradigm could instruct future scientists and healthcare professionals how to interrupt an epidemic just as it starts, possibly saving millions of lives in the process.

Toward this end, Dr. Earn and his students examined the Great Plague of London of 1665. They went back to the weekly bills of mortality published during that time period to collect large scale data. This is a written record of not only all the deaths broken down by cause, but also where within the 130 parishes the deaths occurred, and exactly how many were caused by plague. Based on this data, they were able to show in great detail how the plague ripped through London during the summer of 1665 and then simmered for the next year before finally disappearing at the end of 1666 following the Great Fire of London. The plague was mostly gone by the time of the fire, but actually continued for several more months, so the fire didn’t contribute to its disappearance.

London weekly mortality register, September 12 – 17, 1665 (click for a larger version)

Mathematicians use the susceptible/infectious/removed (SIR) model to infer transmission and recovery rates during an epidemic. In the SIR model

  • S = susceptible, the number of people who could be infected.
  • I = infectious, those who are infected and are capable of passing on the pathogen.
  • R = removed, those who have either recovered and are now immune, or who have died. In either case, these are the people who are now taken out of the susceptible population.

Using this SIR model, R0, the reproduction number (how contagious a pathogen is) is calculated. R0 essentially describes how many secondary cases can arise from a single primary disease case. If one sick person can spread disease to only one other person, then R0 = 1. If, on average, the disease spreads to 2 people, then R0 = 2 etc. For disease to spread through a population, R0 must be greater than zero, or there is not enough transmission to maintain the epidemic. To put this in perspective, influenza R0 = 1.5–3 and measles R0 = 17 (so get your kids vaccinated, parents! With an R0 like that, herd vaccination will only take you so far…).

Dr. Earn was able to calculate the difference between Black Death plague as it spread from Asia and through Europe in the following years: 1348, 1361, 1375, 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, and 1665. What they found was that the R0 for plague actually rose over the centuries with an R0 = 1.1 in 1348 and an R0 = 1.5 in 1665. That translated to only 20% infection in the 14th century, but 50% infection in 1665 by the numbers. But they had to make one major assumption for this calculation: that the transmission rate in the second plague pandemic was similar to modern plague and the modern bacteria that scientists have studied. And knowing the historic death rates, Dr. Earn knew that assumption had to be incorrect since over 60% of the population was infected.

So what could account for this difference? And why did the plague spread nearly twice as fast in the 16th century, compared to the 14th century? We’ll never know for sure, but several possibilities exist:

  • The pathogen itself may have changed and become stronger through mutations that were later lost when they no longer conveyed a survival advantage.
  • Population density likely played a role as people started to live in dense clusters with close contact inside city walls.
  • Climate change of the time also played a role, as the Little Ice Age occurred between 1300–1850 in Europe.
  • What form of plague dominated at the time since bubonic had a much higher survival rate than either the septicemic or pneumonic variants.

So how does this information serve us in modern times? Dr. Earn cited the SARS pandemic of 2003 as an example. In Canada, we had 250 infections, from which 50 patients died, so a 20% mortality rate (which is quite severe in modern times with modern drugs). Worldwide, over 8,000 people were infected with 774 eventual deaths. However this pandemic could have been much worse but for a number of factors. China, the original location of the outbreak, reacted very quickly, and used extreme isolation of anyone diagnosed with SARS or who had come into contact with it. It spread through air travel to limited locations, with Canada being the next worst hit. I remember the SARS pandemic very clearly as our lab was located in the university hospital and coming to work every day included extremely long lines, written questionnaires, one-on-one health screening, and a single monitored entrance through the parking garage. But it was procedures like patient isolation and absolute dedication to stopping spread that halted the pandemic in its tracks and no infection has been seen since 2004. However, Dr. Earn calculated the SARS R0 = 2, which would have led to a 50% infection rate. In his estimation, had we not been able to control the outbreak, it would have quickly gone worldwide with over one billion dead. Simply stated, it would have changed the course of human history just as the 14th centuryplague changed the course of history after killing 50 million, just over half the population.

So this research is critically important. Mathematical models show that even if there had been a plague vaccine during the Great Plague of London that only protected 5% of the population, it would have made a significant change to the transmission curve and millions would have been saved. Using these tools, mathematicians will be able to assist during pathogen outbreaks as healthcare professionals are making decisions around treatment and vaccination and how to best protect the population and save the most lives. I’ve said for years that the bugs are going to win someday, but tools like this could stave off that fate.

Interested in more of what Dr. Earn and his team do? He gave a TEDx talk a few years ago, and this clip shows some of the fascinating animations he showed us last night about the spread of the Great Plague through the burrows of London: