Charles Pellegrino and the myth of the author

Recently I’ve been following, with a sense of dismay, the news coverage of Charles Pellegrino and what may — or may not — be the myth behind the man. Pellegrino is a well-known author of both fiction and nonfiction books, many of them centered on scientific topics. HIs recent book, Last Train from Hiroshima< has become mired in controversy because a source quoted in the book (who claimed to be aboard one of the bombers) turned out to be a fraud. Since then, the book has been examined with a fine-tooth comb by critics searching for errors and fabrications. And now Charles Pellegrino himself has been scrutinized, and questions raised about whether he was truthful about his own scientific credentials.

I’m watching the whole sorry spectacle with great sadness, because I am a fan of Pellegrino’s. I have been ever since I read a novel of his called Dust, an apocalyptic story about how the world could end if all insect species died. Although there were novelistic exaggerations, he made me suspend my disbelief and I was totally swept up in the story. I loved the fact he made scientists the heroes, not the villains, and every page was an homage to scientific principles. Ever since, I’ve followed his work, and enjoyed his books on archaeology and his commentary on Jim Cameron’s TV show, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.”

I hope there’s a logical explanation for the discrepancies in Pellegrino’s biography. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But there have been too many authors who have padded their resumes or life stories, and I’m getting that sinking feeling that Pellegrino may be one of them.

I can understand how it happens to a writer. It starts when you pitch your first book, and maybe you tell the publisher a little white lie about your background, to make the story more sellable. Publisher buys the book, and suddenly that lie is part of your official bio. Then you go on book tour and the media interviews start, and you fudge a little bit more. Instead of being a PhD candidate, suddenly you say you’ve actually got the PhD. Or you claim that you were a principal investigator on a research project when really, you were just one of the grad students. Or, to make your own rather boring life more dramatic, you start to elaborate. The mother who got occasionally tipsy transforms into an abusive drunk. Or your little run-in with the police as a teenager becomes a harrowing weekend in jail. Writers are good at imagining drama on the page, so why not insert a little drama in your own bio?

Sometimes, you’re the unwitting victim of unreliable reporting. I remember a conversation I had with LaVyrle Spencer years ago, when she laughed about the rumors circulating among her readers that she was raising llamas. She had no idea how the rumor started, and it was most certainly untrue. But it became “common knowledge” that she was a llama farmer.

Then there was the time I was a guest (along with about 10 other romance authors and romance cover models) on the Sally Jesse Raphael show. Sally turned to me and said something along the lines of, “I understand you’re a graduate of Stanford medical school and you’re a cardiac pathologist and a mother of three.” None of that was true. But there I was on live national TV, and was I going to waste time correcting everything in the sentence by answering, “No, Sally, I graduated from UC San Francisco and I’m a specialist in internal medicine and the mother of two, and where the hell did you get your information?” So all I got out was, “I graduated from UCSF.” But I can see how the audience would conclude that I really must be a cardiac pathologist and the mother of three.

Novelists are held up to far less scrutiny than nonfiction authors. Everyone knows we just make up our stories. But if your professional background is precisely what makes your stories marketable — a former spy who writes spy novels, or a doctor who writes medical thrillers — then you damn well better be truthful about it.

Top Ten Creepy Ways to Die #9

Death by Ballpoint Pen

You know how your mother told you never to run while carrying a sharp object? She was giving you good advice. Here’s a case where the mom herself probably should have followed her own teachings.

A college student came home to have dinner with his mom, and found her lying on the carpet. Bloodstains splattered her clothes and her right eyelid was swollen.

Autopsy revealed that a black Bic ballpoint pen had perforated the woman’s eyelid, pierced the eye, and penetrated the brain.

The case was, at first, dealt with as a homicide, although various forensic experts thought it was more likely that it had resulted from an accident. But police continued to suspect murder, and “witnesses” were found who recalled the victim’s son talking to friends about how easy it would be to kill someone by firing a ballpoint pen from a pistol crossbow. (You don’t know what a pistol crossbow is? Neither did I, until I looked it up. It’s just what it sounds like — a crossbow, but fired by a pistol-like set-up.) Because of that witness testimony, the son was convicted of his own mother’s murder and was sentenced to prison.

Which, you think, would be the end of the story. But it’s not.

The son’s attorneys didn’t buy the guilty verdict, and requested further studies. So forensic scientists got to work. They tried to reproduce the victim’s injuries by using pistol crossbows to fire Bic pens into … well, human brains. (Relax. These were cadaver brains, donated for dissection.) They tried again and again to reproduce the injuries found in the victim. And couldn’t penetrate the eye far enough. Their conclusion? The death was almost certainly accidental.

So how often does this happen?

There are more than 40 intracranial transorbital stab wounds documented since 1848. Among the objects which cased the wounds were pens, pencils, an umbrella tip, pitch forks, a radio antenna, and a snooker cue. They’re uncommon and most likely accidental. And they don’t always lead to death, although fifty percent of victims have permanent injuries.

As a (somewhat) happy conclusion, the young man in the story I mentioned earlier was indeed released from prison, after the evidence exonerated him. Moral of the story? Even an everyday object like a pencil or a pen can be deadly. Think about it.

It’s enough to make you want to curl up in bed and stay there.


Not that there’s a NON-creepy way to die. But in honor of my favorite TV host, David Letterman, I thought I’d compile a top-ten list of some of the true cases I’ve come across in my research, cases that have given me an “oh-my-god” reaction. The sort of stories that will equally fascinate my weirdo readers. (And I know you’re just as weird as I am.)

Here’s #10:


Case History: The remains of a 31-year-old man was found at a recycling facility, after having just been dumped there by a garbage truck. He was found among a pile of cardboard and paper. On autopsy, the pathologist found multiple fractures of the clavicle, ribs, pelvis, and skull. There were hemorrhages into the muscles and soft tissues and pleural (lung) lacerations.

His alcohol level was elevated at 0.34g%; he was legally intoxicated.

His diagnosis? “Compressional asphyxia.” In short, he was squashed to death by a garbage truck compactor.

Ick, you say. So do I. This is one of those horrifying deaths that you don’t even want to think about. One of those nightmarish scenarios that make you cringe. How on earth can this happen? you wonder. Why the hell didn’t the victim scream? How did he end up in this awful situation, being trapped in a compactor as his bones are crushed?

A retrospective study reveals that there have been at least six such compactor-death cases since 1991, with some common findings among them. Some of them may have already been dead prior to compaction — in other words, they were dead bodies tossed into dumpsters. But the chances are, at least a few of these victims had voluntarily crawled into dumpsters because they were seeking warmth and shelter from the elements. Garbage truck drivers report seeing people climbing out of dumpsters just before the trucks empty them. Perhaps the victims who DON’T climb out are too intoxicated to awaken to the sound of the truck engines. Two of the reported victims did, in fact, have high alcohol blood levels on autopsy, indicating they may have been too drunk to save themselves.

Stay tuned to this page. More creepy entries to come…


As a suspense writer, I must explore the dark side of human nature, a journey that is sometimes so disturbing it gives me nightmares. One of the most frightening journeys of all was into the mind of a character known as “The Surgeon”, a man who is fascinated by the history of human sacrifice. Because he is a scholar of this subject, I too, had to know about it. And what I learned shocked me.

Human sacrifice has been practiced on every inhabited continent, by a wide variety of cultures. Distinct from run-of-the-mill homicide, it is a ritual killing, often performed in a sacred place, for spiritual or religious reasons. Its practice is closely tied to a belief in life beyond death. The gruesome methods of killing, and the sheer numbers of hapless victims, remind us that the history of man is a violent one.

Most of us are familiar with the ancient Egyptian sacrifice of royal wives and retainers to accompany the dead Pharaohs into the afterlife. But Egypt was not alone in sacrificing the living to join a dead king or leader. Grave sites around the world bear evidence of this practice. In Mesopotamia, ministers, soldiers, servants, and 64 gaily dressed ladies of a dead king’s court drank a narcotic potion, lay down in his tomb, and were buried alive. In China, Germany, France, and Scandinavia, other royal grave sites with multiple skeletons, many showing evidence of violent ends, tell the same chilling tales of the living slaughtered to accompany the dead. One variation of this ritual was the Hindu practice of suttee, in which widows were burned alive on their dead husbands’ funeral pyres. While it is supposed to be voluntary on the widows’ part, too often, the terrified woman was tied down, and her relatives stood on the sidelines, prepared to push her back into the flames should she escape. Perhaps most disturbing of all, the one usually chosen to light the fire was her first-born son. (Even today, in modern India, there are sporadic reports of widow-burnings.)

Other examples of human sacrifice abound in ancient history. In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, children or infants were sometimes buried in the foundations of new buildings, in hopes their souls would offer protection. In Mexico, Aztec priests slaughtered thousands of war prisoners, cutting out their still-beating hearts as offerings to the gods. In Norway, captives were bound to the rollers over which ships slid into the sea, reddening the keel with a blessing of blood. Druids burned captives alive in large wicker men. In Greece, a colony of outcasts was kept fed and housed for only one purpose: to be used as human offerings whenever the need arose.

While victims of such rituals were often prisoners of war, slaves, or outcasts, in some cases, it was the very person most cherished who was chosen to be sacrificed. According to Greek myth, such a sacrifice was made by King Agammemnon on the eve of his fleet’s sailing against Troy. In hopes of favorable winds, he ordered his virgin daughter Iphigenia to be stretched across the altar. There, her throat was cut, her life sacrificed to Artemis.

Today, such an act strikes us as incomprehensible. We look back with disbelief at the long history of people being ritually burnt, strangled, stabbed, or buried alive, and cannot understand how such atrocities could have happened. But ancient man inhabited what Carl Sagan once called the “demon-haunted world,” a fearsome universe ruled by occult powers. In such a world, where every plague and famine, every defeat in battle, was due to ill forces from the supernatural, man turned to ritual to protect himself.

And the most powerful ritual of all was the spilling of human blood.


A new issue just in time for Halloween!



“Ah, dear Juliet, why art thou still so fair? Shall I believe that insubstantial Death is amorous, And that the lean abhorred monster keeps thee here in dark To be his paramour? For fear of that I still will stay with thee, And never from this palace of dim night depart again. Here, here will I remain With worms that are thy chambermaids.” — Romeo and Juliet

“Never laugh when a hearse goes by ’cause you could be the next to die. They wrap you up in a big white sheet And bury you down about six feet deep. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, The worms play pinochle on your snout. They eat your eyes, they eat your nose, They eat the jelly between your toes.” — from an old children’s ballad

Death and maggots. From the time we are children, we learn that the two are inextricably linked. We find dead animals in the woods or at the side of the road, and are totally grossed out to see worms squirming in their decaying flesh. No wonder just the thought of maggots makes us all shudder!

So imagine this lovely scenario: You are a patient in the hospital, suffering from an open leg wound that is not healing. One morning your doctor walks in and announces he has your new treatment. He opens a vial and sprinkles this “new” treatment into your wound. And out plop … maggots?

Nope, it’s not your worst nightmare. And if you can stand the thought of worms feeding on your flesh, those maggots may be just what you need.

Maggot debridement therapy (MDT) is not a new thing. It was used by Napoleon’s battlefield doctors. During the American Civil War, a Confederate medical officer named Joseph Jones noted: “I have frequently seen neglected wounds … filled with maggots…as far as my experience extends, these worms only destroy dead tissues, and do not injure specifically the well parts.”

And J.F. Zacharias, a Confederate army surgeon, wrote: “I first used maggots to remove the decayed tissue in hospital gangrene and with eminent satisfaction. In a single day, they would clean a wound much better than any agents we had at our command. I used them afterwards at various places. I am sure I saved many lives by their use, escaped septicemia (systemic infection), and had rapid recoveries.”

Over fifty years later, during the first world war, an American orthopedic doctor working in France found that two wounded soldiers who had lain on the battlefield for a week had abdominal wounds swarming with maggots — wounds that had begun to heal without evidence of infection. Years later at John Hopkis Medical School, recalling his wartime experience, he used maggot therapy and found that his patients’ wounds healed much more quickly. During the 1930’s, maggots were used routinely in hundreds of North American hospitals for deep tissue infections. But in the 1940’s, their use dropped out of favor with the emergence of antibiotics. Only recently, as bacteria have developed resistance to many antibiotics, has maggot therapy come back into use as an adjunct therapy for wound healing.

Maggots, which are the larval stage of flies, work their magic by feeding on decaying tissue. They have a pair of mandibles or hooks, which they attach to the tissue, and use these hooks to scrape off dead membranes. This is, in fact, precisely what “surgical debridement” means: “the removal of foreign matter and dead tissue from a wound.” The maggots simply do the surgeon’s work on a microscopic level. They secrete protein-digesting enzymes, which cause the dead tissue to liquefy, and the wriggling movements of the maggots may somehow stimulate wound healing. Maggots do not damage healthy living tissue. THE MARVELOUS MAGGOT The maggots that doctors use for wound debridement are the larvae of green blowflies. Within 12-24 hours after the blow fly lays its eggs, baby maggots hatch. They start off tiny, only 1 mm long, but over the next 5 days, as they feed, they plump up to 10 mm long. At this point they stop eating, and transform into tough-skinned pupae. For the next seven days (or longer, depending on air temperature) they metamorphose into adult blow flies, and finally emerge by rupturing through their pupal skin.

Doctors use maggots at their tiniest stage, soon after they have hatched from their eggs. The number of larvae used depends on the size of the wound. An injured finger tip may need only 5 maggots; a deep wound may need 500. After introducing the maggots to the wound, a piece of netting is laid on top to hold them in place. They feed for three days until they’re gorged and plump and juicy from eating dead human flesh. Then they’re removed.

(Have I whetted your appetite?)

So how does a doctor order up a batch of maggots? Does he just pick up the phone and call for a shipment?

Well actually… yes.

The world’s leading authority on maggot therapy, Dr. Ronald Sherman from the University of California, Irvine, is also a maggot breeder and supplier for doctors around the world, and the only source of medical maggots in the U.S. He collects maggot eggs before they hatch, uses a solution of sodium hypochlorite to prevent them from changing into flies, and stores them in sterile containers until they hatch. The maggots are then disinfected and shipped overnight in sterile containers. (Hmmm. Makes ya think twice about ordering a ham through FedEx, doesn’t it?) Dr. Sherman ships about 5-10 vials every week to doctors in the U.S. and Canada, and in one year alone, he shipped 3,000 vials to the U.K.

The major problem with maggot therapy? That “tickling” sensation of having them squirming in your wound. The literature also mentions that “some patients may find the presence of maggots in their wounds to be unacceptable.”

Well, duh.

OF MAGGOTS AND MURDER The little critters may also be saving lives in the field of criminal investigation. In a June 6, 2000 story from Associated Press, it was reported that a man who has spent seven years on death row, and who was scheduled for execution on June 28, 2000, may be exonerated thanks to maggot evidence.

Anthony M. Spears was convicted of fatally shooting a woman outside Mesa, Arizona. He insists he’s innocent of the murder of Jeanette Beaulieu, whose body was found on January 19, infested with maggots.

David Faulkner, head of the entomology department at the San Diego Natural History Museum examined the maggots and concluded that, based on their larval development, the victim died no earlier than January 9.

Anthony Spears left Arizona and was home in California on January 4.

The forensic entomology evidence was strong enough to make the forewoman of the jury that convicted Spears recant her guilty vote and claim that fellow jurors had bullied her.

At last report, Mr. Spears is still appealing his conviction.


MORE CREEPY FACTS Take Two Worms and Call Me In the Morning

Immunoparasitologist Joel Weinstock of the University of Iowa has discovered a revolutionary new treatment for inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis. He has his patients swallow worm eggs.

Dr. Weinstock noted that people who live in third-world countries with unclean water sources often are hosts to parasitic worms in their intestines. But in such countries, ulcerative colitis is extremely rare. Putting two and two together, he wondered: could parasitic infections be protective against such inflammatory diseases?

He tested his hypothesis on six patients with inflammatory bowel disease by asking them to ingest worm eggs. Five of the six went into complete remission, and the sixth showed significant improvement.

The worms may work by inhibiting the body’s immune system, preventing it from attacking not only the worms, but also the host’s own healthy tissue. As Dr. Weinstock noted, parasitic worms have been a part of the human organism throughout most of man’s history, and perhaps we have come to rely on each other for optimum health. Because of the cleanliness of modern society, we are no longer hosts to parasitic worms. The result? We are now suffering from diseases seldom seen in more unhygienic times.


How Dirty Are Your Hands?

In the 1930’s, Dr. Philip Price wondered how many bacteria he carried on his hands, so he washed his hands with plain soap in a series of sterile basins. Then he totaled up the bacteria in the basins and calculated the population that was originally carried on his hands: 4.58 million.

Other studies have shown that:

95 percent of the bacteria found on our hands is under the fingernails.

It takes a full five minutes of washing to flush out or kill 99 percent of the organisms.

Dominant hands are often underwashed. If you’re right-handed, your left hand is probably cleaner.


Don’t Even ASK Where It Comes From

Should you ever need a skin graft, there’s a good chance the skin will come from a company in Canton, Massachusetts called Organogenesis. Paper-thin, and nearly opaque, the disk-shaped skin grafts are used to treat leg ulcers, burns, and skin cancer lesions. The grafts are grown individually in 3-inch-wide wells and they form round patches which are described as “sticky and slightly elastic.” The source of the cells in the grafts?

Human foreskins.

The skin is procured from newly-circumsized babies (with their mothers’ permission, of course.) Because foreskin is young tissue, it grows rapidly, and as many as 200,000 grafts can be grown from a bit of foreskin no larger than a postage stamp.

Wow, they find a use for everything these days, don’t they?


Okay, so it’s not a creepy biological fact. But I couldn’t resist telling you about this. It’s the culmination of mankind’s race for space, the ultimate symbol of all that we’ve been working toward with rocketry. It’s…

The orbiting billboard.

The restaurant chain Pizza Hut has just signed a deal with the Russian Space Agency to display its new logo, ten meters tall, on a Proton rocket scheduled to blast off later this year. The price for the ad? A rumored one million dollars.


Is your ring finger longer than your index finger? If you’re a man, it may indicate you’re more prone to depression.

The same genes control the prenatal development of fingers and gonads. Long fingers in men seem to indicate exposure to high fetal testosterone levels. Since high prenatal testosterone may predispose men to psychological ailments, a biologist at the University of Liverpool measured finger lengths and screened for depression. The men with the shortest ring fingers were least likely to be depressed.

No such correlation was found in women.


Guys, she may be hopping mad. And you, being guys, just haven’t got a clue.

Psychology grad student Lisa Goos of Toronto showed college students photos of male and female faces displaying four emotions: anger, fear, disgust, or sadness. While the men correctly identified anger in other men about 40 percent of the time, they had a harder time identifying anger in women.

Goos believes this is a natural result of evolution, which dictates that what’s important for survival will be perpetuated. Men learn to recognize anger in other men because an angry man could pose a physical threat. But an angry woman is not something to worry about.

Oh yeah?


Last issue, I wrote about the biochemical evidence that cannibalism existed among tribes of the American southwest. Now comes more evidence that cannibalism is an ancient and not all that uncommon practice.

In the Fiji Islands, Berkeley student David DeGusta analyzed human bones collected from a 2000-year-old refuse heap. Based on the patterns of breaks, burns, and cut marks, he concluded that cannibalism was indeed practiced among the ancient Fijian Islanders.

The practice of eating your fellow hominids may extend to the Neanderthals as well. A French and American team found that 100,000-year-old Neanderthal remains in France bear the signs of the same butchery techniques that were used on animals. Marks on skulls indicate that muscles were filleted from the faces of two young victims, that the tongue was sliced out of one, and that leg bones were smashed to get at the marrow and braincases broken open to get at brain matter. One thing bone had had muscles sliced away. Cut marks on a collar bone show that the arm of one victim was disarticulated at the shoulder.

The bones show no signs of burning. This suggests the flesh was eaten raw.

What is fascinating is that Neanderthals were also capable of ceremonial burials, treating some of their dead with obvious reverence. Why were different corpses accorded such disparate treatment? Were the victims of cannibalism enemies? Or were they eaten out of desperation and famine?

Anthropologist Fred H. Smith of Northern Illinois University believes this varied treatment of the dead demonstrates cultural complexity. “When you see some Neanderthals practicing intentional burial and others practicing cannibalism, that is a clear indication of behavior that is multidimensional — a pattern that mirrors the behavior of more modern people.”


Here’s a defense mechanism that’s new and different: shoot boiling vapors out your rear end. That’s what the Bombardier Beetle does. When attacked, it fights back by firing a chemical spray of a caustic, foul-smelling gas. The beetle can fire up to a dozen times, and each spurt produces an audible pop. The spray itself can blast an enemy as far as two inches away.

The spray is produced by the mixing of two different chemicals which the beetle stores in separate glandular compartments. One compartment contains a solution of hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide, and the other contains a mixture of enzymes. When harrassed, the beetle mixes the contents of these two compartments. A chemical reaction takes place which produces so much heat that the vapor actually reaches the boiling point.

Then all the beetle has to do is point its rear end at the enemy and fire away.