Workshop Notes: “Maggots Can Be Our Friends”

How I Came to Reevaluate the Maggot

speaker: Marlene Lantz
role: McHenry County Coroner, retired
venue: Schaumburg District Township Library
hosts: Sisters in Crime, Chicagoland and Mystery Writers of America
Marlene Lantz, retired McHenry County Coroner


Marlene Lantz, one of my all-time favorite speakers, has a knack for humanizing even the most ghoulish of details from her former job as McHenry County Coroner. She’s a mix of brash beat cop and the classy Dame Judi Dench. Apparently, this combo of personality traits was perfect for her job, as evidenced by 32-plus years of a successful career, which weathered eight elections.

At the Schaumburg Library, I hear her speak for the second time, and she is even more riveting than before. This time, her talk focuses on how bugs can assist in determining time of death. Listening to her speak about her experiences on the job, I find myself running a gamut of emotions from shivering in disgust, to cackling, to getting teary-eyed. And I’m not normally an emotionally messy kind of person…other than the cackling.

“Maggots are like little union workers…they only work under certain circumstances,” she explains deep in her presentation, describing how the slippery white wrigglers she collected off corpses refused to eat beef liver that had been defrosted in a microwave, rather than liver that had been defrosted slowly. “It’s OK. I was a union worker, too. I can say that.”

She describes how, as a young deputy coroner, she once carried around a closed Petri dish of beef liver and some maggots taken directly from a dead body. Every hour, no matter where she happened to be–grocery story, gas station, or whatever–she recorded the temperature and status of the maggots. As soon as the bugs stopped eating, they were able estimate the time of death. She shrugs it off in a way that has us all laughing, “I hated eating liver even before maggots.”

Chiggers, on the other hand, can pin a suspect to a location. She tells us about a man who couldn’t stop scratching himself during a police interview and was quickly tied to the dump scene of a body.

Beetles and larvae casings might be the only bugs left on a skeleton, she says, but even birds can get in on the action. Nearby birds’ nests sometimes contain hairs from a body on the ground. The time of year those particular birds nest can provide a window of time in which the murder may have occurred. An ornithologist assisted her in that case.

bug spray
“Nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

Maggots, however, are the stars of today’s show. “A fly knows you’re dead before you know you’re dead,” Marlene says with assurity. “They can smell a body from miles away. This one guy had so many flies on him, he was being devoured. He kind of fell apart.”

How could she deal with that? Somehow, she did. Because despite all of the autopsies, the unnatural deaths–kids, parents, husbands, and wives–Marlene is still resilient, human, and real.
She says haltingly, her silver-white hair shining, “Life is so wonderful. When your feet hit the floor another day, be thankful for whatever allowed that to happen. Life is so precious.”

I usually write about fictional murders, which you can see in my Josie Tucker mysteries.

6 thoughts on “Workshop Notes: “Maggots Can Be Our Friends”

  1. That's still an area of ongoing research, and the more pathologist know about bugs, their life cycles, and the effects of weather conditions, the more accurate their autopsy reports. And hopefully, that will translate into law enforcement successes and a safer world for all of us. A great post; thanks!

  2. After what was absolutely the most disgusting experience of my life, I was told by the veterinarian that maggots had probably saved my cat’s life. Still, they are disgusting.

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