Can you really die from swallowing gold?

September 18th, 2007 by Lara

In Dream of the Red Chamber, Phoenix makes her husband’s concubine’s life so miserable that the poor girl decides to kill herself, by swallowing a piece of gold. She’s found the next morning, lying peacefully deceased in her bed, and everyone knows exactly how she killed herself. So how much gold would an average person need to swallow to die? And what are the symptoms? Does it have to be coated in arsenic to be effective? Or is this just a mildly poetic method of suicide, preferable in the literary context to jumping off bridges or using a knife?

11 Responses to “Can you really die from swallowing gold?”

  1. AvatarMei

    There are different opinions about this, but the more common understanding is that gold kills by its weight (specific gravity). Since it is so dense, it weighs down and thus tears apart the internal organs, causing internal bleeding, then death. If this is the case, it is really a very painful way to die, nothing like “peacefully deceased”.

  2. AvatarLara
    Author Comment

    OK, let’s be gross here. How much weight does it take to tear a hole in your stomach or intestine? And if the girl has that much gold sitting around, is she really in such a bad position that she can’t buy her way out? Or maybe the poor thing swallows a particularly spiky piece of gold to start the internal bleeding. I think that depriving survivors of that particular piece of wealth is also a factor here. You know that Phoenix would swipe whatever paltry wealth the concubine might have left around, if it’s not inside her body!

    And what about autopsies? How do the family know that the girl has killed herself by swallowing gold? If it’s internal bleeding, I bet she’d be pretty pale, but then aren’t most corpses?

  3. Avatarram

    I don’t want to continue the gross-out, but doesn’t the gold just pass through? If you can’t digest it, then the body has a way to, well, expel it.

  4. AvatarMei

    Well, imagine trying to hold and even manipulate a heavy metal ball inside a thin rubber membrane container. Gold is 19 times denser than water, and presents a lot of stress on the elastic internal organs. I haven’t seeing any real experimental data on this, but the physics of it seem plausible. It’ll be very difficult to “pass” the gold if it is a significant sized piece.

    Autopsies were considered a great disrepect to the dead at the time, and usually only conducted when there was reason to suspect crime.

  5. Avatarram

    Here is a link to a NY Times article from 1892 that discusses suicide by swallowing gold in China. The language is old and the research is dubious but it is interesting reading:

    The article claims suicide is possible by swallowing gold leaf.

    It makes sense that a solid gold object is sufficiently dense to cause interior organ damage when swallowed. However, children have accidentally swallowed bullets, which are presumably made out of lead, and survived according to this story:

    As a child I swallowed a coin, and I’m ok now :-)

  6. AvatarMei

    I’ve heard of the suffocation theory but it seemed even more unlikely. In addition, in most accounts of gold suicide the gold was described as a chunk instead of a sheet. Unless a (highly unethical) experiment could be done to verify this, i don’t think that we could ever know for sure how this works. Maybe people just swallowed whatever looked like gold and willed themselves to death through the power of mental suggestion …

  7. AvatarLara
    Author Comment

    I have to say, the NYT science level of 1900 doesn’t sound very convincing – even if gold leaf balled up in your stomach or guts, how the heck would that suffocate you?

    Of course this would have to be an aristocratic preserve – who else would have that much gold lying around? But it’s too bad we can’t figure this out. Don’t we know any doctors who can be useful and informative here?

    Ram, I don’t suppose that coin you swallowed was gold by any chance, was it?

  8. AvatarLara
    Author Comment

    Aha! I googled “death by swallowing gold,” and gotten pointed to Herbert A. Giles’s 1878 “Glossary of Reference on Subjects Connected With the Far East.” This is the Giles of the Wade-Giles system of transliterating Chinese characters to English, and from what I’ve read of his translations of various bits of Chinese lit, a very knowledgeable and sympathetic (to the Chinese) guy. He says the two characters are “metaphorically used among the Chinese for suicide by poison, chiefly in the case of high officials who have received intimation from Peking that their lives are no longer wanted. Absurdly supposed by foreigners and many ignorant natives to signify death from swallowing gold-leaf.”

  9. AvatarMei

    Hmm, I’m not sure why Giles was so certain about his conclusion. There are indeed records of emporers giving gold leaves to command suicide of ministers, but they are highly unlikely to be the origin of “death by swallowing gold”. The phrase “gold-leaf” is homonym to “tonight”, which is probably used to indicate a deadline. Finely crafted gold jewelry such as a leaf is usually quite soft, and unsuitable as a method to inflict surface injury. Old-time Chinese people should be familiar with the property of gold due to its use as currency, and would be unlikely to make such a wide-spread mistake.

    Swallowing gold was traditionally a method of choice by women, not by men. In Dream of Read Chamber, the Chinese text specifically said Second Lady You killed herself by swallowing “raw gold”, so it was certainly not a piece of gold leaf.

    I asked my parents about this as well. My mother said she pondered the question as a child, since the gold ingots her family had seemed the perfect size for swallowing. She posed the question to her father, who answered that gold killed by weighing down and puncturing the intestines.

    Most modern cases of attempted suicide by swallowing gold involve swallowing a small amount of gold made to have large surface area (gold gain, small gold ring), and seldom resulted in death. There is one report I found in Chinese news, in which a man swallowed a 10 gram gold ring in a wager with friends to see if swallowing gold would kill. He didn’t die, but was plagued with lower-abdomen pain for 3 years, until he couldn’t stand it, and sought help in a hosptal. Doctors said the ring landed in a relatively “safe” section of his small intestine, and were able to wash the ring out without surgery. Not only did the man win the bet, he probably also got additional profit since gold had appreciated significantly in the past few years. The article warned that swallowing gold that is more than 10 grams could be fatal due to puncturation of stomach or intestine, since gold doesn’t move about as easily in the body due to its specific gravity.

  10. Avatarxgz

    Here is a clinical case of swallowing a gold cast crown:
    J Clin Pediatr Dent. 1995 Summer;19(4):289-92.

    Accidental swallowing of a gold cast crown that became loose after separation with brass wire for orthodontic band placement, is reported. The intervention to remove the ingested crown subsequent to its location in the GI tract on immediate radiographic examination of chest and abdomen included endoscopic examination. Since the crown had past distal to the duodenum it was decided to keep a watch on its movement by daily radiographic examination. The crown passed with excreta on the 5th day uneventfully. Literature on ingestion of foreign bodies of dental origin is reviewed. Possible emergencies and their management is discussed.

    (How do I embed a link?)

  11. AvatarLara
    Author Comment

    (Hi XGZ! I think you just copy and paste the URL into your post, but I could be wrong. Word Press also has upload capabilities if you look downscreen from your post before you publish it. That might help you.)

    OK, so maybe gold can puncture you if it’s the right shape and weight, but I think we can all more or less agree that it’s not a poison – it’s a noble metal and doesn’t react with other substances, not even stomach acid, so you can’t digest it.

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