Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ah, Those Wacky Resurrection Men!

Trained in History, Kate Beaton creates comics based on historical events and people. Sometimes, she takes liberties. Sometimes, she doesn't have to. Always hilarious. I love her stuff; she's in my blogroll over there as Hark, A Vagrant! As much as I'm dying to post images of her fantastic "History is Serious" shirt, and to her Ben Franklin flying a kite shirt, I will content myself with links. Because this post is about Resurrection Men.

I posted earlier about resurrection men acquiring recently-dead bodies for use in anatomy classes. When freshly-dead bodies were not forthcoming, some resurrectionists resorted to a DIY approach, and became murderers. Kate Beaton posted a comic recently recounting the exploits of Burke and Hare, infamous providers of cadavers who weren't quite dead when Burke and Hare first met them. In her post, Kate links to the following, which was entirely too good not to share:

Edited to make the YouTube thingy not quite so enormous.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Uh, Wha?

Every once in a while, while researching, I come across something that surprises me. Sometimes it's something I thought I knew about, but didn't (i.e., I knew that Civil War soldiers were shipped back home for burial; what I didn't know is that they were often buried, then disinterred and then shipped back home*); other times, it's something written about something in such a way that I have to do a double take. For example,

Regardless of much manifestation of genuine grief at the death of colored persons during funerals, etc. the negro cemetery almost invariably presents an aspect of neglect and indifference closely bordering on the appearance of the potter's field. There is, therefore, in all probability not the aversion to a pauper burial among the negroes commonly met with among the white population.**

This is in an account relating the universal horrors of pauper burial, and how fabulous institutional insurance (read: life insurance) has been in eradicating the evils of potter's fields. There is much in this work that smacks of privilege, classism, racism, etc. There are some choice bits about the immodest excesses of Irish and Italian working-class funerals -- *especially* the Irish wakes, which are presented as exemplary examples of excess, followed by "oh, yeah... and the Italians." After repeatedly stating that humans have a universal and timeless fear of pauper burials, the author makes the above statement about African-Americans, essentially putting them in a non-human category and/or giving an example of why they are not human.

It surprised me. It shouldn't have, but it did. And I was reminded that times change, and that people have thought differently about things at different times in history. And that's not a bad thing to remember.

PS: Mr. Hoffman, the author of the work cited above, also states that "It is thus clearly shown that the persons of better character and mental or moral status made provision in a larger proportion of cases for depended survivors through insurance." Yep, only the morally superior buy insurance! No surprise, Mr. Hoffman worked for Prudential...

* Faust, Drew Gilpin (2008) This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. (Highly recommended, by the way)
** Hoffman, Frederick L. (1919) Pauper Burials and the Interment of the Dead in Large Cities.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fieldwork Shots

Carriage House

I have a couple of posts brewing, but I'm tired. The past two weeks have included several fieldwork forays to suss out project areas and to monitor ongoing construction work. It's my favorite time of year to be out and about, and the last few cold days have really brought out the colors. Hope you enjoy these!

Eighteenth/Early Nineteenth Century Brickwork

Dancing Vine
(hopefully not poison ivy)

Fall Field


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Archaeologists Don't Do Dinosaurs, but...

It is a pet peeve of mine to be asked about dinosaurs. I peeve about it more than I peeve about being asked about secret tunnels. I don't study dinosaurs; I would study secret tunnels if they existed on my sites... I don't blame the askers, I blame popular culture and the educational system. It is truly amazing how many people think that dinosaurs and people co-existed. But I digress.

The National Park Service has announced the discovery of preserved dinosaur tracks at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (located in Arizona and Utah). "The new Glen Canyon track locality may extend the ornithopod dinosaur record in North America back 20 to 25 million years earlier than previously documented." I am constantly amazed by what survives, and by how much there still is out there to discover.

I am also very pleased to see that there is such a thing as the "
Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-011)" (part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009) under the mandate of which the NPS will be putting together a strategy to inventory and monitor non-renewable paleontological resources. It's about time, imo.

Yes, fossils are cool. So are arrow heads, coins, and other shiny objects. But paleontological and archaeological resources are NON-RENEWABLE. If you rip something out of context, then all you are left with is the thing. All of the contextual information - dates, associations, etc. - is gone, and with it, just about everything that we could learn from them about the past. There is absolutely a place for knowledgeable avocational folks; there is no place for looters and other collectors interested in only the thing, context be damned. And unfortunately, more and more looting is motivated by financial gain, and not even the coolness of the things. If there is a hell, I hope the latter group finds themselves in a nice, uncomfy corner of it.

Random tangents:
  • Glen Canyon is over 1.2 million acres. Holy crap. (I've never been out west; my ideas about large spaces are defined by east coast standards.)
  • To find any National Park's website, take the first two letters from each of the first two words of the park name and jam them at the end of www.nps.gov ... so, Glen Canyon is www.nps.gov/glca Women's Rights National Historic Park is www.nps.gov/wori If the name of the park is only one word, use the first four letters; so, Independence National Historic Park is www.nps.gov/inde
  • I lifted the above picture from the NPS press release. Original tag and credit line: "Ornithopod-like dinosaur trackway preserved in a block of Navajo Sandstone at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. NPS photo."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mark Twain and the Totenhauser

A few days ago I posted about Totenhauser (aka hospitals for the dead, aka waiting mortuaries). In the comments, Ink recalled a Mark Twain story involving a guard at one of these establishments. I don't want to spoil the story, which I thought quite a good one, called "A Thumb-Print and What Came Of It," part of Twain's Life on the Mississippi (pp. 232-247 of the linked edition)... but I will share Twain's description of the Totenhaus:

Toward the end of last year I spent a few months in Munich, Bavaria... One day, during a ramble about the city, I visited one of the two establishments where the Government keeps and watches corpses until the doctors decide that they are permanently dead, and not in a trance state. It was a grisly place, that spacious room. There were thirty-six corpses of adults in sight, stretched on their backs on slightly slanted boards, in three long rows -- all of them with wax-white, rigid faces, and all of them wrapped in white shrouds. Along the sides of the room were deep alcoves, like bay windows; and in each of these lay several marble-visaged babes, utterly hidden and buried under banks of fresh flowers, all but their faces and crossed hands. Around a finger of each of these fifty still forms, both great and small, was a ring; and from the ring a wire led to the ceiling, and thence to a bell in a watch-room yonder, where, day and night, a watchman sits always alert and ready to spring to the aid of any of that pallid company who, waking out of death, shall make a movement -- for any, even the slightest, movement will twitch the wire and ring that fearful bell. I imagined myself a death-sentinel drowsing there alone, far in the dragging watches of some wailing, gusty night, and having in a twinkling all my body stricken to quivering jelly by the sudden clamor of that awful summons! (pp. 233)

Ignoring for a moment Twain's literary turns, comparing watches dragging, the night wailing, and his body "in a twinkling" (all evidences of paranormal activity) stricken to quivering jelly (invoking decomposition)... how many Americans had this as their first introduction to the Totenhaus? How many wondered what Twain was smoking, or pooh-pooh'd those wacky Germans? Now I'm curious if Totenhauser were ever described in Godey's Ladies' Book. (Oh hush, I love me a good tangent...)

Edit: Apparently I've not been using the correct plural for -haus, which should be -hauser not -hausen which is the verb -to dwell, -to reside, -to live. Shame on me for forgetting my high school German! Though the verb form is sort of interesting, particularly in this context.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

It's not all morbid, honest...

My writing soundtrack lately belies the occasionally morbid topic of The Book ... I've been listening to some rollicking folk music. Just TRY to keep your toes from tappity-tapping.

Music from the Contra-Dance, a series of podcasts (currently 73 of them) available free online courtesy Robert Cox. Obviously a labor of love for him, and I'm grateful!

Right, then... anyone up for contra-dancing? (I've never been, either. Perhaps we should wear our steel toes?)

Body Snatching and Being Buried Alive

[S]ome politician whispers to me, "The intelligent part of the community understands perfectly your professional necessity; and these penal enactments [against bodysnatching] are a dead letter - intended merely as an offering to popular prejudice. You doctors should set about overcoming that prejudice, and we statesmen will quickly remove such inconsistencies from the statute-book. If it was our affair, we could persuade the people that it is pleasant to be dissected, just as we so often persuade them that it is profitable for them that we should put our hands into their pockets." - JW Draper, An Appeal to the People of the State of New York, to Legalise the Dissection of the Dead (1853).

From Sappol, Michael (2002)
A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth Century America.

I've been doing some research on nineteenth century bodysnatching in order to beef up (a bit) a portion of The Book. Essentially, the availability of legally-obtained cadavers for medical instruction was severely limited relative to the number of individuals receiving medical training. As an example, in one instance, approximately 400 cadavers would be necessary to train physicians at a medical school over a twenty-year period, in a location where perhaps 40 would be available legally (Shultz 1992: 15). The result was a black market for bodies, which had to be relatively recently deceased to be useful.

The topic is relevant to The Book, but not in a huge way... not in any way that I can justify the amount of reading I really want to do here. The problem is, I find the subject fascinating. I have to promise myself that, if I get my word count in today, that I can read more of these books, and not just the relevant bits I need to cite.

Sappol's book goes heavily into the social identity and meaning that people have had around cadavers, dead bodies, anatomy training, etc. and how issues of class, ethnicity, politics, money, &c. have played into that. He has also included lots of very interesting images. Fascinating stuff, and a worthy read for those interested in the history of medicine, death, cemeteries, identity, and embodiment.

I also have Suzanne Shultz' 1992 book Body Snatching: The Robbing of Graves for the Education of Physicians in Early Nineteenth Century America. Shorter than Sappol's book, this focuses much more closely on the snatching itself and on the snatchers (aka Resurection Men). This is an engaging and deceptively quick read, chock full of historical background, as well as anecdotes and individual stories.

The fear of having one's body snatched actually resulted in the manufacture and sale of burglar-proof coffins here in the US. Several patents were issued, and they appear in undertakers' catalogs at least through the 1890s. Burglar-proofing ranged from simple bands of iron encircling the entire coffin, to elaborate one-way latches, locks, and soldering.

On a related note, check out Jan Bondeson's 2001 book, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. Physicians and medical ethicists continue to argue about where the line between living and dead is. In the past, physicians readily admitted to being uncertain whether their patients were alive or dead, and there were examples of people being prematurely declared dead. This became the source of an hysteria in Europe in particular, where huge waiting mortuaries were built from the eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries (some surviving into the mid-twentieth century). The presumed-dead would be housed at these Totenhausen connected to an alarm system triggered by movement. Individuals were considered actually dead when putrefaction began. There is mention of a waiting mortuary in New York in the 1820s, but this particular phenomenon was largely European. There were, however, several American patents for coffins with alarm systems. Perhaps changing ideas in America regarding an actual, physical resurrection of the body in Heaven and the accompanying horrors of decomposition limited the acceptance of waiting mortuaries here. I don't know enough about changing ideas of death in Europe to say for sure...

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Had some urban fieldwork this past week, along a river that has a long history. The city also has a very long history, but has definitely seen better days. The area along the river is largely light industrial, with medium and very high density (read: project) housing. Amazingly, most of the businesses were up and running, with only one boarded up structure -- certainly encouraging in these economic times.

This riverbank used to be heavily trafficked, with ships pulling up alongside sturdy wooden wharfs and piers built on pilings. These ships carried in raw materials for the thriving industries located along the river, and embarked full of the resulting manufactured goods. This particular stretch of river specialized in ship spars, fine metalwork, and beer.

A few lonely pilings and bulkhead remnants are all that's left from the waterfront's heyday. The riverbank is strewn with broken bricks, rocks, and mountains of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the tides. A solitary goldenrod picked an old piling here to call home. Perhaps the riverfront isn't dead, yet.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Banned Books Week

It is banned books week. While I think the freedom to read is always important, I like Banned Books Week because it shines the spotlight on the issue. I encourage everyone to read a banned book this week; there are no shortages of titles to choose from!

Have a look at the "Frequently Challenged Books" page at the American Library Association website; by clicking about in the sidebar, you can see banned and challenged books by year, author, books by authors of color, by decade, and classics on the list.

11 Banned Books I have Read and Was Surprised to Find They've Been Censored (in no particular order):

  1. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  3. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  4. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  5. Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
  6. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  7. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  8. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
  9. James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl
  10. Where’s Waldo?, by Martin Hanford
  11. Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Check out the Banned Books Challenge for reviews of banned books and some smart discussion about book censorship.