Sunday, November 4, 2012

32. Of Spooks, Ghouls, Mummies, and Related Horrors, part 2

                                              Kim Traynor
         This post and the previous one deal with our ambivalent attitude toward death and the dead.  Last week I told how in the eighteenth-century colonies the medical schools’ need for freshly buried bodies for dissection encouraged the nocturnal pastime of body snatching, which in turn fired up the populace, the result in New York City being the Doctors’ Riot of 1788.  That riot was finally squelched by the militia, but the problem persisted well into the nineteenth century, as seen in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, where Tom and his buddies happen to witness a body snatching in progress that results in a murder.  Twain didn’t need to explain the circumstances behind the body snatching, as his readers were well aware of them.  Only when the various states enacted laws allowing medical schools to obtain unclaimed bodies from public institutions (prisons, hospitals, almshouses) did this time-honored practice decline.

         But body snatching wasn’t the only threat to the dead.  In fast-growing nineteenth-century New York respect for the dear departed suffered grievously as the city expanded relentlessly northward.  Almost daily, in this Progress-obsessed city, a cornerstone was laid, a new street laid out.  If a graveyard stood in the way, the city fathers informed citizens of the need to remove their loved ones to a more distant site, and gave them a certain amount of time to do so.  After that, workmen with spades and pickaxes moved in (no bulldozers in those days) and pitched out a clutter of bones, and even skulls with hair still attached to them, a sight that shocked some bystanders, though others might be pitching pennies nearby.  An 1858 entry in the diary of lawyer George Templeton Strong describes such a scene in the old Potters Field at Fourth Avenue and Fiftieth Street, where excavation had exposed the close-packed coffins of the poor, and ribs, clavicles, and vertebrae were strewn along some railroad tracks, many of the remains already gnawed and crunched by roaming pigs from nearby Irish shanties.  (Roaming pigs were a familiar sight on the city's streets.)  And all this, Strong observed, within a hundred yards of a dense population!  He proclaimed it a disgrace and a scandal.

         But the claims of science, and specifically medical science, were just as ruthless as the claims of Progress.  In his memoir Recollections of an Old Cartman the cartman I. S. Lyon tells how in March 1850 he was hired by Dr. Alexander B. Mott to remove the anatomical collection of his father, Dr. Valentine Mott, a renowned surgeon and physician, from a downtown institute to a new college on Thirteenth Street.  He describes removing five barrels of human skulls from battlefields all over the world, boxes and barrels of loose bones, and several hundred glass jars containing the doctor’s amputations from over forty years, ranging from an infant’s tiny finger to a  thirty-three pound tumor.  The doctor enjoined secrecy, “due to prejudice against the profession.”  At the cartman’s destination there were several stylish new homes across the street from the college, one of them already occupied; each time he brought a load, two ladies appeared at the front window, watched closely, and exchanged significant glances. 

         On the following day, as the cartman and his helper were preparing the fifth and final load, the doctor informed him that the last crate contained “a subject”: a human body floating in a strong-smelling liquid.  Returning to his cart, the cartman  found a half-drunk rowdy peering into one of the barrels about to be loaded, whose cover he had removed.  The drunk shouted to a nearby friend that he had just seen an Indian chief’s head daubed with red and yellow paint.  Given the doctor’s warning, and memories of the 1788 riot, you can imagine the cartman’s feelings.  But the friend, incredulous, dragged his befuddled buddy off for another drink.  So the cartman finished the job without incident, though the harsh smell of the preservative fluid remained in his nostrils for days.  Dreams about skulls and skeletons haunted him, and upon seeing fine ladies and gentlemen on Broadway, he imagined a skeleton following each of them like a shadow.

         Detached as it claimed to be, the medical science of the day reeked of prejudice.  Paupers and “inferior” races were the preferred targets of resurrectionists, and a respected physician thought nothing of included a native American’s head – obtained how? one wonders – in his anatomical collection.  These prejudices would persist well into the twentieth century, if not, albeit less openly, until today.

         Journalists of the time – the more sensational fringe of the tribe – loved to link resurrectionists to another abomination under assault: abortion.  In New York of the 1840s there were just three professional abortionists, with Ann Lohman, known professionally as Madame Restell, the queen of the trade.  Daily, topped by expensive millinery, she paraded about town in a carriage, scandalizing the very citizens who secretly sought out her services.  In February 1846 the newly hatched Police Gazette, long on rhetoric but short on facts, accused Restell of slaughtering infants and their mothers en masse, then pondered how such a “demon murderess” could dispose of the bodies:

We can turn nowhere but to the dissecting knife and the midnight lectures of secret surgical cliniques for an answer.  The female abortionist and the bodysnatcher are the congenial partners in the work of death, and his hands are loathsome with the remains of those whose blood has purpled hers!  Great God!  Here is a thriving butchery.  Here is gold for the murder, and gold for the murdered victim,--and yet the monster breathes unharmed among us, and thrives too, apparently, by the very sanction of the law. 

To which a footnote was appended, stating that a policeman had informed the editors  that “a wretch, notoriously known as a resurrectionist,” had often been seen going in and out of her house.

File:National Police Gazette Restell.jpg
Ann Lohman, as depicted by The Police Gazette of March 13, 1847
         So respect for human life was pushed to the point of condemning not only the abortionist and the body snatcher, but also those lecturing at midnight in “secret surgical cliniques,” which presumably meant doctors in medical schools, though word of midnight lectures must have been news to them and their students. 

         Such allegations seemed to be confirmed when, in April 1846, William H. Maxwell was brought to trial for body snatching.  This was the husband of Madame Costello, Restell’s arch rival in the trade.  The chief witness against Maxwell was a twice-convicted burglar named Carroll, whose presence in court had been vastly encouraged by the district attorney’s clapping him in jail.  Carroll told how Maxwell had expressed an interest in purchasing “substances to sell to doctors,” and on a subsequent occasion informed him that one of his wife’s customers “had stepped out” (a term that elicited laughter in the courtroom) and was therefore available.  So Carroll went to Costello’s residence in Lispenard Street and helped Maxwell remove the bagged body from behind a door, pack it in a crate, and send it off by Adams Express to a Samuel Whitney of Woodstock, Vermont.  Carroll gave a grisly description of the body (a blackened head and neck, protruding tongue, etc.) and quoted Costello as saying her customer “had been screwed up [had an abortion], and she was never so astonished when she went off in a hurry.”  Which was a common inconvenience in the trade, and the one that practitioners most dreaded.  But if your husband, a ropemaker by profession, is branching out into body snatching, the problem would seem to be solved, unless, of course, his assistant is induced to testify in court.

         Appearing for the defense were both Costello’s married daughters, who testified that they had visited their ma at the time of the alleged incident and most decidedly saw no sick female, much less a dead body, lying about.  When the case was delivered to the jury, they deliberated for sixteen hours and then informed the judge that they were hopelessly deadlocked.  Obviously, the testimony of a convicted burglar, whom several police officers had described as being a notorious thief of bad reputation, was not enough to convict even so unsavory a character as Maxwell, who, getting impatient when his wife’s dying patient lingered, had threatened “to cut her damned head off.”  (An idle threat, since headless bodies were not acceptable for purposes of dissection.)  As for Samuel Whitney of Woodstock, Vermont, the recipient of the body, he seems to have escaped further mention, not to say investigation and arrest. 

         As testimony in Maxwell’s trial made clear, with a body-snatching husband whose assistant was a convicted burglar, Madame Costello could hardly be said to keep the best company.  And with an occasional corpse stashed under a bed or behind a door downstairs, her establishment was not the most professionally enticing.  No wonder Restell got the carriage trade.

         (Mrs. Byrd, the third member of this unholy trinity, apparently ran a rather drab operation, embellished by neither expensive millinery nor a body-snatching spouse.)

Old gravestone, Trinity Church graveyard
Gigi alt
         In nineteenth-century New York, even as body snatchers skulked about and abortionists flourished, the good citizens were undergoing a profound evolution in how they disposed of and honored the deceased.  Up till now, funerals of genteel society had been held in the parlor, following which the dear departed, boxed in a simple wooden coffin, was removed to a small graveyard, often adjacent to the church the loved one had attended, and deposited there in a grave marked by a simple gravestone.  The coffin was provided by an undertaker, usually a carpenter or cabinetmaker by trade, who oversaw the whole procedure at minimal expense.  It was simple, unpretentious, cheap.

A family mausoleum in Greenwood
         Too simple, too unpretentious and cheap.  The affluent middle class wanted more, and in New York began to get it when Greenwood Cemetery opened in Brooklyn in 1838.  This was no ordinary graveyard cluttered up with gravestones, but a landscaped park with hillocks and meadows and vistas graced with impressive monuments featuring pensive female figures, winged cherubs, draped urns, broken lutes, and the most inconsolable weeping willows.  Here, at a safe remove from the city’s hurly-burly, the extinguished loved ones could rest in rural peace, with the holy influence of nature all around them.  Woodlawn in the Bronx would follow, and countless other park cemeteries throughout the country.  Today the most celebrated (and on occasion satirized) of these cemeteries is Forest Lawn in Glendale, California, where many a movie star is buried.

         But was a simple pinewood coffin appropriate for a landscaped  setting?  Surely not.  The departed loved ones deserved something finer.  By the 1860s, if not before, stores along Broadway were displaying in their windows caskets of polished rosewood and mahogany with silver or silver-plated mountings, some of them with transparent lids so as to render the deceased’s face visible.  There were cushioned interiors (the dear ones must be comfortable), and baby coffins with pure white satin lining, fringed with lace.  And the hearses to transport these marvels had panels of plate glass, so as to display their luxury to all.  Just as the graveyard evolved into the cemetery, the coffin became a casket, and the casket a work of art. 

File:11brown-cityroom-articleInline.jpg         Funerals were now held in churches, and presiding over them were the sextons of the fashionable churches, of whom the foremost was Isaac H. Brown, who from 1845 until his death in 1880 served as sexton of Grace Episcopal Church at Tenth Street and Broadway.  Tall, red-faced and elegantly obese, Brown supplemented his routine duties at the church by planning the weddings and soirées of the affluent, and their funerals.  “The Lenten season is a horridly dull season,” he famously announced, “but we manage to make our funerals as entertaining as possible.”  It was he, and he alone, who for thirty-five years determined all the details of a fashionable New York funeral: the casket, the arrangement of furniture, the laying out of the deceased, the lighting, the drapery, the hearse, the number of horses, the size and quality of the plumes on the hearse and team.  For thirty-five years it was he, and he alone, who could tell what was last year’s style and therefore to be avoided, and what was now “in” and to be embraced.  No one questioned his expertise in these matters, his tyranny.  He himself was not of society, but society couldn’t do without him.  For those “in society” or aspiring to it, funerals, like weddings, were now planned so as to display the family’s wealth and status, and Brown was the planner extraordinaire.  Indeed, it was the dream of many a society matron “to be buried by Brown from Grace.”

A widow in full mourning
         Among the affluent middle class, Victorian mourning was a serious matter.  Certain clothing and rules were prescribed for all, but the most onerous restrictions fell upon the widow, who for a year was in full mourning, wearing lusterless black adorned only with ample amounts of crape, and shunning all social contact.  Then, slowly, she went through several lesser stages of mourning, adding purple and white and gray, and jet jewelry.  Finally she was allowed to wear her more glittering jewelry and modestly colorful attire (nothing too gaudy, of course), and appear again in public.

         But this too would change.  By the 1880s the professional funeral director, or mortician, had emerged, a well-dressed gentleman aspiring to rival the doctor or clergyman in status.  Embalming replaced ice as the preferred way of preserving the loved one, and bodies were interred in their finest clothing rather than in a shroud.  Funeral homes appeared with facilities for elaborate funerals, sermons got shorter and cheerier, mourning garb was shunned, and everything conspired to soothe and console.  The well-groomed body now looked almost alive, and the fact of death was obscured by new emphasis on the trappings of death.  All this was done with the full consent and encouragement of the mourners, and in the process the status of the funeral director soared, and with it his salary and fees.  And so developed, in New York and the rest of the country, the American way of death.

Footnote:  The American Way of Death was Jessica Mitford’s 1963 bestseller, exposing the abuses of the modern funeral industry.  Her points were well taken, 
but in one detail she erred: there is substantial evidence that the grieving public encouraged funeral directors to assume more responsibility and control of funerals; the directors were not secretly conspiring to do so, but answering the public’s expressed need.  In so doing, of course, they lined their own pockets amply.  When Mitford died in 1996, her funeral cost $533.31, and her cremation $475.00. 

Egyptian mummies in the British Museum today
Bram Souffreau

A pharaoh's mummy in the Cairo Museum, 1900-1920
         One last note regarding our attitude toward the dead.  As a growing boy I loved going to the Field Museum in Chicago, where I especially prized the dinosaur exhibits and, appropriately housed in a basement chamber, the Egyptian mummies.  The mummies were not unwrapped; I saw them in their elegant sarcophagi.  Since then I have seen photos in books of mummies that have indeed been unwrapped, so that the eerily preserved – or half-preserved – features are visible.  Egyptian mummies, indeed, are among the prize possessions of museums all over the world.  And now, earlier this very year, the Field Museum offered a new show of its mummies facilitated by noninvasive CT scans revealing a host of details about them, such as certain limbs missing, teeth with decay or missing, and the sex of a small boy whose genitals are now at last visible.  The Museum invited visitors to “navigate into a sarcophagus, unwrap the outer wrappings, and explore the interior.  You may think that you’ve seen mummies before, but you’ve never seen mummies like this.  For a limited time only, at The Field Museum.”  I’m sure that hordes of visitors flocked, including boys like myself long ago.

         The websites advertising the show have comments from the public, most of whom express the greatest interest in it.  But one comment caught my attention: “Bury the dead, you sick people!”  These were, after all, human beings like ourselves, buried with all the care and ceremony befitting their rank, in anticipation of an afterlife.  Never could they or those around them have anticipated that, millennia hence, their remains would be on display to an alien and voyeuristic public.  Are these displays really so different from Dr. Valentine Mott’s collection of human remains, which included the severed head of a Native American?  Science has triumphed over respect for the dead, not to mention any sense of the sacred.  

         Which brings me back to the theme announced at the outset of these two posts: the ambivalence of our attitude toward the dead.  We honor them, fear them, pray for them, disrespect them, flee the very thought of death and decay at our funerals, and flock to see the preserved remains of the dead of centuries past.  They aren’t us, so we can ogle them without qualms.  We’re a funny bunch, and I include myself in the comment.  What will people ages hence think of us?  So once again, though now slightly after the fact, Happy Halloween!


More presidential wisdom:

“In politics you’ve got to learn that overnight chicken shit can turn to chicken salad.”  Lyndon B. Johnson

"The storm of frenzy and faction must inevitably dash itself against the unshaken rock of the constitution."  Franklin Pierce

“Involuntary servitude … is recognized by the Constitution.”  Franklin Pierce

“The presidency is no bed of roses.”  James Polk

"Civilization and profit go hand in hand."  Calvin Coolidge

Mr. Coolidge, to his credit, was a man of few words.  A woman once addressed him: “Oh Mr. Coolidge, you're so reticent.  I just bet a friend that I can make you say more than two words.”  Coolidge’s response: “You lose.”

But my favorite president is Franklin Pierce, who is so wonderfully and deservedly unremembered.  Do you know anything about him?  Neither do I.

                                        (c) 2012  Clifford Browder


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