Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Curtain Theatre stage, secret passageway revealed

Sunday, November 13th, 2016

The remains of the Curtain Theatre, the Elizabethan playhouse in Shoreditch, north London, where Shakespeare’s Henry V and Romeo and Juliet were first staged, were first discovered by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in October 2011 during an exploratory excavation in advance of developement. Built in 1577, the Curtain was the second purpose-built public playhouse in London (The Theatre was the first), and the main staging venue for the plays of Shakespeare between 1597 and 1599. After that it was supplanted by the famous Globe Theatre, and the last recorded play at the Curtain was performed in 1622. Over time the exact location was lost until the MOLA team found it on (or rather under) Hewett Street.

The Curtain was believed to have been dismantled during the Commonwealth — Puritans weren’t keen on the rowdy entertainments of the public theater — but a much wider open-area excavation this year has found that in fact the theater was likely repurposed into a tenement. That has proven a great archaeological boon, because while all that remains today of the Globe and the Rose, two theaters on the South Bank famed for having staged Shakespeare’s plays, are bits and bobs of stonework from the foundations, there’s enough the Curtain left to paint a rich picture of the Elizabeth playhouse, and much of what they’ve found has entirely upended expectations.

Historians previously thought the Curtain was a polygonal structure with a thrust stage, like the more famous theaters that followed it. Archaeologists discovered that in fact it was rectangular building with a rectangular stage. The stage was 14 meters (46 feet) long and five meters (16 feet) deep, a very unusual proportion that may have made it possible to field larger numbers of players for Shakespeare’s busy battle scenes. That means that the prologue of Henry V, which alludes to the theater as a “wooden O,” must have been written after the play’s premier at the Curtain, perhaps for later performances at the Globe. Under the stage archaeologists found the remains of a tunnel that was accessed by doors on either side of the stage. Actors would have used it to exit from one side of the stage and enter from the other side out of view of the audience.

There are remains of brick walls, 1.5 meters (4’9″) at the highest, and even part of the sloping yard made of compacted gravel where the people with the cheapest tickets, known as groundlings, stood in front of the stage. Between the standing room and the more expensive seats in three sides of timber galleries, the theater could accomodate 1,200 people.

Archaeologists have found artifacts like clay pipes, wine bottles, glass beads, a comb, and one tiny broken piece of clay that looks like an egg cup but is the bottom of a bird call, perhaps used for sound effects in plays like Romeo and Juliet where the song a bird interrupts the lovers in their marriage bed. They’ve also found a group of green glazed knobs and a few sherds from money boxes.

Throughout findings, we’ve also been able to tell that The Curtain Theatre is one of earliest Elizabethan playhouses where people actually paid money to see performances and be entertained. We know this because fragments of ceramic money boxes have been found. These fragments are a really exciting find because the pots would have been used to collect the entry fees from theatregoers and then been taken to an office to be smashed and the money counted. This office was known as the ‘box office’, which is actually the origin of the term we still use today!

The Curtain Theatre has been covered now with sand and a protective membrane to keep it secure while the mixed-use development of retail, office space, homes, a park and a performance area is built around it. The new development will be called The Stage, appropriately enough, and has been redesigned in light of the discovery to display the archaeological remains of the Curtain in the new cultural and visitors center.

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Conserving The Death of Buddha

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

The depiction of the death of the Buddha surrounded by the inconsolable grief of beings, human and animal, who have yet to achieve enlightenment and the detachment from earthly desires, has a long, rich tradition in Asian art. Hanabusa Itchō’s version, painted in 1713 during the Edo period, is done in the animated, dynamic style characteristic of his work. He was known for his keen observation of daily life and for biting parodies, one of which got him exiled for 12 years when he chose the mistress of the shogun as a subject for satire. He returned to Edo in 1710 after the death of shogun he’d offended, and quickly picked up where he’d left off.

His The Death of Buddha was hugely famous during the Edo period. It belonged to a Zen temple in Tokyo which is believed to have displayed it once a year during Nehan-e (Nirvana Day), the Buddhist holiday celebrating the death of the Buddha and his passing into Mahaparinirvana, for more than 150 years. Pilgrims traveled to the temple just to see the painted scroll as viewing it was believed to be good karma.

The ownership history has a gap between 1850 and 1886. At some point before the latter date, it was acquired by Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor at Tokyo Imperial University who was an avid art historian and collector of Japanese art. In 1886, he sold his entire collection to Boston doctor Charles Goddard Weld (former Massachusetts governor William Weld is a scion of the family) conditional on its eventually going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where Fenollosa had attended art school. Weld bequeathed it to the MFA Boston after his death in 1911.

The scroll hasn’t been on view since 1990 for its own protection. A massive piece at six feet wide and 10 feet tall, it’s the largest scroll in the museum collection and conservation for such a large, delicate piece is extremely challenging. Adding to the logistically difficulties, the scroll hasn’t been remounted since 1850 when it was still at the Zen temple in Tokyo. Because scrolls have unique pressures — they’re rolled, mounts regularly fail or being to tug, tear and pull at the painting — they’re usually remounted every century or so.

The museum began planning the complex conservation of The Death of Buddha three years ago. Active conservation began in the spring of this year in the MFA Boston laboratory. Four conservators, two from the MFA Boston and two from the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery which has an exceptional collection of Asian art and is currently being renovated allowing East Asian painting experts Andrew Hare and Jiro Ueda to join in the conservation of one the great scroll paintings of the Edo period. It is truly a conservation dream team. Three of the four, lead conservator Philip Meredith and both of the Freer experts, did the traditional ten-year apprenticeships at registered conservation studios required by Japanese government regulation for the conservation of Japan’s cultural patrimony. Meredith was only the second westerner to complete the decade-long apprenticeship.

In August, the scroll and conservation team moved to the Asian Painting Gallery to give the public the rare opportunity to watch the painstaking work in progress in an exhibition called Conservation in Action: Preserving Nirvana. The scroll had to be dismantled from mount screws to linings to silk borders. After cleaning, consolidation, crease flattening, removal of old linings, replacement with new linings and the reassembling of every part, the scroll must be stretch dried on a custom karibari drying board 18 feet long.

It’s in the home stretch now, but conservation still proceeds apace. Visitors to the MFA Boston galleries can view the team at work until January 16th, 2017. The rest of us can get a glimpse into this extraordinary labor of love and expertise in the following videos.

A fascinating overview of the conservation process:

Timelapse video of the conservation team applied temporary facing to the painting:

Here the team applies layers of protective paper, humidifying the work and removing the temporary facing. Then they turn it face down and remove old linings from the creases so that they can brush out the creases and re-flatten the painting.

In this last timelapse video, the conservators remove all the old lining paper from the back of the painting, lifting it with bamboo sticks and tweezing off the fibers that remain. They replace the old lining with fresh Mino washi, a traditional Japanese mulberry paper that is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, adhered with wheat starch paste.

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Beer recreated from 18th c. shipwreck yeast

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Conservators at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia’s largest regional museum, have used samples of what is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving beer to create a modern brew from 18th century microorganisms.

The bottles were discovered in the shipwreck of the Sydney Cove, a small merchant vessel carrying alcohol, food, textiles and livestock from Calcutta to Port Jackson (modern-day Sydney) in 1797. On February 9th, the ship was caught in a storm and began to take on water. The captain decided to deliberately ground the Sydney Cove on the shore of Preservation Island, Tasmania. The full crew survived and after stashing all the cargo they could salvage, 17 of them set out for Port Jackson in the ship’s longboat, becoming the first Europeans to cross the Bass Strait between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Their bad luck held, however, and they got into another wreck off Ninety Mile Beach, Victoria, a full 400 miles from their destination. They had to walk the coast all that way to finally reach Port Jackson. By the time they got there in May, only three of the 17 were still alive.

The eighth oldest shipwreck in Australian waters, the Sydney Cove was rediscovered in 1977 and excavated by marine archaeologists from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service from 1991 to 1994. They recovered 26 glass bottles of beer from the ship’s hold, as well as bottles of wine, brandy and gin. The artifacts were sent to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery where two samples were drawn from one of the beer bottles and kept in storage.

Museum conservator David Thurrowgood found a forgotten sealed bottle of beer from the shipwreck two years ago. As a chemist, he was intrigued at the prospect of investigating microorganisms that might still be living in the beer. He extracted a sample with a syringe but found no critters alive. The two samples drawn in the 1990s, on the other hand, were more productive. Thurrowgood and a team of experts from Australia, France, Germany and Belgium were able to revive five strains of yeast from the samples, and several different species of bacteria.

DNA testing of the yeast strains found they are related to yeast found in beers brewed in Trappist monasteries. Researchers also plan to analyse the DNA of the other microbes discovered in the samples to discover more about pre-Industrial diets.

“People talk about autoimmune diseases and other issues [relating to] the fact that we have quite a clean diet today, whereas in the past we had a diet full of microbes,” Thurrowgood said. “This is one of the few chances we’ve got to actually test those microbes, and actually see what they were.”

Meanwhile, one of the yeast cultures drawn from the Sydney Cove beer has been used to create a new batch named Preservation Ale after the island where the ship ran ground. They used an English beer recipe from the late 18th century to recreate a brew as close as possible to the original.

“It’s got quite a sweet taste — some people have described it as almost a cider or fresh taste — which has come from the yeast,” said project leader David Thurrowgood….

The researchers also uncovered a historical account of a celebrated English beer from the time that was known for its sweet, cider-like flavor, similar to the beer brewed from the reanimated yeast.

“That was quite a surprise, but having found that reference, and to have that particular taste come out in the beer … it showed that the beer did actually have a distinctive taste at the time that we’re only rediscovering now,” Thurrowgood told Live Science.

Only a few bottles have been brewed for research purposes, so for now there’s no chance of the public getting a sip of this cider-like beer. Several companies have expressed interest in making a brew for wider public consumption, however. Meanwhile, researchers plan to study the wine and other alcohol found on the shipwreck. They will examine the red wine to compare it to modern red wine and to study any microorganisms within.

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Supreme Number One imperial musket slays at auction

Thursday, November 10th, 2016


An imperial musket custom-made for the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) and marked with the unique ranking of “Supreme Grade, Number One” sold at a Sotheby’s London auction on November 9th for a £1,985,000 ($2,638,000). This is the first Chinese firearm with an imperial reign mark to appear at auction, and the bidding was fierce. The winning bid, almost half a million pounds above the high estimate, was made by an Asian private collector.

The Qianlong Emperor was an avid collector of art and had a great interest in Western technology. Western firearms captured his fancy not for waging war, but for hunting. Their great length required a tripod for shooting, which is not the most convenient weaponry for battle. Its firepower was far more effective than a bow and arrow for hunting, however, and the stationary position was fine once the target was acquired.

The Qianlong Emperor, one of the most powerful Sons of Heaven and the longest-lived and de-facto longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history, deeply admired his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722), and like him, was proud of his Manchu ancestry and at the same time keenly interested in Western technology. Both were intent on keeping in touch with a Manchu life style, organized large-scale training hunts at Rehe (Jehol), Chengde, northeast of Beijing, with soldiers from the Eight Banners, to keep their troops well trained for military campaigns, and prided themselves on their own hunting, riding and shooting skills. Organized hunting trips were also a way of building closer relations with Mongolian princes who usually participated in these hunts. While traditionally, hunting would have been done with bow and arrow, or with spears, the advent of Western firearm technology sparked off the production of muskets also in the imperial workshops.

The emperor’s love of hunting was well known and represented in art. Giuseppe Castiglione, the Italian Jesuit missionary who became a court artist who famously sculpted the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac for a water clock at the Old Summer Palace that were looted by the British in 1860 and wound up in European collections, depicted the Qianlong Emperor calling deer with a large party in a hilly terrain. One anonymous court painter captures the emperor shooting deer with a musket on a tripod much like the one that sold at auction. There’s an even a poem written by the emperor himself when he was 88 years old about how he could still shoot a deer with perfect aim.

The Supreme Number One matchlock musket was one of very few made by the Manufacture Department of the Imperial Household for the Qianlong Emperor using the most expensive materials. The stock is elm wood. The barrel is cast iron inlaid with gold, silver and copper foliage decoration. The muzzle is also cast iron and is inlaid with the gold mark of the Qianlong Emperor. Behind the breech, visible only if the musket is taken apart, is the inscription “te deng di yi” (Supreme Grade Number One). It comes with its original tripod of rare zitan wood (red sandalwood native to India) with pointy horn-shaped feet made of cast iron.

The Supreme Grade Number One designation is unique among the imperial muskets that have survived. It is likely connected to six imperial muskets now in the collection of Beijing’s Palace Museum. They have individual names that appear on a list of seven in the Qing-era record Collected Statutes of the Qing Dynasty with Illustrations. They were likely given graded as well, although the inscriptions are not extant.

Chinese Actor Wang Gang recites the Qianlong Emperor’s poem on hunting deer with one of his prized muskets:

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Rare dodgy nickel found in Deadwood

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

Coin experts have identified a rare example of an 1883 Racketeer Nickel in a group of coins excavated in the historic Chinatown of Deadwood, South Dakota. The coin was discovered in July of 2001 during one of four excavations of Deadwood’s Chinatown district. It was one of more than 200 coins found over the course of four years, most of them Chinese brass pieces. They were all sent to the South Dakota Archeological Research Center in Rapid City to be catalogued only to return to Deadwood in 2009 when City Hall got a new storage facility and laboratory for historic artifacts.

Nobody realized there was a very special coin in the mix until this year. Deadwood Historic Preservation Office had sent photos of the Chinese coins to numismatists Dr. Margie Akin and her husband Kevin Akin last year. They were able to identify all but 16 of them from the pictures. In September of this year, the Akins went to Deadwood where they were asked to examine the 16 mystery coins in person. That done, City Archivist Mike Runge, who is in charge of the city’s vast college of documentary and archaeological materials, showed them a small group of US coins that had been found during the digs.

“It’s a common joke among archeologists that the best thing you find, the most important discoveries, are made in the last hour of the last day,” Margie Akin said recently from California. “I’ve seen many cases where that has been true.”

And it came true again. [...]

“When we found it, I held it up and said, ‘Margie, look at this. A Racketeer Nickel, oh my God!’” Kevin recalled. “It was a bit of a Eureka moment.”

What makes the 1883 Racketeer Nickel such a treasure is that it looked a lot more expensive than it was. It was close in size to a $5 gold piece, and it was the first base metal coin to have a Liberty-head design. The Mint also muddied the waters by only indicating the coin’s value with the Roman numeral “V.” The word “cents” appeared nowhere.

This was an open invitation to fraudsters they accepted with alacrity. A bit of cheap gold plating on the new nickel, and voila! That’s how you make five dollars out of five cents.

U.S. Treasury officials denied there was a problem. But a local newspaper story at the time told a different tale.

“The new nickel five-cent piece is the subject of much discussion in the treasury department,” the Feb. 22, 1883, Black Hills Daily Times reported. “Treasurer Gilfillan carries one in his vest pocket. One of these coins is plated with gold, and its resemblance on one side to a five-dollar gold piece is quite striking. The broad ‘V’ on the opposite side is unlike the device on any other coin, and of course should be an effectual barrier to its fraudulent use.”

The same newspaper article stated that Mint Director Horatio Burchard, “ridicules the idea of any successful counterfeit of gold being made from the new nickel. He said that a proposition to suspend coinage of the new piece has not been made, and so far as he knows none is contemplated.”

Coinage was not suspended, but less than a month later, the Secretary of the Treasury ordered that the word “cents” be added to the reverse of the 1883 nickels underneath the V. They could no longer be passed off to the unobservant as gold five dollar pieces, but the resourceful grifters of Deadwood found another use for them.

Three months later, the Daily Times reported that well-heeled merchants and miners of Deadwood had found a new use for the Racketeer Nickel.

“A number of the toney young men about town are wearing cuff buttons made of the new nickels,” the newspaper reported. “They are highly plated with gold, and to the uninitiated look for all the world like genuine five-dollar gold pieces.”

The one found at Deadwood has no market value — something like 10 cents at most, the Akins say, because of its very poor condition — but its link to the famously rowdy past of the Black Hills mining town give it great historical worth.

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Vasari’s Last Supper restored after 50 years

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

It’s been exactly 50 years since the Arno river in Florence broke its banks and flooded the historic city with 22 feet of toxic sludge. Some of the greatest art in the world, 14,000 artworks and books, were lost forever. Many thousands more pieces of Florence’s immense cultural patrimony spent a day soaked in a dangerous, volatile and destructive mixture of water, mud, gas, sewage and naphtha forced out of underground home fuel tanks by the 40-mile-an-hour floodwaters.

One of the worst hit was the monumental 21-by-8-feet panel painting The Last Supper made in 1546 by painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari. Kept in the Basilica of Santa Croce which is a few blocks from the Arno and at a lower elevation than much of the rest of the city, The Last Supper was completely submerged in filth for more than 12 hours. When the waters receded, they literally pulled the paint and gesso underlay off the five poplar panels which were now the consistency of a sponge.

The Mud Angels, volunteers who flocked to Florence to do everything they could to save its mortally wounded art, waded through the sludge scooping up any tiny fragment of paint they could find. Art conservator Marco Grassi, carpenter Ciro Castelli and others worked together to salvage the moribund panel paining. They affixed sheets of Japanese mulberry paper to the surface with methacrylate resin to keep the blistered and peeling paint from coming off. The painting was then taken apart and its five component panels laid out flat on racks in the conservatory of a lemon orchard. The relatively humid environment, it was hoped, would allow the panels to dry slowly and minimize cracking and warping. It was the best they could do at the time, but the panels dried hard anyway. They lost two centimeters in width and developed cracks. The gesso primer dried poorly too, becoming unstable and crumbly.

The technology to repair the overwhelming amount of damage simply did not exist in 1966. It wouldn’t exist for another 40+ years. The breakthrough happened in 2010, when the Getty Foundation gave a $400,000 grant to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the stone mosaic workshop founded in the 16th century which has become one of the world’s leading art restoration institutes, to bring The Last Supper back from the dead and enlist the great expertise and experience of retired or retiring panel-painting conservators to train a new generation.

It was backbreaking labour. Removing the mulberry paper proved a devilish task, with swaths of paint, detached from the brittle gesso layer, coming off with the paper. Fixing the panels themselves was an immense challenge as well. They had to be enlarged to their original size in order to put the curled and lifted paint back into place. Ciro Castelli devised an ingenious method to resolve that conundrum. He cut tiny slits in the back and filled them and the original dowel tracks with jigsaw puzzles of poplar wood filler. This precision system stretched the panels and will also help preserve them going forward since it gives them room to expand and contract naturally.

In 2013, the five panels were put back together for the first time since 1966. In 2014, fashion house Prada donated a big chunk of change for the last phase of restoration. With this extra boost, restorers hoped they’d be able to complete their work in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood and they succeeded. On November 4th, 2016, Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Supper went back on display at the Museo dell’Opera in the old refectory of Santa Croce.

There’s a wonderful article on the flood and restoration of the Vasari painting in The New York Times by Paula Deitz, who was in Florence on the day of the flood November 4th, 1966, in which Marco Grassi talks about his how they worked to save The Last Supper.

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St. Anne’s Well rescued from oblivion

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

A medieval holy well in the village Rainhill, in Merseyside, England, used for centuries by pilgrims for its reputed miraculous healing powers, has been recovered after decades of neglect. The location of St. Anne’s Well was known, but after decades of ploughing in the surrounding fields, it had filled up with soil and was marked only by a couple of rocks perched on a patch of half-dead grass. In danger of disappearing from the landscape all together, six years ago it was placed on the Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register. Earlier this year, Historic England commissioned Oxford Archeology North to excavate the site and find out what was left.

Two days of digging revealed a shallow well 5’9″ square and four feet deep constructed of local ashlar sandstone blocks with a level stone floor and three steps lead down to the water basin. There is a thin layer of water at the bottom of the well even now. A stone conduit on the north side of the well which once carried overflow water from the well to a carved stone basin is no longer extant. Also missing is a medieval carved relief of a woman carrying a pitcher that was last recorded on site in the mid-19th century when the well was still in use.

While there doesn’t seem to be an explicit association of St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, with water or wells in Catholic or Orthodox traditions, in England many waters believed to have healing powers were dedicated to her. Veneration of sacred springs, wells and fonts was a common in pre-Christian religions, so it seems likely the powers of earlier divinities or forces were mapped on to Anne in the late Middle Ages when her cult became increasingly popular. The wells were sometimes said to have been visited by an apparition of St. Anne who bathed in the waters rendering them miraculous; other times her image appeared in the water or structure of the well, like Jesus on a potato chip.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Rainhill St. Anne’s Well had a reputation for specializing in the treatment of skin diseases. Pilgrims seeking healing would walk down the steps and dip into the water that naturally filled the basin, seeping in from below the stone floor. The faithful who sought aid from the healing waters would leave offerings, from the simple (crutches, shirts) to the rarefied (gold coins), another practice long predating Christianity. As the holy well became a greater and greater draw, Sutton Priory, the monastery about a mile away which owned the well, had a small three-room house built over the well. Two of the priory monks lived in the house to tend to the well, the pilgrims and their gifts.

Sutton Priory was small in population, having about a dozen monks, but large in income. Besides the well, which by the 16th century was very lucrative, it owned the valuable surrounding farmland which it leased to moneyed members of the gentry. A boundary dispute between the priory and its neighbor Sir Richard Bold would transform the holy well into a cursed one.

The legend of how the holy well became the locus of a curse was recounted in the St. Helens Leader (pdf), the journal of the local YMCA, in 1877. Hugh Darcy, Bold’s steward met Prior Delwaney and traded harsh words with him. Darcy sneered that maybe the prior wouldn’t be a prior a much longer. The year was 1536, and one or two days after that tense exchange, Layton and Leigh, agents of Thomas Cromwell charged with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, notified Delwaney that Sutton Priory was to be no longer. All the monks were given a couple of pounds, a robe and packed off to another monastery (until that one too was dissolved), and the crown claimed all of the priory’s property, including the holy well.

When the prior and the crown’s agents went to the well, they found Dancy there, gloating. Delwaney became enraged at Dancy’s taunts and hissed: “The curse of the serpent be on thee, thou spoiler of the Lord’s inheritance. Thy ill-gotten gains shall not profit thee, and a year and a day shall not pass ere St. Anne thy head shall bruise.” Three hours later, Delwaney was dead. Dancy did fine at first, acquiring the farmland that included the well and demolishing the house over it. But within months his only son was dead, his lost his money in dubious investments and he took to drinking heavily. One night, after an evening of imbibing at the tavern, he failed to come home. He was found dead the next morning, head smashed against the well.

The story of the curse and the loss of the priory didn’t stop people from seeking healing in the waters of St. Anne’s Well. It was in use into the 19th century, adding to its previous reputation one for healing diseases of the eye. It was captured in a sketch by naturalist and fossil-hunter Richard Owen in 1843, and it still had its basin and the relief of the lady with the pitcher. By 1877, however, when the St. Helens Leader article was written, the stones were broken, the water dried up and weeds grew unchecked.

The well is on private property today, but Historic England has struck an agreement with the farmer to keep the well from getting clogged with dirt and disappearing again.

New wooden edging to the perimeter of the excavation will prevent soil falling in, and provide a buffer to protect the well from damage by farm machinery. It can now come off the Heritage at Risk Register.

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A True Tale of Grave-Robbing Horror, Part III

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

The investigation of the Harrison Horror quickly bore fruit. Cincinnati police detective Charles Wappenstein, Snelbaker, Pinkerton and others hit the medical schools hard, looking for Augustus Devin’s body and for information on the resurrectionists they employed. Professors at the Ohio Medical College and at its rival in Cincinnati, the Miami Medical College, admitted the bodies weren’t just dumped by unknowns who were paid the next day. They contracted for bodies with specific resurrectionists who guaranteed a minimum yearly supply. In fact, it turned out that Cincinnati was something of a hub of the corpse trade, the main city to and from which dead bodies would be shipped from smaller cities in the region.

Finally it was another janitor, this one at the Miami Medical School, who broke the case wide open. When Snelbaker, who had received a tip that the body of Augustus Devin had been at the school, showed up with a search warrant, the janitor was squirrely. He got even squirrelier when Snelbaker prepared to dig up the basement looking for Augustus Devin’s body. Finally he cracked, telling him the droid they were looking for was not there (the body of an elderly woman was buried under the cellar floor instead), but he had information about where it might be.

He confessed that a certain Gabriel had approached him in May saying he had permission from the school’s Anatomy professor Dr. Clendenin to use the cellar during the summer break to store bodies and pack them for shipment. The teachers were almost never around, the facilities spacious and private. It was during his month in the Miami Medical School basement that “Gabriel” had robbed the graves of Augustus Devin and John Scott Harrison.

Gabriel was one of many names used by Charles Morton, alias Dr. Morton, alias Dr. Christian, alias Dr. Gordon, the most infamous resurrection man of his day. A University of Michigan medical school dropout, he ran a body-snatching operation of staggering dimensions, supplying medical schools in Ohio and Michigan with hundreds of bodies stolen from graves in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. In January of 1878, he had been caught in Toledo, Ohio, sending bodies to the University of Michigan medical school in Ann Arbor and was imprisoned for the crime. While behind bars, he received a bundle of letters from Ann Arbor. He was handed them in the prison guard’s office and quickly threw them in the fire, shoving his foot through the grating to stamp them down into the flames. The guard pulled him away, and Woodlawn Cemetery trustee (and all around cool guy) William H. Scott fished the letters out before they could be destroyed.

They were a little charred, but still legible in their entirety. They were from “William J. Jones & Co.,” an apparent accomplice in Morton’s extensive resurrection business. The writer complained that one of the “stiffs” Morton had sent was too “tender,” told him not to go younger than 14 in the future because the University of Michigan had rejected the body, and contracted for another 70 bodies. There was a reference to 60 bodies Morton had recently delivered to Columbus and a warning that he should probably move on from Toledo because it was getting too hot. Enclosed was $90 cash.

A week later, Morton suddenly broke out in pustules. Prison physicians diagnosed him with small pox and sent him to the Toledo pest house. He was its only guest at the time, and was guarded by two men. On the night of January 25th, a lynch mob approached the guards, demanding that Morton be let out so they could hang him for his many outrages. Morton cleverly told the guards to say he’d be right out. The mob didn’t expect that, and outside of their drunken bluster, they weren’t actually keen to get their hands all over a smallpox victim. The crowd quickly dispersed.

Then, when his guards were having dinner the evening of January 29th, Morton escaped. He was supposedly in a locked room, but either the guard/s unlocked it or he got a duplicate key. A search of the area turned up nothing. It suddenly dawned on prison officials that they had been had. A parade of new doctors examined samples from Morton’s skin lesions and discovered he didn’t have smallpox at all. He had simply used Croton oil, a caustic irritant that when applied to skin can cause swelling, blistering and exfoliation, to mimic its symptoms. He didn’t even do all that good of a job of it. One physician who had examined him admitted there were no pustules under his hair or anywhere where his hands couldn’t reach. It was widely believed that some of the doctors had deliberately helped Morton because of his profession.

Where he went for the next few weeks is unknown, but the Harrison investigation discovered that Morton had arrived in Cincinnati in March and checked into a boarding house on Vine and Ninth (three blocks from the Ohio Medical School) with a beautiful young blonde he called his wife. He told the boarding house proprietors that he was a doctor, but that he loved night fishing, which is why he was out every night from 8:00 PM until 4:00 AM. He did not explain why he carried two people-sized canvas bags with him every time he “went fishing” and why his carriage was covered in mud when he got back. Nor did he explain why his so-called wife often accompanied him on his fishing expeditions dressed in men’s clothing.

The couple checked out of the boarding house without notice on the day John Scott Harrison’s body was discovered hanging in the cadaver chute. They were believed to be heading for Canada, but that’s what the authorities thought when he escaped from the pest house too, and they were wrong.

It was Morton’s Ann Arbor connection that the Miami Medical College janitor told Snelbaker about, providing a key clue. He said many of the bodies Morton had stolen were sent to the University of Michigan Medical College, and he was pretty sure based on the dates that Augustus Devin was one them. Morton had packed the bodies in barrels addressed to “Quimby and Co.” and shipped them to Ann Arbor via American Express. (Yes, the credit card company. It started out as an expedited shipping service, hence the name.) Colonel Snelbaker et al. immediately departed for Ann Arbor where they traced the barrels to the medical college. Armed with a warrant and accompanied by the Ann Arbor sheriff, they searched the UoM Medical College over the strenuous objections of Dr. Herdman, the Demonstrator of Anatomy, who insisted they hadn’t received bodies from Cincinnati in weeks.

He was lying like a rug. In three massive pickling vats, the investigators found 40 bodies, men, women, children, black and white, in varying states of decomposition. Snelbaker had a surly janitor pull them all out so he could attempt identification of any body that might be that of Augustus Devin. He saw one likely candidate, but didn’t feel comfortable making a conclusive identification. He returned to Cincinnati on June 13th, and was back the next day with Augustus’ 18-year-old brother Bernard Devin and George Eaton.

The pile of bodies, no longer dripping the pickling solution of salt and saltpeter, had taken on an eerie lifelike appearance. The hair had dried and, injected with red lead (lead(II,IV) oxide) for their preservation until the fall and winter terms, the corpses’ skin had a pinkish hue. Three bodies fit the general description of Augustus Devin. At first Bernard and George disagreed on which was Augustus, but ultimately Bernard, who had helped care for his brother during his long illness, convinced George that his identification was the correct one thanks to some scars on his leg, a hole in the wall of his nose and some dental work. Augustus Devin was finally found.

The Harrisons, Eatons and Devins met the train carrying Augustus’ body at the North Bend railway station on June 17th. A crowd of hundreds silently filed past the coffin in the freight room, paying their respects, and accompanied the family in a procession to Congress Green Cemetery. There the young man was reburied, four weeks to the day after his first funeral. Volunteers guarded the cemetery every night for weeks.

On June 17th, a grand jury returned an indictment against the Ohio Medical College janitor Marshall for concealing the body of John Scott Harrison, and against Charles Morton, still at large, on two counts of grave robbing, one count for the theft of Harrison’s, one for Devin’s. No indictments were returned against the college faculty. The Harrisons’ desire to see the faculty of the Ohio Medical College and the Miami Medical College face criminal justice thus thwarted, they filed civil suits against the colleges for $10,000 each. The Devin family did the same.

Snelbaker went back to Ann Arbor at the end of June in an attempt to get information from the doctors on Morton’s whereabouts. His long discussions with the University of Michigan regents went nowhere. They denied any knowledge of his current abode (even though they, like many medical schools, had a long record of correspondence with him). One Professor McLean admitted that they had incentive to keep their mouths shut whether they knew where he was or not, because if any of the faculty outed him, “it would call down upon the informer the general hatred of all body-snatchers, and might prevent the University in the future from obtaining an adequate supply of material for anatomical purposes.” The trail went cold.

The Medical College of Ohio merged with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in 1896. The old building with its cadaver chute is long gone, sadly. Also gone are all records of Benjamin Harrison’s civil suit against the college and the outcome of the criminal cases. They were destroyed when the Hamilton County Court House was burned to the ground in the Cincinnati Courthouse riots of 1884. If Morton was ever arrested and tried for Harrison Horror, there are no records of that either.

In direct response to the case, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio passed Anatomy Acts that allowed medical schools to use unclaimed bodies of people who died in the care of the state (the indigent in hospitals or insane asylums, orphans, convicts) for anatomical dissection. Previous laws had prohibited dissection if anybody at all objected, acquaintance, friend of family. The enlarged pool of corpses still wasn’t enough to fill the demand as new medical schools continued to crop up, and enforcement of the new laws was less than vigorous. Resurrectionists maintained their profitable “profession” in the United States well into the 20th century.

In December of 1879 John Scott Harrison’s body would find a permanent, undisturbed home next to his parents in the William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial in North Bend. George and Arch Eaton are buried there as well.

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A True Tale of Grave-Robbing Horror, Part II

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016

John Harrison, still in shock, recovered his wits as best he could and sent for Cincinnati undertakers Estep & Meyer to remove his father’s body and keep it in ice until reburial could be arranged. That very evening, John Scott Harrison would be temporarily reinterred at the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati in the family vault of the Harrisons’ close friend Jacob Strader. John and George Eaton set out for North Bend to tell their family the dreadful news.

Meanwhile, relatives visiting John Scott Harrison’s grave that morning found that it had been robbed. The stones at the foot of the coffin had been shifted onto their side, the foot of the coffin drilled into, the lid pried up and its glass cover broken, the body roped around the feet and pulled through the broken glass out of the grave. Usually resurrectionists broke into the top the coffin because it was easier to pull a body out by the arms, so it seems the ghouls must have been present at the burial or learned of the additional security measures taken by the Harrisons after they discovered Augustus Devin’s body had been snatched and therefore knew that their best chance was at the foot of the coffin where the smaller stones had been placed. Benjamin Harrison later recalled having been jostled by an unknown man at the burial site who got right up to the edge of the grave and looked inside with interest.

The watchman hired to guard the grave was considered a prime suspect, as were other characters in North Bend who were suspected of association with grave robbers. The guard claimed he had not in fact watched the grave, that he was spooked by being in a cemetery at night and had stayed home instead. He did see a buggy rumbling by in the middle of the night, though, perhaps the very buggy that was later seen behind the Ohio Medical College making its gruesome delivery.

George’s brother Arch Eaton and Carter Harrison went to Cincinnati to notify their brothers of this latest outrage. When they met at the train depot, Carter told John that their father’s body had been snatched and John told Carter that he already knew because he had found it. They sent a dispatch to their brother Benjamin in Indianapolis informing him of the theft and recovery of their father’s body. Benjamin immediately telegraphed famed detective agency head Allan Pinkerton telling him to come in person or send his best detectives to Cincinnati stat, then got on the first train reaching Cincinnati at 10:00 PM.

The Harrisons already in Cincinnati wasted no time either. Carter Harrison went to a justice of the peace and swore an affidavit against the janitor for receiving and concealing the unlawfully disinterred body of their father. Based on the affidavit, an arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Marshall and he was thrown in jail. Within a week he was out on $5,000 bond paid for by faculty of the medical college.

Although the family attempted to keep the horror secret, it was front page news by the next day. William Henry Harrison was the first president from Ohio and he was revered in the state. The desecration of his son’s grave was an affront to the beloved late president as well as to the body and memory of the popular two-term Congressman himself. The Ohio Medical College was pilloried in the media. There was rampant speculation that the college had actually commissioned the resurrection of John Scott Harrison because his death was so sudden and unexplained that he would make an excellent subject for anatomical exploration.

Members of the college faculty denied that charge strenuously and expressed dismay that they had been caught with the body of so illustrious a personage instead of the typical friendless paupers who didn’t have anybody looking out for them, but they had to have cadavers for dissection or else their graduates would be barraged with malpractice lawsuits for being terrible at basic anatomy and surgery. Dr. William Wallace Seely, professor and Secretary of the Medical College, told the Cincinnati Enquirer “had we known whose body it was that was suspended on that rope, we would have returned it to its grave and said nothing about it. It is true we must have bodies to work on, but it is not politic to run such risks, and we are not in favor of such desecration as that practiced in this instance.” As for the resurrectionist responsible, Seeley claimed they had no idea who it was because they were usually paid the day after the surreptitious nighttime deliveries, and the huge outcry after the discovery of John Scott Harrison’s body must have kept the body-snatcher from claiming his price.

On Saturday, June 1st, Dr. Roberts Bartholow, Dean of the Faculty of the Medical College of Ohio, who was intimately familiar with medical malpractice (having killed a poor “feeble-minded” Irish servant named Mary Rafferty in 1874 by inserting electrodes an inch and a half through her dura mater to study involuntary responses to electrical stimulation of the brain), published a statement in the Cincinnati Times. He opened with a masterwork of passive voice non-apology: “The Faculty of the Medical College of Ohio, in common with the rest of the community, heard with deep regret that the grave of the Hon. J. Scott Harrison had been violated, and that the body of this eminent and respected citizen had been found in the Medical College building.” Lukewarm sympathies expressed, he moved on to the justifications.

“A very great misconception seems to exist as regards the part taken by the Faculty and their assistants in procuring the material for dissection. The men engaged in the business of procuring subjects are, of course, unknown to the Faculty; they bring the material to the college, receive the stipulated price, and disappear as mysteriously as they came. In the case of the body of the Hon. J. Scott Harrison, it seems to have been brought by the resurrectionist on his own responsibility, and the poor janitor, whom it is sought to punish, had no part in, or knowledge of, the transaction.”

Bartholow did not say how the body came to be hoisted up the chute and then hidden there during the search of the college, nor why it had even occurred to them to hide it if they had no idea it wasn’t harvested from an unclaimed pauper’s grave, as allowed by law (with conditions). The janitor denied hoisting the body. None of the faculty copped to it. And they all insisted that they had no idea who the resurrectionist was.

Unimpressed by an explanation in which somehow nobody at the school had anything to do with the body found hanging in its cadaver elevator shaft or the slightest notion of who sold it to them, Benjamin Harrison came in like a wrecking ball. He printed the family’s anguished and furious rebuttal in an open letter to the citizens of Cincinnati that afternoon. He started with a heartfelt expression of thanks for their support and a wish that “God keep your precious dead from the barbarous touch of the grave robber, and you from that taste of hell which comes with the discovery of a father’s grave robbed and the body hanging by the neck like that of a dog, in the pit of a medical college.”

“We have been offered through the press the sympathy of the distinguished men who constitute the faculty of the Ohio Medical College. I have no satisfactory evidence that any of them knew whose body they had, but I have the most convincing evidence that they are covering the guilty scoundrel. While they consent to occupy this position, their abhorrence is a pretense, and their sympathy is cant and hypocrisy.

Who can doubt that if the officers of that institution had desired to secure the arrest of the guilty party, it would have been accomplished before night on Thursday? The bodies brought there are purchased and paid for by an officer of the college. The body snatcher stands before him and takes from his hand the fee for his hellish work. He is not an occasional visitant. He is often there, and it is silly to say that he is an unknown. After being tumbled like dung into that chute by the thief, some one inside promptly elevates the body by a windlass to the dissecting room. Who did it, gentlemen of the faculty?

Your janitor denied that it laid upon your tables, but the clean incision into the carotid artery, the thread with which it was ligatured, the injected veins, prove him a liar. Who made that incision and injected that body, gentlemen of the faculty? The surgeons who examined his work say that he was no bungler. While he lay upon your table, the long white beard, which the hands of infant grandchildren had often stroked in love, was rudely shorn from his face. Have you so little care of your college that an unseen and an unknown man may do all this? Who took him from that table and hung him by the neck in the pit?”

As for the claim that the resurrectionist was entirely unknown to the faculty, Harrison knew that was false because he had been told by a sympathetic faculty member that despite his direct denials in the press, Dr. Seely knew the name of the likely grave-robber and was willing to relay that information to Harrison. When Benjamin Harrison and the unnamed faculty member went to see Dr. Seely, however, he refused to speak the name, afraid that he’d get in trouble since he had no conclusive proof that this person had actually committed the crime. Seely had the balls to ask Harrison for legal advice on what his rights and responsibilities were in this situation, and Benjamin, while declining to act as a legal advisor, to his credit told the doctor that if he was criminally complicit in any aspect of the case, he should not say anything about it to him, but that if he wasn’t involved, he should tell all. Seely chose silence.

This only heightened Benjamin’s suspicions of the faculty. He was sure they had gotten to Seely before he had and convinced him to be quiet or risk criminal charges. On June 3rd, Benjamin and John Harrison and Bernard Devin, Augustus’ older brother, returned to the Medical College for an even more in-depth search. This time they brought the Pinkerton detective and a reporter as well as Col. Snelbaker and multiple police officers. Again, they found no trace of Augustus Devin’s body, but they did find the clothes John Scott Harrison had been buried in jammed between the rafters of the ceiling.

Benjamin Harrison told the press: “This is an emphatic denial of the janitor’s story that the body was not taken out of the shaft by attaches of the College. It was taken out and stripped and then, when we put upon the track, it was placed in the shaft to avoid detection.”

The discovery of the clothes confirmed Benjamin’s belief that the Medical College officers were in this up to their necks. He was convinced they had specifically ordered the robbing of his father’s grave and was resolved to see the guilty parties on the faculty charged with the crime instead of just their patsy janitor. While he got his lawyer on and took it to the grand jury, other Harrisons, Devins, the Pinkerton detective and Col. Snelbaker would continue the search for Augustus Devin and for the elusive resurrectionist who had dug up the body of John Scott Harrison.

~~ TO BE CONTINUED ~~

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A True Tale of Grave-Robbing Horror, Part I

Monday, October 31st, 2016

John Scott Harrison, born October 4th, 1804, bears the unique distinction of having been both the child and father of US Presidents. His father William Henry Harrison was the ninth President and holds the record for the shortest tenure, having died of pneumonia on the 32nd day of his presidency. John Scott’s son Benjamin Harrison was the 23rd President, serving one full term from 1889 to 1893. The Honorable John Scott Harrison was a Congressman from Ohio, a gentleman farmer, a family man and a highly respected member of his community, but if he is remembered at all today, it is for what happened to him after his death, a true tale of horror that caused a nation-wide sensation.

After a peaceful death in his bed at Point Farm the night of May 25th, 1878, John Scott Harrison was buried in the family plot overlooking the Ohio River Valley in Congress Green Cemetery, North Bend, Ohio. The funeral took place on May 29th. As family and friends walked to the grave for the burial service, they were dismayed to see that the still-fresh grave of their kinsman Augustus Devin had been disturbed. John Scott’s daughter Sarah was married to Augustus’ uncle Thomas Jefferson Devin, and the families were very close. In fact, John Scott had visited Augustus two weeks before the 23-year-old died of tuberculosis, only to unexpectedly follow him to the grave just a week later. At first the funeral party thought wild hogs might be responsible for the churned-up soil at Augustus Devin’s grave, but upon closer inspection they found the young man’s body was gone, stolen by body-snatchers, the reviled resurrection men who made their living by trafficking the dead.

Horrified by this discovery and concerned that their father might suffer a similar indignity, Benjamin and his brothers John and Carter took additional measures to secure his final resting place. The grave was already brick vaulted with a thick stone bottom. They placed three large, heavy stone slabs eight inches thick on top of the metal casket — the largest at the head and the two smaller ones at the foot — and poured cement over them to create a solid block weighing nearly a ton. The grave was kept open for several hours until the cement dried. It was then filled and the family paid a watchman a dollar a night to guard the grave for 30 nights. Having seen his father safely to his eternal repose, Benjamin Harrison, a distinguished attorney and already a prominent figure in the Republican party, returned to his home in Indianapolis to prepare for a speech he was giving at the Republican State Convention on June 5th.

Benjamin’s youngest brother John Harrison went to Cincinnati with his nephew George Eaton to find and reclaim young Augustus’ body before the grieving mother had to be told it was gone. There was little question in their mind where the body had wound up. It was almost certainly sold to a local medical school, the primary receivers of stolen human flesh. While the Anatomy Act of 1832 had ended the illicit cadaver trade in the UK by supplying anatomy schools with bodies of unclaimed indigents, the federal system in the United States left that kind of legislation to individual states, and the notion of handing over the bodies of the poor for dissection offended American religious and moral sensibilities so much that few states made such provisions. This combined with the explosion of new medical schools in the mid-19th century (in 1800 there were 4 medical schools in the whole country; by 1876 there were 73; by the end of the century there were dozens more) to create a massive demand for anatomical “materiel” that the resurrection men were only too glad to fill.

An item in the Cincinnati Enquirer on the morning of May 30th gave Harrison and Eaton a valuable clue to the possible whereabouts of the missing body:

A Mystery.

About three o’clock this morning, a sensation was created on Vine street by a buggy being driven into the alley north of the Grand Opera house. It proceeded about half way through to Race street, when something white was taken out and disappeared. Several men started in to see what was going on, when the buggy drove out to Race street and left rapidly. The general impression was that a “stiff” was being smuggled into the Ohio Medical College.

This small blurb and the outrage to a well-connected family with legal clout was sufficient for John Harrison and George Eaton to secure a search warrant that very day for the Medical College of Ohio. Armed with the warrant, Harrison and Eaton, accompanied by former Cincinnati Chief of Police Colonel Thomas E. Snelbaker, Constable Lacey and Deputy Constable Tallen of the Cincinnati police, went to the college and insisted on searching the premises. They were accompanied by the very apprehensive janitor, A.Q. Marshall, who protested that the officers of the college should be present before they turned the place upside down.

The party proceeded to search every room on all five floors of the building, from cellar to garret. In the cellar they found a chute that opened onto the alley between Vine and Race Streets where the buggy had been seen dumping a suspicious white bundle at 3:00 o’clock that morning. This was how the resurrectionists surreptitiously delivered cadavers to the medical school. No need for daylight transactions that might raise awkward questions; no need for the faculty to interact with the grave-robbers in the presence of the evidence of their crimes. Another chute, this one running vertically from the cellar to the top of the building, was connected to it. The search party looked into both chutes, illuminating the darkness with their lamps, but saw nothing.

Most of the rooms upstairs were empty too, though they searched every lumber pile, box and closet. Then they came upon a dissection room. A student was using it for its intended purposes, cutting into a partial body — the head and chest of a black woman — merrily slicing away at the already putrefying flesh. Walking briskly past this macabre scene, they found a box of assorted limbs cut from cadavers and kept for later use. Mixed in with the arms and legs was the intact body of a six-month-old baby.

Disgusted and disturbed, they moved on to the top floor of the building. By this time, the police had allowed the janitor to leave, ostensibly to notify the school officers of the search, but Colonel Snelbaker was smart enough to have him followed. Instead of running off to alert the faculty, Mr. Marshall went upstairs to a room at the southeast corner of the building. He realized he was being shadowed so he turned around before entering, but it was too late. The cops now knew there was something worth hiding in that room.

John Harrison, George Eaton and the three police officers entered the suspicious room, finding boxes, a few bones, papers and assorted junk. In a corner of the room near a window was a windlass. A rope ran from it into a square hole in the floor, presumably reaching the bottom of the long chute in the cellar. This is how the bodies were moved from the cellar to the dissection rooms: they were tied to a rope and lifted by the windlass at the top of chute. Snelbaker saw that the rope was taut as if something heavy was tied to it. He turned the windlass and slowly the body of a man emerged from the hole, the rope tied around his neck and under one arm. He was naked except for a tattered shirt and a cloth covering his head.

John realized before the face was revealed that it could not be his cousin Augustus. The body was that of an old man in comparatively good health, not of a youth emaciated by the ravages of consumption. He was about to walk away when Snelbaker urged him to check, just in case. They pulled the body into the room and laid it on the floor. Blood trickled from a loosely stitched neck incision, forced out by the pressure of the rope. Slowly and somberly, Snelbaker loosened the rope around his neck so the cloth covering his face could be lifted.

Harrison had been right; it wasn’t the body of Augustus Devin. Under the cloth was the face of an elderly man, discolored and bruised from the rope and careless treatment at the hands of the resurrection men. He had short white hair and a snow-white beard cropped an inch below his chin. John Harrison staggered, suddenly weak at the knees. “It’s father,” he rasped, and collapsed to the floor. The body of the Honorable John Scott Harrison, buried in a cement-reinforced bricked vault less than 24 hours earlier, had been stolen from the grave, stripped of his clothing, shorn of his distinctive waist-length beard, and dangled from a rope in the cadaver chute of a medical school.

~~ TO BE CONTINUED ~~

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