Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

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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Oldest library in the world renovated, digitized

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

Founded in the 859 A.D. by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who was herself highly educated and who dedicated her considerable inheritance to the creation of a mosque and school in her community, the University of Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, is the oldest degree-granting institution in the world. The Al-Qarawiyyin library has been in continuous operation since the 10th century and is believed to be the oldest library in the world. After years of neglect, the library is undergoing extensive renovation as part of a renewal program that will restore the Medina, Fes’ walled pedestrian historic district built in the late 8th, early 9th century. In a fitting tribute to its founder, the person in charge of the restoration is a woman, Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni.

Inside the library are ornately carved wooden window frames and archways, colorful ceramic tile designs on the floors and elegant Arabic calligraphy engraved in the walls. The high ceilings in the reading room are adorned with gold chandeliers.

“There is a big restoration because there was a need for the building and the manuscripts to be preserved,” said Abdullah al-Henda, part of the restoration team that’s been working on the restoration since 2012. “There were problems of infiltration, of sewage, degradation of walls, some cracks in different places in the library.”

The library is replete with extremely rare, some unique, volumes. There are more than 4,000 manuscripts in its collection, including a 9th century Quran written in beautiful Kufic script on camel skin, the earliest known Islamic hadiths, and an original manuscript of the Mukkadimah, a universal history written in 1377 by philosopher Ibn Khaldun which many scholars hold to be the first exploration of fields we know as sociology, historiography, demography and other social sciences. It’s particularly meaningful to have a book written in his hand, because after university he began his career as a calligrapher for the Chancellery in Tunis. When he moved to Fez shortly thereafter, he got a job writing royal proclamations for the Sultan.

“When you read a book, you travel in history. When you see a manuscript that is nearly ten or more centuries old, you travel in time. As I said, the library gives you a spiritual bond for these and other reasons. Since I arrived at Al Qarawiyyin Library, it never crossed my mind that I would leave it,” said deputy curator Abou Bakr Jaouane.

These priceless texts need conservation as well. Some have been damaged by the moisture and decay plaguing the building itself. Now that the restoration of the structure is almost complete with new gutters, solar panels and air conditioning, the manuscripts finally have a room suited to their preservation. It is climate controlled with a custom temperature and humidity settings as well as a state-of-the-art security system. The restored library also has a new laboratory for the treatment and conservation of its historic manuscripts.

Right now, only curator Abdelfattah Bougchouf has access to the rare manuscripts kept in the secure room. With the help of experts from the Institute of Computational Linguistics in Italy, that will soon change. All 4,000+ manuscripts are being digitized in the new laboratory. This will make them widely available to students and researchers all over the world. About 20% of them have been digitized so far. The scanning process will also highlight any small holes and areas in need of conservation that are not necessarily evident to the naked eye.

The library will reopen to the public in May 2017.

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Help bring Ruby Slippers, Scarecrow back together

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Last Monday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $300,000 for the conservation and display of the Ruby Slippers famously worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz. The Smithsonian’s budget is sufficient to keep the Ruby Slippers relatively stable in their current condition, but they turned to Kickstarter for the money to conserve the shoes and create a custom state-of-the-art display case with light, temperature and humidity controls that will ensure the long-term preservation of one of the museum’s most iconic film artifacts.

Costume designer Adrian made several pairs of Ruby Slippers for the movie. This pair was worn when Dorothy danced down the Yellow Brick Road, and their condition attests to their hard use. In 1939 (and for decades afterwards), costumes were made to last for the duration of shooting. Materials were chosen to look good at low cost. Adrian took commercial shoes, spray-painted them red and attached a red net with red sequins and beads. The red color of the sequins is a coating of cellulose nitrate lacquer. In the 77 years since the shoes were made, the color has faded given the slippers a muted, dingy look. The nitrocellulose coating is cracked and flaking. Threads stitching the sequins to the net are breaking. The red paint on the soles is cracking and the sole is coming apart from the top of the shoe. (See this interview with the conservator of the Ruby Slippers for more details about their complex conservation needs.)

The money raised would go to repairing what could be repaired (without ruining the original evidence of use because that is an important part of their history), but also towards researching how best to approach the conservation of materials like the sequin coating about which we know very little. That is essential to ensuring that the new display case is properly set to keep the Ruby Slippers in ideal conservation conditions.

The response was to the campaign was huge and immediate. The goal was met and exceeded within a week, thanks to donations from more than 5,000 people from 41 countries on every inhabited continent. With another 21 days to go, the Smithsonian has added a stretch goal of $85,000 for the conservation and display of the patchwork Scarecrow costume worn by Ray Bolger in the movie.

The Scarecrow will need a full conservation assessment to determine which materials were used to construct the costume. This will include working with scientists to identify the materials and conducting historical research. We will take a close look at the textiles and dyes that are extremely sensitive to light and wear. We need to understand what condition they are in to determine what treatment will best conserve and preserve them. Once those issues are addressed, we can decide how best to display the costume. The Scarecrow costume will need an internal structure to support the textiles and reduce stress so that he will remain in good condition far into the future.

As the Scarecrow is less glamorous than the Ruby Slippers, so far only $17,000 of the $85,000 has been raised, but we all know that if he didn’t get restuffed and spruced up so he could join the Ruby Slippers in a new exhibition gallery in 2018, Dorothy would miss him most of all.

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Extremely rare British coin found in boy’s toy box

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

A gold coin in a toy box that figured in the pirate games of two generations of young boys turns out to be one of the rarest British coins, a bona fide treasure. The owner, who chooses to remain anonymous because he basically hit the lottery, was given the coin by his grandfather.

“My Grandad had travelled all over the world during his working life and had collected many coins from the various countries he had been”, said the stunned and delighted vendor. “He gave me bags of coins to play with (I was into pirate treasure) throughout my early years… As time passed these coins went back into bags and boxes and were forgotten about until I rediscovered them after my Grandad passed away. I looked back through the coins — remembering the stories I made up about them when I was small — and then gave them to my own son to play with and put into his own treasure box. My little boy has been playing with this coin as I did all those years ago.”

Before letting his son go fully to town on the coins, he brought them to Essex auction house Boningtons to see if any of them were worth something. Coin expert Gregory Tong recognized it as one of Britain’s rarest coins: a 1703 Queen Anne ‘Vigo’ five-guinea gold coin, made from gold taken from Spanish treasure galleons at the Battle of Vigo Bay in October 1702.

It was the early days of the War of Spanish Succession, when the last decrepit, inbred Hapsburg king of Spain died putting the Bourbon Philip V, son of Louis XIV of France, on the throne and threatening the Balance of Power in Europe. The allied fleets of Britain and the Dutch Republic had attempted to capture the port of Cádiz at the end of August 1702, hoping to gain a base in the Mediterranean for their ships and to cripple Spain’s access to the wealth of its New World colonies. The attempt was a disastrous failure. Craft and ships were lost in the landing, troops pillaged port towns and never even got to Cádiz itself. As September came and no progress was made, bad weather became an issue. On September 30th, the Allied fleet left with its proverbial tail between its legs.

The Cádiz debacle did have one useful consequence for the Allies: the Spanish silver fleet which usually landed at Cádiz was forced to dock at Vigo Bay in Galicia. Lacking the complex customs and trade infrastructure required to process the tons of silver and gold, the Spanish treasure ships and the French fleet protecting were locked into the bay for a month. The English command got wind of this as its ships were heading back to England, and figured they might at least make lemonade out of the Cádiz lemons by attacking the treasure ships.

On October 22nd, the Anglo-Dutch fleet entered Vigo Bay. The next day, they engaged the Spanish and French fleet. It was a total rout. Every single Spanish and French ship was either captured or burned. More than 2,000 men died on the Spanish-French side. Only 200 were lost on the Allied side. While most of the silver had already been unloaded from the treasure ships, the Allies did manage to score thousands of pounds of silver and a much smaller amount of gold.

Really it wasn’t that much of a monetary gain, but the outcome of Vigo Bay did persuade Portuguese King Peter II to join the Grand Alliance, and it gave the British some PR relief after the Cádiz disaster. To fluff up the minor victory and obscure the major loss, silver and gold booty from the Spanish fleet was delivered to the Master of the Mint, a certain Sir Isaac Newton, to use in the production of commemorative coins, portable propaganda to convince people that the war was going well. He received 4,504 lb 2 oz of silver and just 7 lb 8 oz of gold, for a combined estimated value of a rather measly £14,000. (Philip V of Spain made something like seven million pesos from the Vigo Bay caper because he was able to confiscate all the silver the ships were carrying meant for English and Dutch merchants, so money-wise, this victory was decidedly on the Pyrrhic side.)

The gold was used to make half-guinea, guinea and five-guinea coins. They bore the dignified profile of Queen Anne on the obverse with the word VIGO stamped under her shoulder to publicize the source of the gold. On the reverse was the pre-union coat of arms. Only 20 of the five-guinea pieces are believed to have been struck. The Vigo coins were meant to be circulated — the silver was made into crown, half-crown, shilling and six-penny pieces — but the gold five guinea coins were so expensive that only the very wealthiest people could afford them, and they weren’t likely to spend them like cash.

Of the 20 struck, only 15 of them are known, all of them in private collections. They very seldom come up for auction. Only six of them have gone on the market in the last 50 years. The estimated value of the toy box coin is £200,000-250,000 ($243,620-$304,525), but it could easily sell for more given its rarity. The last Vigo coin to sell at auction went for just under £296,160 ($360,200) and that was in 2012.

When the owner discovered that the coin he’d played pirate treasure with was an actual treasure, he closed himself in the car and exulted so vigorously that the auction house staff could see the car bouncing as it was parked. He even came back the next day to be sure he wasn’t getting punked.

The coin goes on the auction block at Boningtons’ Epping saleroom on Wednesday November 16th.

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Gun Verlaine used to shoot Rimbaud for sale

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

The gun used by Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine to shoot his young lover and fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud will be sold at auction next month in Paris. This weapon featured in one of the great scandals of 19th century French literature, which, given the amount of drinking, drugging and sexing going on in that bohemian milieu, is an impressive feat. It was known as the Brussels Affair and was the dramatic dénouement of a tumultuous two-year relationship.

Born in Metz in 1844, Paul Verlaine was the only child of a successful career military officer. His mother had had three miscarriages before Paul was born (she apparently kept the miscarried fetuses in jars in the family home), so he was very much beloved. His teenaged years were troubled and he was sent to boarding school where his boredom and appreciation for Baudelaire inspired him to write his own poetry. After he graduated, he had few interests besides pursuing his poetry. He enrolled in law school in 1862 but dropped out, preferring to hang with his artist friends in Paris.

He published his first poem in a literary magazine in 1863. His father, hoping like so many parents of artists before and after him that he would get a “real job,” secured him employment at an insurance company, then at City Hall. Verlaine continued to write even as he worked his 9-5 jobs. In 1866, when he was 22, his first collection of poems, Poèmes saturniens, was published. It was well-received and established him as a significant new talent on the scene.

His personal life, on the other hand, was a mess. He still lived at home with his parents. He drank to excess and was a brutally violent drunk. After his first love (his cousin who was raised by his parents after she was orphaned and wisely married someone else) died in childbirth in 1867, he tried to kill his mother several times in an alcoholic haze. At his mother’s vigorous encouragement, he got married in of August 1870 to Mathilde Mauté. He was 26; she was 17. They moved to Paris where, as a supporter of the Paris Commune, he enlisted in the National Guard and patrolled the streets of a quiet neighborhood every other night. When the Commune fell in May 1871, Verlaine fled the repression of the Communards.

He was back in the city by September which is when he met Arthur Rimbaud for the first time. Rimbaud was a fan of Verlaine’s poetry and had sent him several letters included poems of his own. In January of 1872, Verlaine invited the 17-year-old to moved in with him and Mathilde, an arrangement which was fraught with tension. There was a newborn in the house — Mathilde had given birth to their son Georges in October of 1871 — and Verlaine’s relationship with the teenaged poet quickly developed into a tempestuous sexual and emotional affair. Meanwhile, his alcoholism and violence increased. He beat Mathilde whenever he drank, threatened to kill her, even hit their infant son, once throwing him against a wall. She took the baby and left.

Their affair went public after that. Rimbaud was rude, shameless and just as much of an addict as Verlaine. They collaborated on poetry, drank absinthe by the keg, smoked opium and fought like wolverines, scandalizing even their circle of poets and intellectuals. After a desultory attempt to win back Mathilde by promising her he’d never see Arthur again, Verlaine left Paris with Rimbaud July of 1872 for Brussels. In September they moved on to London. There they spent almost a year off and on, fighting, drinking, breaking up, making up and generally being miserable with each other. Rimbaud tried to stab Verlaine. Verlaine called Rimbaud his “infernal spouse.” Rimbaud would write about this time in the aptly named A Season in Hell.

In June 1873, Verlaine left for Brussels alone. He couldn’t last a month before writing to Rimbaud asking him to join him. Rimbaud went to Brussels, but told Verlaine he was going to Paris instead of staying with him. On the morning of July 10th, 1873, Verlaine bought a Lefaucheux 7mm six-shooter from the Montigny armory in Brussels. He wrote to his family and friends to inform them he planned suicide, spent the rest of the morning drinking, then returned to his room with Rimbaud. When the younger man announced he was leaving, Verlaine fired at him twice, intending murder. He barely wounded him, one bullet grazing his left wrist, the other ricocheting off the wall into the chimney.

Rimbaud was treated for his wound at Saint-Jean Hospital then went straight to the train station to get out of Dodge. Verlaine was waiting for him. When he reached for his pocket, Rimbaud ran to the police who arrested Verlaine. Rimbaud withdraw his complaint the next day, Verlaine was tried for assault with pederasty as an aggravating factor. On August 8th, he was sentenced to two years in the prison of Petites Carmes. In October he was transferred to the prison in Mons. He was released early for good behavior after 555 days of incarceration on January 16th, 1875.

The two saw each other one last time in 1885. Rimbaud died of cancer six years later. He was 37. Verlaine died broke, drunk, diabetic and syphilitic in 1896 at the age of 51.

He never thought to claim his revolver from the police. They sent it back to Montigny where it remained in their archives, unknown to the public, for close to a century. When the Montigny company filed for bankruptcy in the 1980s and had to liquidate all its inventory, the owner reached out to his good friend and weapons collector Jacques Ruth to buy some of their stock. In gratitude, he gave Ruth the revolver at the center of the notorious Brussels Affair.

Ruth didn’t grasp its cultural significance at the time. He only realized what a scandalous treasure he had when he saw the 1995 film Total Eclipse starring David Thewlis as Verlaine and Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud. In 2004, a new exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Paul Verlaine opened in Brussels. Ruth notified the curator that he had the famous revolver. The curator thought he was joking, but research confirmed that it was the real deal, serial number 14096, listed in the Montigny registry book as the one Verlaine bought on July 10th, 1873. It went on display for the first time at a 2015 exhibition on Verlaine held at the Mons prison where he did time.

The Lefaucheux six-shooter #14096 goes on the auction block at The Exceptional Sale at Christie’s Paris on November 30th. The pre-sale estimate is €50,000-70,000 ($54,315-76,041).

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Ancient Samaritan 10 Commandments for sale

Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

A marble tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments in Samaritan will be sold at auction next month at at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. The Yavneh 10 Commandments Stone is roughly two-by-two feet, weighs 115 pounds and was carved probably between 4th and 8th centuries A.D. in the Samaritan variant of Paleo-Hebrew script. It is one of only five inscriptions of the Samaritan Decalogue from before the Muslim invasion known to survive.

A close derivative of ancient Phoenician, Paleo-Hebrew script was in use from at least as early as the 10th century B.C. — the Zayit Stone, the oldest inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, dates to then — until the 5th century B.C. when Aramaic began to take its place. The Samaritans, however, continued to use their version of Paleo-Hebrew and still do so today.

Translated from the Samaritan dialect of Hebrew, the line-by-line inscription runs as follows:

1. Dedicated in the name of Korach
2. I will call you to remember for goodness forever
3. God spoke
4. all these words
5. saying I am the Lord
6. your God you shall not have
7. for yourself other Gods
8. besides me; you shall not make
9. for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness;
10. for I the Lord
11. your God am an impassioned God;
12. Remember the Sabbath day
13. keep it holy; honor
14. your father and your mother;
15. you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery;
16. you shall not steal; you shall not bear [false witness] against your neighbor
17. you shall not covet; you shall erect
18. these stones that
19. I am commanding you today
20. on Mount Gerizim rise up to God

You might notice they’re not quite the standard set of 10. The one about not taking the name of God in vain is missing, and there’s a new one at the end about building the temple on Mount Gerizim to house the tablets.

The tablet’s origins are nebulous, but according to research done in the 1940s, it was discovered in 1913 by construction workers building a railroad near Yavneh on the southern coast of what was then Palestine. They either gave it or sold it to a wealthy local man who installed it on the floor of a doorway into his courtyard. Over time, the middle of the inscription was worn down be people walking on it, but it can still be read under oblique lighting.

The son of the owner sold it in 1943 to Mr. Y. Kaplan who knew right away it was a rare Samaritan Decalogue tablet. Kaplan engaged scholar and expert in Samaritan history (and the future second President of Israel) Yitzhak Ben-Zvi to study the stone. It was he who determined its likely age range based on the writing style of the Samaritan. Later scholarship has expanded the possible date range to the early Islamic occupation period (ca. 640-830 A.D.), but the Byzantine date range is still prevalent.

The stone was sold to an antiquities dealer in the 1990s and in 2005 was bought by Rabbi Saul Deutsch of the Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn, New York. As an object of Israeli cultural patrimony, the tablet’s export required a special permit from the Israel Antiquities Authority who allowed it on the condition that it was to be put on public display.

The museum has a collection of ancient artifacts that illustrate people, places and things mentioned in the Torah, like 3,500-year-old Hittite toy chariots as examples of what the Egyptian chariots that chased the fleeing Jews during the Exodus may have looked like. Judging from what’s available online at least, some of the connections are tenuous at best. Fragments of Coptic-era Egyptian garments, for instance, are hardly indicative of what the Jews who left Egypt might have worn. While the tablet has been on display since the sale, as per the terms of the agreement with the IAA, it is not one of the artifacts included in the website’s slideshows.

The museum, which contains a large collection of artifacts of Jewish life and history dating back to antiquity, is shifting toward a more hands-on focus to attract younger visitors and decided it was time to sell the artifact.

“The sale will provide us with the money to do what we need to do. It’s all for the best,” Deutsch said in a statement.

The opening bid will be $250,000, a fortune for a small Brooklyn museum. One caveat, though, the condition requiring public display of the artifact still holds, so the buyer can’t just stash it in his cave of wonders. The auction is on November 16th, but you can bid online starting Friday, October 28th.

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Huge mosaic floor in Jericho unveiled for one day

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

For one time only, the glorious 8th century mosaic floor of Khirbat al-Mafjar, colloquially known as Hisham’s Palace, was on view in all its colorful majesty on Thursday, October 20th. The floor features 38 different scenes in 21 colors, and at 825 square meters (8,900 square feet), it is one of the largest mosaic floors in the world.

Discovered in 1873 three miles north of the West Bank city of Jericho, the first excavations of the site took place between 1934 and 1948 under the direction of Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki. The palace got its name from a marble ostracon that was discovered during the Baramki excavations that had “Hisham” scratched on it. The name on the marble fragment suggested that the lavish mansion may have been built during the reign of the 10th Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (r. 724-743). The name stuck even though the palace may not have been built for the caliph himself. Robert Hamilton, the British colonial administrator and a colleague of Baramki’s, proposed the compound was constructed for the Hisham’s nephew and successor Walid ibn Yazid (r. 743-744) whose notorious love of the high life irritated the hell out his more temperate uncle.

Whoever it was built for, it had to have been someone in the royal family. The architecture, decorations and artifacts mark it as having been built under the Umayyad dynasty in first half of the 8th century. It’s in a category of structures known as the Umayyad desert castles, fortified palaces built near water sources in the arid regions of Jordan, Syria, Israel and the West Bank between 661 (when Damascus was made the Umayyad capital) and 750 A.D. (when the capital was moved to Baghdad).

Like the other desert castles, Hisham’s Palace includes an agricultural enclosure and a bath complex supplied with water from a nearby oasis. The spectacular mosaics covered the floor of the main bath hall, and one of the most famous stand-out pieces, a Tree of Life mosaic, decorated the floor of the bath’s bahw, or special reception room. It depicts a fruit tree with two gazelles peacefully hanging out on the left, while a gazelle on the right side is attacked by a lion. The contrasting scenes of peace vs. combat are believed to represent the power of the caliph to either bring prosperity to his people or to ruthlessly repress them.

Elaborately carved stucco panels, mainly florals and geometrics with some animal and human figures, including semi-nude men and women, were also found in the bath complex. The stuccos are now at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. The decorative elements in the desert castles are among the earliest Islamic art, and the mosaics, sculptures, frescoes and carved stucco features at Hisham’s Palace are of particularly high quality. The dizzying array of colors and patterns in the mosaics prefigure later Islamic design, while the figural art is unique to the Umayyad period.

The palace is the biggest tourist draw in the West Bank which has a major downside from a conservation standpoint. In addition to the tens of thousands of visitors stomping the site every year, Jericho’s urban sprawl, conflict and scant funds for preservation and personnel have placed Hisham’s Palace is in dire straights. In 2010, the non-profit Global Heritage Fund put it on a list of 12 sites on the verge of irreparable damage. The only mosaic on display in the Tree of Life in the reception room. The rest have been covered by soil and canvas almost since they were first unearthed.

In September 2015, the Japan International Cooperation Agency signed a grant agreement with the Palestinian Authority to give up to 1.235 billion yen ($11,860,000) to construct a protective roof and exhibition facilities for the bath mosaics. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities spent a year carefully removing the sand, soil and assorted debris covering the floor. Now that the construction phase is about to begin, the complete mosaic floor of the bath complex of Hisham’s Palace was uncovered for a day. The floors go back undercover until the project is complete. If all goes well, the newly protected and restored mosaics will be open to visitors by 2018.

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