Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse

Program leader Professor Sarah Tarlow holds dissected skullOne of my favorite areas of study (on any day of the year, not just Halloween, although it certainly dovetails nicely with the grisly ghouls from every tomb closing in to seal your doom) is now the subject of a multi-disciplinary research program at the University of Leicester: the fate of executed criminals in Britain between the 17th and 19th centuries. Generously funded by the Wellcome Trust, which is also offering a critical workshop on how best to cope with a zombie outbreak, Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse brings together experts in archaeology, medical history, folklore, philosophy and literature from the University of Leicester, the University of Hertfordshire and the National University of Ireland to examine how the corpses of executed criminals were used as cautionary tales in the gibbet and as sources of scientific knowledge on the dissection table, the significance they were imbued with culturally and morally, and the lasting effect they had on the physical landscape and on our attitudes about the treatment of the dead body.

“This is a great opportunity to study the history of the body at a fascinating time,” said Professor Sarah Tarlow, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester and the leader of the team. “This is a key period in the development of modern medical knowledge, where the inside of the body was carefully explored and described by anatomists. At the same time it was generally believed that the touch of a hanged man’s hand could cure cancers of the neck, and that suicides should be buried with a stake through their bodies.

“The emotional power of the dead body of the criminal was exploited by the State to enforce conformity with the law, they were exploited as sources of scientific or medical knowledge; they gave meaning to places in the landscape, for example, ‘Gibbet Hills’ and so on. At a popular level, their ghosts were believed to stalk the living and their bodies to be places of lurking malevolence which might threaten our comfortable lives – as Frankenstein’s monster did.”

(I always feel compelled to defend the creature when he’s described as intrinsically evil. He was intrinsically repulsive with his papery skin and yellow eyes, but he was much more than the sum of his Abby Normal parts and had his creator/father not been so mean to him, he would never have killed children and best friends and nice ladies on their wedding night. It’s the hubristic scientist, the modern Prometheus, the grave-robbing narcissist who thinks he can do whatever he wants in the name of scientific advancement whose selfishness, cowardice and obstinacy destroy everyone he loves.)

Captain Kidd hanging in a gibbet after 1701 executionThe team will spend five years following the journey of the criminal body through six strands of study. The first is the criminal justice system, wherein will be examined the crime itself, the legal proceedings at trial, the sentences which were sometimes applied and sometimes commuted, with a subsequent focus on how the body of the executed criminal was used to support the judicial system that created it. Although there’s been plenty of study of the crime and punishment from trial to execution, this research will tread new ground in its study of the body after execution. The team will trace the physical movements of the bodies through the justice system and the people — sheriffs, judges, court officers, legal commentators — involved in the decision-making process.

Strand two focuses on the voyage of the criminal corpse through the anatomical world, how executed bodies were used to sustain the explosion of private anatomy schools, all of which required copious numbers of cadavers for their students to get their money’s worth. The team will examine the condition of the corpses when they arrived and how they were dissected and put on display. The Wellcome Collection, the museum of medical history connected to the Trust funding this program, has a fair few human specimens which traveled this road.

The Reward of Cruelty, satirical depiction of anatomized criminal by William Hogarth, 1751The third strand, “Placing the Criminal Corpse,” pivots off the first two strands to focus on the corpse on display, whether in the gibbet or in the anatomy class or museum, through to its burial. Very few bodies of executed criminals can be firmly located today. They couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground, so where did these gibbeted, dissected, dismembered bodies wind up?

Strand four looks at how the dead sustained life. By studying medical literature and contemporary sources, the team will examine how the dead, whether through anatomical study or through magical and healing cultural traditions, cured or prevented illness and kept people alive.

The Whitby Hand of GloryNext up is “The Criminal Corpse in Pieces,” a particularly Halloween-appropriate strand of research which looks at the part played by the criminal corpse in fiction. The bodies of executed criminals frequently starred in the literature of this period as vengeful ghosts, loci of punishment and relics of supernatural power (the Whitby Hand of Glory, for example, the hand of a hanged man which, when holding a candle made from the fat of the same executed criminal, was said to render motionless whomever it was given to, or to unlock all doors). This connects to strand four in its examination of folkloric traditions but will study the interplay between traditions and literary fiction.

The last strand, “The Criminal Corpse Remembered,” brings it all together through a comparative analysis of historical attitudes towards the criminal corpse and contemporary ones. It will look at how our own anxieties and ambivalence about how we treat the dead are informed by the symbolic and practical significance with which the criminal corpse was imbued from the late 17th century through the mid-19th.

Death mask and a pocketbook made from the skin of executed serial murderer/resurrection man BurkeThe Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse project website is already great reading but will continue to expand as the program proceeds. Any published material that comes out of the project or that is relevant to it will be posted on the publications page. Any news stories and events connected to the project will be posted on the news page.

There’s one particularly exciting event hosted by University of Hertfordshire Professor of Social History Owen Davis (one of the Strand Four researchers). It’s a reenactment of the inquest of the infamous “Elstree Murder” case of 1823, which will be held on November 13th at 8:00 PM in the Old Barge Pub in Hertford. It’s free of charge to all comers. Just show up and you’ll get to be a part of the inquest jury that decides whether John Thurtell, the wastrel son of the Mayor of Norwich, and his accomplices murdered the solicitor William Weare because he had cheated John out of £300 in a card game.

After you’re done presiding over this shocking case, you can head over to the Museum of London to see its Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibit, which has been getting rave reviews.

1922 Ohio carousel in Brooklyn besieged by Sandy

Jane’s Carousel, the 1922 Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel which once delighted the crowds at Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio, which was lavishly restored and returned to duty last year in Brooklyn Bridge Park on the banks of the East River, looked like this last night around 9:35 PM:

Jane's Carousel, October 29th, 2012

The picturesque location right on the river between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge (a neighborhood known as DUMBO) which makes for such a lovely view while riding the ornate gilded horses is not so advantageous when confronted with Hurricane Sandy and her record-breaking 13-foot storm surge. It’s amazing that the lights were still on even as the promontory was turned into an island by the flooding waters.

Although there are no official reports from the carousel website or Facebook account, Gothamist went to check this morning and aside from a few shallow puddles inside the jewel box, the carousel appears to have survived its near-drowning unscathed. There are some overturned trashcans inside and you can see the concrete floor inside the short plexiglass barrier is wet, but it doesn’t look like it reached the wooden platform on which the horses turn. That single row of sandbags around the perimeter of the structure deserves a medal.

Jane's Carousel the morning after Inside Jane's Carousel after Sandy Jane's Carousel after Sandy, trash cans overturned Jane'ss Carousel's heroic sandbags

Architect Jean Nouvel designed the acrylic jewel box pavilion so that it would give people riding the carousel a beautiful view and so that the beauty of the carousel itself would make a spectacular landmark for the neighborhood. Obviously he designed it to be strong and secure as well.

Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses conserved and on display

Scarlett's green velvet curtain dressSix hundred Gone With the Wind fans from around the world donated more than $30,000 over three weeks in August 2010 to restore five dresses worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in the iconic movie. After nearly a year of preliminary study, conservation began in July of 2011 and continued through spring of this year. The famous green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown Scarlett wore to Ashley’s birthday party were stabilized enough to be sent across the ocean so they could be displayed for the first time in 30 years at the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Conservators from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin spent 180 hours painstakingly reinforcing weakened areas and correcting previous attempts at restoration on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown and the green velvet dressing gown. The fabrics used by costume designer Walter Plunkett are heavy and the construction was not intended to last. Neither were they authentically period, but rather streamlined versions in keeping with 1930s glamour, which means some of the techniques used are unique and not the sort of thing conservators had encountered before restoring period clothing.

Scarlett's burgundy ball gownFor example, the bustle at the back of the burgundy ball gown was gathered and stitched into place. Over the years that the dress was on display before it was donated to the Ransom Center along with the rest of producer David O. Selznick’s collection in the 1980s, the bustle had been repaired repeatedly. Old stitches were removed and new ones put in, which means many new holes poked through the fabric. Over decades, even the tiny holes left by needles add up, so by the time the Ransom Center got the dress, the area on the waist where the bustle was attached was weak and unable to support the weight of the velvet gathered there.

In order to stabilize the garment, conservators first had to determine the original shape and draping of the bustle. Then they had to remove as few of the repair stitches as necessary to return the dress to the shape Plunkett had created. The pierced and weakened areas of the fabric were reinforced with Japanese tissue (a thin but strong paper made from plant fibers) and other stabilization techniques. This accomplished both goals of the conservation: stabilization with as little interference as possible, and the restoration of the original look of the gown.

The ostrich feathers on the burgundy dress were another major headache. At some point, new feathers had been added, but they weren’t stitched in the same way as the originals so they didn’t have the elegant curl Plunkett’s original feathers had. Some feathers fell out, but it seems over time the fabric stretched so it looked like more feathers were missing than had actually been lost. Half-assed replacements that were neither the right color nor the right shape were added, making it look more Old West saloon girl than Scarlett O’Hara vixen. See this video for details on the ostrich feather conservation:


The green curtain dress also had problems with sagging and weak points along the waistline. The heavy pleated velvet of the skirt had been sewn to a slim cotton bodice to ensure there was no extra bulk whatsoever at Vivien Leigh’s waist. At first conservators planned to remove repair stitches and reset the pleats to their original depth and location, but they were unable to determine the exact original locations and stitches of the pleats. Instead they decided to go with the conservative option and stabilize the pleats as they were. You can see some of the work on the curtain dress in this video:


The green velvet dressing gown, which at first glance appeared to be one of the better preserved dresses in the collection, turned out to have significant damage. There were stress tears in the skirt and sleeves, splits, holes, loose threads and loose sequins.


Although the conservation team was able to mitigate some of these problems, the gown is in no shape for a transoceanic voyage. It will remain at the Ransom Center in a carefully climate- and moisture-controlled environment.

The Victoria and Albert exhibition runs from October 20, 2012 through January 27, 2013. After that, the burgundy and curtain dresses will return to Austin in preparation for the 75th anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014. The dressing gown is planned to be on display in that exhibition since it won’t have to travel far. They already have a nice companion online exhibition on the web with details about the casting of the movie, the purchase of the book and, my favorite part, wardrobe and makeup.

Unfortunately, the blue velvet peignoir and Scarlett’s wedding dress and veil are too fragile even to conserve. They will be preserved in their current condition in storage and will not go back on display.

The oldest piggy banks are also the cutest

Containers with slots have been used as home savings banks since ancient times. A miniature Greek temple from the 2nd or 1st century B.C. was found in the Ionian town of Priene (now in Turkey) with a slot in the pediment to drop coins through and an opening in the back that could be locked and unlocked to retrieve the loot. Money boxes in China made out of clay or porcelain that had to be smashed for the contents to be retrieved were used for official purposes, to ensure money collectors could not easily help themselves, at least as early as the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century B.C.

Historian Sima QianThe Records of the Grand Scribe, a massive multi-scroll history of China written by Sima Qian between 109 and 91 B.C., include a morality tale about one of these clay banks. Gongsun Hong, a high ranking minister and eventual Marquis of Pingjin, was born in poverty and worked as a jail warden and pig herder and various other odd jobs for the first half of his life. He began to study the ancient Confucian chronicles of the state of Lu and passed the scholarly exams with flying colors when he was 40 years old, garnering him a professorial appointment at the court of the Han Dynasty Emperor Wu (reigned 141-87 B.C.). Before he left his village to start his new life, an old man told him to take the lesson of the piggy bank: if you stuff yourself full of treasure, you will eventually be smashed. Instead, live frugally, like the humble clay money box itself. That way you’ll earn your money gradually, honorably, and nobody will be looking to bust you open to get to riches within. Gongsun Hong took the elder’s advice and became known far and wide for his honesty, plain living and incorruptibility.

Tang Dynasty clay bank, 9th centuryBy the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century A.D., the official clay money boxes of antiquity had transformed into the household savings devices, especially for children, that piggy banks are today. An inscription on the clay bank on the right notes that it was made in 867 A.D. to celebrate the birth of a child. Coins or good luck charms (which in China were often cast to look like the round coins with the square cutout in the middle) would have been slid through the slot for the birthday boy.

Tudor pygg jarThe piggy bank in the history of English speaking countries was born from a trick of language. In medieval England, an orange clay called “pygg” (pronounced “pug” in Middle English) was used to make a variety of inexpensive household containers, including coin jars. Again, the pygg jars had a small opening or slot to slide coins into but would have to be broken for the coins to be retrieved.

Then came the Great Vowel Shift. Between 1400 and 1700, English vowels came to be formed increasingly higher up and forward in the mouth. This turned the “pug” sound of “pygg” into “pig,” and although by the 18th century pygg was no longer the commonly used clay, the name had stuck, thus giving artisans a new design theme in the creation of money boxes for the home. Because their total destruction was a key design element, very few of these have survived. The addition of aVictorian painted cast iron piggy bank removable plug in the 19th century ushered in the era of the collectible piggy bank.

Post-Great Vowel Shift England wasn’t the first to make adorable coin banks in the shapes of pigs, however. That honor goes to the Majapahit Empire of Southeast Asia. Based on the island of Java, the Majapahit Empire reigned over what is today the Indonesian archipelago from 1293 to 1500. After defeating an invasion fleet of Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, Majapahit settled into a mutually beneficially trading relationship with China and other countries whose ships, laden with spices and other merchandise, passed through the archipelago.

Kepeng coin, obverse and reverseSomewhere around 1300, an enormous quantity of Chinese copper kepeng coins were imported into Majapahit. Although Java had had a gold and silver coin economy for centuries by then, the increase in non-agricultural prosperity under the Majapahit Empire created a new need for lower value cash with which to purchase goods and services. After the initial imports, the Majapahit began to cast copper coins of their own in the shape of the Chinese kepeng. Once regular people started having cash on hand, they needed a place to store it at home. Enter the first pig-shaped piggy banks.

A celeng is a wild boar native to the jungles of Java. As with all its porcine cousins, these boars are fertile, have large appetites and enjoy wallowing in the earth. As such they are symbols of prosperity, of good fortune and of a connection to spirits of the earth. It makes sense, therefore, that clay taken from the earth would be shaped into a fat little pig and used for keeping coins. Prosperity literally lies within its adorable round belly.

Majapahit piggy bank in National MuseumBy the 15th century, terracotta piggy banks were made in all shapes and sizes. They were extremely common across all classes. Large numbers of them, most of them broken, have been excavated around the Majapahit capital of Wilwatikta (modern Trowulan). There are several examples on display at the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta, including this one to the right which was pieced back together from fragments by conservators.

Majapahit piggy bank in National MuseumIntact ones are rare, of course, since you have to smash them to get your money, but here’s a 15th century one made out of terracotta in Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum. If you have $5,000 in your piggy bank at home, take a hammer to it so you can buy this 15th century one in painted red clay. There’s no way your piggy bank is as adorably rotund of belly (and testicle) as the Majapahit one.

Majapahit piggy bank Majapahit piggy bank, front Majapahit piggy bank, side Majapahit piggy bank, back

Iconic Civil War flag on display at NY State Museum

Marshall House Flag on display at New York State Museum in Albany

A huge Confederate flag which played a starring role in the dramatic end of the first Union soldier killed in the Civil War is now on display at the New York State Museum in Albany. The Marshall House Flag was loaned to the museum for its “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” exhibit by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, which has a vast permanent collection of almost 2,000 flags from the War of 1812 to the present. Because of its massive size (14 by 24 feet) and delicate condition, this flag rarely travels and will only be on display until February 24th, 2013, while the exhibit will continue through September 22nd, 2013.

“One really has to see this flag in order to appreciate it,” said New York State Historian Robert Weible. “It’s enormous and its significance in American history is equally big. By exhibiting this iconic flag, we are better able to communicate the lasting meaning and relevance of the Civil War to a large and appreciative audience.”

Marshall House Hotel by Matthew Brady, ca. 1860-65The story of the Marshall House Flag reads like one of the romantic melodramas that were so popular on the stage and in novels of this period. On May 23rd, 1861, just over a month after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter started the Civil War, an overwhelming majority of Virginia’s voters ratified the articles of secession which had been passed by the General Assembly’s secession convention on April 17th. The next morning just before dawn, eight regiments of federal troops crossed the Potomac River to claim Arlington Heights and Alexandria, Virginia. Among them was a regiment of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, also known as the Fire Zouaves because it was principally composed of New York City firefighters, commanded by its dashing twenty-four-year-old colonel, Elmer E. Ellsworth.

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was born April 11th, 1837 in Malta, a small town in Saratoga County, New York. He had always been fascinated by the military and had made a personal study of it, but he didn’t have the formal education to be accepted at West Point. He joined local militias and distinguished himself as a drillmaster. To seek employment sufficiently gainful to impress his fiancée’s father, he moved to Chicago to study law. There he formed his first troop of Zouaves, inspired by the exploits of the French Army in the Crimean War that he had read so much about. He designed their red and blue uniforms and trained them to become a crack drill team. Their gaudy colors and sharp moves made them and their leader famous as they toured the major cities of the northeast in the summer of 1860.

Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth by Matthew Brady, ca. 1861Once the tour was over, he took a position in the Springfield law office of Abraham Lincoln. There he worked as a law clerk and for Lincoln’s presidential campaign. Ellsworth became a good friend of Abraham, Mary and the children. When Lincoln won the election, Ellsworth was put in charge of security for his trip to Washington, D.C.

With the onset of hostilities, Ellsworth saw his chance to finally do more than run a drill team, so he returned to New York and recruited the 1st New York Fire Zouaves which became the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry. They were one of the first recruited regiments to arrive in Washington, D.C., and although they had a reputation as undisciplined rakehells (30 women were found in their camp when they got to D.C.), they also immediately proved their valour by fighting fires in the city.

Lithograph of the death of Col. Ellsworth, 1861When Virginia’s secession became official, the Fire Zouaves were therefore on the spot to ensure the safety of Washington’s perimeter. They encountered no resistance as they stationed troops in strategic locations around Alexandria, like the train station and telegraph office. Seeing a massive Confederate flag large enough to be seen from a spyglass at the White House eight miles away flying over the Marshall House Inn on the corner of King Street and Pitt Street, Colonel Ellsworth and a small detachment entered the hotel to take down the flag. Inside they encountered James W. Jackson, the owner of the hotel, who told them he was just a guest. They made their way to the rooftop where Ellsworth cut down the flag. He was rolling it up on the way back down the stairs when Jim Jackson appeared on the second floor landing wielding a double-barrel shotgun (now in the Smithsonian).

Francis E. Brownell in New York City two days after Ellsworth's deathJackson shot Ellsworth in the heart, killing him instantly. Private Francis E. Brownell immediately responded, shooting Jackson in the face with his Army-issue Model 1855 U.S. percussion rifle (also in the Smithsonian), and then running him through with the bayonet as he fell to the floor. Brownell would later receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for this act. Although he received it in 1877, his “shooting the murderer of Col. Ellsworth,” as the inscription on the medal states, was the first in the Civil War to merit the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Ellsworth's funeral in the East Room of the White House, drawing on May 25th, 1861, by artist Alfred WaudThe Zouaves, heartbroken by the loss of their beloved leader, were sent to dig earthworks outside of Alexandria out of fear that they would destroy the city in retaliation. Ellsworth’s body and the flag he had died to capture were transported to the Washington Navy Yard. The Lincolns were devastated by the news of his death. By order of the President, Ellsworth’s body was taken to the East Room of the White House to lie in state. Thousands came to pay their last respects. Lincoln was seen openly weeping in grief. He told a group of dignitaries who approached him, “Excuse me but I cannot talk. I will make no apology, gentlemen, for my weakness but I knew Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard.”

Ellsworth memorial envelopeCarried by telegraph and newspapers, word of Ellsworth’s death spread like wildfire across the North. He became an instant martyr, the first Union officer to die at the hands of those dastardly ambushing rebels. His youth, good looks and death for the cause made him an ideal symbolic figure for the Union to rally around. His image and death scene were sold all over the North on lithographs, prints, ceramic mugs, plates, even envelopes. Souvenir hunters flooded the Marshall House, stripping it of the furniture, carpeting, window shutters, stairs, handrail, floorboards and flagpole.

Ellsworth's grave in Mechanicsville, New YorkAfter the funeral service in the East Room, Ellsworth’s body was brought by train home to New York escorted by Francis Brownell, who carried the Marshall House Flag with him. Ellsworth’s body lay in state at City Hall in New York City and at the State Capitol in Albany where again thousands lined up to pay their respects. He was finally buried in the Hudson View Cemetery in Mechanicsville, the Saratoga County town where he grew up.

Ellsworth's kepi at the Fort Ward MuseumAll along the way, pieces of the Marshall House Flag were cut out by people as relics of the gallant martyred officer. Today there are fragments in various museums, including a complete star in the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site in Alexandria, Virginia. They also have Col. Ellsworth’s red kepi, his uniform hat.

Ellsworth's coat with the hole in the chestThe bulk of the flag went to the New York State Military Museum, which also has Ellsworth’s uniform coat with the silver dollar-sized hole in the chest from the fatal shot. The museum recently received a large cotton star they think is the central star from the flag representing the Confederate State of Virginia. Here’s a video about the conservation of the Marshall House Flag at the New York State Military Museum. You get a real sense of its hugeness seeing it dwarf five people cleaning it at the same time.