The Hung & Drawn Quarterly

HDQgibbet1I’m very excited to announce the launch of The Hung & Drawn Quarterly on Grave Matters! Illustrated by Adrian Teal, this comic follows Chris Skaife, Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, and myself on grisly adventures through history, documenting four terrible tales from each century. Beginning in the fifteenth with the execution of the Duke of Clarence, the series takes a humorous look at the dark history of crime and punishment.

Adrian, Chris and I don’t get paid for the content we offer on Grave Matters. If you would like to support our work, we now have an online shop where you can purchase artwork from The Hung & Drawn Quarterly (signed/unsigned), or make a donation to receive a laminated bookmark. We really appreciate any support you can give us on this new endeavor.

So without further ado, please click here to read the first in our grisly series! We hope you like it!

The Double Casket of Thomas & Mary Souder

PM15I remember rummaging through an old trunk in my grandmother’s house when I was a child and coming across what seemed to me at the time a very unusual photograph. It was a monochromatic image of a beautiful, young woman lying in a white casket (not dissimilar to the photo on the left).

Curious, I plucked the photo from the trunk and went to find my grandma, who was parked at the kitchen table sorting through the piles of mail that inevitably found its way into her house everyday. She told me that the woman in the casket was a distant relative of mine named Lena, who had died tragically at the age of 17. “You know, people used to take photos of the dead back then,” she said, taking the picture from me and studying it closely as if she had never seen it before. “Imagine that,” she remarked before placing the photo on the kitchen table and turning her attention back to the endless heaps of mail sitting on the table.

To a child, the image was haunting, and I never quite forgot it. It wasn’t till later in life, however, that I understood the historical significance behind the photo.

My grandmother was right (something she relishes hearing even to this day). Postmortem photos began to emerge shortly after commercial photography itself became available in 1839, and carried on being popular into the early 20th century. This was a time when people in Western Europe and North America had an intimate relationship with the dead, so it was inevitable that the recently deceased would feature prominently in Victorian family albums. The fact that my grandma only has one postmortem photo in her possession is now more unusual to me than the image itself.

Postmortem photos from the Victorian period varied considerably in presentation. The dead were not always photographed in their caskets, as you might expect. Often, they were propped up in chairs, occasionally alongside the living. This was especially common when the deceased was a child, as in this example above.

Sometimes, the dead’s cheeks were coloured to mask the telltale signs of decomposition, or the eyes drawn over to look as if they were open. R. B. Whittaker in New York described the latter services as “Fast Asleep and Wide Awake” in an advertisement card from 1860.

Other times, the corpse did not appear in the photo at all. Rather, it showed the gravesite with mourners standing around a tombstone. Yet no matter how different each photo was from another, death was always at the heart of these images.

By far one of the most unusual postmortem photos I’ve come across is that of Thomas & Mary Souder (below), taken at the time of their deaths in July, 1921. The couple died within 48 hours of each other from “the flux,” known today as dysentery—an intestinal inflammation that causes severe diarrhea that leads to rapid loss of fluids, dehydration and eventually death.

There are two forms of dysentery. One is caused by a bacterium, the other, an amoeba. The former is the most common in Western Europe and the United States; and is typically spread through contaminated food and water. Many people succumbed to the flux in the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially during wartime when access to clean water was severely restricted.

Thomas and Mary were in their late 70s and early 80s when they contracted the disease, and so their untimely demise is not shocking, especially when we consider this occurred before the discovery of penicillin (1928). What is surprising, though, is the double casket in which they were buried. For me, it raises many questions: was the casket commissioned while the two were dying or after both had passed away? And if the latter, how long had the Souders been dead before this photo was taken?

The Fort Worth Star Telegram in Hurst, Texas reported the deaths of the Souders on 16 July 1921:

Even death failed to separate Jefferson Souder…and Mrs. Mary E. Souder…his wife for more than half a century. Side by side, they will be laid to rest in the same casket in the little cemetery at Hurst Sunday afternoon after the span of more than an average lifetime, during with they were never separated. Only a few days intervened between their deaths. Mrs. Souder passed away at the old home near Hurst Wednesday. Her husband’s death followed Friday afternoon.

PM11The simple stone that marks their graves in Arwine Cemetery today gives no hint at the extraordinary casket that lies beneath the ground.

Sadly, this is not the only time two people have been buried together. In 2008, Ben and Arron Peak, two brothers who died tragically in a drunk driving accident, were buried in a double casket painted with the colours and logo of Manchester United, the boys’ favourite football team. Wilfred and Ann Fallows—husband and wife—were also buried this way after they died in a head-on collision in 2012. Most recently, Kelsey and Kendall Adams—two young children who were brutally murdered in New Orleans last year—were laid side-by-side and buried together.

So, as intrigued as I was by the Souders’ postmortem photo, I, for one, am glad that the double casket does not appear more frequently in my research. For when it does, it almost always involves a tragic tale filled with sorrow and unthinkable grief.

 

Beauty & the Macabre: The World of Dr Paul Koudounaris

lindsey%20%287%20of%2012%29“Where do you find your hats?” I ask Dr Paul Koudounaris, writer, art historian, photographer… or as he’d like me to describe him, bon vivant.

“Oh, you know. Wherever these things are found.” He replies, nonchalantly, his ringed fingers waving the question away as if the answer were blatantly obvious.

No, I don’t actually know, but it hardly matters. Speaking with Dr Paul (as his friends affectionately refer to him as) is like falling down the rabbit hole. Suddenly, you find yourself in a world turned upside down. Nothing makes sense, and yet everything makes sense. I find myself nodding as if I know exactly where he gets his hats now.

(Spoiler Alert: I don’t.)

I first met Dr Paul (pictured below) on a trip to Los Angeles when I attended the inaugural Death Salon. He was wearing a purple corduroy jacket and a grey silk shirt. Atop his head was an enormous feathered hat. He looked like an 18th-century highwayman might if he had been imagined by Tim Burton.

“To be honest, I look like a cross between Prince and Vlad the Impaler,” he says. He’s acutely self-aware for someone who is so lost in his own world. I can’t help but agree with his assessment.

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While a chat with Dr Paul is a visual experience (the silk, feathers, and jewellery can be hypnotic at times), it is also a deeply cerebral affair. The author of Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies has travelled the globe, and photographed some of the most macabre places that it has to offer. Naturally, his perspective on life differs from most.

“[My travels] have made me a more tolerant (and also patient) person,” he tells me. This I can believe. Dr Paul has travelled to over 70 different countries and encountered countless cultures and belief systems along the way. He’s sincere in his feelings about the places he’s visited, and the people he’s met along the way, many of whom are witch doctors, sorcerers, and monks.

lindsey%20%2812%20of%2012%29But what does it feel like to stand amongst the remains of thousands of souls? To gaze into the eye sockets of people who died long ago?

“There are a couple sensations I invariably have when I am standing alone in a large charnel house, just me and all these generations upon generations of bone: timelessness and connectivity,” he says. In this instance, I cannot help but imagine him—a flash of bright colour, so animated and alive—standing against the monochromatic background of death.

‘Timelessness,” he continues, “because I stand in the present, stare into the past, and at the same time come face-to-face with my own inevitable future. Time collapses in a charnel house, and I think that is why they made such effective liminal spaces.”

And the other?

“Connectivity because these places really enforced upon me the lesson that no matter who we are and how different we seem to be, we are all part of and subject to a greater cycle—a cycle which in the end ensures that we all end up unified and largely undifferentiated.”

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Dr Paul reminds me that no one (not even a medical historian) can ever fully understand the past, having not lived there. In the end, these places teach us more about ourselves than they do about the thousands of souls who make up their walls.

It is not the catacombs, however, that have taught Dr Paul his greatest lesson about the preciousness of life. “Several years back, I was run over by a gasoline truck. It went right into my car on the freeway. Terrible collision. I should have died,” he tells me, much to my horror.

lindsey%20%283%20of%2012%29Dr Paul not only survived the crash, but he walked away from it nearly unscathed…physically, that is. “That [crash] affected me much more than the charnel houses or other macabre sites ever did. It changed my life instantly. I forever after stopped taking things for granted. You can learn a lot by studying the dead, but you learn much, much more by almost becoming one of them.”

For a man whose personal and professional life has been shaped significantly by death, Dr Paul is far more interested in life, and the people he meets along the way.

“There was a monk in Italy who handcuffed me and made me go to striptease club with him. And then there was some guy with a Hitler moustache in Guatemala who tried to kill me with magic. I have had some very odd encounters.”

The weirdest story by far, however, involved Dr Paul dressed like a mummy, some Orthodox monks, and Russian President, Vladmir Putin. But that’s a tale for another day.

Of all the characters who pepper his stories, none is as fantastical as Dr Paul himself. Yet, he seems perplexed by the attention he often attracts.

“I got a message from a friend of mine who was travelling in the Czech Republic. She took a trip on a bus tour…and in their brochure, there was a picture of me, with a caption explaining that I was a typical breed of itinerant Czech artists and Bohemian personalities that wander the country.”

DrPaul4This is a semi-regular occurrence in Dr Paul’s life. His picture ends up in travel brochures, magazines, and even on the back of other people’s business cards.

“My friend Lauryn has just informed me that my picture is on the back of some guy’s card. No idea where he even got that picture… it’s real weird. Why am I on this guy’s business card?!”

It seems everyone is fascinated with Dr Paul these days, not least of all, myself. And why shouldn’t they be?

His is a world made of witch doctors and curses; catacombs and jeweled skeletons; demonic cats and perverted ghosts. A world guided by a suspension of disbelief, and a willingness to engage with the esoteric.

“These skeletons and the belief systems that surround them are not like anything else I’ve ever come across… and I’ve come across some very interesting stuff. There is an elegant, macabre beauty to it all.”

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Dr Paul Koudounaris is doing a show at Wave Gotik Treffen in Leipzig, June 6th – 9th. You can also order Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies  by clicking here

Death’s Doll: The World’s Most Beautiful Mummy

They call her ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the world’s most beautiful mummy. Rosalia Lombardo died from pneumonia in 1920 at the tender age of 2. Her body was embalmed by Alfredo Salafia (below), put into a glass coffin, and placed inside the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy. If it were not for the oxidizing amulet of the Virgin Mary resting atop her blanket, you would swear she had died a few days ago.

Very little is known about Rosalia’s life, and, until recently, even less was known about Salafia’s preservation methods.

Embalming as a means of memorializing the dead has ancient roots, dating all the way back to the Egyptians beginning in 3200 BC. During this period, embalmers removed the internal organs before rinsing the empty cavity with palm wine and filling it with natron salts. Over the next 40 days, the body would begin to dry out and mummify. The internal organs—which were washed, coated with resin and wrapped in linen strips upon removal—were either placed back into the body’s cavity at the end of this process, or stored in canopic jars.

This method is very different from the one used today, in which preserving fluids are pumped through the corpse’s vascular system. The end result is very different as well. Instead of a dried-out mummy that bears little resemblance to the living, you get a corpse that looks more or less as if it is sleeping. Vascular embalming became popular in the mid-19th century, and was largely driven by the sentimental desire to return the bodies of dead soldiers to their hometowns for burial during the American Civil War.

Embalming techniques varied greatly in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. For many years, Salafia’s formula remained a mystery. That was until Dario Piombino-Mascali at the Institute of Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano tracked down Salafia’s living relatives who had in their possession a number of the embalmer’s handwritten papers. In his notes, Salafia revealed that he injected little Rosalia with a mixture of formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid and glycerin. It was the latter which prevented the little girl’s body from drying out too much. It was the zinc salts which gave her corpse its rigidity and stopped her cheeks and nasal cavity from caving in.

Nearly 100 years after her death, Rosalia looks unnervingly alive. In 2009, an MRI of Rosalia’s corpse produced the first 3D image of the little girl and revealed that all her organs were perfectly intact. Moreover, in time-lapse photos, Rosalia’s eyes open and shut, showing her blue irises to be nearly undamaged by decomposition (video below). The eyelid movement is most likely caused by changes in room temperature and humidity down in the catacombs, yet it has fueled many cult beliefs that Rosalia’s spirit returns to the body.

Little “Sleeping Beauty” draws thousands of people to the Capuchin Catacombs each year. Visitors armed with cameras and iPhones each vie to get a shot of her lying in her glass coffin. But for me, Rosalia is an unsettling sight. She is a reminder of the dangers of childhood in a pre-penicillin era, and represents her family’s unwillingness to let go of her even in death.

In her defiance to decay, Rosalia Lombardo has become Death’s doll, an eternal playmate that can neither age nor disappear.

Medicine’s Dark Secrets – Update

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My Dear Donors,

It is with a heavy heart that I report to you that I have given notice of termination of my contract with Big Baby Productions Ltd, and will no longer be involved in Medicine’s Dark Secrets.

Over 7 months after filming finished, the production was significantly behind schedule and, in my view, was unlikely to be finalised. In an effort to find a way forward, I recently approached Big Baby Productions with an offer to take on the final costs of getting the production finished and made into a DVD for donors, in exchange for the footage and rights to Medicine’s Dark Secrets. My intention was to make it something that we could all be proud of, and to help ensure you, as donors, received your perks.

Unfortunately, Big Baby Productions declined this offer, and countered with one that I considered impractical and not commercially viable. In a final attempt to resolve matters, I extended my offer once more, asking Big Baby Productions to respond by 28 March 2014. That date has now lapsed with no response from them.

However, it has come to my attention that Lesley-Anne Morrison, the director of Medicine’s Dark Secrets and CEO of Big Baby Productions, has contacted several donors suggesting that she had recently sought to enter into negotiations with me and that she was waiting for my response. That is not the case.

Moreover, in a recent update via IndieGoGo to donors on 25 March 2014, Big Baby Productions has implied that the content and format of Medicine’s Dark Secrets would be undergoing major changes. I was not informed of this, nor did I consent to this.

As many of you know, I put my heart and soul into this project. I worked hard with Big Baby Productions on Medicine’s Dark Secrets for two years (during which time I did not receive any payment from them and incurred personal expenses), and I had high hopes that I would see the production on television.

I know that this update will come as a huge disappointment to you. I want you to know that I did not take this decision lightly. I have several exciting projects on the horizon, and through them, I will endeavour to make this up to you in some form or another. I have always appreciated your support. And, of course, do not hesitate to contact me with any questions.

Sincerely,

Dr Lindsey (The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice)

Dead Men’s Teeth: A History of Dentures

827034-001I remember as a little girl being utterly terrified at my great-grandmother’s dentures. The first time that I ever realized that she had false teeth was when I found them peculiarly suspended in a glass of water on the kitchen counter. The jaw was unhinged, as if it was perpetually locked in a ghastly scream. Another time, the dentures were simply sat on her bedside table, grinning horribly at me like some kind of sick advertisement for why children should brush their teeth at night.

I wondered if all ‘old’ people had these frightening contraptions.

Now that I’m all grown up (sorta), I recognize that modern dentures are far less scary than their predecessors, which are truly the stuff of nightmares.

L0043833 Napoleon Bonaparte's ToothbrushIt probably will not come as a surprise to most readers that people in the past suffered from tooth decay the same as we do today. Early toothbrushes with their horsehair bristles (see Napoleon’s, right) often caused more problems than they prevented, and toothpastes or powders made from pulverized charcoal, chalk, brick or salt were more harmful than helpful in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Most of us have had cavities in our lives. Some of us are even old enough to have had them filled with amalgam, a mixture of mercury, silver, tin and copper. But in earlier periods, having a cavity filled was not an option. Once a tooth began to rot, one had little choice but to have it pulled, sans anaesthetic.

In the 18th century, the tooth key was the preferred tool for pulling teeth. The claw was placed over the top of the decaying tooth; the bolster, or the long metal rod, was placed against the root. The key was then turned and, if all went well, the tooth would pop out of the socket. Unfortunately, this did not always go to plan. Often, the tooth shattered as the key was turned and had to be plucked from the bleeding gum tissue piece by piece.

As time progressed, incidents of tooth decay rose as sugar and tobacco became more readily available, creating a market for dentures. Early versions were made of ivory or animal bone, and typically incorporated the teeth of executed criminals or exhumed bodies. See, for example, George Washington’s dentures.

When the first President of the United States was inaugurated in 1789, he only had one remaining tooth left in his mouth. Dr John Greenwood—a dentist from New York, and former soldier in the Revolutionary War—fashioned a set of dentures from hippopotamus ivory, using gold wire springs and brass screws to hold together the human teeth he had procured. There was even a hole left for his one remaining tooth.

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Photo courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine

Contraptions like this were cumbersome and painful to wear. But more so, these teeth were often plucked from the mouths of those who had died from syphilis, thus infecting their new owners when contaminated tissue came into contact with open wounds in the mouth.

What practitioners really needed was access to young, healthy teeth. That opportunity presented itself during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, which led to the deaths of 51,000 men, many of whom left behind a perfectly lovely set of teeth after they shuffled off this mortal coil.

‘Waterloo Teeth,’ as they were known, referred to any teeth stolen from the mouths of dead soldiers in the 19th century, and was a term even employed during the Crimean and American Civil Wars. Body-snatchers followed armies into battle, and returned home with bagfuls of teeth which they then sold to dentists and surgeons for a very high premium.

D1As superior as these dentures were to older versions, they still carried with them the stigma of underworld thievery, which didn’t sit well with the toothless upper-classes. Eventually, dentists were forced to develop new techniques using new materials (such as porcelain) to create dentures that didn’t require the use of dead men’s teeth.

Still, this practice continued well into the 19th century, prompting a Professor of Anatomy at Trinity College to remark on the hypocrisy of the rich about their attitudes towards bodysnatching:

I do not think the upper and middle classes have understood the effects of their own conduct when they take part in impeding the process of dissection…very many of the upper ranks carry in their mouths teeth which have been buried in the hospital fields. [1]

And, of course, the teeth of those who died fighting on the battlefield.

1. Qtd in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1987; repr. 2000), p. 106.

Announcing the Launch of Grave Matters 

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I don’t like to brag (okay, I do) but I know an amazing number of talented people. One of them is Chris Skaife, Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) and Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.  Together, he and I have launched a new website which will focuses primarily on the history of crime and punishment; and what happened to criminals before, during and after execution. We’ve got a lot of gruesome things planned for the site, so please do check it out if you are interested. Our first post is on ‘5 Shocking Facts from the Scaffold’ – you won’t believe some of the stories we’ve dug up!

Click Grave Matters to visit the website. And make sure you “like” our page on Facebook to keep up-to-date on the latest articles!