“Fancy Going to the Empire of Death” in THE GUARDIAN


My article on “dark tourism” and our desire to visit places associated with death is out in The Guardian today, featuring some stunning photos by Dr. Paul Koudounaris. Check it out by clicking here.

THE BUTCHERING ART – Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You!


I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be working with FSG-Scientific American (an imprint of Macmillan) on a book project. The Butchering Art will take readers on a gruesome journey into the world of pre-antiseptic surgery. Further details in the press release below!

Thanks to everyone who has supported and nurtured my dreams as a writer. I couldn’t have gotten to this exciting stage without you.

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“Scary Sexual Devices” in PENTHOUSE!


I’m excited to announce that my article on “Scary Sexual Devices from the Past” is featured in PENTHOUSE this month, no doubt killing the mood of readers everywhere! It’s a three-page spread which has been brilliantly illustrated by British cartoonist, Adrian Teal. In it, I discuss everything from testicle tasters, to radium condoms, molly dolls, and more. If you’re too shy to buy a copy in the store, you can download it digitally here. Enjoy!

Dead Men’s Eyes: A History of Optography


Aurora, Illinois. 16 February 1914. It was a cold, wintery night when Theresa Hollander’s father discovered her broken and bloodied body near a shed in St. Nicholas’s Cemetery. The 20-year-old (pictured below) had been brutally beaten to death with a wooden club, which had been discarded along with the girl’s corpse amongst the tombstones. Much to her father’s horror, Theresa’s eyes were wide open, her hands clutched in frozen agony.

Opt3Suspicion fell immediately onto the girl’s former boyfriend, Anthony Petras, who vehemently denied being involved in Theresa’s murder. A little over a week later, newspapers around the country began reporting that the corpse’s eyeball had been removed and photographed in the hopes that the image of her slayer could be retrieved from her retina. According to The Washington Times (25 February 1914):

The picture was taken at the suggestion of a local oculist, who told police that the retina would show the last object within her vision before she became unconscious. The photograph is held by the accusers of Anthony Petras. It will be shown to the grand jury which meets Saturday.

For hundreds of years, people had wondered whether it might be possible to capture an image of our last vision at the point of death. The idea was first put forward in the 17th century by a Jesuit friar named Christopher Schiener, who claimed to observe a faint image on the retina of a frog he had been dissecting. [1] It wasn’t until the invention of photography in the 1840s, however, that “optography” emerged as a scientific pursuit. It reached the height of popularity in the last decades of the 19th century after the German physiologist, Wilhelm Kuhne, devised a process in 1878 which he believed helped to preserve details from the retina of the eye.

Kuhne believed that the primary process behind vision was chemical, and that the retina worked like a photographic plate from which crucial information could be retrieved after death. His “optograms” exploited the retinal substance, rhodopsin, which bleaches when exposed to light through a crystalline lens. He demonstrated his process by reproducing what appeared to be the pattern of crossbars over a window (below) on the retina of a dead rabbit.

An albino rabbit, after being kept 15 min. in the dark, was decapitated; one eye was removed from the head under sodium light…and fastened onto the edge of a cork by means of needles…[The eye was placed in a] dark chamber with the cornea pressing softly against the diaphragm. The image was visible on the sclerotic, on one side of the optic nerve…that I was sure that it fell on the more deeply coloured division of the retina and could readily mark its place in the appropriate quadrant. Thereupon the yellow curtain was removed from the pane and the eye after five minutes’ exposure was taken away, divided along the equator and examined in feeble gaslight….I brought the preparation out into darkened daylight and shewed it to several witnesses. There was evident on the retina a most distinct brighter diffused spot, the small dimension of which corresponded to those of the image previously seen by me, and the position of which made me already sure that it was the optogram. [2]

Kuhne was satisfied with the results, but wanted to try his experiment on a human subject next. His opportunity arose in 1880, when a man named Erhard Gustav Reif was sentenced to death by guillotine after drowning his two young sons in the river. The eager scientist immediately retrieved the murderer’s decapitated head, removed the eyeballs, and reported seeing “violent and disturbing movements” on the dead man’s retina. The ambiguity of these images was attributed to the fact that the prisoner was wearing a blindfold at the moment of his death. Kuhne’s sketch of what he saw still survives. [3]

Other similar experiments were carried out in the 1880s and 1890s. It was even suggested that an optogram should be produced from the eye of Mary Jane Kelly, one of Jack the Ripper’s victims, though it’s unclear whether the procedure was actually carried out. The idea that optography might have forensic potential was later popularized by the science fiction writer, Jules Verne, in Les Frères Kip (1902). Indeed, so widespread was the idea, that some murderers even went to great lengths to destroy their victims’ eyeballs, as in the case of Constable P.C. Gutteridge in 1927:

In the early hours of September 27, 1927, occurred a crime that shocked England with its brutality…In the very act of doing his duty Constable P.C. Gutteridge of the Essex constabulary was shot down. He was found by the roadside with four bullet wounds in his head, each fired from a distance of about ten inches. A shot had been fired through each eye, and it was believed by some at the time that the murderer had done this out of superstition. There is an old belief that a picture of the murderer is imprinted in the victim’s eyes. [4]

Ultimately, optography fell from fashion due, in part, to the impracticalities of processing retinal images. The last serious scientific attempt at retrieving images from retinas took place in 1975 when police in Heidelberg, Germany, invited the physiologist, Evangelos Alexandridis, to repeat Kuhne’s experiments in order to determine whether or not optograms could be used in forensic investigations. The scientist placed anesthetized rabbits in front of “panels bearing high-contrast patterns or images (one of which was a portrait of Salvador Dali) before being killed.” [5] The retinal images were then photographed, some of which can be seen below from the Museum of Optography.

But what of Illinois murder victim Theresa Hollander? Unsurprisingly, the removal of her eyeball and the subsequent photograph revealed nothing that would help the case against her ex-boyfriend. Petras was tried not once, but twice, and found not guilty on both occasions. He maintainted his innocence till his death.

The exact circumstances of Theresa’s murder remain a mystery to this day.

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1. Derek Ogbourne, “Optography and Optograms.” Available online. I am hugely indebted to Ogbourne’s work for this article.
2. Kühne, W, 1878, On the Photochemistry of the Retina and on Visual Purple, (trans. by Michael Foster).
3. Michael J. Aminoff and Robert B. Daroff, Encyclopedia of the Neurological Sciences, p. 813.
4. Richard Harrison, Scotland Yard (1948), p. 74.
5. Ogbourne, “Optography.”

The Embalmed Soldiers of the American Civil War

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Thomas Holmes—the “Father of Modern Embalming”—had an unusual way of advertising his services throughout the American Civil War. During one of his many excursions to the front, the surgeon plucked the body of an unknown soldier from the battlefield and brought it back to Washington D.C. There, he washed the corpse and injected it with his patented “safe” embalming fluid, which he claimed was free from toxins. He then dressed the soldier in a fine set of clothes and put him on display in his shop window for all to see.

Prior to the mid-19th century, embalming was used chiefly to preserve specimens after dissection. Surgeons and anatomists often used arsenic when creating dry mount displays from cadaverous remains. Mixtures of arsenic and soap were sometimes used to bathe the insides of a specimen in order to prevent decomposition and insect infestation. In 1838, the French chemist, Jean Gannal, introduced a new method for preserving human remains which called for arsenic to be injected directly into the carotid artery. This allowed anatomists to dissect corpses or prepare anatomical specimens without worrying about putrefaction or decay. By and large, it worked, though many anatomists suffered arsenic poisoning as a result.

2The nature of embalming changed when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Suddenly, there was an enormous outcry for the bodies of fallen soldiers to be returned to their hometowns so that families could say a proper goodbye to the dead. It was during this period that the foundations of the modern funeral industry were laid, and the embalmer—as a professional—began to emerge.

The trend began when a captain in the Army Medical Corps (and close friend of President Lincoln) became the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. On 24 May 1861, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth (left) was shot while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of a hotel in Virginia. The flag was so large that it could be seen from the White House.

News of the shooting traveled quickly back to Washington. Holmes offered his services to Ellsworth’s family, and the captain’s embalmed body was taken to the White House, where it lay in state in the East Room for several days. Afterwards, his preserved remains were taken to New York City, where thousands lined up to view the funeral cortege. Along the route, a group of mourners displayed a banner that declared: “Ellsworth, ‘His blood cries for vengeance.’” [1]

Lincoln was so impressed with Holmes’s work that he asked the surgeon to train others so that Union soldiers killed-in-action could be safely preserved and sent back home to their grieving families. Setting up battlefield embalming sheds (right), Holmes trained numerous surgeons in his new technique, and then sold them his “safe” embalming solution for $3 per bottle. Soon, embalmers were pitching tents close to the front, and performing demonstrations of their methods for soldiers, who were then offered a chance to pre-pay to have their own bodies embalmed should they die in forthcoming battles.

The procedure was relatively simple. Embalmers rarely needed to drain blood from the battered bodies of dead soldiers since most of them bled out when injured in battle. By squeezing a rubber ball attached to a tube, surgeons pumped the corpses full of embalming fluid, typically via an artery located in the armpit. The bodies were then placed in zinc-lined coffins (to prevent further decay), with the names of the deceased and their parents prominently displayed on the lid. [2]

While embalmers offered families a chance to reclaim the bodies of their fallen fathers, sons, uncles and brothers, the public in general grew increasingly uncomfortable with the “commodification of the dead.” [3] Speaking to a Yankee reporter, one embalmer remarked:

I would be glad to prepare private soldiers. They were wurth [sic] a five dollar bill apiece. But Lord bless you, a colonel pays a hundred, and a brigadier-general pays two hundred. There’s lots of them now, and I have cut the acquaintance of everything below a major. I might, as a great favor, do a captain, but he must pay a major’s price. I insist upon that! Such windfalls don’t come everyday. There won’t be another such killing for a century. [4]

The high prices weren’t the only problem.

Because of the lack of federal regulations governing embalmers, there were several cases of fraud and attempted extortion. For instance, in 1864, Timothy Dwight of New York made an official complaint against Dr Richard Burr (below), a prominent Washington embalmer, claiming that Burr tried to extort money from him by holding his son’s body to ransom. Allegedly, Burr took possession of Dwight’s son after he died in battle. Without the family’s permission, Burr embalmed the body and brought it back to Washington, where he then contacted Mr. Dwight, demanding $100 for its release. [5]

Dwight wasn’t the only person to complain about the nefarious actions of this new breed of funeral professional. On 9 January 1865, General Ulysses Grant responded to the chorus of grievances by withdrawing all embalmers’ permits and ordering them beyond the lines. In March 1865, the War Department issued General Order Number 39, entitled “Order Concerning Embalmers,” which allowed practitioners to act only under a special license, and made provisions for regulating prices. But by then, the war was nearly over.

Holmes’s continued to offer his services till the bitter end. By the time General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on 9 April 1865, the surgeon had embalmed approximately 4,000 soldiers. The war—or more accurately, the terrible death toll of the war—had made Thomas Holmes a very rich and famous man.

Ironically, before his death in 1900, Holmes requested that his own body would not be embalmed.

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1. Owen Edwards, “The Death of Colonel Ellsworth,” Smithsonian Magazine (April 2011).
2. Kimberly Largent-Christopher, “Embalming Comes in Vogue During Civil War,” The Washington Times (April 2009).
3. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), p. 96. I’m hugely indebted to Faust for information found in this article, and highly recommend her book to anyone seeking further reading on this subject.
4. George A. Townsend, Rustics in Rebellion: A Yankee Reporter on the Road in Richmond, 1861-1865 (1950), pp. 121-22. Qtd in Faust, This Republic of Suffering, p. 96.
5. Faust, This Republic of Suffering, p. 96.

Robert Hooke and the Dog’s Lung: Animal Experimentation in History

1In 1664, Robert Hooke—a pioneering member of the Royal Society and lead scientific thinker of his day—decided to investigate the mechanisms involved in breathing. In his laboratory, he strapped a stray dog to his table. Then, taking his scalpel, he proceeded to slice the terrified animal’s chest off so he could peer inside the thoracic cavity.

What Hooke hadn’t realised before he began his experiment was that lungs were not muscles, and that by removing the animal’s chest, he had removed the dog’s ability to breathe on its own. To keep the animal alive, Hooke pushed a hollow cane down the dog’s throat and into its windpipe. He then pumped air into the animal’s lungs with a bellow for over an hour, carefully studying the way in which the organs expanded and contracted with each artificial breath. All-the-while, the dog stared at him in horror, unable to whimper or cry out in agony.

On 10 November 1664, Hooke wrote to Robert Boyle about his experiment. In his letter, he described how he ‘opened the thorax, and cut off all the ribs’ of the dog, and ‘handled…all the other parts of its body, as I pleased’. But despite these rather horrific details, we see through Hooke’s words a man deeply moved by the suffering he had caused, for he ends, ‘I shall hardly be induced to make any further trials of this kind, because of the torture of this creature’. [1]

The term ‘vivisection’, which refers to the act of dissecting a live animal or human being, was coined in 1709. Yet, it celebrated a long tradition reaching back thousands of years. One of the earliest recorded accounts dates from 500 B.C., when Alcmaeon of Croton severed the optic nerves of live animals in order to understand how it affected their vision. Indeed, William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood around the heart in 1628 was made possible by his use of vivisection; and it is likely that it was Harvey’s work which prompted Hooke to conduct his own experiments several decades later.

Hooke may have abstained from further vivisections after seeing the anguish he caused in the dog, but others were not necessarily willing to abandon these types of experiments simply because animals suffered as a result. [2]

In particular, surgeons-in-training found vivisection a helpful tool for learning how to operate quickly and confidently. In a pre-anesthetic era, the slightest hesitation could cause a patient to die from shock and blood loss. Working on the bodies of live animals allowed the inexperienced surgeon to operate at his own pace, learning from his mistakes as he went without the fear of accidentally killing another human being. In early modern England, where bear-baiting and cock-fighting were national pastimes like football or rugby are today, it was perfectly acceptable to allow for such extreme suffering in animals under these conditions.

L0006244 Claude Bernard and his pupils. Oil painting after

That is not to say, however, that there were no objections to vivisection during this period. Most protests, though, were not centered on animal cruelty, but rather the argument that animals and humans differed too much anatomically for vivisection to be useful. Still, there were those who spoke up in defense of animals.

In 1718, the poet Alexander Pope—a renowned dog lover—condemned the experiments of his neighbour, Reverend Stephen Hales, who often cut open the abdomens of stray dogs while investigating the rise and fall of blood pressure. While conversing with his friend, Joseph Spence, Pope reportedly said of Hale:

He commits most of these barbarities with the thought of its being of use to man. But how do we know that we have a right to kill creatures that we are so little above as dogs, for our curiosity, or even for some use to us? [3]

2Similarly, Dr Samuel Johnson—essayist and author of A Dictionary of the English Language—spoke out against vivisection in the Idler (August, 1758). He condemned the ‘race of wretches, whose lives are only carried by varieties of cruelty’ and whose ‘favourite amusement is to nail dogs to tables and open them alive’.

The image of a live dog being nailed to a table may seem an exaggeration on the part of Johnson to elicit feelings of disgust and horror. Sadly, this is not the case, as evidenced by the testimony of Mr Richard Martin, who moved to bring a bill for the repression of bear-baiting and other forms of cruelty to animals, to the Irish House of Commons in 1825:

There was a Frenchman by the name of Magendie [picture above]… who at one of his anatomical theatres, exhibited a series of experiments so atrocious as almost to shock belief. This M. Magendie got a lady’s greyhound…nailed its front, and then its hind paws with the bluntest spikes that he could find, giving as reason that the poor beast, in its agony, might tear away from the spikes if they were at all sharp or cutting. He then doubled up its long ears, and nailed them down with similar spikes…He then made a gash down the middle of the face, and proceeded to dissect all the nerves on one side of it…. After he had finished these operations, this surgical butcher then turned to the spectators, and said: `I have now finished my operations on one side of this dog’s head, and I shall reserve the other side till to-morrow. If the servant takes care of him for the night, I am of the opinion that I shall be able to continue my operations upon him to-morrow with as much satisfaction to us all as I have done to-day; but if not, ALTHOUGH HE MAY HAVE LOST THE VIVACITY HE HAS SHOWN TO-DAY, I shall have the opportunity of cutting him up alive, and showing you the motion of the heart. [4]

Stories, such as these, are very disturbing, and illustrate that some medical men took pleasure in such sadistic practices. Nonetheless, as demonstrated in Hooke’s letter to Boyle, it would be wrong to assume that all those who performed vivisections during this period were calculating and heartless.

Most importantly, however, we must remember that many ground-breaking discoveries were made as a result of vivisections, and it is to these animals we owe a huge debt for advancements made in medical science during the early modern period.

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1. Letter from Robert Hooke to Robert Boyle (10 Nov 1664). In M. Hunter, A. Clericuzio and L. M. Principe (eds.), The Correspondence of Robert Boyle (2001), vol. 2, p. 399. I am indebted to Druin Burch for pointing me to this extraordinary story in Digging up the Dead (2007).
2. Hooke did not perform any further vivisections per se; however, he did continue to use animals in his experiments.
3. Cf. Joseph Spence, Observations, anecdotes, and characters of books and men collected from conversation, ed. James M. Osborn (Oxford, 1966), vol. 1, p. 118.
4. Qtd from Albert Leffingwell, An Ethical Problem, or, Sidelights upon Scientific Experimentation on Man and Animals (London, 1916).

Under The Knife, Episode 8 – Corpse Medicine

In Episode 8 of Under The Knife, I discuss how drinking blood and eating flesh used to be accepted medical practice in the past. Learn all about corpse medicine by watching the video. If you enjoy the series, please consider becoming a patron of our project by clicking here. And don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube Channel!