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What Not To Do In A Morgue: A Lesson For The Archaeologist?

4 Feb

The fantastic Chirurgeon’s  Apprentice Facebook page has highlighted this rather dark but entertaining article by Simon Winchester on his experience of working in a morgue for a summer in the early 1960’s.  In it Simon explains the many lessons he learned when dealing first hand with cadavers of the recently dead, but he also highlights one big mistake he made with a particular gentleman.

Winchester explains:

All this may have been a mistake of judgment. It was not, however, the Mistake. That came a month into my employment when a couple of attendants wheeled into the mortuary the lifeless and, except for his bare feet, rather well-dressed corpse of an elderly, white-haired man. By this time such a delivery was quite routine: I had already had many similar encounters with the lately dead. But this fellow was different, mainly because he had a large tag tied around his big toe. On it was written a question mark and in large letters the word LEUKEMIA.

I was alone in the building at the time of the delivery, and I wasn’t immediately sure what to do. But a bit of riffling through Mr. Utton’s desk eventually fetched up a tattered old manual describing what to do in the event of discovering gunshot wounds, for example, or upon finding an eruption of angry-looking and possibly infection-laden spots on a corpse. It offered me a single line of advice on leukemia: “Remove femur,” it said, “and send it for examination by the laboratory.” (Winchester 2014).

Duly having removed one of the gentleman’s femora for testing and then prepared and dressed the cadaver, Winchester waited for the undertaker to come and take the man away.  However the undertaker was not impressed by the rather floppy state of one of the man’s thighs and told Winchester to put something inside it to stabilize it whilst he went away for dinner.  Unfortunately Winchester chose a zinc metal rod to replace the removed femur, unaware that the individual in question was due to be cremated, not buried, the next day.

Morgue1

A familiar scene from morgues across the land. Tags were often kept on the toes of bodies to identify them and highlight any pathology in the body (Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS, from here).

Fortunately a good dose of black humour from the family saved any law suits appearing, but the article did make me think about the implications for this in archaeological record.  For example for a person to practice a trade they must first learn and train, often undergoing an apprenticeship under a master or a tradesman.  Mistakes are bound to made in any field of trade, particularly where high technical skill is needed to carry out a procedure.  I wonder if sometimes, especially in the field of prehistoric mortuary archaeology, some things are held up as examples of ritual activities where there has perhaps been a simple mistake that has been covered up or not uncovered, or a result of the taphonomy processes at play.

It also reminded me of a particularly fine biography by Joel F. Harrington of a 16th century Nuremberg executioner that I read late last year.  Meister Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) was a remarkable man, known principally as a highly skilled executioner who attained a particularly high rank in the famous city.  Contrary to his official position Schmidt also became a well-respected healer in his later life.  He carried out his job, indeed his life, with the up-most respect for the sanctity of the position that his father passed down to him, even though he was largely excluded from society because of his job during the majority of his life.  Amazingly the intimate details (names, crimes and last moments) of the many individuals that he dispatched, and the execution methods that were used, were all kept in a personally sparse diary that Schmidt himself wrote.

Schmidt executing

The only reliable picture of Franz Schmidt in action, seen here executing Hans Froschel on the 18th of May in 1591. A brutal but quick death by the sword, a method that required a quick and a steady arm stroke to dispatch the victim. It could easily go wrong if the stroke was not powerful enough to slice and separate the head from the body. (Image credit: Staatsarchiv Nürnberg here).

Harrington makes the point that the young executioner, during the process of learning his trade from his father, likely used butchered animals and stray dogs to practice the various execution methods that were used during this period.  Whilst the book is full of grisly details (being broken on the wheel must have been hell for one), Harrington (2013) puts Schmidt, his life and work, into a broader German and European political framework that effectively illuminates the value that the executioner played in the keeping of law and order in the 16th century.

Being an executioner also often took a physical and mental strain as it was a demanding office to hold, having to both torture and execute criminals but also having to take part in the often elaborate processions of walking the criminal (Harrington 2013).  Further to this there was always the constant reminder that executioners who were accused of a botched torture session or execution could find themselves being penalized or outcast, or even executed, much like the doctors of the day who were accused of failing a patient (Harrington 2013).  I also recommend Winder’s (2011) informal free for all journey around Germany, which also wonderfully places the country in a historical context and is well worth a read alone for some pretty interesting historical hangouts.

Further Information

  • The article, by Simon Winchester, can be found here.
  • An extract of Meister Franz Schmidt’s diary and of a talk by Harrington can be read here.
  • Head to medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’s enthralling site The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice to learn all about surgery in the early modern period.
  • For all your mortuary archaeology needs head to Bones Don’t Lie, a regularly updated blog by Katy Meyers who is a PhD candidate in mortuary anthropology at Michigan State University.

Bibliography

Harrington, J. F. 2013. The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent 16th Century. London: Picador.

Winder, S. 2011. Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern. London: Picador.

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