Feast Day of St. Vitus

Add comment June 15th, 2014 Headsman

June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.

The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)


The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting

This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.

His cult became especially prominent in medieval central Europe. Prague’s imposing Gothic cathedral bears his name, because Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia* allegedly retrieved for it the saint’s arm in a reliquary.**

While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.

The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.

For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.

Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.

* The very Good King Wenceslaus who looked down on the feast of Stephen.

** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.

As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)

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1928: Clarence “Buck” Kelly, testicle donor

3 comments May 11th, 2014 Headsman

The worst thing that happened to Clarence “Buck” Kelly on this date in 1928 was being hung for murder.

But the only thing anyone could talk about afterwards was how he was un-hung … for science.

Kelly and a friend, Lawrence Weeks (later joined by a third friend, 17-year-old Mike Papadaches), drunk on Prohibition moonshine, robbed a Vallejo Street hardware store of a handgun and set off on a San Francisco armed robbery spree. It lasted just a couple of days in October 1926, but the “terror bandits” left a half-dozen dead.

More of the gory but unremarkable (as murder sprees go) particulars can be found in David Kulczyk’s alliterative California Fruits, Flakes, and Nuts: True Tales of California Crazies, Crackpots and Creeps.

We’re more excited by what happened after he died.


The chief surgeon of San Quentin prison, Dr. Leo Stanley, would write that the “swaggering” Buck Kelly came unmanned at the scaffold: “vanity cannot climb San Quentin’s thirteen steps and survive.” The prisoner took his leave of this world shrieking “Good-by, mother!” from under the hood.

Dr. Stanley was of course present to certify Kelly’s death, but also as the local emissary of the medical gaze so long directed at the fresh clientele of the gallows — that “absolute eye that cadaverizes life,” as Foucault put it.

Once Dr. Stanley’s stethoscope fell silent 13 minutes after the trap fell, the cadaver of Clarence “Buck” Kelly was cut down by the prison’s inmate “scavenger crew” and laid out for autopsy.

It is here that the “terror bandit” gives way to the “gland scandal”.

When the late Kelly’s family received the body for burial, post-autopsy, they discovered that the corpse had been relieved of “certain organs essential to a rejuvenation operation.” These “glands,” in the prevailing euphemism of the newsmen, had been removed by Stanley and installed into a charity patient at a nearby hospital.

Review, which notes the New York Times boasting that “America was first in gland grafting.”

He did this because ball transplant therapy was the little blue pill of the 1920s, and made some colorful medical charlatans some colorful mountains of cash.

Indeed, fresh testes were promoted not only for virility, as one might suppose, but as an all-purpose spring of rejuvenation good for a diverse array of afflictions large and small. According to Thomas Schlich, gland therapy had been credited with addressing

chronic skin problems, impaired vision, neurasthenia, epilepsy, dementia praecox, senile dementia, alcoholism, enlarged prostate, malignant tumors, rheumatism, loose teeth, various kinds of paralysis, “moral perversion of old age,” and arteriosclerosis.

(Testicular transplant was also tried out as a treatment for homosexuality.)

The leading exponent of such procedures was a Russian Jewish emigre, Serge Voronoff, who plied his trade in Paris. Having worked with eunuchs in Egypt around the turn of the century, Voronoff got to thinking big things about the little head.

Voronoff’s ball-transplant fad was so successful that demand from rich old dudes for fresh packages far outstripped what France’s guillotines could ever hope to provide. (This is a longstanding theme in the history of condemned prisoners’ medical exploitation.)

So Voronoff emigrated again, to the animal kingdom.


Image from Voronoff colleauge Louis Dartigues’s book Technique chirurgicale des greffes testiculaires … methode de Voronoff.

Voronoff became the guy who would help you sack up with monkey power,* writing: “I dare assert that the monkey is superior to man by the sturdiness of its body, the quality of its organs, and the absence of those defects, hereditary and acquired, with which the main part of mankind is afflicted.” All one had to do to get a piece of that simian sturdiness was graft on a little piece of their sex organs.** “Monkey glands” were even an early entrant (pdf) in performance enhancing medicine for the burgeoning sports world.

Voronoff had plenty of detractors, but before monkey glands were decisively discredited in the 1930s he also had plenty of imitators.

Our Dr. Leo Stanley was not as outre as some of the graft grifters afoot, but he too went in for the medicinal power of the testis.†

Immediately upon discovering Kelly’s anatomization, which was never properly authorized by either the family or the prisoner (Stanley said he had Kelly’s verbal okay), the terror bandit’s former defense attorney Milton U’Ren‡ made the situation into the aforementioned scandal. U’Ren demanded Stanley’s resignation and eventually filed a civil suit.


Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1928.

It would emerge in the course of the “scandal” that Dr. Stanley had since 1918 cut out the balls of about 30 hanged cutpurses to hang them in other men’s coin purses — “engrafting human testicles from recently executed prisoners to senile recipients.”

Being a doctor right at one of the nation’s more active death chambers gave him a steady supply of donors, although Stanley too had expanded to experimenting with testicular tissue from goats, boars, rams, and stags. If you were an animal whom European nobility was interested in placing on a heraldic crest, you were an animal whom Dr. Stanley was keen on emasculating.

His work in this sensitive area was not exactly a secret; Stanley himself published and spoke on the topic, and it had even hit the papers in a laudatory vein.

It was only the cavalier approach to consent in this instance that made it the “gland scandal”, and Stanley was able to weather the embarrassment job intact. He remained at San Quentin until 1951 and continued experimenting with testicular transplant; the procedure’s promise of restoring youthful virility to aging men appealed as strongly then as it does in our day, and he had no shortage of volunteers eager to freshen up their junk. Stanley, for his part, was ceasing to see his operations as “experimental” — just therapeutic. For years Stanley’s scalpel probed scrota, free and incarcerated alike, for the font of youth.

According to Ethan Blue’s “The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913-1951,”§ over 10,000 testicular implant operations took place at San Quentin by 1940.

* Voronoff’s transplantation of chimpanzee testicles into humans has even been proposed as a possible early vector of HIV transmission.

** This period’s interest in transplantation and interspecies medicine is reflected in interwar literature. In Bulgakov’s 1925 novel Heart of a Dog, the titular pet undergoes this procedure in the opposite direction — receiving human testicles. The 1923 Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” revolves around an elderly character who has been treated with a rejuvenating “serum” extracted from langurs, which reduces him to the bestial behaviors of its donor.

And then there’s The Gland Stealers

† Stanley also shared his era’s fascination with eugenics; as with the testicle thing, this was (pseudo-)science with a social reform agenda. Stanley urged prisoners whenever he got the chance to undergo (voluntary) sterilization — urged successfully, on some 600 occasions.

‡ U’Ren wasn’t just another pretty face (or suggestive name): he was a former district attorney notable for prosecuting Fatty Arbuckle for murder.

§ Pacific Historical Review, vol. 78, no. 2 (2009).

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1993: Joseph Paul Jernigan, Visible Human Project subject

1 comment August 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1993, Joseph Paul Jernigan died by lethal injection in Texas. Yet he lives on still.

A career burglar, Jernigan was surprised mid-robbery in 1981 by 75-year-old Edward Hale: the thief promptly shot the homeowner dead, then finished his looting. His life as a free man would be over within days.

As a criminal you wouldn’t much notice Joseph Paul Jernigan — unless it was your house he was burgling, of course — and you wouldn’t exactly call his smash-and-grab act state-of-the-art. But little over a year after his death, Jernigan was making headlines for a groundbreaking scientific project.

Jernigan donated his body to science, joining an ancient tradition of condemned men and women whose bodies are “cadaverized” for whatever medical material is required of their own day and age.

But instead of serving as a med school’s pincushion, “science” in Jernigan’s case turned out to be — Jernigan had no idea of it while he lived — the Visible Human Project.

This National Library of Medicine initiative built a data set of digital images depicting the complete anatomy of a normal adult man and woman: Jernigan’s cadaver was selected for the male lead.

So, after his execution, Jernigan’s entire body was “sliced” from head to foot into 1,871 one-millimeter slides. (The “slicing” process ground away the body completely; it did not literally slice it like salami.)


Joseph Jernigan’s thorax, including the heart. (From here.)

The project is still online, and has never yet been replicated/surpassed with the the advancing technologies of the intervening decades. It’s a weirdly beautiful, unsettling, and ethically questionable artifact — a Smugglerius of the digital age — but it’s also inescapably awe-striking.

So here: take a tour down Joseph Jernigan at the, er, cutting edge of anatomization.

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1945: Dr. Achmad Mochtar, quiet hero

Add comment July 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Japanese forces occupying Indonesia cut off Dr. Achmad Mochtar’s head for a medical experiment gone horribly awry.

Officially, Dr. Mochtar had been responsible for a supposed vaccine whose administration killed hundreds of Indonesian foced laborers.

Latter-day research, however, indicates that it was the Japanese military who administered the vaccine (Indonesian link), an experimental tetanus-cholera-typhoid-dysentery combination shot, getting a trial run before it was administered to Japan’s own soldiers. When this drug proved lethal to most of its recipients, Mochtar and his staff at the Eijkman Institute were arrested in 1944 and subjected to harrowing torture.

According to Jakarta-based British researcher Kevin Baird, Mochtar agreed to take the fall for the experiment in exchange for the release of his colleagues.

“We think of this sort of heroism as the reserve of military men and not learned intellectuals,” Baird told the Guardian. “Achmad Mochtar was not only a hero of Indonesia, but a hero of science and humanity.”


Present-day Eijkman Institute director Sangkot Marzuki (right), and two descendants of the executed man, Monique Mochtar (left) and Jolanda Mochtar (center) lay flowers at a 2010 memorial event after the doctor’s location in a mass grave was discovered. Achmad Mochtar’s name also graces a Sumatran hospital.

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1632: Aris Kindt, Rembrandt subject

10 comments January 31st, 2012 Headsman

We can trace to this date the event commemorated in young Rembrandt van Rijn‘s striking The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp … resolving to the public hanging the same day* of the Lesson‘s ashen exhibit, a robber by the name of Aris Kindt.


The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

Art history footnote: notice that the cadaver’s navel is a stylized “R”: the artist was playing around with his signatures during this period. Also, note the hand under dissection. The scene was actually re-enacted in 2006 to establish that Rembrandt’s done the forearm tendons incorrectly — it does look wonky. Additionally, the very fact that the anatomist is beginning with the arm rather than the usual trunk has led to speculation over whether this was an artistic choice or the doctor’s actual procedure in the thrall of a temporary medical vogue.

The 25-year-old painter had only moved to Amsterdam at the end of the previous year.

He broke through almost immediately with a commission — it was his first major group portrait and it would become known as his first major masterpiece (source), instantly establishing his preeminence in the city’s art scene — from the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to render one of its most important events: the annual public dissection of a criminal.**

Prior to the systematic medicalization of the corpse, when anatomizing a human was still a fraught and transgressive act, Netherlands cities were permitted only one such exposition per year. Its subject could only be a male criminal who would be given a Christian burial thereafter. (Contrary to the English model, posthumous dissection was not used to intensify a death sentence with a further terror.)

The affair would have been crowded not only with other doctors but city council members, intellectuals, and well-dressed respectable burghers. Anyone, in short, who was anyone (they paid for the privilege).

And, of course, its overseer, Nicolaes Tulp; Rembrandt’s framing will leave you no doubt as to which figure in the painting is in charge. The city’s most respected surgeon, Tulp was the Guild’s Praelector Anatomiae, “reader in anatomy”, dignified with the responsibility of publicly lecturing on the unfolding dissection.

The silent but essential final party was Aris Kindt, the alias of a Leiden†-born criminal around Rembrandt’s own age named Adriann Adriannsz. His life was forfeit as a recidivist thief who had lately mugged a gentleman for his cloak.

This common crook’s ghastly lifeless image‡ is more alive for us in posterity than nearly any of his more law-abiding contemporaries. The expressive composition surrounding him is pregnant with all of the moment’s paradoxes: the advance of humanism on the back of a cruel penal regime; the exaltation of the mind with the unsentimental commodification of the flesh; excellence and status bowing over that old emblem of mankind’s final equality in the tomb.

Evil men, who did harm when alive, do good after their deaths:
Health seeks advantages from Death itself.

-Dutch intellectual Casper Barlaeus in 1639 (quoted here)

Rembrandt must have agreed: he painted the Guild’s criminal dissection again in 1656.

* Some sources give January 16, 1632 for the execution. This possibility appears to me to be disbarred by the apparent January 17 dating of a Rembrandt portrait of Marten Looten; indeed, confusion over this Rembrandt-related January date may even be the ultimate source of the misattribution, if January 16 is indeed mistaken. Scholarly sources overwhelmingly prefer the 31st, apparently from primary documentation that both the hanging and a Tulp lecture took place on that date. (See, e.g., the out-of-print seminal academic work.)

** The 17th century Dutch left a number of similar “anatomy lesson” works. That same Amsterdam guild commissioned a new one every few years as part of its keeping up appearances; the last had been a 1619 portrait from Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz.

† Speaking of Leiden: see this pdf thesis for a very detailed excursion into the anatomizing scene as practiced in that city.

‡ Needless to say, we can hardly presume that this painting is strictly representational. Still, this is Kindt for us, even if Kindt looked nothing like the fellow being taken apart.

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1831: John Bishop and Thomas Head, the London Burkers

6 comments December 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1831, two of the “London Burkers” hanged for murdering a child to sell his body to anatomy schools for dissection.

It was one of the city’s most infamous crimes, touching explosive resentments among Londoners for the vampiric trade in human cadavers ultimately demanded by medical students. Thirty thousand packed the streets around Newgate Prison to send this date’s hated offenders on to the hereafter.

As the gang’s nickname indicates, it closely followed the similar affair of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh. (“Burking” had immediately come to mean “killing someone for their marketable cadaver”, a shadowy underworld phenomenon that was in need of a catchy name.) But although William Burke made the OED, it was the London Burkers who most directly triggered the legislation to reform the anatomy business.

Historian Sarah Wise wrote the acclaimed book about this case, The Italian Boy. Executed Today is thrilled to interview her on this 180th anniversary of the London Burkers’ deaths.

The Italian Boy purchase links for Anglophones

Book CoverET: Let’s begin with the title of your book, The Italian Boy — an allusion to the victim in the case. Who was this youth, how did he come to be in London, and what did the city look like to a penniless foreign child in 1830?

SW: Well the book is less a ‘whodunnit’ and more of a ‘who-was-it-done-to’. The identity of that particular victim was never fully established. But, as still happens today in murder cases, some types of victim seem to have more appeal than others, and rumour that a little Italian beggar boy was missing from his usual pitches snowballed into a situation where even the courts, police and newspapers were accepting it as fact that it was his body that had been delivered to an anatomist. The final chapter of my book goes into why this might not have been so.

The ‘Italian Boy trade’ was a racket, whereby traffickers paid poor peasant parents, worried about what future they could offer their children, and took charge of the child, walked them north to the wealthy cities of northern Europe, and got them exhibiting small animals or plaster images around the streets, in the hope of being thrown a penny or two. Huge sums could be obtained in this way, but needless to say, the children themselves saw little of this. [There's an 1872 New York Times article describing the trade into North America here. -ed]

I was fascinated by the warmth shown to these kids in what was otherwise a pretty mean city. This really is the London of Oliver Twist — dark, filthy, with all sorts of Fagin types (and much worse) around. Child vagrancy (as with adult vagrancy) was all too common and yet there were practically no public or civic bodies to offer any help; the idea of hordes of kids sleeping rough is just extraordinary, but that’s how London was right up until the end of the 19th-century.

But Londoners loved these attractive, exotic-looking little Italian waifs, and would also defend other types of beggars if anyone appeared to be hassling them. Ordinary city-dwellers seemed to me, in reading the primary source material, to be a lot less withdrawn and in their own little world than we city-dwellers are today, and seemed to show more class, or social, solidarity.

And how about the killers? What’s their own background, and how do they get into the business of killing people to sell the bodies?

One of the killers, John Bishop, came from a good, solid, small-business background, having been bequeathed a successful carting company. He drank away the family firm, and then turned to the related trade of bodysnatching — there was often a close connection between those involved in city transport and those who needed to move their very questionable goods around surreptitiously. Both trades had the pubs in the street called Old Bailey as their headquarters.

The other killer, Thomas Head, aka Williams, was younger and harder to find out about. He was said to have come from a very poor but honest home, and his parents were devastated when he began to go off the rails in his adolescence, firstly petty-thieving, and then moving on to the less petty-thieving of grave robbery.

I’ve touched a bit elsewhere on the site on the underlying dynamic at work: more demand for medical cadavers than was being met by the gallows. Do we have a sense at this time, after the Burke execution, what proportion of those extra cadavers were being provided by resurrectionists? And how many might have been provided by outright homicide?

Numerical estimates vary hugely for every aspect of this subject. In terms of the sheer volume of bodies medical students were getting through, the 1828 Select Committee on Anatomy canvassed many opinions, and came up with the hugely divergent total of between 500 and 1,000 in a year — the ideal being three bodies per student, with each student completing a 16-month surgical and dissection training. The Select Committee suggested that on average, the Resurrection Men were supplying around 500 to 550 corpses a year — by one means or another. But all these stats should be used with caution.

As for grave robbery: it was all highly surreptitious, as you would expect — there is no great documentary source to turn to, and so we have only scraps of rumour and hearsay. John Bishop, one of the Italian Boy murderers, is said to have ‘lifted’ between 500 and 1,000 corpses in his career, which lasted from 1818 to 1831. That is a huge differential and there is no way of checking whether the lower or higher number is the more likely. Someone shouted at Bishop, in the Old Bailey cells, ‘You’re a bloody murdering bastard, and you should have been topped [hanged] years ago!’, which suggests that the Italian Boy killing was not his first.


Image of a burking, from a broadside on the London Burkers among a book full of street literature here.

As we know, only around twelve people a year were executed for murder in England in these years — people executed for other crimes were not sent to the anatomists. My guess is that many folks who died in public hospitals or workhouses were anatomised, but that this was a highly secret matter and went on illegally. The other main sources of corpses, to make up the shortfall, will have been corrupt undertakers, church sextons and gravediggers. I suspect many coffins in London graveyards were filled with nothing more than brick or earth. As the 1820s wore on, actual exhumations are likely to have declined in favour of more simple ‘sneak-thieving’, with insiders giving the tip-off about where a recently deceased body was likely to be found.

One more ‘statistic’ for you: in a plea bargain attempt during the Italian Boy case, the police placed in front of one prolific bodysnatcher a list of all the resurrection men they had ever known or come across and asked the witness if he would mark with a cross any of the 50 whom he thought capable of murder for dissection. When he handed it back, he had marked six names.

Huge irony: when anatomised, John Bishop was found to be one of the very best specimens the Royal College of Surgeons had ever dissected — great, strong muscles, extremely fit and hearty, from his horrible career in body-handling.

How overtly implicated were aspiring or actual doctors with this sort of thing (even “mere” resurrection as against murder) as a “necessary” part of their education that they chose to turn a blind eye towards? And was there any engagement with the problem as an ethical question?

The public cared hugely about the ethics; the legislature very little. That’s why Dr. Knox, in the Burke and Hare case, was so unusual — no one protected him when the case came to trial, and he was vilified and more or less chased out of Edinburgh. But in the Italian Boy murders, no doctor got anywhere near the witness box. Society and the legislature really rallied around them, to make sure the public did not take their feelings out on them.

But popular resentment that the doctors might have encouraged, or turned a blind eye to, grave-robbery (not murder) remained very common.

By around 1800, doctors and students had wholly outsourced exhumations for dissection material — gangs of specialised labouring men did it for them, and part of the deal was that (in return for a good wage) the bodysnatchers themselves, if caught, would keep silent, do their stretch in gaol, and they and their families would be looked after financially by the surgeons who commissioned them.

One surgeon, Joshua Brookes, fell foul of the bodysnatchers (refusing to put up their wages) and in revenge, they placed half-dissected corpses close to his Soho premises. These were tripped over in the dark by pedestrians, which caused a huge rumpus and the police had to come to protect Brookes from the mobs who wanted to stone his house. Such events were the exception, rather than the rule.

There’s something just sublimely Swiftian about a disposable person being literally, bodily consumed by the city and its professional class. Was it surprising that a doctor would bust these men when they came to sell the body, and/or that it would trigger an aggressive police response? Had they probably pulled this trick with a wink and a nod many times before?

The Italian Boy case was highly unusual in that it was a surgeon, Richard Partridge, who blew the whistle — not only on the killers but essentially on the whole trade. He was the anatomy teacher at the brand-new King’s College, which was very religious-based, though funnily enough, I don’t think Partridge himself was devout. In getting the men arrested, he really blew wide open this secretive, terrifying world of the trafficking of (poor people’s) corpses.

It is the Italian Boy case — not Burke and Hare — which brought about swift legal change, which ensured the demise of surreptitious grave-robbery for anatomical teaching.

Other than hanging the perps, what was the fallout from this case at the level of policy or social evolution? Was there conflict between the privileged and the poor over how to understand this sort of crime and how to go about addressing it?

The ‘resolution’, the ‘evolution’, was the 1832 Anatomy Act, which essentially legalised what had been going on all along. It permitted anatomists to claim as legitimate teaching material the corpse of anyone who died in a workhouse or public hospital whose body went unclaimed by friends or family for private burial. In practice, it seems that even when apparently friendless beggars died, and associates did come forward, the doctors had already earmarked the body for their own purposes.

This type of thing caused decades and decades of bitter class resentment in this country, and fear of doctors and hospitals was even discernible in my late parents’ generation. These worries still occasionally resurrect themselves. The UK’s Human Tissue Act of 2004 was passed following disclosure of the mass storage of children’s organs, without any permission or consent having been sought from the parents. I think consent remains a huge issue in medical matters, in most cultures, and those who are deemed powerless in some way — by class, race, caste, gender and so on — are by far the more likely to have their bodies commandeered in the name of science.

Sarah Wise has been a Londoner since the age of 14. She has a BA in English Literature and a Masters degree in Victorian Studies, from Birkbeck College, University of London. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2005 and was shortlisted for the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

Sarah was a major contributor to Iain Sinclair’s compendium London, City of Disappearances, published by Hamish Hamilton in 2006.

Her forthcoming book, Inconvenient People, investigates the phenomenon of sane people being put into lunatic asylums in Victorian England, and will be published in the summer of 2012.

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1988: Adrian Lim and his two wives

2 comments November 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1988, a trio that had once formed an abusive family were all hanged in Singapore for their shocking ritual murders.



Top to bottom: Lim, Tan Mui Choo, and Hoe Kah Hong.

The Toa Payoh murders stunned Singapore in early 1981, when the brutalized bodies of a nine-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy turned up in that district of the city-state.

A literal trail of blood led police from the second victim to a nearby seventh-floor flat cohabitated by a self-proclaimed spirit medium named Adrian Lim and his “holy wives” Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong. In the apartment was a bevy skin-crawling incriminating evidence, like papers with the victims’ names written down, hairs later matched to the kids, and spatters of blood.

So this wasn’t a case so much for crime scene investigators as for psychologists.

Eschewing the forgettable life of a mere cable TV bill collector, a thirtysomething Adrian Lim had cultivated a side business in quack spiritualism in the early Seventies. He soon found this rewarding scam, in which troubled bar hostesses seeking personal guidance could be induced to pay him for a holistic regimen of eggs, needles, prayer to miscellaneous deities, and (often as not) sex with their “healer”, sufficient to support his lifestyle without further remuneration from the broadcast industry, so he went full time. And then he went right around the bend.

Even as a 9-to-5 desk jockey, Lim had already reeled in one depressed young woman as his live-in lover and business partner and willing enabler of Lim’s carnal con artistry. Lim did not scruple to pimp her out as a prostitute. This was Tan Mui Choo.

Hoe Kah Hong fell into Lim’s clutches a few years later, and although it was that young woman’s own mother who brought her in for Lim’s hocus-pocus, the charismatic witch doctor soon turned her against her family and moved her into the place, too. He eliminated Hoe’s husband by conning him into an electroshock treatment that Lim used to shock him dead.

This twisted family’s run of good luck and absurdly gullible customers came to an end late in 1980, when a cosmetics salesgirl whom Lim had drugged and raped (sometimes the spirits need a chemical assist with these things) started blackmailing him — and shopped him when he didn’t pay enough.

Under a pending sex-assault investigation, Lim conceived some bizarre plan to draw police attention away (or induce the goddess Kali to help him out of the pickle) by … murdering children. Makes sense, right?

It made enough sense to his holy wives to get them to help drug little Agnes Ng Siew Hock on January 24, 1981, help Adrian Lim rape her, help smother her with pillows, and help smear her blood on the apartment’s little sacrificial shrine. Two weeks later, they did much the same (less the rape) to Ghazali bin Marzuki. They were taken into custody the very next day.

While there’s little doubt about whether, the little matter of why was the topic on all Singapore’s lips.

In an eight-week trial that kept the public riveted with the ghastly and/or ludicrous particulars of the medium’s operation, dueling psychiatrists went front and center and measured out competing takes on the prisoners’ respective culpability. In he end, the draught was half-full for all three.

The trial’s “gruesome accounts of sexual perversion, the drinking of human blood, spirit possession, exorcism and indiscriminate cruelty” (Singapore Straits Times) made Lim a Bundy-esque object of public hatred; even others condemned to death refused to associate with him. He was the subject of the first feature-length domestic Singaporean film in English, 1992′s The Medium.

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1941: Mirjam Sara P., T4 victim

1 comment May 27th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On or about this day in 1941, a twenty-two-year-old woman known only as Mirjam Sara P. was executed/murdered by means unknown, probably gassing.

The notice of her death was postmarked “Cholm Insane Asylum.” However, as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton notes in his book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, there was no such place: “As far as can be determined, the Cholm Insane Asylum was a fiction.”

Yes, Mirjam was Jewish. This certainly could not have helped her case, but she was actually killed as part of another genocide: the T4 program, the Nazi policy of involuntary euthanasia on people suffering from deformities, incurable illness, mental illness or anything else that made them into “useless eaters.”

Begun in 1939 with the killing of five-month-old Gerhard Kretschmar, who’d been born blind and missing two or three limbs, the T4 program would end the lives of over 200,000 people, about two-thirds of them after the program officially ended in 1941.

T4 had six death institutions, called “state nursing homes,” which were equipped with gas chambers. The operation was supposed to be a secret, but it was too big to be concealed and before long the German people thought they had a pretty good idea what was happening to their disabled loved ones.

Open criticism of a fascist government is not advisable if you like your life, so the families were limited to publishing heavy hints in their relatives’ newspaper obituaries.

Perhaps the saddest part of Mirjam’s story is that she should have survived. Of course, none of the T4 victims should have been killed, but Mirjam had excellent odds of surviving the Nazi era … until a particularly boneheaded decision by Child Welfare Services and the immigration authorities in Palestine in October 1936.

What’s Palestine got to do with it, you ask? Mirjam P.’s story is told in Tom Lampert’s documentary history, One Life, and it begins in 1933:

This Adolf Hitler guy made Mirjam’s mother uneasy, and she decided to get her family to safety as soon as possible. Mirjam, fifteen years old, long considered a “difficult child,” had been staying in a juvenile reformatory school and sanitorium for the past eighteen months when her mother called her home. She had been sent there after she stole money from her mother and ran away from home.

Mirjam, her mother and her stepfather emigrated to the city of Tel Aviv in Palestine in September 1933, nine months after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany.

Palestine didn’t agree with Mirjam; she hated the weather and had trouble learning Hebrew and Arabic. A year after her arrival, she went to live with her father in Haifa. She left after only a couple of days, however, returned to Tel Aviv and embarked on a spree of petty crimes. Her mother asked for help from Child and Welfare Services, who had two doctors examine Mirjam.

The first doctor pronounced that Mirjam had

… an advanced case of severe psychopathy with pronounced ethical defects. She lies, incurs debts, and has stolen repeatedly from her mother and her friends. She has run away from home multiple times … She roams the streets and is in danger of becoming morally depraved as a result of her strong sexual drives. In order to avoid further violations of the law, she must be admitted to a mental institution as quickly as possible. Since such an institution does not exist here, it is absolutely essential that she be sent back to Germany immediately.

The second doctor agreed:

P. is a psychopath with severe ethical defects and insufficiently developed powers of judgement. She tends to thievery and vagabonding, incurs debts, and has already developed the traits of a swindler … In order to avoid the threat of moral depravity, it is urgent that she be admitted to a remedial educational home … I know that no such institution exists in Palestine or in the neighboring countries. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the patient be sent back to Europe without delay …

Child Welfare Services provided a private tutor for Mirjam, then sent her to a group home for girls, but she didn’t fit in there and was sent back to her mother. Very quickly she fell back into her old habits. She was arrested and put on probation, but she just got arrested again. In a remarkably stupid move by the authorities, she was expelled from the country and sent back to Germany in October 1936. Perhaps Palestine thought they’d given her enough chances.

Back to Germany.

The same country she had fled from to escape Hitler. The same country where by now, under Hitler’s regime, Jews had been banned from public high schools, universities, the civil service, the army and the medical field, where Jews had been deprived of their citizenship and the rights that went with it, where Jewish-owned businesses were boycotted, where things showed every sign of becoming worse and did.

To Germany Mirjam had been sent, to prevent “serious damage to … herself, to her family, and to society as a whole.” She was eighteen years old.

Mirjam spent a few weeks with her grandmother in Berlin, but she left because she was afraid (justifiably so) that the Nazis would put her in an “education camp.”

For the next several weeks she traveled around Europe, going to Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. She tried to find a job but she lacked the necessary papers. In March 1937, she was arrested in Zurich for borrowing money under false pretenses and not repaying it. After twelve days in jail, the Swiss dropped her off at the German border.

Back at square one, Mirjam got into trouble again for petty crimes and served eight months in prison. Then she confessed to having sex with a German boyfriend, in violation of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Mirjam’s boyfriend was prosecuted and claimed he hadn’t known she was Jewish; Mirjam stated she had told him shortly after she met him. He was acquitted in December 1937.

After her release from jail, Mirjam was admitted to the Heckscher Psychiatric Hospital and Research Institute in Munich. She had her intelligence tested and performed poorly. Nurses at the hospital stated Mirjam was a demanding patient, she was lazy, she left her room a mess, she would not take responsibility for her mistakes, and she didn’t have realistic expectations for the future.

After three weeks there, the hospital sent a report to the Jewish welfare office in Munich, which indicated she hadn’t changed much since she was evaluated in Palestine:

In our judgment, P. is a mediocre but normally endowed, weak-willed, unrestrained, and asocial psychopath. Predominant are her physical urges, her limited powers of judgment and insight, and above all her lack of ethical and moral inhibitions. She is incapable of leading a responsible and purposeful life … External compulsion might gradually teach her the value of regular, long-term work and an orderly, honest life.

The evaluator suggested Mirjam be sent to the work unit of the State Mental Institution and Nursing Home.

A 21st-century reading of these evaluations suggests Mirjam was suffering first from Conduct Disorder and then its adult equivalent, Antisocial Personality Disorder. Conduct Disorder is noted “by a pattern of repetitive behavior wherein the rights of others or social norms are violated. Symptoms include verbal and physical aggression, cruel behavior toward people and pets, destructive behavior, lying, truancy, vandalism, and stealing.”

Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed only in adults and is defined as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”

Both disorders are marked by impulsivity, recurring trouble with the law, persistent stealing and lying, and lack of empathy for other people, all traits Mirjam had. These conditions, while serious, would not by themselves merit inpatient psychiatric treatment today — although, in these days of managed care, almost nothing does.

In April 1938, Mirjam escaped from the psychiatric hospital and quickly found herself in jail — petty theft again. Writing from jail during her pretrial detention in May, she asked to be expelled from Germany so she could go live with her father in Palestine, because “as a Jew it is impossible for me to amount to anything here.”

Instead she was sentenced to fourteen months in prison. After her release, in mid-June 1939, the court committed her to the Philippshospital in Goddelau. It was her next-to-last stop on the road

On February 1, 1941, the Charitable Ambulance Service (a tool of T4) picked up 29 Jewish patients from Philippshospital. On February 4, 67 Jews, including the 29 Philippshospital patients, were registered in the logbook at the T4 death institution Hadamar.

Their names were not recorded, but chances are Mirjam was among the group. At Hadamar,

Up to 100 victims arrived in post buses every day. They were falsely told to disrobe for a medical examination. Sent before a physician, instead of examining them he assigned one of a list of 60 fatal diseases to every victim, then marked them with different-colored band-aids for one of three categories: Kill; kill and remove brain for research; kill and break out gold teeth.

Ten thousand people would die there before the end of the war, through gassing, starvation and deliberate drug overdoses.

The district attorney’s office inquired as to her whereabouts and received a death notice from Cholm Insane Asylum: “We wish to inform you that the patient Mirjam Sara P. died here on May 27, 1941. Heil Hitler!”

In fact, she was probably killed earlier than this; the death dates of T4 patients were often pushed forward so the institutions could continue to charge fees for their care.

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1879: Takahashi Oden, dokufu and she-demon

1 comment January 31st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1879, Takahashi Oden was put to death for murder at Tokyo’s execution grounds — the last woman beheaded in Japanese history.

Oden confessed to slaying her lover, and was also suspected of poisoning off her husband.

This made her perhaps the most infamous of Japan’s dokufu, poison-women — a perceived epidemic of the early Meiji period. Oden’s infamy thrust her into the crime genre’s characteristic harvest pulp literature, like Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari. (Takahashi Oden, the She-Demon’s Tale)

“Oden’s body became part of a scientific discourse that worked to produce ‘knowledge’ about feminine norms based on determinist biological differences,” Sharon Chalmers observes. “Deviancy was also characterised in terms of ‘masculine’ traits … [and] female transgression was read as sexual excess.”

And the feeding frenzy of the popular press around each new dokufu only exaggerated the effect: the sexual rapacity angle moved media.*

Since Japan was all about divining the secrets of the human form from the condemned, Oden was dissected after her death.

According to Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, the anatomizing team was especially keen on delineating that scientific discourse of feminine deviance. And, of course, the pamphleteers were keen on publicizing it. In this case, standing as we do today outside the surgeons’ intellectual framework, we can readily discern the corpse’s role for these men as grist for the ideological mill.

Immediately following her execution, her body was taken to the hospital affiliated with the Metropolitan Police Office (Keishicho) and dissected by an army surgeon and three regular doctors. Some accounts of this autopsy reveal that these doctors focused their attention on Oden’s genitalia during the procedure. Her bizarre autopsy is said to have been prompted by a newly emerging field of study called zokaki ron, roughly “the study of (re)productive organs.” A cross between sheer superstition and legitimate study of anatomy, zokaki ron was getting much scholarly as well as popular attention as one of the branches of science recently introduced from the West. After the autopsy, the primary operating surgeon, Osanai ken (1848-85), made the following report on Oden: “Abnormal thickness and swelling of the labia minor. Over-development of clitoris. Enlargement of vagina.” For Osanai — a skilled physician who is credited with having performed the first operation in Japan with chloroform and even makes an appearance in Shibue Chusai (1916), a novel by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) about a doctor of Chinese medicine in late Edo period Japan — such physical abnormalities explained Oden’s violent nature: after all, she ruthlessly slit her victim’s throat and left him in a pool of his own blood, and it took several blows for the authorities to execute her as she kicked and screamed in resistance.


Autopsy of Takahashi Oden, from Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari.

Though a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Oden’s day, she was the subject of a 1958 Nobuo Nakagawa film, Dokufu Takahashi Oden.


Katsuko Wakasugi as the title character in Dokufu Takahashi Oden.

* For more on the Oden story as crime literature, see Mark Silver’s “The Lies and Connivances of an Evil Woman: Early Meiji Realism and ‘The Tale of Takahashi Oden the She-Devil’” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, June 2003 — or, his book Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937.

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1474: Not the Archer of Meudon

Add comment January 30th, 2011 Headsman

On an uncertain date in January 1474, a condemned archer* escaped the noose by volunteering to endure an experimental living vivisection for kidney stones.

The authority for this incident is a single medieval chronicle with just enough context to tantalize:

In January, 1474, an archer of Meudon was condemned for many robberies, and especially for robbing the church at Meudon, to be hanged at Paris. He appealed to the Parlement which confirmed the sentence. Then the physicians and surgeons of the city represented to the king that many and divers persons were grievously molested and tormented by stone, colic, and pains in the side, with which the said archer was also much troubled, and that Monseigneur du Bouchaige (a favourite courtier mentioned by Comines) was sorely afflicted by the said maladies, and that it would be very useful to see the places where these maladies are concreted, and that this could be best done by vivisecting a human being, which could be well effected on the person of the said archer, who was also about to suffer death. Which opening and incision was accordingly done on the body of the said archer, and the place of the said maladies having been sought out and examined, his bowels were replaced and he was sewn up again. And by the king’s command the wound was well dressed, so that he was perfectly healed within a fortnight, and he received a free pardon, and some money was given him as well.

-translation from William J. Bishop’s The Early History of Surgery

Pretty cool, and possibly the earliest semi-convincingly documented case of human vivisection in Europe.

Assuming it did really go down, it seems to have made little immediate impression on contemporaries, but it was gradually recovered in centuries later — and the medical achievement really improved in retrospect.

These few lines inflated into a story, a myth of French medicine: in the first place, the unspecified ailment became identified with kidney stones; a heroic and brilliant Italian-trained French physician named Germain Colot (or Collot)** was fabricated as the genius behind the procedure; even Louis XI turns up personally to observe.


Antoine Rivoulon’s 1851 lithograph valorizes the mythical 19th century version of the Archer of Meudon’s surgery as the first kidney stone operation, undertaken by legendary surgeon Germain Colot, and in the very presence of the sovereign. The archer looks pretty chill himself, given his situation.

“Why this story has disappeared from view is almost as baffling as its origin,” observe Vivian and Christine Nutton in their fascinating survey† of the archer’s historiography. “”Patriotic’ history … has not entirely fallen out of favour.”

One major reason is not to be sought in a library but in the operating theater. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, this story could be seen as having a practical value: it provided proof that this or that procedure, whether to remove a stone from the bladder or the kidney, could be followed safely and effectively. A modern operation could thus be given historical support, which might tip the balance in deciding which of a number of competing possible courses should be followed. John Douglas’s reprinting of the relevant sections in Rousset was an avowed attempt to secure backing for his new and controversial operation for the stone. But with the advent of anesthesia and aseptic surgery, the priorities of surgeons themselves changed in choosing how to operate … There was no need to scrutinize the historical record to establish the most effective way to proceed.

* We digress to notice that the francs-archers to which our offender belonged were a peasant militia established by Charles VII: archers received tax abatements in exchange for regular practice with the bow.

Charles’s best-known military innovation was elevating raving teenager Joan of Arc to battlefield command. Since God helps those best who help themselves, Charles also evidently was cagey enough to take a warning from rival England’s devastating use of the longbow during the Hundred Years’ War. Nice idea, but by this point the archers were “havens for tax exemption … units of ill-disciplined men” — much like our marauding, but fortuitously afflicted, patient.

They were used rarely and ineffectively, and soon after making their mark in the annals of surgery, replaced entirely by foreign mercenaries.

** “Germain Colot” connected a lineage to French lithotomy by way of the historically verifiable 16th century doctor Laurent Colot. As of this writing, Laurent’s Wikipedia page still asserts the existence of this phantom ancestor.

† Nutton, Vivian and Nutton, Christine, “The Archer of Meudon: A Curious Absence of Continuity in the History of Medicine,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 58, Number 4, October 2003, pp. 401-427

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