This image is perhaps my favorite anatomical plate ever, from Valverde‘s Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano, 1556. From a philological point of view it is one of those images that demonstrate how sacred iconography influenced anatomical illustration (the reference here is San Bartolomeo), but my love for this figure is motivated by another aspect.
Not only is it a refined, metaphysical, surreal, grotesque and disturbing plate, but above all it is philosophically programmatic. The man is holding the dagger in his hand, so he just skinned himself: this is an autopsy not only in the etymological sense of seeing for oneself, looking with one’s own eyes, but above all autopsy as seeing oneself.
The famous warning of the temple of Delphi, “Know Thyself”, involves an act of cruelty: every introspection implies stripping away from appearances (the superficial skin) and making a scorched earth of one’s own certainties. To look “inside” in a honest way you have to flay yourself, a process that is anything but pleasant.
The mosaic of San Gregorio in Rome, in the second image, bears the inscription gnōthi sautón, know thyself: and it is no coincidence that it represents another écorché ante litteram, this time used as a memento mori.
Knowing oneself means considering one’s own mortality, but each of us has to decide: is accepting impermanence the end of any quest, or just the beginning?
The English term ‘bonehouse’, referring to an ossuary or charnel where large quantities of exhumed skeletal remains are stacked and displayed, derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘beinhaus’. In its original use, this word referred to the human body rather than any structure as the house of bones. With the bones of the living inhabiting bodies and the bones of the dead inhabiting charnel houses, distinctions between life and death remain clear and accommodated. However, the emergence of animal life within the bones of the dead offers one further twist, repurposing bones as houses in and of themselves.
Reports of birds nesting in human skulls were surprisingly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, attracting the attention of Victorian ornithologists and curiosity-seekers alike. Numerous reports survive through popular books and magazines of the period, including wrens nesting in a skull left outside to whiten by an anatomy student (Blanchan 1907), as well as one uncovered during building works at Hockwold Hall, Norfolk, during the 1870s (Chilvers 1877). Following its discovery, the Hockwold skull was hung from a nail on a potting shed wall by a local man, who was later surprised to find that a wren seen flying in and out of it had laid four or five eggs within.
Also in Norfolk, earlier in the century, birds were found nesting in the exposed skeletal remains of a local murderer. Following execution, the body was left to rot in a gibbet suspended outside the village of Wereham, serving as a grizzly warning to others who might threaten local lives. Around five years later, in 1810 or thereabouts, a child climbed the scaffold and discovered several blue-tits living within the skull (Stevenson 1876).
Though the Wereham gibbet is no longer extant, the surviving Rye gibbet shows how a skull would be retained. (Postcard. Author’s collection.)
Further accounts pepper books both historic and recent. When a Saxon cemetery was excavated at Saffron Walden during the 1870s, a Redstart raised four children in the skull of an exposed skeleton (Travis 1876). More recently, in an expedition to Cape Clear Island, Ireland, the ornithologist Ronald M. Lockley discovered a robin’s nest inside a skull within a ruined chapel, which had presumably tumbled from an old stone grave within the walls (Lockley 1983).
FIG 2: Illustration of a bird’s nest in a human skull, c.1906.
Skulls do not form the only morbid homes of nesting birds, with the Chinese Hoopoe, or coffin-bird, so named on account of its habit of nesting in caskets which were frequently left above-ground in 19th century China. Furthermore, the Arctic-dwelling Snow Bunting has been rumoured to seek shelter in the chest cavities of those unfortunate enough to die on the tundra (Dixon 1902). While nooks and crannies in modern cemeteries also provide helpful shelter in mortuary environments (Smith/Minor 2019), these nesting sites are not driven by any macabre mechanism. Rather, they express the versatile ability of birds to seek shelter wherever it might be conveniently found.
Birds nesting in locations as mundane as flowerpots and old boots (Kearton 1895), through to desiccated animal carcasses, including those of other birds (Armstrong 1955), demonstrate the indifferent resourcefulness of our feathered friends. It is therefore unsurprising that when skulls of the dead have been left exposed to the elements, they have occasionally provided shelter in much the same way as any other convenient object might. As charnels and ossuaries have historically accommodated large quantities of such remains, from time to time they have offered several such convenient homes for nesting birds.
Within England, two charnel collections remain extant. The first of these, at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent, houses hundreds of skulls including one which contains a bird’s nest. The nest is rumoured to have been built in the mid-20th century after the church’s windows were shattered by a bomb which fell nearby in the Second World War, allowing birds to enter the structure (Caroline 2015).
FIG 3: The bird’s nest skull in St. Leonard’s, Hythe.
England’s second accessible charnel collection is located in the crypt of Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire. Newspapers in 1912 reported the discovery a nest in a skull there, which was believed to have been made by a bird who snuck into the crypt through a hole in a ventilator (Northampton Mercury 12.7.12). However, a lack of references in more recent sources suggest that the nest has not survived to the present day.
In Austria, the ossuary of Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau contains the remains of local people as well as soldiers who died during the 1805 Battle of Dürenstein (Engelbrecht). Several skulls bear bullet holes attesting death by conflict, while one with a large portion missing from its vault is displayed side-on to reveal the bird’s nest that it contains.
FIG 4: Nest skull at the Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau.
Further examples exist in the Breton region of North-Western France, where ossuaries were common until hygienic and cultural changes in the 19th and 20th centuries led to most of them being emptied. The ossuary of l’Église Saint-Grégoire in Lanrivain is one where bones still remain, with one skull there accommodating a nest.
FIG 5: Nest skull in Lanrivain Ossuary, Brittany.
A further example with a difference can be found in the ossuary of l’Église Saint-Fiacre. Within Breton ossuary practices, skulls were frequently retained separately from other remains in biographically inscribed boxes which recorded details of the deceased such as names and dates alongside invocations of prayer (Coughlin 2016). Boxes possessed viewing apertures which exposed the remains, as well as pitched roofs which led to 19th century travellers describing them as resembling dog kennels. However, one at Saint-Fiacre is decidedly distant from these canine comparisons, having been adopted and transformed into the uncanniest of birdhouses.
Birds are not the only animals to have found happy homes among charnel remains. In her book ‘A Tour of the Bones’, Denise Inge noted a mouse living in the ossuary of Hallstatt, Austria. More recently, rat bones in the ossuary of Gdańsk, Poland, have been used to shed new light on the dispersal of plague in medieval Europe (Morozova et al 2020). Plants as well as animals have their own established charnel histories too, with moss removed from human skulls finding historic employment within folk medicine as a cure for conditions of the head such as seizures and nosebleeds (Gerard 1636).
Fig 7: Medical moss on a human skull in the late 17th century.
While cemeteries have attracted increased attention in recent times as urban green spaces which accommodate and facilitate nature within settlements (Quinton/Duinker 2018), the study of charnel houses as ecosystems remains a further promising project which is yet to be conducted.
As most instances of birds nesting in ossuary skulls which have been described here were discovered accidentally during the course of broader research, it is inevitable that the present list remains incomplete. It is hoped that by bringing such examples together in one place, this strange phenomenon might receive recognition for the curiosity that it is, and that more instances might be noticed and added to the list. While it is widely seen that life often finds compelling ways to perpetuate among environments of the dead, nesting birds in ossuary skulls provide a particularly uncanny example – from bodies as the houses of bones, to bones as the houses of bodies.
Thomas J. Farrow (mail, Twitter) holds an MA in the Archaeology of Death and Memory from the University of Chester, UK. A previous article on the history of charnelling in England may be found here (Farrow 2020), while a paper addressing folk medical and magical uses of skull moss and ossuary remains is forthcoming in the Spring 2021 issue of The Enquiring Eye.
Today I’d like to introduce you to one truly extraordinary project, in which I am honored to have participated. This is Totentanz, created by engraver and paper maker Andrea De Simeis.
One of the depictions of death that, from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, enjoyed greater fortune is the so-called Triumph of Death.
I talked about it on YouTube in my video Dancing with death: the Black Queen who, armed with a scythe, crushes everyone under the wheels of her chariot – peasants, popes, rulers – was not just a pictorial representation, but a concrete part of the festivities of Carnival. In fact, the Triumph also paraded among the carnival floats, surrounded by people masked as skeletons who mocked the spectators by dancing and singing poems centered on memento mori.
This is the tradition that Andrea De Simeis drew on to invent his modern Triumph of Death, an actual musical chariot that will parade across Italy and, virus permitting, across Europe, bringing joy and poetry but at the same time reminding us of our finiteness.
Totentanz (German for “danse macabre”) is a large wooden music box on wheels; at the turn of the crank, the machine plays a dies irae and three cylinders start turning, thus rotating eighteen original illustrations.
The music box, at the end of its delicate motif, draws a booklet for its operator: an illustrated plaquette with a short dialogue, a maxim, an aphorism, a poem.
Each precious booklet is produced in only eleven copies; the illustrations and texts are printed on hand-laid paper in pure cotton cellulose, hemp and spontaneous fig from the Mediterranean vegetation.
The Italian authors who accepted the invitation to write these short texts are many and prestigious; you can discover some of them on the Facebook page of the project.
Among these, I too tried my hand at a poem to accompany the illustration entitled “The Hanged Man”. It is my small tribute to François Villon and his Ballade des pendus.
Clicca per ingrandire
The proceeds from these publications will fund the Totentanz music box’s trip from city to city, accompanied at each stage by performances by a musician or actor who will interpret the theme of the memento mori. Totentanz‘s initiatives are not for profit, but only serve to finance this tour.
If the initiative fascinates you, you can support it in many ways.
In the promotional video below you can see the fantastic machine in action:
È finalmente disponibile in preordine un libretto che, credo, farà la gioia di più di un lettore: si tratta di Memorie di un boia che amava i fiori, edito da Bakemono Lab, scritto da Nicola Lucchi, illustrato da Stefano Bessoni e corredato da un mio saggio sulla decapitazione.
La storia è quella di Charles-Henri Sanson, boia parigino che durante la rivoluzione francese eseguì circa 3000 esecuzioni tramite ghigliottina. Il racconto della vita di Sanson, che Nicola Lucchi ha voluto rivisitare con un esercizio di equilibrismo tra vicende sanguinose e toni delicati, ci svela un retroscena insospettato, e cioè che quest’uomo pur essendo uno dei boia più “prolifici” della storia rimase sempre combattuto riguardo alla pena di morte. Animo colto e gentile, suonatore di violino con l’hobby delle erbe medicinali, Sanson era noto per la caritatevole empatia che mostrava verso le sue vittime, a cui offriva spesso conforto prima dell’esecuzione. La sua figura contribuì a umanizzare il mestiere del carnefice anche agli occhi del pubblico.
Il volume è illustrato da Stefano Bessoni, che chi legge questo blog conosce ormai benissimo: i suoi disegni macabri e poetici sono il perfetto complemento per la storia stralunata del boia con la passione per i fiori.
L’ultima ventina di pagine è occupata da un mio saggio sulla decapitazione attraverso la storia, e su come l’introduzione della ghigliottina non solo cambiò il modo di guardare alle esecuzioni ma diede anche inizio a una querelle filosofica sulla metafisica dell’anima.
Here is the first installment of The Ouija Sessions, a new miniseries by Bizzarro Bazar.
In this episode my ouija board suggested me to tell you the incredible story of Mattio Lovat, who was found crucified outside a balcony in Venice.
Remember to subscribe to my channel, if you haven’t already; turn on the English subtitles & enjoy!
Cristina Galleri decided to depict an idyllic family scene: there is the branded umbrella, there’s me taking a bath, there is a VERY undressed young lady sunbathing, and a little boy who scurries off his jar of formalin . (The only euphemistic detail is those unlikely body-builder shoulders, as the only gymnastics I ever do is move books from shelf to table and back.)
Gloria Ramones De Lazzari alias Glokyramone, taking inspiration from the macrocephalous skull of my logo, imagined what kind of child he would have become if he had survived and grown healthy: “his notable defect would not have stopped him in the least from becoming a classic late-1800s/early-1900s little brat.”
Flavio Masiero told me that he had little time to work on his submission, because he had to leave for a trip — and what do you do when you have little time?
Of course, you make a collage on an authentic coffin lid!
Chiara Scarpitta, known online as Kiria Eternalove, has written a delightful story inspired by the Punished Suicide, accompanying it with a drawing.
I find it moving that after more than a century and a half the story of this anonymous girl still touches many people deeply; you can read The girl with the sand-colored hair (in Italian) by clicking here.
Milla, tattoo artist, created this poetic psychedelic brain.
I don’t know if the subtext is “Yeah, man, Bizzarro Bazar is, far out, like, you know, a fantastic trip, bro“, or “Bizzarro Bazar can cause severe mycosis“. But in both cases, it’s stuff that needed to be said.
Emanuela Sommi, with a fantastic and refined collage, invites us to take flight on a bizarre hot air balloon towards unexplored shores.
Even though, to be honest, I would be a little hesitant to get on board, given the gorgonic hair and that not-so-friendly hyena.
Chiara Toniolo decreed that mine is “a mind that must be preserved“, and so she literally put it under glass. She even included in her beautiful painting my cat, Barnum — who, as usual, seems completely untroubled. Bloody ungrateful little rascal.
The third prize goes to Gaberricci. At first glance his work, a reinterpretation of a famous Banksy stencil, may seem simpler than many others. But the idea behind it is very powerful, and I’d like to quote the words with which the author presented it to me:
I make no claim of having created anything particularly “wonderful”, and indeed my homage to such an iconic work might seem a bit cheesy. But I wanted to create something more “conceptual” which, moreover, signals a continuity that seems clear to me between you and Banksy: you both explore the territory of the uncanny, in order to suggest how much the imposition of a ” normality” is an overbearing and deeply reactionary act. If it’s quite simple to recognize this revolutionary nature in the work of the artist from Bristol, I believe that it goes more “unnoticed” in your extraordinary work of exploration and popularization, which goes well beyond the mere “Here are some extreme curiosities”. It is this aspect of what you do (and for which I thank you) that I have tried to highlight with this simple image: a guerrilla, as the writing says, conducted by throwing wonders in our face. Which is something we need.
This comparison with Banksy is way too generous, but the resistance against the flattening power of the Norm is a theme I care a lot about, and I am happy that someone emphasized it so explicitly.
For Umberto Eco, wunderkammern are essentially “visual lists”, encyclopedic inventories of wonder. Elena Simoni (a.k.a. psychonoir) has also assembled in her work some sort of compendium of many of the topics I covered on this blog: martyrs, relics, Victorian hairworks, cannibal forks, tsantsas, taxidermies, monstrous dildos, and much more.
Just like a real cabinet of wonders, which is often pervaded by a certain horror vacui, her drawing is overflowing with detail, so much so that the gaze gets lost in it. Yet the graceful female figure and the delicate trait make the atmosphere welcoming: an invitation to always follow one’s curiosity, however eccentric, and to let oneself sink into wonder.
Bizzarro Bazar has always been a source of great inspiration for me, so much so that just last year I founded my own company that has the ambition to become a Wunderkammer of sorts.
I was keen to make my tribute to your work, and I wondered what would happen if you, Ivan Cenzi, were one of the top pieces of a Wunderkammer.
So I combined my master’s degree in digital arts and my (former) job as a restorer to turn you into a wonderful reliquary, one I would definitely buy if only it existed!
The result of her effort — a mixture of painting and photographic processing — is nothing short of spectacular, thus earning the first prize: from now on, call me Saint Bizzarro!
If you liked some work in particular, be sure to show your appreciation to the authors in the comment section.
In the coming weeks I will also post these beautiful works on social networks.
Thanks again to all the participants, you have brightened my days; I hope you enjoyed it too!
Today this blog crosses the milestone of 11 years of activity, and in order to celebrate, the Bizzarro Bazar Contest is back!
Are you ready to enter the challenge and give free rein to your most eccentric and macabre fantasies?
The rules are the same as last time:
Create an original work explicitly referring to Bizzarro Bazar;
Remember that the idea is to allow free rein to your weird creativity, to celebrate and above all to have fun among friends!
By “explicitly referring” to the blog I mean that Bizzarro Bazar (the website, logo, one of my books, even my beard if it comes to that) must be depicted/mentioned/included in the entry. Keep in mind that, while promoting your creations, I also want to promote this blog. Win-win.
My advise is to skim through the beautiful contributions from the first and second editions of the contest.
And now let’s take a look at the prizes:
1st prize: T-shirt of your choice + Mug of your choice + Mousepad of your choice from the official store
2nd prize: T-shirt of your choice + Mug of your choice from the official store
3rd prize: T-shirt of your choice from the official store
The best unclassified entries will be published on Bizzarro Bazar with links to the authors websites/profiles, and shared on social networks.
Welcome to the collection of online resources designed to provide you with lots of nice conversation starters. We will talk about people who died badly, about menstruation, voodoo rites, sexually arousing vegetables and the fact that reality does not exist.
Here’s my idea for a post-apocalyptic TV series with a Ballardian flavor.
On Earth, after the ecological catastrophe, only a few hundred inhabitants remain. The survivors are divided into two warring factions: on the one hand the descendants of rich capitalists, called “The Travises”, on the other the last representatives of what was once the middle class, who call themselves “The Talbots”. (The poorest, with no means to protect themselves, were the first to become extinct.) Natural resources are limited, so the two tribes have built two neighboring cities, in constant war tension.
The cold war between the Travises and the Talbots, which has lasted for decades, is about to reach breaking point with the arrival of one hallucinated stranger, a sandstorm survivor, who claims to have seen an immense oasis across the desert where men have mutated into cold-blooded hybrids…
Ok, I only got this far with the story. But the great thing is that you don’t even have to build the sets, because the whole thing can be shot on location.
Here is the Talbots citadel:
And this instead is the city of the Travises, composed solely of small castles meant to underline their ancient economic superiority:
These two alienating places are Pardis, near Tehran, and the ghost village of Burji Al Babas in Turkey.
But wait, I’ve got another fabulous concept for a series ready here! An exorcist priest, who is an occultist and paranormal investigator in the 1940s, builds a wunderkammer in a small town in the Sienese Chianti (article in Italian only). Netflix should definitely hire me on the spot. (Thanks, Paolo!)
Since we talked about doomsday scenarios, which animal has the best chance of surviving a nuclear holocaust? Probably a cockroach. Why? Well, for starters, that little rascal can go on quietly for weeks after being beheaded.
Ok, we have arrived at our philosophy moment.
Our brain, trapped in the skull, creates a representation of things based on perception, and we all live in that “map” derived from mere stimuli.
“There’s no sound out there. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it creates changes in air pressure and vibrations in the ground. The crash is an effect that happens in the brain. When you stub your toe and feel pain throbbing out of it, that, too, is an illusion. That pain is not in your toe, but in your brain. There’s no color out there either. Atoms are colorless.”
The quote comes from this article which is a short but clear introduction to the hallucinatory nature of reality.
The problem has long been discussed by the best thinkers, but in the end one might ask: does it matter whether the pain is in my finger, in my brain, or in a hypothetical alien software simulating the universe? Bumping your foot hurts as hell anyway.
At least this is my interpretation of the famous anecdote starring Samuel Johnson: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley‘s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’ ”
(This is to say that as a young man I was intrigued by what reality really was, “out there”, but now I think more and more often about Samuel Johnson’s aching little finger.)
The image above hides a sad and macabre story now forgotten. Alessandro Calzolaro has investigated the “prisoner of Mondovi” in this article, in Italian only. (Thanks, Storvandre!)
The medieval village of Fabbriche di Careggine in Italy has been lying on the bottom of an artificial lake since the 1950s. The basin was emptied only 4 times for maintenance, the last one in 1994. But in 2021 the submerged village could finally resurface for good, to become a tourist attraction and a museum site dedicated to “raising awareness and cultural growth on the subject of clean and renewable energy“.
If you understand Italian, Mariano Tomatis’ web series Mesmer in pillole is one of the most beautiful things to have happened in the last year and a half. After reaching the number of 200 published videos, our inimitable Wonder Injector has made an alphabetic selection of the most surprising episodes.
These are the “ghosts” of Castello di Vezio, Lake Como, Italy. They renew these statues every year: you can volunteer to model and be “encased” in chak. You’ll eventually be let out 🙂, but the hollow statue stays there for the following year. pic.twitter.com/MdfA2zqW1K
And here is an interesting esoteric, alchemical and intiatic reading of David Lynch’s cinema (Italian only).
London, 1876. A carpenter with money problems rents an apartment, then one evening he is seen returning home with two large wooden planks and a double blade similar to those used to tan leather. But the neighbors, as per tradition, don’t pay attention to it. The Police Illustrated News tells the epilogue as follows:
“On Monday his suicide was discovered his head having been cut off by a guillotine. The two planks had been used as uprights at the top of which the knife had been placed. Grooves had been cut in the inner side of the planks for the knife to run easily and two heavy stones were bound to the upper side of the knife to give it weight. By means of the pulley he had drawn up the knife and let it fall on his throat, the head being cut clean off.“
And we close with one of the most incredible psychiatric reports ever: the case, documented in 2005, of a man who suffered simultaneously from Cotard syndrome (the delusion of being dead) and clinical lycanthropy.
Although the condition of this unfortunate individual is anything but comical, the results of the report stand out as an unsurpassed masterpiece of medical surrealism:
“A patient meeting DSM-IV criteria for bipolar mood disorder, mixed type with psychotic feature had the delusion of being transformed into a dog. He also deluded that he was dead. He was restless and had a serious sense of guilt about his previous sexual contact with a sheep.“
Strange primordial figures, half human and half vegetal, emerge from the mud of the swamp… They may appear disturbing at first, but in truth they do nothing but observe us, half hidden among the vegetation. Their motionless faces, tinged with sadness, seem to spy on our movements: we are the intruders, the real danger, the offspring who have disowned their origins, we are those who have violated, spoiled and worn out nature.
These hieratic creatures, on the other hand, live with the rhythm of the tides; the wind dries and cracks their muddy skin, but does not affect their calm balance — that serenity which only belongs to those who have accepted the fluid pulsations of time.
They are the work of the French sculptor and artist Sophie Prestigiacomo.
Living near the brackish marshes that make up the Réserve Naturelle des Marais de Séné, in Brittany, one of her passions has always been to go into the swamp, walking along creaking wooden bridges, watching the landscape change with the ebb and flow of the tides that cyclically submerge part of the land.
During one of these excursions, as Sophie recounts, a fateful encounter took place: her encounter with an alga.
Having noticed that the texture of this seaweed resembled that of human skin, and that if left to dry it assumed the consistency of fabric, Sophie realized the ductility that this material could have in the artistic field.
Apart from the metal armor that keeps the desired position, Sophie Prestigiacomo’s Homo algus are sculpted solely with mud and algae. A type of ephemeral art, which natural elements continuously affect and modify. The artist occasionally does some restoration work, when the sculptures are falling apart; but their ultimate fate is to wear out completely, sooner or later.
Initially there were only two Homo algus. Intrigued and reassured by the welcome given to these first two ambassadors, other beings of algae and mud have begun to emerge from the stagnant waters, perhaps convinced that there may still be a relationship tie with this awkward primate called Man.
Thanks to the interest of the curator of the Nature Reserve, and to a crowdfunding campaign, today the swamp feature about ten sculptures.
Sophie Prestigiacomo is still in love with the marsh, and the way it transforms. She often returns to visit her creatures, which change from morning to evening, depending on the rains, winds, humidity: as vulnerable and sensitive as the ecosystem they are part of.
They just wait for someone to walk along the path, between the tidal flats and the marshes, to whisper in tune with the breeze that comes from the immense ocean: remember, human, that this landscape is yours, as you belong to it.
What does poet Walt Whitman have to do with an autopsy manual?
Here’s a post about a curious book, and a mystery that lasted more than a century.
A few days ago I added to my library a book I had been looking for for some time: a 1903 first edition of Post Mortem Pathology by Dr. Henry Ware Cattell.
It is a well-known, thoroughly-illustrated autoptic manual detailing the methods used to carry out post-mortem examinations at the end of the 19th century.
On the title page one can find a tasty quote in Italian from the Divine Comedy:
These verses come from Chant XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno, describing the punishment inflicted on Muhammad (translation: “Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind. / Between his legs were hanging down his entrails; / His heart was visible, and the dismal sack / That maketh excrement of what is eaten“), and they are quoted here as a clear allusion to autopsies, which offer a similar macabre spectacle.
Post Mortem Pathology is an interesting book for at least two historical reasons.
First, it contains some “advice” on how to obtain consent from the dead person’s relatives in order to perform an autopsy; but it would be more correct to say that Cattell gives indications on how to deceive the deceased’s family members, obtaining consent for example from someone “connected with the household, though not necessarily from the nearest relative“, taking care not to specify which anatomical parts are to be preserved, etc. Dr. Cattell also complains about the absence of a law allowing autopsies on all those who die in hospitals, without distinction.
As James R. Wright writes, these are “unique and important insights into local autopsy consent “practice” in Philadelphia in the 1880s which allowed […] pathologists to get away with performing autopsies at Blockley Hospital without legal consent. […] these questionable and highly paternalistic approaches to autopsy consent, although morally incomprehensible now, permitted outstanding clinicopathological correlations which made Blockley an excellent teaching environment.” (1)James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)
Second, Cattell’s book describes the procedure, originally developed by the gynecologist Howard Kelly, to perform the removal of the internal organs per vaginam, per rectum, and per perineum. (2)Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020) .
The method consisted of incising the vagina in women, or the anus in men; by inserting the arm up to his shoulder inside the body, the anatomist proceeded to pierce the diaphragm and remove the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the rest of the organs through that single cut.
Why all this effort? One might ask.
The answer is unfortunately linked to what we said above: it was a trick to perform an autopsy in the absence of legal consent; the organs were removed without disturbing the external appearance of the body, so that the relatives would not notice anything unusual.
But the real curiosity linked to this book is the fact that its author was implicated in a very peculiar incident.
THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING BRAIN
In 1892 one of the most famous and celebrated American poets, Walt Whitman, died.
By the end of the 19th century, phrenology had already been discredited, yet it was still believed that the brains of “geniuses” could show some difference compared to those of normal people; this was the reason why in Philadelphia, as in other cities, there existed a Brain Club, a nickname for the Anthropometric Society, a — more or less secret — lodge of doctors and pathologists who took care of preserving the brains of illustrious men. (Clearly just male brains, not women’s, but that’s OK.)
Famous pathologist William Osler, a member of the “Brain Club”, performing a brain autopsy ath the Bockley morgue in Philadelphia.
A reunion of anatomists in Philadelphia.
Henry Cattell was part of it, and at the time of Whitman’s death he held the position of prosector, that is, the one who did the “dirty work” by opening and dissecting the body.
He was therefore the one who dealt with the poet’s corpse during the autopsy that took place at Whitman’s house in Mickle Street on March 27, 1892, under the supervision of prof. Francis Dercum.
The brain of the immortal cantor of the “electric body” was removed and entrusted to Cattell to join those of the other important intellectuals preserved in liquid by the Anthropometric Society.
At this point, though, something went horribly wrong, and the precious organ disappeared into thin air.
This enigmatic incident changed Cattell’s life forever, making him doubt his talents as a pathologist so much that he decided to increasingly rarefy his commitments in the autopsy room, and to devote himself to scientific publications. Post Mortem Pathology represents, in fact, the first release of his publishing house.
But what had really happened?
The first testimony about it was published in 1907 in a paper by Dr. Edward Spitzka, which was apparently based on Cattell’s confidences to some members of the Society. Spitzka wrote that “the brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed, was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not even the pieces were saved.” (3)Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)
The news caused quite a sensation, so much so that it evidently entered the common imagination: this episode was likely the inspiration for the Frankenstein (1931) scene in which the Doctor’s assistant, who breaks into the university in search of a brain for the Creature, drops the jar with the “normal” brain and steals the “abnormal” one.
But, as James R. Wright writes, “what could not be understood is why the fragments had been discarded as there still would have been some value in examining these. Less clear was whether it was an assistant or Cattell who destroyed Walt Whitman’s brain.”
Be that as it may, in the absence of further clues, for more than a century this remained the official version. Then, in 2012, Cattell’s secret diary appeared on an eBay auction.
Henry W. Cattell during WWI.
The diary does not directly mention the autopsy, but from when it was performed in March 1892 until October of the same year Cattell’s notes have an optimistic tone — it had been a positive and finacially rewarding period of work. Then, starting from October 14, the entries in the diary become much more dark and worried: Cattell seems to suddenly doubt his own abilities, even coming as far as to have suicidal thoughts.
Here is the chronology of his entries, outlining a very different story from that of the assistant dropping the preparation on the ground:
13 ottobre 1892 — “Prepare specimens for path. soc. [Pathological Society of Philadelphia].”
14 ottobre 1892 — “I am a fool.”
16 ottobre 1892 — “I wish that I knew of the best way of keeping an account of my work. It often seems to me that I am so forgetful and yet I remember certain things which others might not be able to mind.”
13 aprile 1893 — “I am a peculiar man in many ways. Why did I get rid of Edwards—in all probability because I was jealous of him.”
15 maggio 1893 — “I am a fool, a damnable fool, with no conscious memory, or fitness for any learned position. I left Walt Whitman’s brain spoil by not having the jar properly covered. Discovered it in the morning. This ruins me with the Anthropometric Society, and Allen, perhaps with Pepper, Kerlin &c. How I ever got in such financial straights [I] do [not] know. When I broke with Edwards I should have told him to go to thunder. Borrowed over $500 more from P & M [Pa and Ma]. They are too good & kind. I would have killed my self before this a dozen times over if it had not been for them.”
18 settembre 1893 — “I should be happy and I suppose in my way I am. Except for my parents I could go to Africa or die and I w[ou]ld be in no way missed.”
30 settembe 1893 — “I look back on my confidence and self possession of last year as somehow wonderful. I now know that I do not know enough pathology for the position which I occupy.”
So here’s the truth: Cattell had badly sealed the jar containing Whitman’s brain; the liquid had probably evaporated, and the organ had dried out, decomposed or been attacked and damaged by some mold. Cattell blamed his assistant Edwards, who had probably started to blackmail him, threatening to tell the truth; this extortion, in addition to Cattell’s financial problems, had forced him to borrow money from his parents, throwing Cattell into a state of depression and mistrust in his abilities.
By publishing Cattell’s diary excerpts for the first time in 2014, Sheldon Lee Gosline wrote:
“Then, too, why put this incriminating evidence down on paper at all, risking public exposure? Clearly Cattell wanted to leave a confession that one day would become public—which now, 120 years later, has finally happened.” (4)Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.
June 9, 1924.
Cattell was now 61 years old, and 32 years had passed since Whitman’s unfortunate autopsy.
At the time, as Gosline points out, Cattell “not only had his university staff income, but also charged assistants to privately assist him, provided post-mortems and expert testimony for a fee, ran a medical journal for a profit, and was a successful and lauded author. All of this was possible because he had evaded disgrace from the Whitman incident. “
His luck came from having kept silent regarding his incompetence in preserving the brain of a poet, and it is with a poem that, in a very proper way, the pathologist ends his diaries. These verses sound like a sort of balance sheet of his whole life. And the image that emerges is that of a guilt-ridden soul, convinced that his entire honored career has been earned through fraud; a man divided between a pleasant economic security, which he cannot give up, and the need to confess his imposture.
Perhaps the only one who could have smiled at this whole matter would have been Walt Whitman himself, aware that the individual body (container of “multitudes“) is nothing more than a mere transitory expression of the universal: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (5)Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)
Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)