MFDJ 04/12/24: Opposing Variolation

Today’s Bitterly Opposed Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Smallpox variolation (inoculating against smallpox by deliberate infection with a mild form of the disease) was less popular in major cities such as London, where smallpox was largely a childhood disease and the poor were burdened by an excess of offspring, than in small towns and rural villages, where more sporadic outbreaks struck down adolescents and young adults.  [So the poor were glad to see them go?  – DeSpair] The procedure also became established in the British colonies of North America, whose isolated nature made them vulnerable to severe epidemics. In 1721, for example, smallpox broke out in Boston, sickening 5,980 of the city’s 11,000 residents and killing 844. The Reverend Cotton Mather, who had learned of variolation from his African slave Onesimus, persuaded local physician Zabdiel Boylston to practice the technique.  Of the 242 people who were inoculated, only six died—a much lower mortality rate than inflicted by the natural disease. But the Boston medical establishment, the clergy, and much of the general public were bitterly opposed to variolation. Boylston’s life was threatened and he was forced to go into hiding. [Gee, sounds familiar. – DeSpair]

In 1722, Reverend Mather attempted to popularize variolation in the American colonies by publishing a small book titled An Account of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-Pox, which gave a step-by-step description of the procedure. During a subsequent epidemic in Boston in 1753-54, Benjamin Franklin, who had lost a son to smallpox, conducted a scientific study to demonstrate the effectiveness of variolation and became an enthusiastic supporter of the technique. In Russia, variolation was popularized by Catherine the Great, who was inoculated along with her son in 1768. She then issued orders to variolate her subjects, and numerous “pox houses” were established for this purpose.

Pro-Vax Catherine the Great!

Culled from: Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox

Post-Mortem Photo Du Jour!

Culled from: Wisconsin Death Trip


Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

December 8th. Very chilly and cloudy. I am not prepared to understand my situation yet, so unexpectedly has it come upon me. In the morning the remaining four thousand in camp were called out into the dead-line and examined. Laird and I were near the last end of one of the lines. As the rebel surgeon came along, glancing at one and another, speaking to perhaps one out of a dozen, he passed me by,–an incident which did not attract my attention much, as I had no idea I was worth noticing any how.  But he turns and looks back at me, and then steps back, asks my condition, examines me more closely, thumps me (and my heart thumps back), asks the name of my regiment, State, time of expiration of term of service, and then, turning away, says abruptly, “You may go.” No words will ever strike me as those did; asking him to repeat them–not fully understanding–I bounded out of the stockade as if I had been shot out. Hardly was I out and looking about me, when I saw Laird following me. Too overjoyed to think of anything else, we clasped each other’s hands and cried like babies. Found and signed our parole papers, after which we were sent out on a large level field, with a number of others, without much guard, all day and night. Rations of meal and sweet potatoes.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

MFDJ 04/11/24: The Truth About Ruth

Today’s Incompetent Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

On February 13, 1917, Henry Cruger contacted detectives in Upper Manhattan to report that his seventeen-year-old daughter, Ruth, had failed to return to their home at 180 Claremont Avenue. She was just one of hundreds of young women who went missing every year. While some were victims of foul play, the vast majority turned up safe and sound within a short time. As a matter of policy, the NYPD refused to act on Mr. Cruger’s missing-person report until twenty-four hours passed. When Ruth was still not back the next day, the police finally opened a case.

Ruth Cruger

Ruth’s sister told police that the last time she saw her, Ruth said that she was going to have her ice skates sharpened at a motorcycle repair shop on 127th Street. Detectives interrogated the proprietor of the garage, Alfredo Cocchi, an Italian immigrant who lived above the shop with his wife and son. Cocchi admitted that Ruth picked up her ice skates but insisted that he did not know where she went after that. Nevertheless, detectives conducted a perfunctory search of the garage, including the basement workshop, and were satisfied that no harm had come to Ruth while she was there.

Cocchi disappeared the very next day without telling his wife, but detectives did not consider it suspicious because he was well known to several patrolmen assigned to the Motorcycle Squad. A livery driver told police that a girl matching Ruth’s description got into his cab near Cocchi’s shop the day she vanished and asked to be taken to the nearest subway station. The police concluded that Ruth had left home of her own accord and closed the case.

Mr. Cruger was so upset that the police were willing to take the word of a stranger over his own that he hired a lawyer, forty-six-year-old Grace Humiston, to pursue the matter for him. Humiston’s persistent badgering of the detectives assigned to the case finally got the attention of Police Commissioner Arthur Woods. He agreed to have Cocchi’s shop searched a second time. After Humiston provided evidence that a man had seen Cocchi covered in dirt on the night that Ruth disappeared, Woods allowed her to be there for the search.

A team of detectives and private investigators conducted a thorough search of the premises on June 16, 1917, under Humiston’s watchful eye. They noticed that a workbench in the basement appeared slightly off-kilter because the concrete underneath it had been broken apart. Humiston told them to dig there. Ruth’s remains were discovered in the same outfit she had worn the last time she was seen alive.

Awesome Grace Humiston

Solving the horrific crime under these circumstances proved extremely humiliating to the NYPD. To make matters worse, Cocchi turned up alive and well in Italy living with his brother, but under international law he could not be extradited.

A grand jury convened by Manhattan District Attorney Edward Swann revealed that the bungled investigation went well beyond mere incompetence on the part of the police. Cocchi’s cozy relationship with the motorcycle officers, which helped eliminate him as a suspect, was actually a moneymaking scam. Whenever these particular motorcycle patrolmen issued a summons for a traffic infraction, they steered the violator to Cocchi’s shop to settle up rather than have the offender go to court. Cocchi would take a cut of the fines, and the balance would go directly into the patrolmen’s pockets instead of the city coffer. The officers involved were indicted, along with acting captain Alonzo Cooper, who had headed the investigation into Cruger’s disappearance.

Cocchi confessed to Italian authorities that he had murdered the pretty teenager because she had resisted his advances. Then he recanted and blamed the murder on his wife back in America. He avoided a death sentence when the Italian court sentenced him to twenty-seven years in jail, thus bringing an end to one of the more embarrassing episodes in the history of the NYPD.

The Creep Himself: Alfredo Cocchi

Culled from: Undisclosed Files of the Police

Weegee Du Jour!

Weegee was the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig (June 12, 1899 – December 26, 1968), a photographer and photojournalist, known for his stark black and white street photography. Weegee worked in Manhattan, New York City’s Lower East Side as a press photographer during the 1930s and ’40s, and he developed his signature style by following the city’s emergency services and documenting their activity. Much of his work depicted unflinchingly realistic scenes of urban life, crime, injury and death.

Here’s a photo from the book Weegee’s New York: Photographs, 1935-1960:

Murdered while playing boccia, 1938

Well, at least he died having fun! – DeSpair

Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

December 6th. Foggy in the morning; clear and cold at night. I heard preaching from clergyman from Florence. Went out for wood.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

MFDJ 04/09/24: The Shoe-Testing Track

Today’s Brisk Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

From the summer of 1940 on, prisoners at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany had to test the soles of shoes for German shoe manufacturers. A special “shoe-testing track” was laid out around the parade ground. The prisoners were part of a penal work detail and were forced to run up to 40 kilometers a day around the 700-meter track, at a brisk pace, regardless of the weather. Anyone who couldn’t keep up with the pace was hit by the SS guards. Few managed to survive this torture for longer than a couple of weeks.

I visited Sachsenhausen in 2014 and took this photo of the testing track.  (My full travelogue of the camp can be found at Forlorn Photography.)

Culled from: Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp


Torture Instrument Du Jour!

Mordacchia  (Iron Gag)

The iron gag is an instrument we can find in different shapes. As its name suggests, it prevented the victims who wore it from speaking or screaming while they were being tortured.

This family of instrument focuses on the mouth as the site of torture and they occluded it either by a ball, a very sharp metal tip placed in front of the mouth, or through a mask fastened to the head. Some of the iron gags had a long spike that penetrated through the victim’s chin, pierced his tongue and also penetrated his palate.

Of course, this instrument prevented the victim from speaking but allowed him to groan and to moan, being that the torturer had inflicting pain as his object.

Culled from: Torture – Inquisition – Death Penalty


Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

December 5th. Frosty night, but beautiful to-day. I drew a ration of a pint and a half of meal, but no wood to cook with.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

MFDJ 04/08/24: The King’s Fistula

Today’s Heroic Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

In 1686 French King Louis XIV endured a terrible operation for anal fistulas. Twice he was sliced open without any form of anesthetic. The press releases said, as they always did of kings, that he endured the operation heroically. A group of French nuns at the cloister of Saint-Cyr heard of his recovery and celebrated by writing a song, “Dieu Sauvez le Roi.” A traveling Englishman heard the tune, copied it down, and when he got home translated it into “God Save the King”: thus the British National Anthem evolved from a hymn written to celebrate a successful operation on the French King’s derrière.

The Sorely-Afflicted Sun King

Culled from: Royal Babylon

Vintage Crime Photo Du Jour!

Juvenile delinquency in the 1905s seldom involved the kind of lethal crimes all too common today, but youthful killers did make news now and then. This stunned-looking but very photogenic 17-year-old named Dennis Weis [Kind of looks like a young Robert Smith to me – DeSpair] is being paraded through police headquarters in St. Paul in May 1957 following a day of murderous violence. Note the film photographer, presumably from the local television station, stationed behind Weis while a nearby police officer directs the media traffic.

Weis, who had a long juvenile record, admitted killing his 90-year-old great-grandmother at their home in West St. Paul by wrapping a belt around her neck and strangling her. The motive: She’d seen him with a gun, and he thought she might ruin his plans to kill his father, who lived elsewhere. After the killing, Weis took a bus to a home in Maplewood where his family had once lived and where he had friends. Two Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies spotted him, and one was critically wounded in a gun battle before Weis surrendered. Police said his head cuts occurred when he “resisted arrest.”

“Tender-hearted enough to free a lady-bug trapped in the kitchen sink… brutal enough to strangle his 90-year-old great-grandmother. That is the strange personality of Dennis Weis,” the Pioneer Press later wrote in a character profile based on an interview with his mother. A reporter also interviewed Weis in a jail, where among other things, he supposedly offered advice to other teenagers: “Tell the kids to wise up and stay out of trouble. Tell them to think twice before doing anything.”

Culled from: Strange Days, Dangerous Nights

Here’s another picture of the little monster from the May 25, 1957 Star Tribune.  He was sentenced to 5-20 years “in custody of the state youth conservation commission”.


Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

December 4th. The prisoners were again transferred back and forth in order to get a correct count. I copied a map of the States of North and South Carolina, which for unexplained reasons has become a favorite occupation among certain prisoners. Rations of a pint of rice. A sick man was shot dead on the dead-line.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

MFDJ 04/07/24: Dropping the Hammer on the East Face

Today’s Clumsy Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Before Doppler radar gave meteorologists the ability to create detailed forecasts of weather systems as they crossed the country, mountain climbers had to rely on predictions published in newspapers and their own instincts to keep from being caught in storms. These rudimentary tools usually provided enough information to keep climbers from venturing out into dangerous thunderstorms or early-season snows. Most mountaineers in the Rocky Mountains stayed off of fourteeners like Longs Peak when winter gales dominated the landscape, saving their enthusiasm for the late-spring and summer months. Even summer, however, can turn against a climber on Longs Peak, transforming a sunny day into a freezing torrent in the space of an hour.

The East Face of Longs Peak.  Doesn’t it look like fun?

Gerald Clark, 30, encountered just such a day on August 7, 1939. A commercial photographer from Denver, he had scaled Longs Peak’s East Face five times before this, bringing all the equipment necessary to do this as safely as possible. He began to scale the wall with his friends, Eddie Watson, 23, and Edmund Cooper, 32, but at about 2:20 p.m., he dropped the hammer he used to drive pitons into the rock. Without the ability to insert more pitons, he could not go up any farther. Worse, it had begun to rain—hard.

Watson and Cooper both had ample experience climbing mountains, including Longs Peak, which Cooper had ascended no less than eight times before this. Watson had made his first climb of the East Face the previous New Year’s Day. They knew enough to realize that while Clark had reached an overhanging rock before he dropped his hammer, they couldn’t make it to the same place with the sudden change in the weather.

“Cooper was in the lead when we started,” Watson told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. “He tried for an overhanger, but couldn’t make it. He came back and he and I agreed it couldn’t be made in the rain that was falling then. Cooper and I wanted to turn back, but Clark wanted to try it. He took the lead and made it over the overhanger.”

Watson and Cooper called to Clark to come back. “He kept going up in the Chimney and kept calling back to us for more rope… He didn’t hear us, or pretended not to, and kept on going, calling for more rope until there was only a few feet left.”

By this time, they knew that their friend had gone too far, but they had a responsibility to make sure he was safe. “Cooper and I started then to try to get [to] another overhanging ledge to one side,” Watson said. “The ledge was nothing less than a waterfall then, with the rain pouring down. It was impossible to get a handhold.”

Then Clark dropped his hammer.

“We called up to Clark. He couldn’t go any further up and he couldn’t start back down because he couldn’t drive a petane [sic]. We decided Cooper and I should go back for help. All three of us started calling for help but got no answer. There were some people on the peak, but they must have thought we were fooling.”

By this time, snow and sleet had started to fall along with the rain. Watson and Cooper managed to get the attention of a guide on the East Face—none other than Walter Keiner, who completed a legendary climb of the East Face in winter with Agnes Vaille in 1925. Kiner was on the mountain with a party from the Colorado Mountain Club, but when the two men conveyed to him that Clark was truly in trouble, he took his party back down the mountain and called for help.

“Cooper and I climbed down,” Watson said. “Cooper took a rope and went up to Broadway, the trail above the Chimney.”

Taking the easier route up the East Face to connect with Clark seemed like a good idea, but once he reached Broadway Ledge, he knew that he could not get the additional rope Clark needed before dark. A recue party, including Ranger Ernest Field and two climbing experts from Denver, Bob Boyd and Bob Lewis, started up the north face at about the same time, hoping to reach Clark from above as well. Cooper moved quickly to join them. Chief ranger J. Barton Herschler took charge of the rescue operation, establishing a base camp at Chasm Lake.

“They told me to go to the Boulderfield,” said Watson. “I waited there for news.”

By this time, the wind had picked up as well, and Clark, clad only in a cotton flannel shirt and denim pants, remained trapped on a ledge as water poured down the mountain and directly over him. As hail mixed with the snow, conditions became too hazardous for Ranger Field and his part to begin to climb down the East Face to reach Clark. A long afternoon of bad weather and biting cold had given away to night, and darkness set in on the mountain. Clark had no choice but to spend the night on the exposed ledge.

Watson went back up the Longs Peak trail at first light and reached Chasm Lake. He found Ranger Field and his party, who had spent the night on a wide ledge, coming down the East Face of the mountain toward Clark as snow and sleet continued to swirl around them. He also met Ranger Paul Hauk at Chasm Lake, on his way to assist. Watson and Hauk started up the East Face from the base.

Where exactly Clark had spent the night, however, was a mystery to the rangers and climbers on their way to help him. “Clark was so much hidden by the storm and the rough that the rescuers could not find him after they started down after dawn,” the Associated Press reported. They called to Clark, telling him to throw out his pack to they could see where he was. “He tossed out his pack then,” said Cooper.  For the moment, at least, he was still alive and conscious.

Finally Field’s party reached Clark, and determined in minutes that he was suffering from hypothermia and could not use his muscles to assist in his own rescue. He lost consciousness as they began lowering him down with a rope to Kiener’s Route, where Watson and Hauk were waiting. It took a total of five hours to move Clark down 1,500 feet from the ledge to the rescue camp rangers had established at Chasm Lake, working in small increments. Rescuers on the ground had called park headquarters for blankets, stimulants, a stretcher, and an ambulance to wait at Longs Peak campground, and eighteen Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees made their way to the rescue camp to help carry Clark five miles on stretcher to the campground and ambulance.

In all, Clark had spent twenty hours on the ledge.

“Clark was still alive when we lifted him on down,” said Watson, “but he was gashed on the head. He must have been hit by a rock while Field and Boyd and Lewis were letting him down.”

By the time he reached Mills Glacier, however, Clark’s life had all but ebbed away. Artificial respiration could not save him.

Coroner Orville Miller in Larimer County completed the autopsy and determined that that the cause of death was exposure—what we now call hypothermia. The gash on his head was only a scalp wound.

Culled from: Death in Rocky Mountain National Park


Dissection Photo Du Jour!

My First “Stiff”
Unidentified medical school, circa 1910

Nine medical students proudly pose around their cadaver. The photograph was framed, indicating it hung on a medical student’s wall as a proud statement and visual record of his entering the medical profession.

Culled from: Stiffs, Skulls, and Skeletons


Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

December 3d. Roll-call and wood rations were omitted “on account of the return of a large number of paroled sick,” though we don’t see the relation of cause and effect. I traded a map of the seat of war for a mess of sweet potatoes.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

MFDJ 04/06/24: Forsaking Fellow Humans

Today’s Indescribable Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

On March 16, 1945, the Nazis liquidated the death camp at Spaichingen, located in southwestern Germany, about twenty miles north of the Swiss border. Joseph Freeman and thousands of other inmates began a six-week death march ordeal that ended in the city of Fussen in southern Germany. Joseph’s story is documented in the book The Road To Hell: Recollections of the Nazi Death March. The following is a brief excerpt from the book, discussing more than one month into the march.

More than one thousand five hundred inmates, counting the sick, started on the death march. The nurses told me that on the first evening the SS separated the casualties from the main group. They were ordered to take the sick and wounded down from the carriages and put them in one place. As the nurses left the area they heard machine guns and the screams of the slaughtered. When the march began I could not see the end of our procession. Now, after four weeks on the road, I could see the end of the column which had been getting shorter each day. Two hundred or maybe four hundred emaciated wretches were crawling on the road. We looked hideous, our unshaven faces covered with filth, our hair breeding grounds for lice. The stench from our unwashed bodies was indescribable. The stinking odor was overwhelming, making it almost impossible for us to breathe.

Nazi death march

In a single day we would walk three, maybe four miles. At times we passed small villages, where townspeople gazed at us from the sidewalks. As we passed through one small town, apples began to rain upon us. Never will I forget that moment. Like animals, we fell on one another, grabbing apples and devouring them in seconds. The SS responded by smashing us with the butt ends of their weapons. But the drive to satisfy our hunger was stronger than the punishment inflicted by the officers. Residents on both sides of the street were horrified and started to cry. These German civilians could not bear to witness this harrowing, dreadful scene. They too knew despair. They could not stand to watch the misery of living skeletons fighting to catch something to eat. These burghers could still feel human compassion, unlike the SS who were “Satans” in human form.

We marched through other towns where people tried to help us by throwing pieces of food toward us. Not all German civilians could feel the suffering of other human beings. In some places the residents were openly hostile to us. They laughed at us when the SS prevented us from catching the little morsels of apple or bread. They teased us and cursed us, calling us schmutzige Hunde (filthy dogs). Maybe because they had been indoctrinated with the philosophy of the super race, they could no longer feel compassion for the pain and suffering of others. These were the future leaders of the so-called “Nazi Empire.” It is hard to understand how people can change so quickly from builders to destroyers. This was the reality of the Nazi Weltanschauung philosophy, a paradise built on the misery of so called Untermenschen, the lower class of humanity. We did not think about these things at the time of our suffering. We were dying of hunger and sickness; there was no time to ponder. But now, so many years later, looking back, I can understand why the majority of Germans failed to face the challenge. They took the easy way out, forsaking any code of ethics and morality toward their fellow humans.

Culled from: The Road To Hell

Arcane Excerpts!

Here’s another bizarre excerpt from the fabulous Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle (1896):

Maternal Impressions—Another curious fact associated with pregnancy is the apparent influence of the emotions of the mother on the child in utero. Every one knows of the popular explanation of many birth-marks, their supposed resemblance to some animal or object seen by the mother during pregnancy, etc. The truth of maternal impressions, however, seems to be more firmly established by facts of a substantial nature.  There is a natural desire to explain any abnormality or anomaly of the child as due to some incident during the period of the mother’s pregnancy, and the truth is often distorted and the imagination heavily drawn upon to furnish the satisfactory explanation. It is the customary speech of the dime-museum lecturer to attribute the existence of some “freak” to an episode in the mother’s pregnancy. The poor “Elephant-man” firmly believed his peculiarity was due tot he fact that his mother while carrying him in utero was knocked down at the circus by an elephant. In some countries the exhibition of monstrosities is forbidden because of the supposed danger of maternal impression. The celebrated “Siamese Twins” for this reason were forbidden to exhibit themselves for quite a period in France.

We shall cite only a few of the most interesting cases from medical literature. Hippocrates saved the honor of a princess, accused of adultery with a negro because she bore a black child, by citing it as a case of maternal impression, the husband of the princess having placed in her room a painting of a negro, to the view of which she was subjected during the whole of her pregnancy. [Quick thinking! – DeSpair] …

According to Paré, Damascene saw a girl with long hair like a bear, whose mother had constantly before her a picture of the hairy St. John… Jonston quotes a case of Heliodorus; it was an Ethiopian, who by the effect of the imagination produced a white child. … Van Helmont cites the case of a tailor’s wife at Mechlin, who during a conflict outside her house, on seeing a soldier lose his hand at her door, gave birth to a daughter with one hand, the other hand being a bleeding stump; he also speaks of the case of the wife of a merchant at Antwerp, who after seeing a soldier’s arm shot off at the siege of Ostend gave birth to a daughter with one arm. Plot speaks of a child bearing the figure of a mouse; when pregnant, the mother had been much frightened by one of these animals. Gassendus describes a fetus with the traces of a wound in the same location as one received by the mother. The Lancet speaks of several cases—one of a child with a face resembling a dog whose mother had been bitten; one of a child with one eye blue and the other black, whose mother during confinement had seen a person so marked; of an infant with fins as upper and lower extremities, the mother having seen such a monster; and another, a child born with its feet covered with scalds and burns, whose mother had been badly frightened by fireworks and a descending rocket. There is the history of a woman who while pregnant at seven months with her fifth child was bitten on the right calf by a dog. Ten weeks after, she bore a child with three marks corresponding in seize and appearance to those caused by the dog’s teeth on her leg. Kerr reports the case of a woman in her seventh month whose daughter fell on a cooking stove, shocking the mother, who suspected fatal burns. The woman was delivered two months later of an infant blistered about the mouth and extremities in a manner similar to the burns of her sister. This infant died on the third day, but another was born fourteen months later with the same blisters. Inflammation set in and nearly all the fingers and toes sloughed off. In a subsequent confinement, long after the mental agitation, a health unmarked infant was born.

Hunt describes a case which has since become almost classic of a woman fatally burned, when pregnant eight months, by her clothes catching fire at the kitchen grate. The day after the burns labor began and was terminated by the birth of a well-formed dead female child, apparently blistered and burned in extent and in places corresponding almost exactly to the locations of the mother’s injuries. The mother died on the fourth day.

Webb reports the history of a negress who during a convulsions while pregnant fell into a fire, burning the whole front of the abdomen, the front and inside of the thighs to the knees, the external genitals, and the left arm. Artificial delivery was deemed necessary, and a dead child, seemingly burned much like its mother, except less intensely, was delivered. There was also one large blister near the inner canthus of the eye and some large blisters about the neck and throat which the mother did not show. There was no history of syphilis nor of any eruptive fever in the mother, who died on the tenth day with tetanus.

Graham describes a woman of thirty-five, the mother of seven children, who while pregnant was feeding some rabbits, when one of the animals jumped at her with its eyes “glaring” upon her, causing a sudden fright. Her child was born hydrocephalic. Its mouth and face were small and rabbit-shaped. Instead of a nose, it had a fleshy growth 3/4 inch long by 1/4 inch broad, directed upward at an angle of 45°. The space between this and the mouth was occupied by a body resembling an adult eye. Within this were two small, imperfect eyes which moved freely while life lasted (ten minutes). The child’s integument was covered with dark, downy, short hair. The woman recovered and afterward bore two normal children.

I mean, I don’t know – seems pretty convincing to me!  -DeSpair


Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

December 2d. Six months a prisoner.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

MFDJ 04/05/24: Thallium Bait

Today’s Inescapable Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

For several years, starting in the late 1920s, the State of California had used grain poisoned with thallium bait to eradicate ground squirrels in its southern coastal counties. As state wildlife officials discovered, the plan worked, except that it also killed animals that ate the poisoned squirrels—civets, coyotes, weasels, foxes, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, turkey vultures—as well as any creature unfortunate enough to find leftover bait, which included mourning doves, quail, rabbits, pheasants, five species of wild geese, meadowlarks, skunks, rats, ravens, three species of sparrow, three species of woodpecker, kangaroo rats, juncos, white-footed mice, pet cats and dogs, domestic chickens, sheep, and cows.

Vintage Thallium Ant Poison

The program was finally discontinued after a group of field workers used a sack of grain found in a grower’s barn to make dinner. It turned out to be a sack of thallium bait. Seven of the workers died, and more than a dozen others survived but suffered partial paralysis and the tell-tale, inescapable hair loss.

Culled from: The Poisoner’s Handbook

Post-Mortem Portrait Du Jour!

Ambrotype 1/6 Plate, Circa 1860

Culled from: Sleeping Beauty III

Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

December 1st. All the prisoners were moved to one side of the creek, and then the entire camp made to move back to the other side again, being counted as they passed across the little bridge. A lot of “galvanized Yanks”–turncoats–were sent back into camp by the rebels for fear they would escape to our army.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

MFDJ 04/04/24: Seemingly Kind Nazi Doctors

Today’s Seemingly Kind Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Nazi doctors and others involved in the reception process at Auschwitz varied greatly in their tone. A survivor, whose work gave him the run of the camp, explained that “they [the Nazis] were psychologically very [well] prepared for every situation,” so that at times “the doctor was very friendly to the people… asking, ‘How are you?’ and, ‘What occupation [do] you have?'” When an arriving inmate mentioned illness, looked weak, or was too young or too old, the same doctor made the decision to send him or her to the gas chambers. This survivor went on to tell of an incident (described to him by members of the Sonderkommando*) when a doctor appeared in the room outside the gas chamber where prisoners had to undress, noted a broken glass on the floor from shattered eyeglasses, and told the people there, “Please be careful that you… [don’t] injure your[self].” The survivor’s conclusion: “So they [the Nazis] were, to the last moment… using [the] hoax.”

New arrivals at Auschwitz being sorted 

He went on to list the series of steps in SS doctors’ involvement in the killing: first, the chief doctor’s assignments to his subordinates concerning duty schedules and immediate selections policies; second, the individual doctor’s service on the ramp, performing selections “in a very noble [seemingly kind] manner”; third, the doctor riding in the ambulance or Red Cross car to the crematoria; fourth, the doctor ordering “how many  [pellets] of gas should be thrown in… these holes from the ceilings, according  to the number of people, and who should do it… There were three or four Desinfektoren“; fifth, “He observed through the hole how the people are dying”; sixth, “When the people were dead… he gave the order to ventilate… to open the gas chamber, and he came… with a gas mask into the chamber”; seventh, “He signed a [form] that the people are dead… and how long it took”; and eighth, “he… observed… the teeth… extraction [from] the corpses.” This was the survivor who concluded that “the killing program was led by doctors—from the beginning to the end.”

Culled from: The Nazi Doctors

Sonderkommando:  groups of prisoners forced to perform a variety of duties in the gas chambers and crematoria of the Nazi camp system.

And they extracted the teeth for the gold fillings, in case you were wondering.


Post-Mortem Portrait Du Jour!

Engraved in Plate: A. Le Blondel Lille
Daguerreotype 1/4 plate, tinted, circa 1850

This daguerreotype is generally considered the most artistic of all postmortem images. At the time of its purchase, mid-1980s, it was one of the world’s most expensive daguerreian images. It is a master photograph by any standard. The lighting resembles that of an old master painting: the subtle tinting of the child’s face and the blanket and the shadowed position of the father have the attributes of fine art. The dark room further shrouds the father, helping create an atmosphere of mourning. The tented sheets above the bed makes this a forerunner of the “Sleeping Beauty” type of postmortem imagery that had become popular by the turn of the century. We can easily feel how precious this lost child was to her father. Through the photographer’s eyes, a powerful mourning and bereavement memorial was created.

Culled from: Sleeping Beauty II


Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

November 30th. Had the chills last night and lost my sleep. Jim Miller was admitted to the hospital. Bathed in the creek. Rations of a pint and a half of meal, with beans and salt.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

MFDJ 04/03/24: Burke & Hare

Today’s Ghoulish Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Dissecting cadavers has long been a critical part of medical training.  [As readers of this blog well know! – DeSpair]  Nowadays, thanks to the practice of voluntary body donation, there is a plentiful supply of corpses for med school anatomy classes. Things were different in eighteenth-century Britain, when the only corpses that could be legally used for teaching purposes were those of executed criminals. Despite the staggering number of crimes that could send a felon to the gallows then—everything from pickpocketing to poaching to writing a threatening letter—surgical instructors still found themselves with an acute shortage of freshly dead human specimens.

To meet the demand, a new breed of entrepreneurs sprang up, practitioners of what one scholar has called “the foulest trade in human history.” Commonly known as body snatchers or resurrectionists, these enterprising ghouls would sneak into a churchyard at night, dig up a recently buried coffin, pry open the lid, extract the corpse, and—after restoring the grave to its former condition—deliver their plunder to one of their regular medical school customers.

Though the names of virtually all these professional corpse thieves have been lost to history, two men have entered legend as the most infamous of British resurrectionists: William Burke and William Hare. As it happens, they weren’t grave robbers at all. They were what we now call serial killers.

Burke & Hare

A native of County Tyrone, Ireland, William Burke was born into a family of poor but respectable tenant farmers in 1792. At nineteen, he became a soldier, serving as a private in the Donegal militia for five years. At some point during that time, he married and had two children with a woman named Margaret Coleman, only to desert his wife and offspring a few years later after leaving the army.

Immigrating to Scotland, he found employment as a canal worker and took up with a part-time sex worker named Helen “Nelly” McDougal, who became his common-law wife. Not long afterward, the couple relocated to Edinburgh, where Burke soon made the acquaintance of the man whose name would forever be linked to his own in the annals of infamy.

Born in 1807 and raised (in the words of his earliest biographer) “without any education or proper moral training,” William Hare spent his early adulthood as a farm laborer in his native Ireland. In contrast to Burke—who impressed all who knew him with his easygoing charm—Hare, according to one contemporary, possessed “a ferocious, violent, quarrelsome” disposition and was given to particularly brutish behavior when he was drunk, as was often the case. Like Burke, he came to Scotland to work on the new canal linking Edinburgh to Glasgow and ended up boarding at a tenement lodging house run by a man named Logue and his wife, Margaret. When Logue died, Hare lost no time taking his place both in Margaret’s bed and as landlord of the squalid doss-house, where, in autumn of 1827, Burke and McDougal came to live.

The commercial partnership that would earn Burke and Hare everlasting notoriety began in November 1827 with the passing of an elderly lodge owner named Donald, who died owing Hare £4 of back rent. In those years, Edinburgh was the country’s leading center of medical education. To recover the debt, Hare hit upon the idea of selling the old man’s corpse to one of the city’s many anatomists. Promised a share of the proceeds, Burke helped his friend convey the cadaver to the school of celebrated surgeon, Dr. Robert Knox, where they received the handsome sum of £7 10s—more than $300 in today’s currency—and were told that they were always welcome to return “when they had another [body] to dispose of.”

Disinclined to engage in the difficult, dirty, and dangerous business of grave robbing, the two reprobates hit on another, less strenuous method of obtaining marketable human corpses: “wholesale murder.” Their first victim was an elderly lodger named Joseph who had fallen ill with typhus. Afraid that having the contagious old man on the premises might scare off potential customers, Hare once again enlisted Burke’s assistance. After feeding Joseph enough whiskey to put him in a stupor, the two made short work of him, one pressing a pillow to his face while the other lay across his chest. This time, Knox forked over £10 for the corpse. At no point, either then or thereafter, did the doctor inquire as to the provenance of the goods he was paying for.

Though the facts remain murky, another ailing inmate of the boardinghouse, an Englishman in his forties, appears to have been the next victim. Most historians of the case believe that, in dispatching this individual, the two murderers perfected the smothering technique that would come to known as “burking”: Hare would press his hands over the person’s mouth and nose while Burke lay across the upper body.

Having exhausted their supply of sick lodgers, the pair went out trawling for victims. The first to fall into their clutches as an elderly peddler, Abigail Simpson. Encountering her in a pub, Hare lured her back to his premises, where he and Burke plied her with whiskey. Once fallen into a stupor, she was smothered, stripped, stuffed into a tea chest, and carted off to the offices of the uninquiring Dr. Knox.

Over the next six months—between April and October 1828—the two fiends (as they would soon be branded in newspapers throughout the United Kingdom) would murder an additional thirteen people.

The atrocities of the ghoulish pair climaxed, appropriately enough, on Halloween 1828. By then, Burke and McDougal were residing at a different lodging house, run by a couple named Broggan. That morning, burke was enjoying his morning dram of whisky in a neighborhood pub when an elderly beggar-woman wandered in, asking for alms. Sizing her up as easy prey, Burke treated her to a drink and struck up a conversation. Before long, the old lady happily accepted his invitation to come stay at his lodgings.

Leaving her in the company of his wife, Burke sought out Hare at a nearby tavern and informed him that he had found fresh meat for Dr. Knox’s dissection table. He then returned to his rooms, where, in preparation for the murder, he persuaded the other lodgers, a couple named Gray and their child, to spend the night elsewhere. Once the Grays were gone and Hare was on the scene, the two dispatched the old lady by their usual method and stuffed her corpse beneath a heap of straw at the foot of a bed.

The following morning, Mrs. Gray returned to the rooms to fetch a pair of her child’s stockings, looked under the straw, and was horrified to see the old lady’s dead body, stripped of its clothing, blood leaking from her mouth. By the time officers arrived at the Broggans’ boardinghouse, however, the two serial murderers had already delivered the corpse to Dr. Knox, where it was later found by police. Burke and Hare were promptly taken into custody.

Betrayed by Hare—who, to save his own skin, agreed to turn King’s evidence and testify against his accomplice—Burke was tried for murder, convicted, and condemned to the gallows. Upon his sentencing, it was clear to Burke that his ultimate fate would be nothing less than an act of poetic justice. His hanged body, the presiding judge declared, would “be publicly dissected and anatomized.”

An estimated twenty-five thousand people turned out for his hanging on January 28, 1829. It took Burke about ten minutes to die. In accordance with the court’s wishes, his body was then dissected before a standing-room-only audience of medical students. The following morning, the corpse was placed on public exhibition. By the end of the day, thirty thousand eager citizens had filed through the anatomy hall for a glimpse of ghastly remains. The cadaver was then stripped of its flesh and the skeleton given to the University of Edinburgh. Some of the skin was tanned and fashioned into various ghoulish artifacts, including a wallet, a calling-card case, and the binding of a book.

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover!

Granted immunity from prosecution, William Hare was set free, much to the outrage of the public. With an infuriated mob clamoring for his blood, he slipped out of Edinburgh, made his way south to Carlisle, and vanished from the historical record.

Death mask of Burke, Life mask of Hare

Culled from: Murderabilia


Post-Mortem Portrait Du Jour!

Circa 1845-1855

Culled from: Sleeping Beauty I

Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

November 29th. I bought some straw with a borrowed $5 confederate scrip; and mended my clothes, which are in a miserable condition: the sleeves of my blouse and shirt are almost entirely gone, showing some skeleton arms, the backs of both garments are as thin as gauze, while my pants are worn from the knees down, entirely away, and my cap is two simple pieces of cloth sewed together. I was detailed to go out for wood. Rations of a pint and a half of flour and a splinter of green gum-wood. More prisoners came from Millen.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

MFDJ 04/02/24: Curing Scurvy

Today’s Cured Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

There were clues as to scurvy’s causes in cures in 16th century Europe.  In the 1530s, a French expedition under Jacques Cartier searching for a sea route across North America wintered in the icebound St. Lawrence River, and by mid-February scurvy had laid low the crew. Finally only three or four men—including Cartier, who must have nourished himself from a private food cache—possessed the strength to move from their bunks. Twenty-five of a party of 110 had died. Cartier ordered an autopsy on one of the victims, twenty-two-year-old Phillip Rougemont of Amboise, in the hopes of finding a hint about how to stop the disease from killing the entire crew.

The dashingly vitamin-starved Jacques Cartier

“It was discovered,” wrote the expedition’s chronicler, “that his heart was completely white and shriveled up, with more than a jugful of red date-colored water about it. His liver was in good condition but his lungs were very black and gangrened… His spleen for some two finger breadths near the backbone was also slightly affected, as if it had been rubbed on a rough stone. After seeing this much, we made an incision and cut open one of his thighs, which on the outside was very black,  but within the flesh was found fairly healthy. Thereupon we buried him as well as we could.”

Cartier wouldn’t let the local Indians near his ship for fear they’d see the expedition’s vulnerability to attack, but it was those same Indians who had a cure. Outside the ship one day, Cartier ran into Dom Agaya, an Indian who, when Cartier had first met him some days earlier, was suffering from his own case of scurvy. When Cartier asked how he had been cured, Dom Agaya and two women from his tribe showed the captain how to cut branches from the “annedda” tree, grind up its bark and foliage, boil it in water, and drink the infusion every two days, applying the dregs to scurvy-swollen legs.

“The Captain at once ordered a drink to be prepared for the sick men,” wrote the chronicler, “but none of them would taste it. At length one or two thought they would risk a trial. As soon as they had drunk it, they felt better which must clearly be ascribed to miraculous causes; for after drinking it two or three times, they recovered healthy and strength and were cured of all the diseases they ever had. And some of the sailors who had been suffering for five or six years from the French pox [syphilis] were by this medicine cured  completely. There was then such a press for the medicine that in less than eight days a whole tree as large and as tall as any I ever saw was used up.”

One modern investigator concluded that the mysterious and potent “annedda” tree probably was the white cedar. An expedition a few years after Cartier’s journey carried samples of the this cedar back to France, where it received the name arborvitae—“tree of life”that is so familiar to gardeners these four and a half centuries later. Its powers to cure scurvy, however, apparently were soon forgotten. Not ten years after the Cartier expedition, another French party wintering in nearly the same spot on the St. Lawrence lost fifty out of two hundred to scurvy. A few decades later, wintering on the St. Croix River in today’s Maine, Monsieur de Monts’ party lost thirty-six out of eight to mal de terre—”land disease.” In a mix of wild speculation and accurate guesswork, the expedition’s chronicler, Monsieur Lescarbot, attributed the disease to the “great rottenness in the woods during the rains of Autumn and Winter,” to “rude, gross, cold and melancholy meats,” and—cutting through Lescarbot’s rhetoric—to unrelieved lust.

Impress your friends by telling them how this tree got the name “arborvitae”!

Culled from: Last Breath


Vintage Medical Illustration Du Jour!

The face of a male patient showing rupia, a severe encrusted rash associated with secondary syphilis.

Culled from: The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration


Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

November 28th. After a cheerless, sleepless night on the cold, damp ground, I got a breakfast of flour paste, and found all the old comrades of the 21st–Miller, Middy, and all well. This camp is crowded fully as badly as Andersonville was; the location is damp and swampy, and the rations poorer and smaller than ever. The sick from each thousand are being paroled each day.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost