Notes of the Dead

An essay on human pickles.

Notes of the Dead
"The Girls" in my home office. The sculpture was made and gifted to me by the artist Deb Costandine, mother of conjoined twins.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has an excellent story out today by Rosa Cartagena and Rita Giordano about how the leaders of the Mütter Museum have suspended new acquisitions, leaving in the lurch a lot of people who intended to bequeath their anatomically interesting parts to the grand old dame.

Cartagena and Giordano also report that already-made donations their originators intended to be publicly displayed are instead being kept hidden. A year ago, for example, Rachel Lance turned over her giant uterine fibroid, named Helga the Destroyer, to the Mütter for display, only to have the politically squeamish current leadership shove it away in a drawer somewhere. Lance isn’t happy.

In case you’ve never had the pleasure, the Mütter has long been a classic nineteenth-century anatomy museum featuring fascinating human remains that distinguish themselves for being either teratological (i.e., birth anomalies like conjoined twinning) or pathological (i.e., acquired bodily troubles like corset-deformed skeletons) or just plain extraordinary (e.g., the Soap Lady, whose remains accidentally turned into soap in the grave).

The collections also include such charmers as the Chevalier Jackson Collection of Things Inhaled and Swallowed, a cabinet containing a rich collection of toy battleships, old coins, pearl buttons, and poultry bones pulled out of the guts and lungs of those saved. (And some lost, as I recall.) True story: I was such a fan of the Mütter that, when pregnant, I proposed to my spouse that we name our progeny “The Chevalier Jackson Collection of Things Inhaled and Swallowed.” I mean, we would have given him a middle and last name, too.

The heyday of the Mütter ended almost twenty years ago with the much-too-early death of curator Gretchen Worden, a woman who could not be disturbed. Gretchen’s basic philosophy was that displaying all the varieties of the human condition reminded us of that we were all bonded in flesh and mortality. Her office was full of weird tributes from people who shared her worldview.

I personally gifted her a framed pair of matchsticks that were formed conjoined at the head. The display was enhanced with tiny glued-on orbs of lint that I had religiously pulled out of my then-fiancé’s navel each day when he got home from the Indianapolis hospital wards where he was studying to be a physician. (Aron has an umbilical hernia that causes a perfect ball of lint to form in his navel every day. It’s not why I fell in love with him, but it didn’t hurt.)

Today’s Philly Inquirer story was sent to me by my friend Danny Black, founder of the entertainment industry operation Years ago, back when I was working on the ethics of the display of unusual bodies, I hired Danny to go to Philadelphia to tell me what he thought of the Mütter’s exhibits of humans with various forms of dwarfism. These are chiefly posed skeletons and full-body pickles.

Long story short, Danny said it was possibly the most interesting contract he’d had his lawyer draft, and he was pretty appalled by the scene at the museum.

Danny was somebody who had defended dwarf tossing, so that told me a lot. To be fair, a big part of why Danny was troubled was that the displays of human dwarfism had not happened with the consent of the subjects, and I agreed with that concern.

In fact, right around the time Danny was struggling to find parking near the Mütter in order to fulfill our contract, I’d been trying to get the Royal College of Surgeons in London to bury at sea the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant.

Bryne (1761-1783) had made clear that, once dead, he wanted to be sunk in a lead casket in deep waters. He left these instructions because he knew that he would likely otherwise have his remains picked apart and displayed. But the surgeon/anatomist John Hunter thwarted Bryne’s plans, obtaining the remains and mounting the skeleton as a prize in his (now the Royal College’s) museum.

I heard from a reliable source that, when Gretchen died, her remains were cremated. If so, that's interesting—I have a theory I'm not telling of why she might have made the choice—but I can’t find anything to confirm or refute that she was cremated. What I do find in the records is that Gretchen started working at the Mütter in 1975 and died in 2004 of respiratory failure at the age of 56.

At the time she passed, Gretchen and I hadn’t spoken in a while. She had been upset with me because of my recent agitation around the Irish Giant. Gretchen didn’t like anyone messing with museum collections. She saw the Byrne case as the top of a slippery slope that could lead to an emptying out of her great house.

When Gretchen died, it came as a real shock. She hadn’t been ill long, and I hadn’t heard she was in any danger before I heard of her passing. I found myself wishing I had tried to talk with her in depth about Byrne, to come to some mutual agreement that our different views on his fate did not mean we could not still be friends and colleagues.

Three months after she died, in November 2004, I learned that the New England Journal of Medicine had just published a review of my new book, One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal. To my great surprise, the review was authored by Gretchen. And, to my great relief, in it, she was supportive and kind. Nowhere did she mention the issue at the heart of our disagreement. It was, as it turned out, a very lovely note from the other side.

Today’s story left me wondering, if she were still alive, would they even allow Gretchen to work at the Mütter now? Make no mistake—in her day, Gretchen was deeply beloved at the museum. Her memorial service was held at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the organization that owns the Mütter. Her obituary indicated that memorial donations should be sent to the college “to preserve the museum.”

As it turns out, Gretchen wasn’t wrong to worry where things might go. Cartagena and Giordano’s story show the current Mütter leadership is being not just ridiculous but downright disrespectful of people with unusual bodies, including people like Barbara Kotzin who has long wanted to give the Mütter her incredibly bent and pinned spine once she no longer needs it. It’s a real shame these museum caretakers can’t seem to think their way out of a casket when it comes to consent.

Maybe someday we’ll really start listening to people with delightful bodies. But first, we will have to stop being so afraid of our delight.

What am I up to these days? Separated pretty much completely now from the local news operation I founded (can you hear me sleeping better?), I've been traveling the country interviewing people for the book I'm now working on, about the reality of doing local news in America today. It's been a blast. I've come to realize it really is a sequel to Galileo's Middle Finger, and I couldn't be happier about the opportunity.

If you'd like a flashback to GMF, check out Jesse Singal's recent article about the rage of Andrea James. If you've signed up at the paid rate for this newsletter and would like a signed copy of GMF, drop me a note and I'll get one out to you. Cheers.