The post-mortem fate of Elvis Presley: Another case study in bodily integrity

A while ago I did a blog post on the post-mortem fate of Marilyn Monroe, which has generated a lot of interest on my blog. Celebrities – dead or alive – have a power over us. Decades after their death they still pique our interest. Marilyn has become a hot topic once again recently in the news, with Kim Kardashian damaging her dress at the Met Gala, the release of a new Netflix documentary about her death, and with a new movie about her called Blonde set to be released soon. There has been some outcry online to ‘let her rest’ and to stop speculating in aspects of her life and death. I doubt very much that this will be the case. In fact, those posting about letting Marilyn rest are doing the exact opposite of what they are preaching. She is clickbait for many, which brings up many aspects of post-mortem bodily integrity. With the recent release of Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis movie, I thought looking at the post-mortem bodily integrity of Elvis Presley was important. Like Marilyn, Elvis is considered one of the greatest icons of the 20th century. So how was Elvis’s body treated upon his death? First, a little bit about ‘The King’.


Who was Elvis Presley?
Elvis Aron Presley was born in Mississippi in 1935. He began his rock and roll career in 1954 in Memphis Tennessee. Despite the flamboyant costumes and the lavish surroundings Elvis became known for, he started off very poor. His musical style was inspired by blues, country, and gospel. Throughout the 1950’s his rockabilly style dominated the charts for the first time – paving the way for other rock musicians. Presley, with his slicked back black hair and thrusting dance moves, became a sex symbol. His good looks and talent meant he also became a movie star and appeared on numerous television specials. His career continued to be successful into the 1960’s, and in 1967 he married his long-time girlfriend, Pricilla. Shortly after, they had a baby girl called Lisa Marie. The two eventually divorced in 1973 but remained good friends. In the 70’s he continued to tour but his lifestyle was catching up with him. He took prescription drugs, ate fatty foods, and had a terrible sleeping pattern – it was even reported he reached 350 pounds in weight. Even at the height of his career he always lacked confidence in himself and feared slipping back into the poverty he experienced in childhood.


How did Elvis Presley die?
Elvis was found dead at his home in Graceland in 1977 at 42 years old. Like most significant cultural icons from the 20th century, his death has been met with speculation and controversy. There have been derogatory jibes made about the position he was found in (i.e., the King died on the Throne) – he was found in the bathroom, likely having died on the toilet before falling to the ground. The fact he was found with his pants down in such a vulnerable position, questions how much information should be released to the public. Is letting the public know he died on the toilet a violation or post – mortem humiliation? Ginger Alden wrote in her memoir about the position in which she found her then boyfriend, as well as how he physically looked upon his death.
Elvis was known to have had a horrific drug problem in the years leading up to his death. He also was reported to have needed a full-time nurse to help him in the months leading up to his death, and that his awful diet even consisted of cheeseburger platters. I recently read Mary Roach’s excellent book Gulp in which she talks about Elvis and his diagnosis of megacolon. He had suffered from chronic constipation due to his diet, colon condition and drug use – it is thought he died from a heart attack brought on by Valsalva manoeuvre. It has also been suggested that he died from a drug overdose that caused his heart to stop. There has also been a theory that he died from a heart attack brought on by an autoimmune condition caused by a brain injury from a fall in 1967. Whatever the case, it is clear his heart stopped very quickly.

What happened to Elvis’s body? Elvis was brought for an autopsy to establish a cause of death at Baptist Memorial Hospital – however, the results of the autopsy have been sealed from the public record until 2027 (50 years after his death). Elvis was embalmed after he was brought to Memphis Funeral Home – he was dressed in one of his famous suits and his hair/ sideburns were dyed to hide his greying hair. He was then transported to Graceland for a public viewing under the direction of his father, Vernon Presley. Vernon was also the person who ordered the results of his autopsy to be sealed, causing much public speculation and even rumours about Presley faking his death. The death of such a well – known celebrity has often come with rumours of the death being a hoax. It’s a question of whether these rumours are generated from the public in denial of the death, from ‘genuine sightings’, or from those who wish to keep their memory alive. There were rumours that the body on display at Graceland was actually a wax dummy that appeared to have ‘beads of sweat’ from melting slightly. His dead body was scrutinised by thousands of people, even though the opened end of the casket was placed slightly out of sight of fans.

Over 30,000 fans were let into the foyer of Graceland to view the open casket before a scaled back funeral service was held at the estate. There were reports that some of fans fainted upon seeing the casket. Friends and Co-stars of Presley were present at the small ceremony before 80,000 fans followed the funeral procession to the burial at Forest Hill Cemetery. He was buried next to his mother, Gladys. A BBC presenter discussed the interaction he had with the family upon viewing the body of the star. Michael Cole was one of the first to view the body and in a Daily Mail article he commented that the head (of a deceased Elvis) was the size of a ‘watermelon’ and he was ‘deathly pale’. He goes on to say he speculated the bloating of the body was from drug use and that the hairstyle that had been done by the hairdresser at the funeral home ‘upset’ him. Like Marilyn, we see that even in death, the appearance of public figures is (and was) commented on. Even the dead are not ‘off limits’ and expected to look their best.

Unfortunately, there was an attempt made to steal the remains of Presley and his mother in the same year as his death. Nine days after the burial, Raymond Green, Eugene Nelson, and Ronnie Adkins attempted to steal the corpse with the intention of holding it for ransom. It was reported they had explosives with them to blow open the mausoleum, and the heavy, copper casket. The casket had been so heavy in fact that eight pallbearers were needed. There has been accusations made against the Presley family themselves, suggesting they were part of the plot to indicate that Elvis should be buried elsewhere – i.e., at Graceland. Initially, burial of Elvis at Graceland was not permitted by the Memphis board. If the body was elsewhere and required security, then surely it would make sense for him to be buried at Graceland where it could be safe? Specifically, his father Vernon – the same man who allowed for public viewing of the casket – has been most associated with the plot. Even more disturbingly, it was suggested that Vernon wanted his son moved to Graceland to generate more income from fans and tourists visiting the estate. If that is true, then even the remains of the King were being seen as something to generate wealth. Some speculate that none of the Presley family are actually buried at Graceland and that their bodies are elsewhere for family members to visit them privately.

In 2010 the Chicago Tribune reported that the embalming tools used on Elvis were being put up for auction by the embalmer who looked after his body. One cannot deny how much of a violation of trust this is. Those working in the death care industry have a responsibility to respect the dead and their families. The ‘John Doe’ tag, rubber gloves, forceps, lip brushes, a comb and eyeliner, needle injectors and aneurysm hooks all allegedly used at the funeral home were up for auction. The lot was eventually withdrawn, not because it was disrespectful to the memory of Presley, but because the authenticity of the tools was brought into question.

Elvis can be considered one of the greatest icons of the 20th century, and continues to generate wealth, conversation and an extraordinary fanbase. It is sad to think that one of the greatest musicians and sex symbols of the 20th century met such an untimely end. His headstone now reads ‘Elvis Aaron Presley’ – Aron is spelled incorrectly, a heart-breaking realisation when you understand that one of his greatest fears was to be forgotten.  

Sources

Roach, M., 2013. Gulp: Adventures on the alimentary canal. WW Norton & Company.

https://www.liveabout.com/details-of-elvis-presleys-funeral-2522426#:~:text=Elvis%20was%20embalmed%20at%20the,30%2C000%20fans%20were%20let%20in

http://www.autopsyfiles.org/reports/Celebs/presley,%20elvis_report.pdf#

https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/elvis-presleys-corpse-was-almost-stolen-and-held-hostage-by-grave-robbers.html/

https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/music/1325304/Elvis-funeral-death-coffin-where-is-Elvis-buried-fans-Graceland-Vernon

https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2010-07-21-ct-talk-elvis-autopsy-auction-0722-20100721-story.html

https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/music/1226950/Elvis-Presley-death-died-of-heart-attack-father-Vernon-funeral-grave-fans-music-date-age

https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/elvis-autopsy-tools-withdrawn-26665559.html

https://www.academia.edu/4603315/Did_Elvis_Fake_His_Death

https://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/elvis-presley-constipated-4-months-23395093

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6060861/BBC-reporter-Elvis-Presley-dead-coffin-admits-new-truths.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elvis_Presley

The Death of Anne Lister: Her Post-Mortem Fate

Anne Lister – her life and diaries have gained fame in recent years, especially since the release of the hit tv show Gentlemen Jack starring Suranne Jones. Anne was born in 1791 and began writing her diaries at the age of 15. She was a businesswoman and ran her family estate – Shibden Hall- in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Anne dressed head to toe in black (a woman after my own heart), was an extremely independent woman, and had numerous lesbian affairs. She is often called the ‘first modern lesbian’ and thought of her life partner, Ann Walker, as her wife. The two took sacrament together is a ‘wedding ceremony’ at Holy Trinity Church in York. A plaque dedicated to their union was unveiled there in 2018.  Anne’s’ life was chronicled so much in her diaries, but what about her death? How and where did Anne die? Where is she buried now?

Horner, Joshua; Anne Lister of Shibden Hall (1791-1840); Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/anne-lister-of-shibden-hall-17911840-21162

Anne was an avid traveller, has produced volumes upon volumes of travel writing. In 1840 she travelled to Georgia as part of a prolonger trip with her partner Ann Walker. The two had begun the trip in 1839, and had travelled to Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Russia before reaching Georgia. Anne recorded a nasty insect bite she obtained in Georgia in August of 1840. A virulent fever prolonged her death, she suffered for six weeks before dying in the September – she was only 49 years old. It is reported that it took Ann Walker over six months to bring her body home. Her death was reported in the Halifax Guardian on Halloween, reporting that:

We are informed that the remains of this distinguished lady have been embalmed.

Anne’s body is believed to have been brought to Moscow for embalming. Ann Walker ensured her remains were to be transported back to England via Turkey by sea. There has been some suggestion that Anne’s remains would not have been embalmed as the arterial technique was not widespread at the time. However, it may be the case that Anne was partially embalming in some manner that may not have been arterial. Apothecary embalming practices pre-date arterial embalming and may have been used in some manner in the preservation of Anne. Viscera may have been removed and herbs/ alcohol may have been used. Embalming in the 18th century was often thought to be reserved for the likes of royalty, but Anne was a wealthy woman of noble birth who was to be repatriated in the 19th century, meaning her death was not a normal circumstance. Although Jean Gannal did not develop arterial embalming fully until 1841 – arterial system preservation was being practiced in anatomical specimen preservation. John Hunter was quite a prolific ‘preparer’ of specimens in Britain during the 18th century, and William Harvey’s work on the circulatory system had been published in the 17th century. Anne’s body was reportedly brought to Moscow for preservation, it is not inconceivable that scientific endeavours in the city allowed for her to be embalmed to some extent.

The font at Halifax Minster where Anne was baptised

As well as being preserved, Anne was also placed in a lead lined coffin or lead shell which was then placed inside another wooden coffin. It was lawfully required for a prolonged period in the 19th century for coffins to be lead-lined to allow for leakage prevention. Her body finally reached Shibden Hall in Halifax in April 1841 – over 6 months after her death. Her funeral was reported to have been attended by thousands of people, with crowds gathered in the streets. The funeral procession consisted of typical Victorian funeral traditions, including a hearse, coaches, and carriages. Anne is one of many Listers to be buried at the minster, but she is by far the most famous. Her exact burial place is not known as her tombstone was broken and moved in the 1870’s (many assume she is buried in the family vault which is located somewhere in the church). It was not found again until 2000 and is now on display at the minster. Listers tombstone still has flower offerings laid on it today, and there are calls from many, including Sally Wainwright, creator of Gentlemen Jack the tv show, for her exact resting place to be located. Over 150 years after her death, the location of Anne’s body is still in the minds of many who are inspired by her and her resilience. Even in death, Anne Lister still interests and captivates people.

Anne Lister’s Tombstone at Halifax Minster

Sources

https://museums.calderdale.gov.uk/famous-figures/anne-lister

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Lister#:~:text=Lister%20died%20on%2022%20September,Minster%2C%20on%2029%20April%201841.

https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/anne-lister-real-gentleman-jack-diary-code-history-secret-life-britain-first-modern-lesbian/

https://northernlifemagazine.co.uk/the-mystery-of-gentleman-jacks-tombstone

https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/heritage-and-retro/heritage/gentleman-jack-creator-sally-wainwrights-call-for-anne-listers-burial-spot-to-be-found-3642920

https://www.packedwithpotential.org/stories-articles-writeups/where-is-anne-lister-halifax-minster/where-is-anne-lister-halifax-minster-v3

Damon, A.B., 2020. Anne Lister,“A Sundial in the Shade”: A Gifted Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Women’s Studies49(2), pp.130-148.

Zigarovich, J., 2009. Preserved Remains: Embalming Practices in Eighteenth-Century England. Eighteenth-Century Life33(3), pp.65-104.

https://artuk.org/discover/stories/lesbian-love-and-coded-diaries-the-remarkable-story-of-anne-lister

When Lightning Strikes: The Tragic Story of the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Grave

A close friend of mine recently told me about a tragic burial at St Thomas’ Church in Leeds. The church has been a place of worship in Stanningley since the 1840’s. Heavily Methodist influenced, the church has two side aisles rather than one central aisle. The church also is home to some beautiful Victorian stained-glass window. One of these windows has been crafted in memory of a young couple who died in the area in 1869. Their grave is located in the churchyard, which my friend’s dad refers to as the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ grave – Patrick Simpson lays flowers every year in memory of these two young Sunday school teachers. A poignant reminder of this tragic story – the subject of my blog post this month.

Emma Carrick and Thomas Hardaker were aged between 20-22 when they were killed in September 1869 during a violent storm. They had been courting for 2 or 3 years and were the children of basket makers and cloth weavers from the Pudsey and Stanningley areas. According to a lengthy news article that reported their deaths, the couple were keen to spend much time together the weekend of the tragedy, as Thomas was travelling a lot with his brother to take charge of a bazaar. The couple were last seen together in conversation by locals before their bodies were discovered after they were ‘struck down by the electric fluid and killed on the spot.’ It was thought they were both struck by the lightening as they had been in close proximity to an iron railing. They were both found lying next to each other with scorch marks upon their faces – the only indication on their bodies that they had been struck. The coins found in Thomas’ possession were found to have melted together from the strike.

The funeral of the lovers attracted a huge crowd, with both hearses travelling in procession side by side. It was estimated that up to 7000 people attended the ceremony. Factory workers attended in their work clothing, with the friends and family of Thomas accompanying his side of the hearse and Emma’s accompanying hers. Mourners were seen adorned in the traditional Victorian black garb and also in some white garments – likely representing the youth and innocence of the couple who were due to be married in two months before their death. Black cloth was placed upon the coffins and the Death March was played as the coffins were being interred – first Thomas, before Emma was placed on top. Understandably, their death was spoken about all over the North of England. The newspaper report from Leeds at the time emphasised the fact that both of them looked peaceful in death, and that it did not seem that they had suffered in their demise. The rosiness of Emma’s cheeks in death was especially emphasised. It was also written that perhaps the couple deemed so respected and worthy that they were deemed fit to pass painlessly by God due to the tenderness of their love – the newspaper stated that the Romans thought anyone struck by lightning were favourites of the gods. Although the write up of their death is poetic, no amount of flowery language can hide the fact that these young lovers suffered a tragic fate.

Image courtesy of Gemma Simpson

You can visit the gravestone today. On the gravestone it states that Emma and Thomas were –

‘Entr’d into rest Sept 5th 1869

Being Called Home By A Flash Of Lightning.’

The inscription also states how well liked the both of them were, and that they were both teachers in the Sunday school. I think the ‘Romeo and Juliet Grave’ is a fitting name for them – both couples having died in tragic circumstances.

Sources

http://www.calverley.info/

http://www.calverley.info/lt1.htm

Death on Display: The Dead in the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology

Five Examples of the Displayed Dead

In March 2022, I visited the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street, Dublin. This archaeology museum is free to the public and is well worth a visit if you are ever in Dublin. The human remains are displayed very well in the museum, being securely laid out behind glass and lit very well. The bog bodies exhibit in particular is laid out excellently. I remember visiting this museum as part of my undergraduate modules when I was studying at UCD. Here are five examples of how the dead are displayed in the museum.

Clonycavan Man, Co Meath.

Date: c. 392-201 BC

The bog bodies on display in the museum are perhaps the most evocative of the dead featured. The display of the bog bodies is done in a respectful manner, with visitors able to bypass viewing the remains if they wish. Clonycavan Man is featured in the Kinship and Sacrifice Exhibit, which also features the other Irish bog bodies. Clonycavan Man was found in 2003 and is believed to be a murder victim, with possible indications that he was mutilated as part of a ritual killing (his nipples are missing for example). He also seems to have suffered a deep head wound that may have been the cause of his death. A reconstruction of the face of Clonycavan Man further humanises him – a ‘face put to the name’, as well as the discussion surrounding his ‘gel’ hairstyle which consists of resin. The hair and skin of Clonycavan Man is visible, although they have changed to a brown colour due to the anaerobic conditions of the bog, but his features are still very visible regardless. I highly recommend visiting this exhibit if you are ever in Dublin – they are a fantastic resource to engage in conversations about death and the display of the human body.

Replica of Clonycavan man
Clonycavan man

Viking Burial, Memorial Park, Co Dublin.

Date: c. 9th Century

An almost fully intact skeleton is on display in the Viking Ireland section of the museum. The skeleton dates to the 9th Century as was found in 1934 at Memorial Park, Island bridge, Dublin. The burial is labelled as belonging to a warrior, as a dagger and sword were found with the skeleton. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much other information accompanying the burial, which may have been due to a lack of information being gathered and recorded at the time of discovery. Furthermore, members of the public are not told whether the burial is male or female, something not known to the untrained eye – it is simply implied by the ‘warrior burial’ label. The ‘warrior burial’ label was also critiqued by Howard Williams on his blog (link in sources section).  The skeleton is dimly lit with partial reconstruction done on some elements of the skeleton. The glass case makes sure the remains are secure and cannot be touched by members of the public, and the darkness of the exhibit does allow one to appreciate the fact human remains are on display. Should these skeletal remains be presented in the same manner as the bog bodies? I.e., in a small, labelled section away from public view? These are the questions one should ask as a viewer – how much of human remains is too much for the public?

Viking burial

Burial 24, Mound of the Hostages, Hill of Tara, Co Meath.

Date: c. 2000 BC

Burial 24 contained an inverted encrusted urn and an inverted vase – the urn contained the remains of at least one adult, and a burnt flint knife was also found with the remains. As there is work going on in the museum at the moment, the entrance is now through the Hill of Tara section where this burial is located. You almost pass it by as you enter the museum. The exhibit shows fantastic finds through the centuries at the Hill of Tara. What is interesting about the cremated remains is that one would likely not realise you were viewing human remains unless you read the label on the exhibit. Do people pass by these remains without realising they are passing a part of someone? It would be interesting to do observations of visitor interactions with all the exhibits containing human remains and see how different ‘types’ are reacted to.

Cremated remains seen in the centre

Human Skull, John’s Lane, Co Dublin.

Date: c. 10th Century

As part of the Clontarf 1014: Brian Boru and the Battle for Dublin exhibit at the museum, I will be focusing on the human skull found at John’s Lane, Dublin. The skull itself is place in a glass case with an accompanying label stating the skull is from a young man, and that a large wound to the side of his head may have been fatal. What is unsettling about the skull, is the fact it is placed as though found with a ‘slave chain’ that was recovered from a completely different context. It gives the impression that this individual was from the slave trade, despite not being found with the chains – I remember mentioned the issues with this display as a case study as part of my undergraduate visit. It may be that the placement of the chain is to provoke a reaction from the viewer. The chain was found in Roscommon and may have been made for a slave or hostage.  Although the placement is obviously to illustrate what it would have been like for someone to wear such a device, it does make one feel slightly uncomfortable knowing the man displayed with the chain was not a wearer in life. A question of identity and post-mortem bodily integrity comes to mind.

The skull and chain display

Ptolemaic Mummy, Provenance unknown (Egypt).

Date: c. 300 BC

There is a large number of objects from Ancient Egypt at the museum, with the Egyptian collection found in the upper galleries. Most of the items on display were acquired from excavations carried out between the 1890s and 1920s. There are a few mummies on display, but for this blog post I will focus on the Ptolemaic Mummy of unknown provenance which dates to c. 300 BC. Unlike the Leeds City Museum, there is no sign outside the exhibit warning people that human remains are on display. This may be because unlike the mummies in Dublin, the Leeds mummy is unwrapped (He was unwrapped by the surgeon TP Teale in the 1820’s), and his facial features are on display and very prominent to the viewer. The mummies in Dublin are still wrapped – providing a ‘layer’ between them and the viewer. The unknown provenance of the mummy is likely due to the retention of the remains outside of Egypt from a dig over 100 years ago – post excavation records were likely not as detailed, particularly during a time when colonial attitudes were rife. The mummy in question is displayed very well with as much information as possible attached to the exhibit – they are also well lit in an area that has dimmed overhead lighting. A great way to show respects but also highlight to artefacts of importance.

One of the mummies on display

Sources

https://100objects.ie/slave-chain/

https://news.leeds.gov.uk/news/leeds-museums-and-galleries-object-of-the-week-coffin-of-nesyamun

https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/Museums/Archaeology/Exhibitions/Kingship-and-Sacrifice

https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/Museums/Archaeology/Exhibitions/Rites-of-Passage-at-Tara

The Archaeology of Quarantine: Four Examples of Disease Quarantining in the Archaeological Record

As I am writing this blog post, I am coming out of self-isolation after contracting Covid-19. It was frustrating but necessary, and we were lucky to be in comfortable surroundings with heat, water, food, and electricity. But quarantining to prevent the spread of disease is far from a modern concept. This blog post will explore the archaeology of quarantine by examining four case studies.

Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo, Venice.

In the 15th century, Venetians inflicted with plague were subjected to periods of quarantine on the islands of Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo. Venice was first struck by the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, and these islands show archaeologists the measures took to avoid mass infection. At the start of the 15th century, Vecchio was used for isolating sick Venetians, and Nuovo was used for ships to remains in quarantine for 40 days until docking in Venice. In fact, the word quarantine comes from the Italian phrase quaranta giorni, which means 40 days. Archaeologists have examined the buildings left on both islands and have found that there was a system in place for infected and non-infected individuals and an area for cargo to be stored and aired out. The skeletal remains of inhabitants on the island revealed to archaeologists that people of all classes were struck with illness, as diets ranged from meat consumption associated with the rich and a grain diet associated with poorer members of society. Graves were opened numerous times to add more bodies of victims, illustrating extent of the pandemic and the mass graves needed on the island.

Lazzaretto Vecchio.

The Lazzaretto Station, Philadelphia.

Inspired by the Venetian Lazzaretto’s, the Lazzaretto Station was established in Philadelphia in the 18th century. Lazzaretto comes from St Lazarus, the saint associated with those afflicted with leprosy. The Lazzaretto Station was moved further down river from Philadelphia after the yellow fever outbreak in the 1790’s. The station has 500 hospital beds, an area for quarantine, an area for staff as well as a cemetery. As in 15th century Venice, any ships with a sign of illness were to stay quarantined for 40 days. The caption had to answer questions upon arrival and crew/ passengers were inspected for signs of illness. The quarantine season ran between June and October, and it is thought that up to 1 in 3 Americans had an ancestor come through the Lazzaretto Station. Although no extensive archaeological excavations have been carried out at the site many buildings still stand. The limited archaeological evidence suggests the site had been home to the Native American Okehocking tribe as far back as 1200 BCE and the site of a 17th century Swedish colony. The still standing building was threatened with redevelopment in recent years, with activists stepping in to prevent the site being knocked down. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970’s and is considered one of the oldest surviving quarantine hospitals.

The American Lazzaretto today.

Kamau Taurua, New Zealand.

Kamau Taurua/ Quarantine Island was the site of a quarantine station between 1861 and 1924. The site was used for two major quarantine phases – during the 1870’s and during the First World War. Over 40 ships and around 9000 people quarantined at the island, and over 70 known people are buried on the island in a cemetery. The last ship to quarantine at the station was in 1902. During WWI, the island was used to quarantine and treat soldiers who were suffering from venereal disease. Between 1916 and 1919 almost 800 men were treated for syphilis and gonorrhoea. The decision to keep the men on the island was met with criticism in the press, with many questioning the need to keep the soldiers ‘out of sight’ from the general population. Rationale behind the quarantine included protection the ‘woman and children of the country’. There are ongoing efforts by conservationists to preserve and restore some of the original buildings, including the Married Quarters. Several middens on the island show evidence of occupation hundreds of years ago by the Māori. Today, the island can still be visited. You can stay overnight, participate in walking tours and ecological activities. There have been many archaeological surface finds on the island, comprising of glass, pottery vessels, clay pipes, a pocket watch, bottle stopper and a bullet cartridge.

Quarantine Island seen in the 1880’s

Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island, New York.

These two artificial islands were created in the 1870’s off the coast of New York to tackle the outbreak of disease. They were commissioned by the federal government, and all ships coming from regions associated with infectious disease were expected to drop their anchor at the islands for inspection. The ship would be boarded by an inspection officer and if any sign of disease was present onboard, then the passengers would be sent to Swinburne Island for treatment. Bu the 1890s, the facilities on Swinburne had grown to numerous hospital wards (mainly for the treatment of yellow fever and cholera), a mortuary, and a crematorium. Hoffman, much like Quarantine Island off New Zealand, became a place to treat venereal disease in WWI soldiers. Both islands were decommissioned in the 1920’s. The islands are not open to the public today but are home to nesting birds and other wildlife. Vascular fauna has been sampled on the island, and the remains of the buildings are still visible from the shore – the archaeological investigations have been limited, but it is fair to say that there is great potential for future excavations to reveal more about quarantine in the past.

Swinburne Island is seen from Chopper 880 – July 10, 2013 (credit: Tom Kaminski / WCBS 880)

Sources

https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/historyquarantine.html

https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/venice-quarantine-history/

https://libwww.freelibrary.org/blog/post/2992

https://www.ushistory.org/laz/history/sell5.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philadelphia_Lazaretto

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarantine_Island_/_Kamau_Taurua

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3088684.pdf?casa_token=vhI-SttOB54AAAAA:H8CrIX7_-pAe8QKYF49t1wVdsFddmeLdknrF8T59wJvVMuu6UEEOxA1XbZwEq8oVjBPIU55s42H3tC6XdBnG94b4UZNw9iJeKJ-MNW13L1zQJN1D08E

Quarantine Island, Port Chalmers – Nearshore islands – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Veneto – The Land of Venice – Il motore di ricerca degli eventi a Venezia e in Veneto

Check It Out: NYC’s Abandoned Swinburne Island – CBS New York (cbslocal.com)

Preservation of the Lazaretto, America’s oldest surviving quarantine center, finally gets underway – WHYY

Dead Merry: Traditions from the past and present that remember the dead at Christmas

Christmastime is the time of the year that we feel the loss of our loved ones the most. The festive season often pushes the importance of family, and the loss of a family member feels even more apparent. Many omit from Christmas decorations and traditions after the death of a loved one as a sign of mourning, however this does not always feel right for some people, with Christmas often a time the deceased loved one may have enjoyed. To honour those who have died, many cultures past and present partake in certain traditions. In this blogpost I will discuss some of these traditions and how some are still implemented today. Remembering the dead does not have to be sad, particularly during the happiest time of the year, but it can help us remember those who are gone and appreciate those who are still with us.

Christmas graveyard visits and candle lighting

Growing up in Catholic, rural Ireland, my family and I visited the graveyard after Christmas morning mass. Christmas wreaths are often placed on the grave of loved ones as well as Christmas decorations of various kinds (see the addition we made we made to my father’s grave, a civil engineer, a few Christmases ago in the next picture)– this is still practiced all over the world, although it is often attributed to being an Irish tradition. I remember connecting and chatting with various family members Christmas morning at the grave of our loved ones, and it was not a dreary or depressing experience. In Finland it is also traditional to visit the grave of a loved one during the festive season – this is usually on Christmas Eve and families light a candle in remembrance of those who have died. The tradition of lighting the candles is thought to date back as far as pagan times, but easily links in with Christian traditions. Candles were also lit and used to adorn Christmas trees during the Victorian period – many may have been in memory of a loved one (Although I don’t recommend this today due to the huge fire risk!).

Authors own image

Christmas tree decorations

The tradition of the decorated Christmas tree becoming widespread in the UK has, in part, links to a death. Prince Albert brought the German tradition of the Christmas tree to prominence in the UK during the reign of Queen Victoria, and in remembrance after his death, Victoria encouraged the carrying on of the tradition. The tradition of the evergreen tree dates back much further than that however, with suggestions that the evergreen wreaths used for decoration in Ancient Egypt during the time of the solstice were to represent life after death. Today, loved ones are often immortalised at Christmastime in personalised Christmas decorations. This is something that I have seen on the rise in recent years, particularly with the popularity of online sites such as Etsy. Personalised Christmas ornaments can be inscribed with the name of loved ones, or possibly their image or photograph put on the decoration. With new technology, it is obvious to me that these decorations will be a new tradition found on Christmas trees all over the world. With Victorian Christmas decorations often being handmade, it likely many personalised decorations were made by families which incorporated mourning practices such as mourning photography and funeral cards. Even Victorian Christmas cards depicted death related topics such as deceased birds – many suggesting this was a nod to anyone who may have died in impoverished conditions at Christmastime.

Memorial wreath

Wreaths are ancient in origin – dating back to before Christianity and the widespread celebration of Christmas. Herbs and berries are/ were often added to represent things such as remembrance and prosperity. Ancient gold laurel wreaths have been excavated by archaeologists in Greece, which were often worn on the head and given out as prizes to athletes and orators. The diadem was worn on the head by royalty in Ancient Egypt, and the wreath was also given out as a prize in Ancient Rome. The leaf used on the wreath in ancient society was significant – often representing different gods. The wreath is incorporated into Christmas familial celebrations today, having been adopted into Christian celebrations such as the advent wreath. The wreath as memorial was quite common at funerals during the Victorian period, with a wreath being hung on the door in memory of the deceased. The wreath eventually migrated from a memorial decoration to a Christmas decoration – a memorial wreath was hung on the door and a holiday wreath was hung in the window. Wreaths were sometimes even made from human hair, much like the mourning jewellery of the era. Now, the Christmas wreath is a staple in homes all over the world, and many are now memorialising their loved ones as was done in the past. Memorial wreaths can be personalised and hung in homes or placed on graves.      

How will you remember your loved on this Christmas?

Sources

https://www.irishamericanmom.com/why-graveyards-remind-me-of-christmas/

https://wiki.aineetonkulttuuriperinto.fi/wiki/Visiting_cemeteries_on_Christmas_Eve

https://time.com/5736523/history-of-christmas-trees/

https://www.womansday.com/home/a24891720/history-of-christmas-trees/

https://www.joincake.com/blog/remembering-loved-ones-at-christmas/

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/12/loss-loved-one-holiday/578938/

https://www.almanac.com/story-behind-your-christmas-wreath

https://www.ansamed.info/ansamed/en/news/sections/generalnews/2013/01/30/Archaeology-ancient-gold-wreath-uncovered-Thessaloniki_8163055.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wreath_(attire)#Ancient_Greece

Public interactions with human remains: Sedlec Ossuary

I had the privilege of visiting Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago. The ossuary is in Kutna Hora and is known as the ‘bone chapel’ or the ‘chapel of bones.’ Between 40,000 and 70,000 individuals are thought to be on display – all the remains are skeletal. The ossuary has a long history that stretches back as far as the 13th century. An abbot scattered soil from the Holy Land on the site and it became a desirable place to be buried in the region. Thousands of people were buried there before they were moved to a crypt after the cemetery became too full. Many of the deceased were victims of the Black Death or were killed during the Hussite Wars. It was around the 16th century that exhumation of the bones begun.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the so-called macabre art was created from the remains. A local woodcarver called Rint arranged the bones in an artistic manner in 1870, before signing the wall with the bones themselves. Rint bleached the bones and created the famous bone chandelier, a coat of arms, candle holders and large bone pyramids. The resulting artwork attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, and even in the short time I was there in the off season I could not help but observe the different reactions to the remains.

I was travelling with a group of archaeologists, who are all well acquainted with skeletal remains but still understand the respect that needs to be shown towards these displays. Upon entering the ossuary, we were told not to take any pictures. This is a recent rule that had to be enforced in January 2020 as many who visited the site were asked to take photos in a respectful manner and did not comply. A press release from the ossuary stated that many were taking derogatory photos, inappropriate selfies and were touching/ manipulating the remains for a picture. Now, you must apply for permission to take photos in the ossuary at least 3 days in advance of your visit with reasons outlining your intentions regarding the distribution of the media.* I was intrigued to see if everyone followed the rules as we entered the chapel.

The reactions to the remains were polarising, even though there was only a small number of visitors at the time we went. One young couple were taking pictures pretty much straight away, with the young woman posing with her hand placed on the bones of the candle holders whilst her partner snapped the image. They were not reprimanded by any staff members as there was not many working there on the day we were there, but it was shocking to see a blatant disregard for the rules straight away. Touching of the bones is forbidden and outlined on the ossuary website. The bones were used as a prop in a picture, exactly how was described in the press realise.

One woman started laughing loudly at the site as she turned to leave, stating ‘this is not for me!’ Another rule outlined on the website is to keep the noise down to show respect for the dead. It was likely this woman was very uncomfortable and didn’t know how to react to the remains. I heard the rest of her group say outside that they weren’t ‘expecting whatever that was!’ and that they expected the bones ‘to have been ground up and used as cement rather than displayed’ (both comments have been edited for clarity). Obviously, the group were not keen on the visit, and did not research the site properly before visiting.

As an archaeologist who studies the dead, it was hard not to cringe at some of the reactions of others at the site, but we must understand that not everyone will grasp the fact that these disarticulated remains were once people and are not objects. The fact that the remains have been arranged in such a manner may make it difficult for those who do not often come in contact with the deceased not to see them as objects, or perhaps become extremely uncomfortable with display. However, we must encourage those who intend to visit the site to research it before hand and become acquainted with the rules – something which evidently didn’t happen on the day we visited. The defleshed body can often leave us far removed from the deceased, as skeletal remains are not something we see every day, but we should always treat them with respect – whether they are arranged in a manner you do not agree with or not.

If you are interested in human remains and studies of death, then I would definitely recommend a visit to the ossuary. You can find the list of regulations in the resource list below – just remember the ‘chandelier’ or ‘candle holders’ were/ are human and should be treated as such.

(*Images used in this blog post were taken by an archaeologist before the ban on photography was introduced.)

Sources

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/sedlec-ossuary

https://www.sedlec.info/pro-media/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedlec_Ossuary

Irish Women and Death Series: Dr Dorothy Stopford Price and the Introduction of the BCG Vaccine.

Perhaps one of the lesser-known Irish heroines is Dr Dorothy Stopford Price. Born in Ireland in 1890, Dorothy became of pioneer of the BCG vaccine and the tuberculin test in Ireland. Although this blog post series is entitled ‘Irish Women and Death’, this is about an Irish woman who prevented death and dying amongst the Irish people. She was credited by her peers with playing a huge part in helping bring an end to the tuberculosis epidemic in Ireland. Often referred to as ‘Ireland’s rebel doctor’, this is the story of Dr Dorothy Stopford Price and her battle against death in Ireland.

Dorothy went to study medicine in Trinity College Dublin in 1916, a very tumultuous year in Ireland in which the Easter Rising took place. The execution of the rebels caused her to swing her sympathies towards the nationalists, even though she was very friendly with a key figure in the British administration. After the Rising, Dorothy joined Cumann na mBan (League of Women/ Irish Women’s Council), a nationalist group for Irish women as she began to question to British regime in Ireland. She even trained some Cumann na mBan members in first aid at the West Cork IRA stronghold – risking her career in the process. She treated the wounded during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, working as a medical officer for the RIC barracks.

Whilst in her third year of medical school, the Spanish Flu epidemic hit Ireland after the First World War. Dorothy was exposed to huge amounts of death and dying, tending to the inflicted living as well as conducting post-mortems on the dead. The rate of death and infection no doubt had a huge impact on Dorothy’s later championing of vaccination. As part of her MD thesis, she investigated the diagnosis of tuberculosis in early childhood.

After witnessing a huge amount of child mortality in the 1920’s in Dublin whilst working as physician in a children’s hospital, it was in 1931 that came was a defining moment in Dorothy’s career. In Vienna, she saw Dr Franz Hamburger use tuberculin to diagnose tuberculosis by observing a skin reaction. Dorothy brought a tube of tuberculin back to Ireland, and by 1934, she had managed to carry out over 500 tests. Her findings concluded that vaccination needed to be implemented in Ireland (as many had not been exposed to tb so immunity could not develop), and in Sweden in 1936 Dorothy saw the use of the BCG vaccine. She was the first person to use the vaccine in Ireland in 1937, around the same time of the Ring Disaster – this brought the effectiveness of vaccination into question as a group of children who had been vaccinated against diphtheria had developed tuberculosis.

Dorothy attempted to set up an Antituberculosis League in Ireland in the 1940’s, but unfortunately the Archbishop of Dublin at the time protested against the number of protestants who were present in the league. The league was never established, but Dorothy still campaigned for vaccination against tuberculosis in Ireland and across Europe. In 1949, the Irish health minister asked Dorothy to lead a new committee to implement vaccination in Ireland. Dorothy was also nominated for a WHO prize for her contribution to social medicine. She suffered a stroke in 1950 and died in 1954 from a second stroke. Many attributed her stroke and death to stress and overworking. Dr Dorothy Stopford Price is one of the unknown heroines of the Irish healthcare system who worked herself to death in an attempt to prevent death on a mass scale in Ireland.   

Sources

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(14)70193-6/fulltext

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/ireland-s-rebel-doctor-dorothy-stopford-price-1.1853930

https://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/dorothy-stopford-price

https://www.lottie.com/blogs/strong-women/dorothy-price

https://www.ria.ie/news/dictionary-irish-biography/favourite-dib-lives-dorothy-stopford-price-dochtuir

https://irelandxo.com/ireland-xo/history-and-genealogy/ancestor-database/dorothy-stopford-price

https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/arid-20265331.html

Irish Women and Death Series: The Last Witch Killing in Ireland in 1895

When we think of the women murdered for being witches, we often associate these killings with events that happened hundreds of years ago – the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 usually come to mind for example, or the reign of terror committed by the ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins in the middle of the 17th century. However, it was in 1895 the last ‘Witch killing’ was committed in Ireland. Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband and members of her family/community in County Tipperary, Ireland. The trial of her murderers was a media sensation at home and abroad, coinciding with the debate surrounding Home Rule in Ireland at the time. The murder of Bridget is not an isolated incident of a woman murdered for being different at the hands of a man. Religion, superstition, oppression, and patriarchy are key themes surrounding the incident as well as post-mortem bodily integrity. In this blog post, I intend to tell the story of Bridget’s murder, as well as the links between her murder and the death folklore that was prevalent in Ireland at the time, some of which still lingers today. We also see an amalgamation of pagan superstition and the Catholic religion – both were used as a weapon of oppression that justified her death to the man who committed the murder, despite the fact they are often thought to be separate entities and that the Catholic church condemned the old oral mythological stories. The killing of ‘witches’ in the past usually stemmed from a fear of the women accused, with the topic of women and death often unsettling, and provocative.

Bridget (Boland) was born in a small village in rural Tipperary in the late 1860’s. She became a dressmaker, and eventually married her husband Michael Cleary in 1887. Michael worked as a cooper, and the couple lived comfortably as Bridget also independently ran a small business selling eggs as well as dressmaking and hat making. The slate roofed cottage they lived in was modest, but in comparison to other homes in the area at the time it was very comfortable. Angela Bourke’s excellent book ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story’ tells us a little more about Bridget’s personality. Many described her as sexually attractive and stylish, with a very strong personality. Her attire was commented on – instead of wearing the traditional shawl around her head like many 19th century Irish women, Bridget wore a black straw hat adorned with ribbon and feathers. Bourke also attests to the fact that hen keeping may have caused men to feel resentment towards independent women, with the henwife or ‘cailleach na gCearc’ in oral stories depicted as wise and cunning, with strong associations with the supernatural. Interestingly, ‘cailleach’ is also used to refer to a ‘witch’ in the Irish language. On top of Bridget’s eccentricities, she was also childless. Herself and Michael had been married for seven years when she was murdered, and it was unlikely they were childless by choice – many who believed in fairies often stated that women who went with them often returned infertile.

Bridget Cleary

One week in early March in 1895, Bridget caught a chill whilst out collecting payment for eggs. She took to her bed, likely suffering from pneumonia or bronchitis. A local storyteller and avid fairy believer by the name of Jack Dunne visited her at home. Dunne and Michael in conversation with each other likely allowed for the development of the fairy and witchcraft narrative. The location at which Bridget had caught a chill was close to a local ringfort or fairy fort, an archaeological dwelling that was often avoided in Irish society as it was thought to house the Fae who should not be antagonised. Dr Crean was the local medical doctor, and he treated Bridget for bronchitis and ‘nervous excitement’ often associated with women. A priest was also called to administer last rites and deliver communion as concern mounted for her health. However, her family became increasingly convinced her deposition was associated with the fairy folk or the work of the devil, and a local ‘witch doctor’ was consulted by Michael and the adamant Dunne. The ‘witch doctor’ was Denis Ganey, and he provided herbs to be administered. It was now the belief that Bridget was no longer herself, rather she was a changeling who had taken her place as the real Bridget had been taken by fairies. A group of male relatives held Bridget down in bed and force fed her the herbs boiled in milk. They were reported to have screamed ‘Take it you, witch!’ as Bridget resisted the mixture. Her face was burned with a hot iron poker to force her to swallow the ‘medicine’ and the contents of a chamber pot were thrown on her. Both iron and urine were thought to deter fairies and other supernatural beings. The men shook her and held her down, shouting and asking, ‘Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?’ Interestingly, the dousing of urine, aggressive shaking of women by men, and the involvement of fairies, were often associated with difficult childbirth and death in labour. Bridget’s ordeal suffered for days, and it was evident that religious elements were also part of the driving force behind the violence. As well as local superstition entangled in the narrative, prayers were also said, and holy water was also used to douse her body. Bridget was both devil and fairy, witch, and woman – a manifestation of all things feared at the time. Things escalated the night of the of 15th/ 16th March when Bridget was finally dressed and out of bed. A small crowd had gathered in the house consisting of relatives and locals. Although it seemed the ‘fairy illness’ had passed, Bridget was still weak from bronchitis. When she did not answer her husband straight away when he questioned who she was, he pushed her to the floor, accused her once again of not being his wife, and tried to force feed her bread. Holding his knee on her chest, he stripped her clothing down to her chemise and stockings – Bourke attests to the sexual elements of the violence against her. Michael then held a hot poker to her face before her chemise went up in flames. It is here where things are a bit hazy. Either Michael knocked his wife unconscious by hitting her head or initially setting her alight with the poker rendered her unconscious from shock. This may have killed her, but after she initially lost consciousness (whether dead or not) Michael doused her in oil numerous times and set her alight again. She may have been burned alive (immolated) or she was already dead when set alight with the oil (likely kerosene). She was 26 or 28 years old at the time of her murder.

The cottage where the murder took place

Immediately following her death Michael was adamant it was not his wife he had just killed, stating she was a fairy imposter or a witch, and that his real wife would return to him on a white horse from the fairy fort. Cleary allegedly threatened those in the house at the time with a knife, making them swear to secrecy and help him bury the body of the ‘changeling’. She was wrapped in a sheet and buried in a shallow grave near the home before being discovered by police a week later after rumours began to circulate that she had gone missing or was ‘away with the fairies.’ Ten people were arrested in connection with the murder, many of whom were her own family members – Michael Cleary was eventually sentenced to 20 years hard labour (for manslaughter, not murder), with the others accused serving sentences between 6 months and 5 years. During the trial Home Rule was brought up as part of the narrative, and the case was used as a means to comment on the ‘barbarism’ of the Irish ‘peasantry’ (The Cleary’s were far from peasants), arguing the Irish could not possibly govern themselves when they committed atrocities such as the ‘burning’.

The post-mortem integrity of Bridget’s body should be noted in this case. Bridget was laid out for display in an outhouse under police guard as she was viewed by members of the jury. Her body was severely burnt in the lower half, with her intestines protruding along with her bones. Her face was unburnt but held a ghastly expression according to those who viewed her. The post-mortem examination concluded that she died from her burns. Although it was deemed necessary to ‘display’ her body for viewing, it still seems unsettling and a concern for her bodily integrity in death – children tried to crawl over the walls near the building to catch a glimpse of her exposed corpse.

With death and funeral culture being such a huge part of Irish heritage, it is extremely telling to learn that Bridget’s funeral was boycotted by locals and the parish church despite the fact she was an innocent victim. To not partake in assisting a Christian burial in Ireland was the grimmest form of boycott, with religious ceremonies and funerary traditions such as keening and ‘wakes’ a huge aspect of Irish society. Four police constables assisted in her burial which was done at night by the light of a lantern. A very simple, crude coffin was provided by the Poor Law Union and no hearse was used. Today, the exact spot in which she is buried is not marked by a headstone with intact writing. Her exact spot is often under dispute, but she is in a particular quadrant of the old graveyard in Cloneen marked with some sort of weathered stone near the grave of her mother. Bridget is both forgotten and remembered as her case was an international media sensation, but the fact her exact burial spot is not marked is also telling. Today, the cottage the murder was committed in is still standing and a children’s rhyme is still spoken…

‘Are you a witch or are you a fairy, or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’    

The case of Bridget’s death has several themes to unpick, with witchcraft, sexual attraction, patriarchal control, post- mortem integrity, femicide, infidelity, death culture, infertility, lunacy, hysteria, religion, folklore, and superstition all featured in the reporting associated with the case in historical and modern sources. Her death has complexities and has numerous multi layered interpretations but will remain an infamous story of a young woman and her untimely death. Today, you can leave a virtual flower on her grave (link in sources) as a touching tribute to an innocent young woman.

Area in the graveyard Bridget may be located
Another area in the graveyard Bridget may be located

Sources

Bourke, A., 1995. Reading a woman’s death: colonial text and oral tradition in nineteenth-century Ireland. Feminist Studies21(3), pp.553-586.

Bourke, A., 2010. The burning of Bridget Cleary: a true story. Random House

Coleman, S., 2006. Bridget Cleary Speaks!. Irish Journal of Anthropology9(1), pp.35-36.

Hogan, M., 2021. The Murder of Bridget Cleary. Tipperary: Unpublished essay.

https://www.lexico.com/definition/henwife

https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/1025/1085544-darkest-ireland-and-the-burning-of-bridget-cleary/

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/21034944/bridget-cleary

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/offbeat/the-story-of-the-last-witch-burned-alive-in-ireland-1.2880691

https://www.theirishplace.com/heritage/brutal-murder-or-a-faery-killing-the-slaying-of-bridget-cleary/

https://library.ncirl.ie/items/12011

The Archaeology of Assassination: Grief, Gore, and Glorification.

In this blog post I will look at three examples of assassination and the material that has been left behind from them. These objects and archaeological sites are poignant reminders of the grief the loved ones of those targeted felt upon their death, as well as the intense fear of those present when these assassinations occurred. These objects are emotionally charged, with some containing the biological material of the assassinated. Often these types of archaeological artifacts are controversial regrading their display, but they seem capture the public interest in museum settings. These examples are just some of the famous archaeological materials, sites, or ‘relics’ left behind from some of the history’s most famous assassinations. 

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1864)- Objects: The Derringer pistol of John Wilkes Booth and the lead bullet from Lincoln’s autopsy.

John Wilkes Booth entered the theatre box of Lincoln and his wife on the 14th of April 1865. This was a mere 5 days after General Lee had surrendered to General Grant, bringing an end to the American Civil War. Booth shot Lincoln once in the head using a 5.87-inch tiny derringer pistol. The tiny ‘pocket pistol’ was only armed with one shot, and the lead ball fired from the gun entered below Lincolns left ear before it was retrieved during his autopsy at the White House by Dr Edward Curtis. The bullet is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, with the pistol itself on display at Ford’s Theatre. In 1940, the War department allowed the weapon to be displayed along with other relics associated with the assassination. 

Interestingly, there is a poll on Ford Theatre’s website asking whether the murder weapon should be on display, and if so, how should it be displayed? Four presidents have been assassinated in the US (all with guns), with two of the firearms used on display whilst two are not. The Buffalo history museum currently displays the pistol used to assassinate William McKinley in 1901. Are these weapons a gruesome oddity, or are they important artifacts associated with death that should be put on display? Are they glorifying the assassins who pulled the trigger, or are the glorifying the ones who were shot by these weapons? We may never know the answer to these questions, and whilst these artifacts are undoubtedly significant historical archaeological artifacts, the loved ones left behind and their grief should always be considered in the display of such trauma related objects – in the case of Lincoln, over 100 years has passed since his death, meaning immediate loved ones have died also.

The pistol used by John Wilkes Booth (Source: loc.gov)
The bullet that killed Lincoln (Source: history.com)

2. John F. Kennedy (1963)- Object: The blood-stained dress of Jackie Kennedy.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy at the hands of Harvey Lee Oswald is perhaps the most famous assassination of all time. Kennedy was shot in the head on the 22nd of November 1963 as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Bullets struck both his head and neck, and he slumped onto his wife who held his head as they sped to the hospital a few minutes away. Nothing could be done to save JFK, and he was pronounced dead less than an hour after the motorcade had commenced in Dallas. One of the most iconic images surrounding the assassination is Jackie in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit. Jackie kept the blood-stained suit on hours after her husband’s death. She was seen wearing it as she accompanied her husband’s body to Air Force One and as she stood beside Lyndon B. Johnson as he took the oath of office. Jackie was sending a clear message, stating ‘I want them to see what they have done’ – the first lady wanted the world to know what had happened to her husband. The pink suit became iconic, an outward display of glamour as well as grief. So where is the suit now?

The pink suit was brought to the National Archives for safe keeping, and Caroline Kennedy agreed in 2003 that the suit could go on display once 100 years had passed. The suit is kept in a controlled environment for preservation and will be shown to the public in 2103. What a fascinating piece of archaeology this suit is and will become, with the bloody remains of one of the most famous men of all time splattered across the garment. The suit is shown in the iconic photographs of a formidable, grieving widow. The suit will serve as a reminder of the distress Jackie must have felt having been seated next to her husband and sprayed with his blood upon the impact of the bullet that killed him. Jackie suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident, suffering from nightmares, suicidal thoughts and drinking problems in the time that followed. That pink Chanel suit is both a physical and emotional reminder of traumatic death and dying as well as the strength of one woman, showing that even the most powerful in the world are not immune to such tragedies.  

Jackie Kennedy in her blood stained Chanel suit (Source: lessonslearnedinlife.com)

3. Julius Caesar (44BC)- Place: Curia of Pompey.

Caesar was stabbed to death by Roman Senators at the Curia of Pompey (built in 55BC) – a meeting place at Pompey’s Theatre. Led by Brutus and Longinus, Caesar was stabbed 23 times by the senators after tensions rose when Caesar was named dictator perpetuo. He was stabbed on the 15th of March – infamously known as ‘the Ides of March’ in 44BC. In 2012, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) claimed to have found the spot where the assassination took place. In Largo di Torre Argentina square, Rome, a 3m wide structure was found by archaeologists. Augustus (Caesars’ adopted son) is known to have built a structure matching the description of the concrete building described by researchers – allowing excavators to confirm the significance of the site. The site was a cat sanctuary before researchers began to carry out excavations of the complex – and continues to house cat colonies today. At present, the ruins can only be observed at the street level above.

In 2022, the area the Curia of Pompey is located, known as the Area Sacra, is to open to the public as an open-air museum. Restorations will begin in the area, where the ruins of other Republican era temples are located, with the aim of opening after the Covid-19 pandemic to attract tourism. Is it wrong to use the site as a tourist attraction, knowing that this is where one of the most infamous assassinations took place? Is this an element of dark tourism? These are questions that many will consider as the structure becomes accessible to the public, but there are many other archaeological sites that ‘showcase’ assassination or public execution. Such sites may include gallows or beheading sites that can be found in many historical places across the UK. What the Curia of Pompey does is highlight and humanise the death of a world leader who has become more than a mere man in the two thousand years since his murder. Perhaps the archaeology associated with his assassination will allow the public to think more about his death, and the bereavement of his family and allies that followed.

Area Sacra where the Curia of Pompey is located (Source: Lonely Planet)

Sources