Weegee, Human Head Cake Box Murder, c. 1940
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
It is hard to decide which of the several mysteries contained in this macabre photograph is the most bizarre: the murder to which the title alludes, the headless bodies standing flat-footedly around a bodyless head, the “scriptboy” who enters at upper left, how the police photographer can be both rooted to the spot and levitating above it, why he wears his hat as he works, or where Weegee is standing.
Weegee, Their First Murder, October 9, 1941
From the Getty Museum:
“A woman relative cried…but neighborhood dead-end kids enjoyed the show when a small-time racketeer was shot and killed,” wrote Weegee in the caption accompanying this startling photograph in his 1945 publication Naked City. On the facing page Weegee showed the bloody body lying in the street.
Alternately laughing, staring in disbelief, or looking into the camera to grasp their own momentary chance to be recorded, the children who had witnessed this grisly scene form an unsettling amalgam of human emotion and self-absorption. Two women are among the group: one, whom Weegee mentioned above, stands at the center, her face contorted with anguished tears, her personal loss turned into public spectacle.
Via The Atlantic:
New York Police Department Evidence photo. Homicide victim - overhead view, ca. 1916-1920. At the corners, note the legs of the tripod supporting the camera above the body. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)
Via The Atlantic:
New York Police Department evidence photo, homicide scene. Jos Kellner, 404 East 54th Street, murdered in hallway, on January 7, 1916. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)
April 26, 1865: John Wilkes Booth dies
… or did he? As questioned by this LIFE Magazine article:
The cadaver shown on the opposite page is the mummy of a house painter named John St. Helen who committed suicide in Enid, Okla., Jan. 13, 1903. His mortal remains, embalmed with arsenic, are now a main attraction of Jay Gould’s Million Dollar Spectacle, a carnival traveling the Midwest. The carnival bills the corpse as that of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who shot Lincoln.
Officially, Booth was shot as he tried to flee a burning barn near Bowling Green, Va., on April 26, 1865, twelve days after the assassination. But the story persists that the man shot was not Booth, that Booth escaped and live for years in the Southwest. Usually he calls himself St Helens, though sometimes he said he was the son of Marshal Ney who, according to legend, fled France and settled in North Carolina. St. Helen confessed that he was Booth to Finis Bates, later Attorney General of Tennessee, who obtained his corpse after his death and rented it to carnivals. Bate’s widow sold it for $1,000. It has changed hands many times since, bringing bad luck to its owners. One went broke and was killed in a hold-up. The present owner, Joseph B. Harkin, a former Tattooed Man, lost a comfortable fortune since he bought the mummy for $5,000 in 1932. Since he joined Gould’s show last year, however, his fortunes have changed. The mummy is a big attraction.
In 1931 a group of doctors examined the corpse and found that it had certain marks which Booth had: short left leg, distorted right thumb, scar on neck. But these findings did not convince historians, who generally pooh-pooh the story, agree that this mummy is not and never was the body of John Wilkes Booth.
Dun. Dun. Dun.
FBI and NYPD investigators are excavating the basement at 127 Prince Street in SoHo for the remains of six-year-old Etan Patz, who disappeared while walking to his bus stop in 1979—the first time he was allowed to walk alone.
Etan was the first missing child to be pictured on a milk carton, and the day of his disappearance, May 25, became National Missing Children’s Day.
This article in the Times looks at the science behind the new search and includes some quotes from Dr. Michael Baden, medical examiner for the City at the time of Etan’s disappearance:
What may have survived after all these years and the effects of the moisture of the soil and the bacteria from decomposition?
“There probably would still be bone,” Dr. [Michael] Baden said. “The permanent teeth that we have, more so than baby teeth, last for decades. Longer than that. It’s easy to get DNA from teeth and long bones.”
There could still be hair. “That definitely would provide DNA,” Dr. Baden said. Any blood spilled would have long decomposed, he said, but investigators will surely be looking for signs of insect activity.
“Maggots can have the DNA of an individual,” from feeding on a body, Dr. Baden said. The pupae cases left behind from hatching flies could contain the body’s DNA, he said.
Image: Etan Patz in 1978. Photograph by his father, Stanley K. Patz. Via Wikipedia.
New post over on Morbid Anatomy excerpting Sir James George Frazer’s discussion of the hand of glory in The Golden Bough:
If a candle made of the fat of a malefactor who had also died on the gallows was lighted and placed in the Hand of Glory as in a candlestick, it rendered motionless all persons to whom it was presented; they could not stir a finger any more than if they were dead. Sometimes the dead man’s hand is itself the candle, or rather bunch of candles, all its withered fingers being set on fire; but should any member of the household be awake, one of the fingers will not kindle. Such nefarious lights can only be extinguished with milk. Often it is prescribed that the thief’s candle should be made of the finger of a new-born or, still better, unborn child; sometimes it is thought needful that the thief should have one such candle for every person in the house, for if he has one candle too little somebody in the house will wake and catch him. Once these tapers begin to burn, there is nothing but milk that will put them out. In the seventeenth century robbers used to murder pregnant women in order thus to extract candles from their wombs.
Image source: Haunted America Tours, via Morbid Anatomy.
Obit of the Day (Historical): Jesse James (1882)
One hundred forty years ago on April 3, 1882 Robert Ford, a member of Jesse James’ gang and living in James’ house, came up behind the famed outlaw and shot him in the head. Ford had hoped to claim the reward for James’ capture. (The novel, and later, film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, document this incident excellently - even as works of fiction.)
Jesse and his brother, Frank, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War as members of “Quantrill’s Raiders” a group of guerilla fighters who gained a reputation for killing unarmed soldiers and abolitionists. After the war there were rumors of the James’ getting involved in various bank robberies- which often involved the murder of one or more people - throughout their home state of Missouri, but no confirmation.
The first robbery that Jesse James was confirmed to have taken part in occurred in 1869 when he and another man (presumably Frank) robbed the Daviess County Savings Bank in Gallatin, Missouri. James shot a teller for killing James’ former commander, “Bloody” Bill Anderson, during the war. Tragically, it was a case of mistaken identity and James shot an innocent man.
The James brothers, along with the Younger brothers (John, Jim, Bob, and Clell), would rob stagecoaches and banks throughout the Midwest untilt he mid-1870s. In 1874, the Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired to find the James-Younger gang, instead the Pinkertons, led by founder Allen Pinkerton, so bungled the case (including the attempted arson of the James’ home - which killed a half-brother and took off Jesse’s mother’s arm) that the James brothers actually gained sympathy. (It also helped that the editor of the Kansas City Star, had an agreement with James to report the James-Younger gang as modern day “Robin Hoods” in exchange for the exclusive stories.)
The James-Younger gang came to a crashing halt though with failed robbery attempt in Northfield, Minnesota in 1876. Jesse was not there, but the Younger brothers, who were drunk, lost two men and killed two other innocent bystanders. Eventually the state authorities hunted down and arrested the Youngers while the James’ escaped into hiding.
By 1882, the James’ were done with robbery but still wanted for various crimes in Missouri. Robert “Bob” Ford was more interested in money ($5000 for the capture of Jesse) than loyalty. After Ford killed Jesse he wired the governor of Missouri for his reward. Instead Ford, and his brother Charley, were arrested, charged and found guilty of murder but the governor pardoned the brothers…who also received a share of the bounty. Missourians were outraged.
James was only 35.
Random note: Bob Ford would open a saloon in Colorado. In 1892, Edward Kelley walked into the saloon, said “Hello, Bob,” and shot Ford in the throat. Kelley was sentenced to life in prison, having his death sentence commuted because of a petition signed by those who still hated Ford. Kelley was pardoned in 1902.
Random note 2: Jesse James’ son, Jesse James, Jr., would become a lawyer.
Random note 3: Jesse James’ last grandchild died in December 1991. She never knew her grandfather but knew her uncle, Frank.
Additional sources: thepioneerwoman.com, geneaology.com
(The image, above, is a stereoscope of Jesse James’ body on display. The other men are unidentified. The image is courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
"The Becket Casket." V&A Museum, London. From Limoges, France, ca. 1180-1190.
The murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December, 1170 by four knights in the service of King Henry II, is one of the few episodes of British medieval history that is still widely familiar. It provoked outrage throughout Europe, and Becket’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage within days of his death. He was canonised in 1173 and his shrine was one of the most famous in the Christian world, until its total destruction in 1538 on the orders of king Henry VIII.
Relics of Becket were much in demand and were often housed in elaborate caskets. Numbers of these survive today, scattered worldwide, most made of Limoges enamel, like this example. The V&A chasse is the most elaborate, the largest, and possibly the earliest in date. It is a magnificent example of Romanesque art, probably made for an important religious house.
The casket, or ‘chasse’, shows the murder of Becket, his burial, and the raising of his soul to heaven. […] Scenes of Becket’s martyrdom were made familiar in Canterbury by their depiction in the stained glass windows of the Trinity Chapel, near the shrine itself. The shrine was made in 1220, when Becket’s relics, newly enclosed in a shrine of gold and silver encrusted with gems, were placed behind the Archbishop’s throne.
Civil courts sentenced suicide murderers to be pinched five times with red-hot tongs on their way from the prison to the scaffold. Then their hands were chopped off, followed by the head, after which the dead body was displayed on a big wheel as a warning to others.
Image: The Royal Library, Copenhagen; via Past Horizons.
Many Hong Kongers believe that the ghosts of people who died violently, thanks to an accident, murder, or suicide, haunt their former residences and bring bad fortune to the new occupants. As in the US, Hong Kong home sellers are required to disclose whether the previous resident died in the home, and potential buyers do rigorous background checks less they get stuck with a vengeful spirit. The superstition is so pervasive that prices on haunted homes can be 20-40 percent below market.
The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has given the subject a much more detailed (and well-researched) treatment over on her site.
From what little records exist, we know that body-snatchers required some level of moonlight in order to conduct their work in cemeteries, although not all bodies were obtained through exhumation. The clothes and burial shroud were sometimes removed, for stealing a body on its own was not considered theft since it had no value as property.
The dean of Christ Church Cathedral and the diocese of Dublin and Glendalough, the Rev Dermot Dunne, said he was “devastated” by the theft of the 12th Century relic.
"It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father, St Laurence O’Toole," he added.
In this July 10, 2009 file photo, the original glass-topped coffin of lynching victim Emmett Till is seen rusting in a shack at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill., after it was found by investigators at the cemetery where four workers were accused of digging up bodies to resell plots. On Aug. 28, 2009, officials from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and members of Till’s family announced the casket’s donation to the museum’s planned National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington when it opens in 2015. M. Spencer Green/AP
The groundbreaking for the the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC will take place soon. The Washington Post has slideshow on their homepage showing the plans and several of the objects in the collection, accompanied by commentary like that above. It does seem to wander off into other museums on the Mall after photo 15 or so.
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