The Colonized Corpse: Story of Tasmania’s Last Man

∼  King Billy 

William Lanne, considered Tasmania’s last “full-blood” Aboriginal, was born in Coal River around 1835. At the age of seven, he and his family were transferred to Flinders Island‘s Aboriginal settlement; when he was twelve, the surviving Aboriginal people (a group of about 40) were moved to Oyster Cove, 56 kilometers south of Hobart. Here, in 1847, William entered Queen’s Orphan Asylum. It is precisely at Oyster Cove that, apart from his journeys at sea, Lanne spent all of her life.

William Lanne with his wife Truganini (left).

The Aboriginals were often employed aboard whaling boats, assigned to the mast because of their excellent sight. William Lanne, on the account of a cheerful spirit, became popular among fellow sailors as “King Billy” and despite this royal nickname, he led an anonymous existence, divided between the hard days at sea and drinking at the pub with his friends.
In February 1869, after a long trip aboard the Runnymede, William returned unhealthy. He spent his last wages in beer and rum at the local tavern, a hangout for prostitutes and whalers, and after a week he fell ill with choleric diarrhea. On March 3rd he died while getting dressed for the hospital.

His body was brought to the General Hospital by order of Dr. Crowther. And here the trouble began, because to many people William Lanne’s body looked incredibly tempting.

  The Object of Desire

In the 19th century, comparative anatomy was among the hottest themes within the scientific community. The study of the shape of the skull, in particular, was of paramount importance not so much on a medical level as in the broader context of the theory of races.

Through craniometric and phrenological measurements, and by comparing various physical characteristics, racial classifications were compiled: for example, it was claimed that one race was equipped with a heavier brain than the other, an irrefutable proof of greater intelligence; the physiognomic peculiarities of a race proved its proximity to monkeys, thus ranking it further down the racial scale; a robust constitution was deemed to increase the chances of survival, and so on. No need to wonder who occupied the peak of evolution, in these charts created by white men.
If the Europeans were the most suitable for survival, then it was all too clear that the Aboriginal Tasmanians (who were often confined to the bottom ranks of these charts) would soon be extinct just like dodos and dinosaurs. Any violence or abuse was therefore justified by the inevitable, “natural” white supremacy.

To prove these theories, ethnologists, anatomists and archaeologists were constantly looking for prime examples of skulls. Aboriginal human remains, however, were very scarce and therefore among the most requested.
This was the reason why, as soon as the last “full-blood” Tasmanian was dead, a war broke out to decide who would win his skeleton: William Lanne received more attention after his death than he ever had while he was alive.

William Crowther (1817-1885)

Right from the start two opposing factions formed around the issue of his remains.
On one side was Dr. William Crowther, the doctor who had pronounced him dead. For a long time he had been desperately searching for an Aboriginal skeleton to send to the curator of London’s Hunterian Museum. He claimed that this gift would benefit relationships betweeen Tasmania and the British Empire, but in all evidence his true intent was to curry favour with the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons.
On the opposite front, the most powerful scientific society of Tasmania, the Royal Society, claimed that the precious remains were a national heritage and should remain in the Society’s own museum.

Disguised under an alleged scientific relevance, this was actually a political struggle.
The premier Richard Dry immediately realized this, being called to decide on the delicate matter: his move was initially favorable to the Royal Society, perhaps because it had strict ties to his government, or perhaps because Dry had had some pretty rough political divergences with Crowther in the past.
Anyways, it was established that the body would remain in Tasmania; but Dry, being a fervent Christian, decided that the last Aboriginal would need, first of all, to be granted a proper funeral. Well aware of Crowther’s impatience to get his hands on the skeleton, he ordered the new head of the hospital, Dr. George Stockell, to prevent anything happening to the body.

  The Desecration, Act One: Crowther

The following day Stockell and Crowther met on the street and they immediately went into a dispute; Crowther claimed to have a right on the body, and Stockell replied he had received clear orders to protect Lanne’s corpse.
When surprisingly Crowther invited him to dinner at 8pm, Stockell must have naively thought it was an attempt to reconcile. Upon showing up at Crowther’s at the agreed time, however, he discovered that the doctor was absent: he found his wife instead, who welcomed him into their home and who seemed particularly loquacious, and “kept him talking“…

Meanwhile Crowther had to act quickly with the favor of twilight.
Assisted by his son, he entered the hospital and headed for the morgue. There he focused on the body of an elderly white gentleman: he beheaded the old man, and swiftly peeled his head to get hold of his skull. He then moved to the adjoining room, where William Lanne’s body was laying.
Crowther made an incision down the side of Lanne’s face, behind his right ear; removing the skin off the face and forcing his hands underneath, he extracted the Aboriginal’s skull and replaced it with the one he had just taken from the other corpse.
He then stitched up Lanne’s face, hoping no one would notice the difference, and disappeared into the night with his precious loot.

Stockell remained with Crowther’s wife until 9pm, when he eventually sensed something was wrong and returned to the hospital. Despite Crowther’s precautions, it did not take Stockell very long before he figured out what had just happened.

  The Desecration, Act Two: Stockell and the Royal Society

Instead of alerting the authorities, Stockell immediately notified the secretary of the Royal Society regarding the mutilations carried out on the corpse. After a brief consultation with other society members, it was deemed imperative to secure the most important parts of the body before Crowther attempted to return for more.
Therefore Lanne’s feet and hands were cut off and hidden in the Royal Society museum.

The funeral took place on the scheduled day, Saturday 6 March. An unexpectedly large crowd gathered to salute King Billy, the last true Aboriginal: there were mainly sailors, including the Captain of the Runnymede who had payed for the funeral, and several Tasmanian natives.
However, rumors began to spread of a horrific mutilation suffered by Lanne’s corpse, and Dry was asked to exhume the body for verification. The premier, waiting to open the official investigation, ordered the grave be guarded by two police agents until Monday.
But early on Sunday it was discovered that the burial place had been devastated: the coffin lay exposed on loose earth. There was blood all around, and Lanne’s body was gone. The skull of the old man, the one that had been substituted inside the corpse, had been discarded by the graverobbers and thrown next to the grave.

Meanwhile, an increasingly furious Crowther was far from giving up, especially now that he’d seen the missing parts of “his” Aboriginal stolen that way.
On Monday afternoon he broke into the hospital with a group of supporters. When Stockell commanded him to leave, Crowther responded by hammering in a panel of one of the wards and forcing the morgue door.
Inside the scene was gruesome: on the dissecting table there were pieces of meat and bloody fat masses. Lanne had been deboned.
Not finding the coveted skeleton, Crowther and his mob left the hospital.

  When All Are Guilty, No One Is

The investigation led to an unfavorable result especially for Crowther, who was suspended from the medical profession, while his son saw his permission to study at the hospital revoked. As for the Royal Society, although Stockell admitted he had cut the hands and feet off the corpse, it was felt that there was not sufficient evidence for a conviction.

Even if nothing came out of the investigation, this terrible episode shook the public opinion for more than one reason.

On the one hand, events had uncovered the rotten reality of scientific and state institutions.
William Lanne’s body had been profaned – likewise, that of a white man had been desecrated.
The doctors had been proven to be abject and unscrupulous – and so had the cops, who were evidently bribed into leaving their post guarding the grave.
Hospital security measures had proved to be laughable – the same was true of St. David’s, the largest urban cemetery in the city.
The government’s actions had been far from impartial or decisive – but the behavior of the Royal Society had been equally obscure and reprehensible.
As a newspaper summed it up, the incident had shown that “the common people have a better appreciation of decency and propriety than such of the so-called upper classes and men of education“.

John Glover, Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point (1834)

But the second reason for indignation was that the last Aboriginal had been treated as meat in a slaughterhouse.
A horrendous act, but sadly in line with the decimation of Tasmanian natives in what has been called a full-on genocide: in little more than seventy years since the first settlers arrived, virtually the entire population of the island had been wiped out. Just like his land and his people before him, William Lanne had been avidly divided among whites – who were seeking to demonstrate his racial inferiority.
Even with all the racist rhetoric of the time, it was hard not to feel guilty. When someone proposed to erect a memorial for Lanne, shame prevailed and no memorial was built.

  Epilogue: Much Horror About Nothing

The one who eventually earned himself an impressive statue, however, was William Crowther.
The doctor entered politics shortly after the bloody events, and a successful career led him to be elected prime minister of Tasmania in 1878.
No wonder he had so many supporters, because nothing is ever just black or white: despite the murky episode, Crowther was well-liked because as a doctor he had always provided medical care for the poor and the natives. He remained in politics until his death in 1885; he declared he never lost a night’s sleep over “King Billy’s head”, as he always claimed the whole affair had been a set-up to discredit him.

Statue of William Crowther, Franklin Square, Hobart.

Stockell, for his part, was not reappointed house surgeon at the hospital at the end of his probationary period, and moved to Campbell Town where he died in 1878.
The Lanne scandal had at least one positive consequence: in the wake of the controversy, Tasmania promulgated its first Anatomy Bill in August 1869, regulating the practice of dissections.

What about the bones of William Lanne?
His skeleton was almost certainly hidden among the properties of the Royal Society museum. We ignore what happened to it.
The same goes for his skull, as no one ever heard of it anymore. Yet strangely, Crowther was appointed a gold medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1874 for his “valuable and numerous contributions” to the Hunterian museum. What exactly these contributions were, we do not know exactly; but it is natural to suspect that the honorary fellowship had something to do with the infamous Lanne skull, maybe shipped to London in secret.
However, there is not enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that the skull ever got to England, and the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection of human crania was destroyed during the Nazi bombings.

Royal College of Surgeons, early 20th century.

What is certain is that Crowther risked everything he had, his reputation and his profession, for that one skull. And here is the bitter irony: in 1881, the Hunterian curator himself publicly questioned the validity of craniology in determining the alleged races.
Today it is clear that this axious cataloguing and classifying was “a futile effort“, since “the concept of race in the human species has not obtained any consensus from the scientific point of view, and it is probably destined not to find it” (from The History and Geography of Human Genes, 2000).

Regardless of where they were kept hidden, neither the skull nor the skeleton of William Lanne were ever scientifically studied, and they did not appear in any research.
After all that was done to expropriate them, conquer them and annex them to one collection or another, and despite their supposedly fundamental relevance to the understanding of evolution, those human remains were forgotten in some crate or closet.
The important thing was to have them colonized.

 

The main source for this article is Stefan Petrow, The Last Man: The Mutilation of William Lanne in 1869 and Its Aftermath (1997), PDF available online.
Also interesting is the story of Truganini, William Lanne’s wife and the last “full-blood” Aboriginal woman, who suffered a less dramatic but somewhat similar post-mortem calvary.
The procedure used by Crowther to replace a skull without disfiguring the corpse has its own fascinating story, as told by Frances Larson in
Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014) – a book I can never praise enough.

Victorian Hairwork: Interview with Courtney Lane

Part of the pleasure of collecting curiosities lies in discovering the reactions they cause in various people: seeing the wonder arise on the face of onlookers always moves me, and gives meaning to the collection itself. Among the objects that, at least in my experience, evoke the strongest emotional response there are without doubt mourning-related accessories, and in particular those extraordinary XIX Century decorative works made by braiding a deceased person’s hair.

Be it a small brooch containing a simple lock of hair, a framed picture or a larger wreath, there is something powerful and touching in these hairworks, and the feeling they convey is surprisingly universal. You could say that anyone, regardless of their culture, experience or provenance, is “equipped” to recognize the archetypical value of hair: to use them in embroidery, jewelry and decoration is therefore an eminently magical act.

I decided to discuss this peculiar tradition with an expert, who was so kind as to answer my questions.
Courtney Lane is a real authority on the subject, not just its history but also its practical side: she studied the original techniques with the intent of bringing them back to life, as she is convinced that this ancient craft could accomplish its function of preserving memory still today.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a Victorian hair artist, historian, and self-proclaimed professional weirdo based in Kansas City. My business is called Never Forgotten where, as an artist, I create modern works of Victorian style sentimental hairwork for clients on a custom basis as well as making my own pieces using braids and locks of antique human hair that I find in places such as estate sales at old homes. As an academic, I study the history of hairwork and educate others through lectures as well as online video, and I also travel to teach workshops on how to do hairwork techniques.

Hairwork by Courtney Lane.

Where does your interest for Victorian hairwork come from?

I’ve always had a deep love for history and finding beauty in places that many consider to be dark or macabre. At the young age of 5, I fell in love with the beauty of 18th and 19th century mausoleums in the cemeteries near the French Quarter of New Orleans. Even as a child, I adored the grand gesture of these elaborate tombs for memorializing the dead. This lead me to developing a particular fondness for the Victorian era and the funerary customs of the time.
Somewhere along the line in studying Victorian mourning, I encountered the idea of hairwork. A romantic at heart, I’d already known of the romantic value a lock of hair from your loved one could hold, so I very naturally accepted that it would also be a perfect relic to keep of a deceased loved one. I found the artwork to be stunning and the sentiment to be of even greater beauty. I wondered why it was that we no longer practiced hairwork widely, and I needed to know why.
I studied for years trying to find the answers and eventually I learned how to do the artwork myself. I thoroughly believed that the power of sentimental hairwork could help society reclaim a healthier relationship with death and mourning, and so I decided to begin my business to create modern works, educate the public on the often misunderstood history of the artform, and ensure that this sentimental tradition is “Never Forgotten”.

How did hairwork become a popular mourning practice historically? Was the hair collected before or post mortem? Was it always related to grieving?

Hairwork has taken on a variety of purposes, most of which have been inherently sentimental, but it has not always been related to grieving. With the death of her husband, Queen Victoria fell into a deep mourning which lasted the remaining 40 years of her life. This, in turn, created a certain fashionability, and almost a fetishism, of mourning in the Victorian era. Most people today believe all hairwork had the purpose of elaborating a loss, but between the 1500s and early 1900s, hairwork included romantic keepsakes from a loved one or family mementos, and sometimes served as memorabilia from an important time in one’s life. As an example, many of the large three-dimensional wreaths you can still see actually served as a form of family history. Hair was often collected from several (often living) members of the family and woven together to create a genealogy. I’ve seen other examples of hairwork simply commemorating a major life event such as a first communion or a wedding. Long before hairwork became an art form, humans had already been exchanging locks of hair; so it’s only natural that there were instances of couples wearing jewelry that contained the hair of their living lovers.

As far as mourning hairwork is concerned, the hair was sometimes collected post mortem, and sometimes the hair was saved from an earlier time in their life. As hair was such an important part of culture, it was often saved when it was cut whether or not there was an immediate plan for making art or jewelry with it.
The idea of using hair as a mourning practice largely stems from Catholicism in the Middle Ages and the power of saintly relics in the church. The relic of a saint is more than just the physical remains of their body, rather it provides a spiritual connection to the holy person, creating a link between life and death. This belief that a relic can be a substitute for the person easily transitioned from public, religious mourning to private, personal mourning.
Of the types of relics (bone, flesh, etc), hair is by far the most accessible to the average person, as it does not need any sort of preservation to avoid decomposition, much as the rest of the body does; collecting from the body is as simple as using a pair of scissors. Hair is also one of the most identifiable parts of person, so even though pieces of bone might just be as much of a relic, hair is part of your loved one that you see everyday in life, and can continue to recognize after death.

Was hairwork strictly a high-class practice?

Hairwork was not strictly high-class. Although hairwork was kept by some members of upper class, it was predominantly a middle-class practice. Some hairwork was done by professional hairworkers, and of course, anyone commissioning them would need the means to do so; but a lot of hairwork was done in the home usually by the women of the family. With this being the case, the only expenses would be the crafting tools (which many middle-class women would already likely have around the home), and the jewelry findings, frames, or domes to place the finished hairwork in.

How many people worked at a single wreath, and for how long? Was it a feminine occupation, like embroidery?

Hairwork was usually, but not exclusively done by women and was even considered a subgenre of ladies’ fancy work. Fancy work consisted of embroidery, beadwork, featherwork, and more. There are even instances of women using hair to embroider and sew. It was thought to be a very feminine trait to be able to patiently and meticulously craft something beautiful.
As far as wreaths are concerned, it varied in the number of people who would work together to create one. Only a few are well documented enough to know for sure.
I’ve also observed dozens of different techniques used to craft flowers in wreaths and some techniques are more time consuming than others. One of the best examples I’ve seen is an incredibly well documented piece that indicates that the whole wreath consists of 1000 flowers (larger than the average wreath) and was constructed entirely by one woman over the span of a year. The documentation also specifies that the 1000 flowers were made with the hair of 264 people.

  

Why did it fall out of fashion during the XX Century?

Hairwork started to decline in popularity in the early 1900’s. There were several reasons.
The first reason was the growth of hairwork as an industry. Several large companies and catalogues started advertising custom hairwork, and many people feared that sending out for the hairwork rather than making it in the home would take away from the sentiment. Among these companies was Sears, Roebuck and Company, and in one of their catalogues in 1908, they even warned, “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.” This, of course, deterred people from using professional hairworkers.
Another reason lies with the development and acceptance of germ theory in the Victorian era. The more people learned about germs and the more sanitary products were being sold, the more people began to view the human body and all its parts as a filthy thing. Along with this came the thought that hair, too, was unclean and people began to second guess using it as a medium for art and jewelry.
World War I also had a lot to do with the decline of hairwork. Not only was there a general depletion in resources for involved countries, but more and more women began to work outside of the home and no longer had the time to create fancy work daily. During war time when everybody was coming together to help the war effort, citizens began to turn away from frivolous expenses and focus only on necessities. Hair at this time was seen for the practical purposes it could serve. For example, in Germany there were propaganda posters encouraging women to cut their long hair and donate it to the war effort when other fibrous materials became scarce. The hair that women donated was used to make practical items such as transmission belts.
With all of these reasons working together, sentimental hairwork was almost completely out of practice by the year 1925; no major companies continued to create or repair hairwork, and making hairwork at home was no longer a regular part of daily life for women.

19th century hairworks have become trendy collectors items; this is due in part to a fascination with Victorian mourning practices, but it also seems to me that these pieces hold a special value, as opposed to other items like regular brooches or jewelry, because of – well, the presence of human hair. Do you think we might still be attaching some kind of “magical”, symbolic power to hair? Or is it just an expression of morbid curiosity for human remains, albeit in a mild and not-so-shocking form?

I absolutely believe that all of these are true. Especially amongst people less familiar with these practices, there is a real shock value to seeing something made out of hair. When I first introduce the concept of hairwork to people, some find the idea to be disgusting, but most are just fascinated that the hair does not decompose. People today are so out of touch with death, that they immediately equate hair as a part of the body and don’t understand how it can still be perfectly pristine over a hundred years later. For those who don’t often ponder their own mortality, thinking about the fact that hair can physically live on long after they’ve died can be a completely staggering realization.
Once the initial surprise and morbid curiosity have faded, many people recognize a special value in the hair itself. Amongst serious collectors of hair, there seems to be a touching sense of fulfillment in the opportunity to preserve the memory of somebody who once was loved enough to be memorialized this way – even if they remain nameless today. Some may say it is a spiritual calling, but I would say at the very least it is a shared sense of mortal empathy.

What kind of research did you have to do in order to learn the basics of Victorian hairworks? After all, this could be described as a kind of “folk art”, which was meant for a specific, often personal purpose; so were there any books at the time holding detailed instructions on how to do it? Or did you have to study original hairworks to understand how it was done?

Learning hairwork was a journey for me. First, I should say that there are several different types of hairwork and some techniques are better documented than others. Wire work is the type of hairwork you see in wreaths and other three-dimensional flowers. I was not able to find any good resources on how to do these techniques, so in order to learn, I began by studying countless wreaths. I took every opportunity I could to study wreaths that were out of their frame or damaged so I could try to put them back together and see how everything connected. I spent hours staring at old pieces and playing with practice hair through trial and error.
Other techniques are palette work and table work. Palette work includes flat pictures of hair which you may see in a frame or under glass in jewelry, and table work includes the elaborate braids that make up a jewelry chain such as a necklace or a watch fob.
The Lock of Hair
by Alexanna Speight and Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment by Mark Campbell teach palette work and table work, respectively. Unfortunately, being so old, these books use archaic English and also reference tools and materials that are no longer made or not as easy to come by. Even after reading these books, it takes quite a bit of time to find modern equivalents and practice with a few substitutions to find the best alternative. For these reasons, I would love to write an instructional book explaining all three of these core techniques in an easy to understand way using modern materials, so hairwork as a craft can be more accessible to a wider audience.

Why do you think this technique could be still relevant today?

The act and tradition of saving hair is still present in our society. Parents often save a lock of their child’s first haircut, but unfortunately that lock of hair will stay hidden away in an envelope or a book and rarely seen again. I’ve also gained several clients just from meeting someone who has never heard of hairwork, but they still felt compelled cut a lock of hair from their deceased loved one to keep. Their eyes consistently light up when they learn that they can wear it in jewelry or display it in artwork. Time and again, these people ask me if it’s weird that they saved this hair. Often, they don’t even know why they did. It’s a compulsion that many of us feel, but we don’t talk about it or celebrate it in our modern culture, so they think they’re strange or morbid even though it’s an incredibly natural thing to do.
Another example is saving your own hair when it’s cut. Especially in instances of cutting hair that’s been grown very long or hair that has been locked, I very often encounter people who have felt so much of a personal investment in their own hair that they don’t feel right throwing it out. These individuals may keep their hair in a bag for years, not knowing what to do with it, only knowing that it felt right to keep. This makes perfect sense to me, because hair throughout history has always been a very personal thing. Even today, people identify each other by hair whether it be length, texture, color, or style. Different cultures may wear their hair in a certain way to convey something about their heritage, or individuals will use their own creativity or sense of self to decide how to wear their hair. Whether it be for religion, culture, romance, or mourning, the desire to attach sentimental value to hair and the impulse to keep the hair of your loved one are inherently human.
I truly believe that being able to proudly display our hair relics can help us process some of our most intimate emotions and live our best lives.

You can visit Courtney Lane’s website Never Forgotten, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. If you’re interested in the symbolic and magical value of human hair, here is my post on the subject.

Children of the Grave

They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.

(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)

An Italian Horror Story

Castel del Giudice, Italy.
On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child.
On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).

For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:

She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.

But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:

F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.

Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“.
One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.

The case had a huge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877.
This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.

This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt.
There’s more than one reason to be careful.

Buried Alive?

First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.

Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.

For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.

A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings.
When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.

Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.

Coffin Birth

If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial.
What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.

Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus.
This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix.
This  strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.

The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.)
In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried.
It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.

Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.

A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure.
In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).

Life In Death

So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her?
Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.

But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so that even archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.

The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from
ManiliusAstronomica:

Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.

As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”

La sconosciuta della Senna

Parliamo oggi di una delle più romantiche ed enigmatiche figure di inizio ‘900: l’inconnue de la Seine.

La leggenda vuole che a Parigi, a fine ‘800, il corpo di una donna venisse ripescato dalla Senna – avvenimento non straordinario per l’epoca. Portata all’obitorio, un operatore funebre restò affascinato dalla sua bellezza, ma sopratutto rimase impressionato dal sorriso della ragazza: un sorriso che restituiva una tale idea di pace e serenità da ricordare quello della Gioconda. La giovane suicida doveva aver trovato, nel suo ultimo gesto, quella felicità che le era stata negata in vita.

Così l’impiegato della morgue eseguì una maschera mortuaria della bella sconosciuta, cioè un calco in gesso del suo viso. Dopodiché il corpo fu esposto nella vetrina dell’obitorio, com’era uso fare a quei tempi, affinché qualcuno dei passanti potesse identificarlo (vista con occhi contemporanei, una simile usanza può sembrare strana ma la morte, allora, non era ancora il tabù occultato e nascosto che è al giorno d’oggi).

Nessuno riconobbe la salma, che trovò una sepoltura comune e anonima.

Da quando la leggenda si diffuse, la “sconosciuta della Senna” divenne in breve tempo un clamoroso caso che stimolava la fascinazione macabra della Parigi bohémienne dei primi del ‘900. Cominciarono a circolare molte copie della maschera mortuaria, che andarono a ruba. Una seconda serie di calchi venne addirittura fatta a partire da una fotografia di quello originale, e queste “copie di copie” riproducevano dei dettagli compleamente irrealistici – ma tant’è, anche questa seconda ondata fu esaurita nel giro di pochi mesi. Pareva che tutti gli intellettuali e gli artisti fossero innamorati di questo viso enigmatico, e mille dissertazioni furono fatte sul suo sorriso e su quello che poteva rivelare della vita, della posizione sociale o della morte della povera ragazza. Le maschere mortuarie dell’inconnue addobbavano case e salotti esclusivi: secondo quanto riportato da alcune testimonianze, la ragazza divenne addirittura un ideale erotico, tanto da ispirare l’acconciatura dei capelli di un’intera generazione femminile, e da suggerire ad attrici del teatro e del cinema il look vincente.

La sconosciuta della Senna apparve in poemi, romanzi, pièce teatrali, novelle – ma non stiamo parlando di libriccini scandalistici. Per farvi capire la statura degli autori che ne scrissero, basta un veloce elenco di nomi: Rilke, Nabokov, Camus, Aragon, più recentemente Palahniuk

Ma chi era veramente la sconosciuta della Senna? Mille teorie sono state avanzate, tra cui quella che vuole che la giovane donna non fosse morta suicida, ma vittima di un omicidio. Il dottor Harry Battley è convinto di aver trovato in un negozio di anticaglie una fotografia della sconosciuta ancora in vita. Secondo le sue “ricerche” si tratterebbe di un’artista ungherese di music-hall, invischiata in un torbido adulterio di cui avrebbe pagato le conseguenze… insomma, vi risparmiamo i dettagli: la fotografia è interessante, ma la teoria che ci sta dietro è quantomeno bislacca.

La verità è probabilmente molto lontana dalla leggenda, e sicuramente molto meno romantica. Chiunque abbia un minimo di familiarità con le scienze forensi avrà già capito che il volto dell’inconnue ha davvero poche possibilità di essere il volto di un’annegata. Georges Villa, illustratore, dice di avrer saputo dal suo maestro Jules Lefebvre che il modello era in realtà una giovane donna morta di tubercolosi nel 1875.

Che il pesante calco utilizzato per le maschere mortuarie potesse poi immortalare un lieve e delicato sorriso come quello della sconosciuta, è altrettanto improbabile. Il sorriso potrebbe, in effetti, essere stato scolpito a posteriori sul negativo del calco. Secondo Claire Forestier, che lavora nella ditta di modelli in gesso che probabilmente all’epoca prese il calco, la sconosciuta non era affatto morta, ma era una viva e vegeta modella di 16 anni.

Non sapremo mai con certezza l’identità della sconosciuta che appassionò e fece innamorare mezza Europa. Ma la sua macabra storia finisce con un inaspettato, surreale happy ending.

Nel 1958, in America, venne costruito il primo manichino di addestramento per il pronto soccorso, chiamato Rescue Annie (o Resusci Annie). Indovinate un po’? I suoi inventori decisero di regalargli il volto della sconosciuta della Senna. Utilizzato nell’addestramento al massaggio cardiaco e alla respirazione bocca a bocca, il volto della sconosciuta (oltre ad aver contribuito a salvare molte vite) divenne così “il più baciato del mondo”.

Un sito (in inglese) che esplora in modo molto approfondito la leggenda, le teorie di omicidio ma soprattutto l’eredità lasciata da questa figura nella letteratura, nell’arte e nella musica del ‘900 è The Legend Of The Inconnue.

r. Harry Battley