Rest in Pieces Arrives

Look what my friendly UPS man delivered this morning!

Front cover



Illustrations are by the amazing Mark Stutzman.


For those who’ve been asking, the book comes out on March 12. A pretty little website is being buffed and shined, but for now there’s plenty of information on the publisher’s page and on Amazon. To stay up to date on the book and related events (coming to Seattle, NYC, and San Francisco this Spring), like the book’s page on Facebook. Thanks so much for all your love and support, deathlings!

An Overdue Update

New York City sunset
Times Square electronic sunset

I’ve recently been chastised for my absence from this blog (I won’t name names), and just when I thought no one was paying attention! I think all internet-enabled writers know the difficulty of juggling their paid work, creative projects, and social media efforts, which ideally overlap and cross-pollinate, but also distract from one another. Also, it’s hard to sit in a chair for more than ten hours a day. Nevertheless, I’ve been remiss in keeping all of you updated. Here’s a bit about what I’ve been up to:

The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears–whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.

  • I’ve been working on editing a few projects for the Port Townsend publishers Feral House, including a fantastic forthcoming encyclopedia of black metal by Dayal Patterson. It’s got everything you want to know about the controversial genre, from the origin of corpse paint to the 70s glam metal band that inspired most of the Norwegian second wave. Feral House, of course, are the same folks who previously published Lords of Chaos, which both disturbed and fascinated the 18-year-old me.
  • Last but not least, congratulations to the curious and wondrous Atlas Obscura, the world’s most awesome travel-related website, on their re-design! You can see my spotlight on Einstein’s brain in their “Objects of Intrigue” series.

If you made it to the end of that, you get a gold star. Or maybe a skull in a jar, like the beautiful one (made of netting?) I saw at ABC Carpet & Home during the trip. More news, and skulls, soon!

Skull from ABC Carpet & Home (artist unknown)
Skull from ABC Carpet & Home (artist unknown)

A Field Guide to Seattle’s Ghosts

Princess Angeline, photographed by Edward Curtis

Over the past few months, I’ve been spending rainy Seattle evenings reading accounts of our local haunted history. According to the shelf of books about ghosts in the Seattle Public Library’s Seattle Room, my town is full of the spirits of gamblers, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, murder victims, even pets. A s a result, a friend (Meg van Huygen) and I have begun an ongoing, just-for-fun project called A Field Guide to Seattle’s Ghosts. In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d provide the text I’ve written so far about my favorite local spirits.

A note: I’m agnostic about ghosts. I’m not interested in whether or not they’re real; I’m interested in what they inspire, what they stir up. For me, the most interesting thing about ghosts is the way they stay rooted to a particular place. Ghosts tell stories that never appear in tourist brochures, the dark secrets that local developers would rather keep hush-hush. But mostly they tell us about ourselves, how vulnerable we are, and sometimes, how much we want to believe.

1) The Japanese Dancer

Habitat: Mutual Life Building, 605 First Avenue at Yesler. Often seen: Around September 10. Distinguishing characteristics: Covered in white rice powder, nearly naked. Behavior: Writhing, floating. What he wants: To finish his dance.

Yoshiyuki Takada became a ghost while pretending to be a ghost. He was a member of the Tokyo dance company Sankai Juku, whose members performed in the creepy, controlled style known as Butoh. The troupe was known for suspending themselves—almost naked, shaven, and covered in white rice powder—from the tops of tall buildings, in a piece called “The Dance of Birth and Death.” Takada once explained his performances by telling the Los Angeles Times, “Our main theme is life and death, so we try to realize the situation of death and the state of just being born.”

On the afternoon of September 10, 1985, Takada had just begun one of his performances on the top of the Mutual Life Building in downtown Seattle when his rope snapped. He fell eighty feet, curled up in a ball until he hit the pavement below. Some members of the audience thought it was part of his performance. It wasn’t. He died at Harborview Medical Center soon afterward, and some think his spirit is still trapped in Pioneer Square. Every year around September 10, people claim to see a twisting, turning figure suspended in the air. The apparition lasts for about a quarter of a minute, before fading into the autumn air.

2) The Fire

Habitat: Northernmost tip of Alki Beach Park. Often seen: around April 14. Distinguishing characteristics: flames, burning smell. Behavior: flickering, disappearing, reappearing. What it wants: to be remembered.

Luna Park opened in West Seattle in 1907, billed as the greatest amusement park in the Northwest, our very own Coney Island. People came from across the state to ride the Giant Whirl and the Figure-Eight Roller Coaster, dance at the Dance Palace, swim in the pools of the Natatorium, and drink at the “longest bar on the bay” (especially drink).

But Luna Park lasted only five years, closing in 1913 after a moral panic about underage women carousing on the grounds. The pools remained open until an arsonist’s fire burned them down on April 14, 1931. At very low tide, you can still see the stubby concrete pilings, which is all that remains of the park today. But every year around April 14th, people in Seattle call up the fire department to report the tang of smoke, and the sight of flickering orange flames across the water.

3) Mother Damnable (a.k.a. Madame Damnable, or Mary Ann Conklin)

Habitat: Southwest corner of First and Jackson. Often seen: When she feels like it. Distinguishing characteristics: Apron full of rocks. Behavior: Whispering curses in people’s ears. What she wants: for you to go away.

Mother Damnable, born Mary Ann Conklin, ran Seattle’s first hotel, which was also supposedly one of its first brothels. Her accommodations were clean and comfortable, but it was her colorful personality that made her a local celebrity. It’s said she could swear equally well in English, French, German, Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese, and that she was prone to throwing rocks or wood at people she didn’t like.

After she died in 1873, she was buried at the old Seattle cemetery, now Denny Park. Legend says that when her body was exhumed in the late 1800s, her corpse had turned into more than a thousand pounds of stone. The heavy coffin led to rumors that Damnable had been buried with her gold, but when workers opened it, they found only her body, perfectly preserved. Though she is now buried in Lakeview cemetery (probably), some say her spirit returns to protect her old property. Watch out for flying rocks.

4) Princess Angeline

Habitat: Pike Place Market, Bainbridge ferry. Often seen: On rainy mornings, or after the market’s shops close at night. Distinguishing characteristics: Blue eyes, red scarf, cane. Behavior: Walking slowly down the street, carrying woven baskets, disappearing on the ferry before it gets to Bainbridge. What she wants: To go home.

Princess Angeline was Chief Seattle’s daughter. Her given name was Kikisoblu, but she was re-named “Angeline” by one of the white settlers, who called her “Princess” in honor of her father’s status. She ignored the rules that said the Native Americans had to leave the city to live on reservations, and instead lived out her days in a cabin on what is now Western Avenue, doing laundry, digging clams, and selling baskets to the Old Curiosity shop. Edward Curtis took amazing photographs of her, for which he paid her $1 each (she preferred photo shoots to clam digging).

Angeline is said to be one of Seattle’s most frequently-seen ghosts, appearing late at night or early in the morning, her pale clothes swirling around her like mist, her body transparent except for her luminous blue eyes. If you see her, don’t be afraid: she doesn’t seem to mean anyone any harm. Though personally, I’d forgive her if she did.

5) Jimmy Durante

Habitat: Rendezvous Theatre, 2320 Second Avenue. Often seen: In the projection room. Distinguishing characteristics: That nose. Behavior:  Turning on the projectors, locking the doors. What he wants: Unclear.

Several ghosts are said to haunt the Rendezvous. There’s a female presence that carries a waft of sweet perfume, and a dark energy that prowls that basement, sometimes erupting in loud banging and clanging. In the 1940s the building was used as a movie theatre, and some say the projectionist never left. But others sense Durante, who is said to have been busted for playing cards in the building’s basement speakeasy during Prohibition.

6) “Frank”

Habitat: Annex Theatre, 1100 East Pike Street. Often seen: at various times. Distinguishing characteristics: blue-and-white jumper. Behavior: stealing things, messing with the lights, vanishing. What he wants: we don’t know.

The building that now houses the Annex was once an auto repair shop, and some believe a mechanic died there while working underneath a car. An unnerving male presence is frequently sensed in the theatre, playing innocent and not-so-innocent pranks. Workers have nicknamed the presence “Frank,” although one late-night séance also picked up the name “Robert.” He often appears as a shadowy figure in the control booth.

7) The Little Red-Haired Girl

Habitat: Kells Pub, 1916 Post Alley. Often seen: When the bar is quiet and empty. Distinguishing characteristics: Long red hair. Behavior: Pulling out chairs, sliding glasses, laughing. What she wants: A friend.

Kells Pub is part of the famed Butterworth building, constructed in 1903 as the Butterworth funeral home. While a succession of businesses have failed on the upper floors, Kells—on the bottom where the garage and stables used to be—is always packed with locals and tourists.

But when it’s quiet, staff say they can hear a little girl chuckling to herself. One woman who came to Kells for a job interview was frightened out of her wits after her daughter reported playing with a red-haired girl who wasn’t there. The ghost girl is known to give her favorite playmates crudely-made rag dolls.

8) Buck

Habitat: Lakeview Cemetery. Often seen: randomly. Distinguishing characteristics: is a horse. Behavior: clomping. What he wants: carrots?

Buck was a cattle horse so beloved by his owner, one Irving Wadleigh, that when the animal died Wadleigh had him buried beneath an eight-foot monument in Lakeview Cemetery on Capitol Hill. Supposedly, a 1901 newspaper article about the horse’s burial infuriated the locals, and so Buck’s marker was moved—but not his body. When Wadleigh died, he was secretly buried next to Buck in an unmarked grave. Today, some report a glowing white horse nibbling at the grass between the gravestones, forever looking for his master.

A Bone to Pick: Relic Thefts In the News

The relic thieves have struck again! According to German news outlet The Local, police are seeking thieves who stole a mummified “liar’s hand” from a church in Legden, North Rhine-Westphalia. (Gruesome photo at the link.)

To be clear, the hand isn’t the relic of a saint—in fact, it’s not clear who it originally belonged to. The Telegraph explains, “Known as the ‘perjury-hand’, local legend dictates that it was severed from its owner when he or she broke an oath, and to serve as a bloody lesson to anybody else contemplating straying from the truth. But nobody knows the real history behind the hand other than that it was discovered preserved in lime during the demolition of an old fortified town in 1905.” In fact, locals had just raised enough money to send the mysterious item to Düsseldorf University for tests to determine its age and the sex of its owner.

The world has been plagued by a spate of thefts of mummified body parts—and their accessories—over the past year and a half. This past March, the 900-year-old heart of 12th century Irish saint St. Laurence O’Toole was stolen from a church in Dublin. In February, also in Ireland, a burglar stole a valuable shrine that normally contains part of cheekbone of St. Brigid. (The bone was out at the cleaners; hat tip to Christine Quigley for news of that theft.)

Christ Church, Heart of Archbishop Saint-Laurence O’Toole. Photo by Chickpea, via Creative Commons on Flickr

In October 2011, three “relics of the true cross” were taken from Holy Cross Abbey in Ireland, while in June 2011 in California, a bone said to be from St. Anthony’s body was stolen from a Long Beach Catholic church. In the latter two cases, both of the relics were later recovered.

(Then there’s the Czech whack job who claimed this past summer to have plundered the Vienna graves of composers Strauss and Brahms, but that’s a different story.)

There’s a long history of relic thefts in the Catholic Church, though for a variety of reasons. In the Middle Ages, owning a fragment of a major saint—their tongue, say, or a scrap of their cloak—could establish your church as a must-see pilgrimage destination, providing a steam of both pilgrims and revenue. Eventually, relics became scarce enough that towns and churches began stealing them from one another—under the cover of night or in all-out assault.

According to medieval historian Patrick Geary, such thefts were known as “sacra furta,” or holy theft, and they weren’t seen as an ethical problem. Because the relics were viewed as the representative of the saint on earth, the bones, tongues, or bits of cloth were thought to have their own personalities. If they didn’t want to be stolen—or “translated”—they wouldn’t allow it. A successful theft meant the saint wanted to come with you.

Two of the most famous thefts of the Middle Ages concern Saint Mark and Saint Nicholas. In 828, Venetian merchants smuggled bones supposedly belonging to Saint Mark from Alexandria to Venice; the story goes that the relics were covered in a layer of pork to prevent the local Muslims from interfering. In 1087, sailors from Bari (now part of Italy) stole Saint Nicholas’s bones from Myra (now Demre, Turkey). The perfume of his “manna,” or “bone oil,” was said to be a sign that the saint approved of his move.

I discuss the theft of Saint Nicholas (the inspiration for Santa Claus) in Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. For those who want to more about medieval relic theft, I highly recommend Patrick Geary’s book Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. And if anyone reading this works at a Catholic Church, I highly recommend hiring some additional security guards.

The Inscape Building’s Dark History

The exterior of the Inscape building in 2012.

The first in what I hope will be a series of short columns in Seattle Met magazine on the darker side of local history is now online. This story profiles the Inscape building, once a local immigration processing center and prison, now remade as artists’ studios. Read it here. Next month: Congressman Marion Zioncheck and the suicide (or murder?) that haunts one of my favorite places to drink downtown.

The Adventures of Ned’s Head

Ned Kelly shortly before his execution. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Update: Ned Kelly finally had a funeral, 132 years after his death. The Guardian posted a video on the subject with some great background. But his skull is still missing–read on below.

It’s not every day the news talks about a witch returning a skull. And not just any skull: the skull of the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly, one of the best-known characters in Australian history.

In late August 2012, various news outlets reported that Anna Hoffman, a 74-year-old New Zealander and self-proclaimed witch, had come forward claiming to possess Ned Kelly’s head. Hoffman is only the latest in a line of colorful characters who’ve made the same statement, and so far they’ve all been—let’s just say—not entirely in touch with reality. I tell the full story (or at least the story so far) in Rest in Pieces, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

Ned Kelly was a bushranger, a criminal who used the Australian outback as the base for conducting robberies of stagecoaches and small-town banks. His daring escapades and defiance of the British establishment made him a folk hero, and after he was captured in a police shootout in 1880 wearing homemade armor, nearly 30,000 people signed a petition asking for a stay of execution. But the authorities were determined to end his life, and Kelly was hanged at the Melbourne gaol on November 11, 1880. His last words are said to have been “Tell ’em I died game.”

As a Roman Catholic turned newly devout in prison, Kelly wanted his remains be given to his family for burial in consecrated ground. But as an about-to-be executed criminal, his had little say in the matter: his body was the property of the Crown. His corpse was buried on the grounds of the Melbourne gaol, where it stayed until renovations in 1929. That year, part of the gaol grounds were turned over to a nearby college to create a new engineering school. When the skeletons were exhumed, local schoolboys plundered the graves. That’s when Kelly’s skull disappeared—for the first time.

Things get pretty weird from here, but an object said to be Kelly’s skull was returned to police shortly after the exhumations in 1929. However, this skull never made it back to Kelly’s grave. Instead it was kept at a variety of Australian institutions, and casts of it went on display in the 1940s at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, where it kept company with aboriginal artifacts and preserved koala bear hands. Later the skull was moved to the Old Melbourne Gaol Museum, where it was on display next to Kelly’s death mask. But in 1978, the skull was stolen again, this time out of a locked cabinet.

The theft has never been solved. In the years since, several lively characters have come forward claiming to have the skull, including an eccentric activist named “Fast Buck$” and former Australian Marijuana Party Senate candidate known as J. J. McRoach. For years, Ned’s missing head has been a ghostly character in Australian politics, known only by its absence.

In the later 1990s, a sandalwood farmer named Tom Baxter from a remote region of western Australia came forward saying he had the skull. Baxter refused to say whether or not he himself had stolen the skull, but said he was taking care of it because he objected to its display as a “police trophy.” After a decade of negotiations, Baxter returned the skull to authorities in 2009 on the anniversary of Kelly’s death.

But as it turned out, Baxter never had Ned’s head. Forensic analysis in 2009 showed that Baxter’s skull, the same one stolen in 1978, probably belongs to another character from Australia’s history: Australia’s first serial killer, Frederick Deeming, who some think could be Jack the Ripper.

As for the “witch” Hoffman, who is something of a folk hero herself, she claims that she was given the skull by a security guard thirty years ago while on a vacation in Melbourne. A report in the Telegraph says:

Ms Hoffman, who courted controversy as a witch in the 1960s and 1970s, told the Herald on Sunday newspaper that she has cared for the skull, one of more than 20 she has in a collection. “I have treated it with respect, I haven’t lit candles in it or drunk red wine out of it or anything bohemian like that.”

Goodness gracious, nothing like that.

The Marquis and His Skull

Portrait of Sade via Wikimedia Commons

The Marquis de Sade was an author, philosopher, and politician who led a turbulent life during one of the most turbulent periods of history—the French Revolution. Arrested time and again for his licentious writings and activities, he spent more than a third of his life in prison, where he wrote many of the works that would later define him (including 120 Days of Sodom, which he scrawled on a single long roll of paper while in the Bastille). Much of Sade’s work is devoted to exploring freedom and individuality as expressed through extreme forms of sexuality that often involve pain, torture, and even death; it’s from Sade that we get the term “sadism,” to take pleasure in cruelty.

Sade spent the last thirteen years of his life in prison. He was arrested for the last time at his publisher’s offices in 1801, declared insane, and transferred to the Charenton asylum in 1803. A nineteen-year-old medical intern, L.J. Ramon, later wrote about what it was like to encounter Sade shuffling down the halls of the asylum:

I often used to meet him, walking all by himself, with a heavy, dragging step, most carelessly attired … as I passed I would bow and he would respond with that chill courtesy which excludes any thought of entering into conversation … the only impression he produced on me was that of a haughty, morose elderly gentleman. [1]

Sade died in the asylum on December 2, 1814 at the age of 74. He had been ill for some time, suffering violent pains in his abdomen and testicles. Years earlier, at the age of 66, he had written his last will and testament, which includes the following lines:

I categorically forbid the dissection of my body for any purpose whatsoever; I must pressingly request that it be kept for fourty-eight hours in the room in which I die … During this time an express messenger shall be sent to M. Le Normand, firewood merchant … to take my body and in his care transport it in the said firewood wagon to the woods on my Malmaison property … where I wish it to be placed, without any sort of ceremony … once the grave is filled in, acorns are to be scattered over it, so that in time the grave is again overgrown, and when the undergrowth is grown as it was before, the traces of my grave will vanish from the face of the earth as I like to think memory of me will be effaced from men’s minds … [2]

Sade’s body was not dissected, but the other provisions of his will were completely ignored. He was not buried in Malmaison, the property having been sold some years earlier. Instead he was given a cheap Christian burial at the far eastern end of the cemetery of the Charenton estate, in a grave marked with only a plain stone cross. That would have made Sade turn over in his grave—he was a militant atheist.

A few years later (it’s not clear exactly when), Sade’s body was exhumed during renovations on the Charenton grounds. Ramon—who had long since become a doctor at the hospital and attended Sade in his final moments—asked for and received the skull of his most famous patient. Ramon was a devotee of phrenology, a psuedo-science developed by the Germans Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim that linked the shape of a person’s skull to their mental and moral characteristics. Phrenologists believed that mental activity changes the shape and size of the brain, which in turn changes the shape and size of the skull. The first idea influenced the development of neuroscience; the second is totally bonkers.

Ramon had only a short time with the skull, but it was long enough to conduct a phrenological investigation. This examination found: “excellent development of the top of the cranium (theosophy, benevolence),” a lack of ridges above and behind the ears that would have indicated combativeness, and no signs of “excess in physical love.” In his notes, Ramon wrote: “His skull was in all respects similar to that of a Father of the Church.” [3]

Johann Spurzheim

But Ramon didn’t get to keep Sade’s skull for long. Soon after writing the above analysis, he received a visit from the eminent Spurzheim, who convinced Ramon to give him the skull. Spurzheim promised to return it, but he never did. Instead he travelled the world, giving lectures to sold-out crowds, before dying of typhoid in Boston in 1832. It’s said the skull was still in his possession at the time of his death.

No one knows exactly what happened to the skull after that. At least part of his collection passed into the hands of his friend Johan Didrik Holm, a wealthy Swedish naval captain who amassed one of the largest personal collections of skulls in Europe, and was probably also responsible for stealing the skull of the Swedish scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

There’s a theory that Sade’s skull was brought to America, where casts of it were made for teaching phrenology and anatomy. Apparently the casts were used to demonstrate skulls of a particular type—benevolence and religious faith. Of course, the students handing the skulls had no idea they were really looking at the head of a man whose name has become a byword for cruelty. The absurdity of such a situation highlights the absurdity of phrenology itself.

According to biographer Maurice Lever, Thibault de Sade—a descendant of the Marquis—eventually found a mold of the skull in the anthropology laboratory of France’s Musee de l’Homme. Red letters scrawled on the side of the skull read: “Marquis de Sade. Coll. Dumoutier no. 259.” (Dumoutier was a teaching assistant who prepared the hall for Spurzheim’s lectures.) This image, which has been floating around the internet without a definite provenance, looks like it might be that skull:

Does this skull look “benevolent” to you?

1. Quoted in Lely, Gilbert. The Marquis de Sade: A Biography. Translated by Alec Brown. London: Elek Books, 1961.

2. Quoted in ibid.

3. Lever, Maurice. Sade: A Biography. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Farrar, 1993.

Other sources:

Thomas, Donald. The Marquis de Sade. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.

Sade’s Skull Onscreen

A few weeks ago I had the misfortune of watching The Skull (1965). I don’t recommend it. Based on a short story by Robert Block (author of Psycho), the movie centers on an occult scholar and collector who purchases the Marquis de Sade’s skull after its exhumation by an phrenologist sometime back in Thee Olden Days. In the movie, no mention is made of Sade’s sexual proclivities—instead he’s a Satanist, and as a result his skull has malevolent powers on par with Chucky.

The movie stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who are great, and includes some enjoyable creepy-groovy 1960s sets. The main problem is that the skull is treated like a main character, which is hard to do with an inanimate object. Large chunks of the end of the movie are actually shot through the skull’s eyes, which I guess is supposed to make you feel closer to the skull, but really just makes you feel like you’re looking through a pair of broken binoculars.

I took a screenshot to prove I’d watched it. Here’s the phrenologist, “Pierre,” with his new friend freshly plucked from the grave:

Say hello …

(There’s a whole mess of stills over at the Peter Cushing Appreciation Society, where they seem to share my ideas about the film.)

Robert Block’s original short story looks like it might be more promising, and I’m going to try to track it down. Just for fun, here are some of the  original posters for the movie and covers for the book:

Poster for the movie, via Wikimedia Commons

1976 book cover via Flickr
Tie-in book cover via eBay

While looking for the movie posters, I discovered that ZombosCloset has the movie’s entire press pack! Apparently the original promotion options included a tabloid herald printed with day-glo ink and silver novelty skull rings with fake ruby eyes. But the best is the sheet of ideas for promoting the movie: a Coffin Contest! Cranium Hunt! Shock-tail party! Check it. I may have to steal some of these:

Dissection on Display: Cadavers, Anatomists and Public Spectacle

I’ve written a review of Christine Quigley’s new book, Dissection on Display: Cadavers, Anatomists and Public Spectacle, over at Morbid Anatomy. If you have more than a passing interest in the history of the study of anatomy, this book is definitely worth a look. Quigley’s earlier work (such as The Corpse: A History) was an inspiration to me, and I’m delighted to have been able to contribute to Morbid Anatomy. (Incidentally, if you know of other books that you’d like to see reviewed there, drop me a line.)


Frontispiece of Tabulae Anatomicae, 1755