6 Restless Corpses

This article has nothing to do with the supernatural; it's about real bodies that just can't seem to rest in peace, or at least had to wait for their chance.

A couple of recent cases raise the question of how much respect a dead body should be given. The mummy of King Tut was taken from his tomb in 1922 after 3,000 years. Since then, it's been robbed, dismembered, scanned, and finally displayed to the public last year. Padre Pio was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Now, the church wants to exhume his body 40 years after his death for a display this spring. His family is prepared to sue the local bishop to prevent this action. And you are of course familiar with the corpse of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, still on display200_lenins_corpse.jpg at the Kremlin as it has been since his death in 1924. There was a movement to remove the body from public display after the fall of the Soviet Union, but that idea never came to fruition. Tourists still visit him at the Lenin Mausoleumat Red Square in Moscow.

There are quite a few other cases of corpses that were left above ground, open to the public eye. Some images may be disturbing to the sensitive.

1. Ötzi the Iceman


Ötzi had been lying in a glacier in the Alps for 53 centuries before he was discovered in 1991. His corpse was damaged and vandalized before his age was determined. Since then, he has been studied extensively, from x-rays to DNA analysis to microscopic identification of his stomach contents. Scientists believe Ötzi was murdered, by an arrow or a blow to the head. He and his belongings have been on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeologyin Bolzano, Italy since 1998.

2. Mojo the Mummy


A black teenager was found dead near the railroad tracks in Calvert, Texas in the early 1920s. The local funeral home embalmed him, or possibly overembalmed him, and placed him in a coffin with a wire screen covering. When the boy's family was located a couple of months later, they were presented with a bill for $108 for the embalming. They didn't have the money, so left the body in the hands of the funeral home. The cause of death was never determined, and his name was lost over time. The body mummified and remained in the back room of the mortuary, which changed ownership several times over the next 80 years. Local gamblers considered him to be a lucky charm, and nicknamed the mummy Mojo. In 2001, Calvert elected a new mayor, Briscoe Cain, who made it his personal mission to give Mojo a proper burial. Local businesses chipped in for expenses, and Mojo was finally buriedin 2002.

3. Julia Pastrana


Julia Pastranawas born in 1834 with hypertrichosis terminalis, meaning her entire body was covered with hair several inches long. She also had a deformed mouth with huge teeth, leading one doctor of the day to declare that she was "˜a hybrid between human and orangutan'. She was exhibited by Theodor Lent, who eventually married her. At age 26, Julia gave birth in Moscow to a son who was also covered with hair, and who died within two days. Julia herself died five days later.

Her husband sold the bodies to Professor Sukolov of Moscow University, who embalmed them and began exhibiting the mummies. Lent, not one to pass up an opportunity, demanded the bodies back and put them on exhibit in England. Lent toured with the mummies or alternately rented out to other exhibitions for years. He married another woman with hypertrichosis and exhibited her as Zenora Pastrana, Julia's "sister", at times along with the mummies. After Lent's death, Zenora gave the mummies away, and ownership changed hands several times. They were almost destroyed by Nazis during World War II, but the current owner, Mr. Lund, convinced the authorities of their profitability. Lund, and then his son, took the mummies on occasional tours until 1973, when they were placed in storage in Oslo. An act of vandalism destroyed the baby's body in 1976, and Julia herself was stolen in 1979. In 1990, it was discovered that a found corpse which had been stored at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo without identification was indeed Julia Pastrana. By all accounts, she is still there.

Update: Pastrana's body was finally repatriated to Mexico in February 2013 and buried near her hometown.

4. The Cadaver Synod

The Dark Ages were a time of upheaval and political struggles within the Roman Catholic church. The pope known as Formosus made plenty of enemies before he ascended to the papacy in 891 AD. After his death in 896, he was succeeded by Boniface VI, then by Stephen VI. In January of 897, Pope Stephen VI(also known as Stephen VII) had the body of Formosus exhumed and ordered to stand trial for various church crimes. Formosus' corpse, which had spent the previous seven months interred in St. Peter's Basilica, was dressed in papal vestments and propped into a chair to attend the proceedings. A teenage deacon was assigned to stand behind the corpse and speak for him.

The trial was completely dominated by Stephen VII, who overawed the assemblage with his frenzied tirades. While the frightened clergy silently watched in horror, Stephen VII screamed and raved, hurling insults at and mocking the rotting corpse. Occasionally, when the furious torrent of execrations and maledictions would die down momentarily, the deacon would stammer out a few words weakly denying the charges. When the grotesque farce concluded, Formosus was convicted on all counts by the court.

As part of the sentence, the corpse was stripped and buried in a common grave. Within a few days it was dug up again and thrown into the Tiber River, where it was retreived and hidden by a monk. The "Cadaver Synod", as it came to be known, led to the downfall of Stephen VI. In November of the same year, Pope Theodore II ordered the body of Formosus reburied at St. Peters with normal papal honors.

5. Khambo Lama Itigilov


Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was the Pandido Khambo Lama, leader of all Russian Buddhists of the Tibetan tradition from 1911 til his death in 1927. He was interred sitting in the Lotus postion as he requested. Itigilov had predicted that his body was "incorruptable" and stipulated that his corpse be exhumed and examined years after his death. Buddhist monks monitored the corpse over the years, noting that the body, which had not been embalmed, did not decay. In 2002, he was officially disinterred and examined by monks and scientists. Some devotees claim that Itigilov is not dead, but in a state of nirvana. Scientists attribute his condition to an excessive amount of bromine in the tissue. Since 2005, Itigilov's body has been in a glass case at the Buddist monastery Ivolginsky Datsanin Siberia. He is shown to the public on seven Buddhist holidays every year.

6. Jeremy Bentham


Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher and social reformer who died in 1832 at age 84. His will stated that his body should be preserved and dressed and seated in a wooden box, so that his disciples and friends could meet around it. This display box is called the Auto-Icon. The preservation process went "disastrously wrong" and the head was replaced with a wax facsimile. The Auto-Icon is housed at the University College London since 1850. When this picture was taken, Bentham's real head was displayed on the floor between his feet. After several incidences of theft, Bentham's original head is now stored elsewhere.

Further reading: 6 More Restless Corpses and 6 Restless Corpses: Heads of State Edition

If You’ve Ever Seen a Ghost, Science May Explain Why

Despite all the reports of ghost sightings (28 percent of Americans report having ghostly encounters), there’s zero evidence to support the presence of supernatural beings among us. Science may not prove the existence of ghosts, but it can help explain why people think they see ghosts in the first place.

In this video from Vox, paranormal investigator Joe Nickell identifies some of the phenomena believers may mistake for paranormal activity. One possible explanation is infrasound, or the sound waves that fall beneath levels of human perception. Though we can’t hear these noises firsthand, our bodies sense them in other ways. This can cause chills, feelings of unease and depression, and even hallucinations.

Other contributors may include sleep paralysis (when you wake up while your body is immobile and experience waking nightmares) and grief. There are also a few less common possibilities that aren’t covered in the video below: Mold poisoning, for instance, can lead to irrational fear and dementia. Suddenly, a visit from a poltergeist doesn’t sound so scary.

[h/t Vox]

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Charles Dickens, Part-Time Mesmerist
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Madame Augusta de la Rue dreaded the end of each day. After settling into bed, her anxiety kept her alert with visions of a figure that followed her into her dreams. When it wasn’t insomnia, she dealt with headaches, a nervous tic, convulsions, and a “burning and raging” mind that was impossible to quiet. Her symptoms became so severe that in 1844 she sought a trendy and controversial treatment known as mesmerism. Her mesmerist: the famous author Charles Dickens.

When Dickens encountered mesmerism in the 1830s, the practice was well-established in the medical community. The German doctor Franz Anton Mesmer had introduced it in the 1770s as a means of manipulating something he called animal magnetism—the magnetic fluid Mesmer believed flowed through the bodies of all living things. According to his theory, the state of this liquid energy was closely tied to one’s health: An uninterrupted flow led to wellness, while blockages caused problems ranging from vomiting to hysteria. Fortunately, Mesmer claimed, these conditions could be cured with a magnet and a steady hand.

By guiding magnets along his patients’ bodies, Mesmer thought he could redistribute the fluid, although he eventually ditched the magnets in favor of his bare hands after discovering they worked just as well. Soon, anyone who shared Mesmer’s supposed magnetic gifts could practice mesmerism by laying or passing their hands over the afflicted. (On top of adding animal magnetism to the lexicon, Mesmer is said to have given us the flirtatious phrase making a pass.) Although responses to mesmeric sessions varied, some claimed it gave them full relief of various physical ailments.

Mesmer died in 1815, a couple decades before the start of the Victorian era. With that period came a nationwide obsession with the metaphysical that renewed public interest in mesmerism not just as a medical treatment, but as a form of entertainment. Practitioners would mesmerize patients into trances and parade them around parties. But some were more than performance artists—John Elliotson, one of the most prolific figures in the field, was a well-respected surgeon famous for popularizing the stethoscope. He was also good friends with Charles Dickens.

Dickens first witnessed mesmerism up close at a demonstration Elliotson gave at London’s University College Hospital in 1838. The writer was intrigued, and implored Elliotson to show him more. Not everyone had a knack for mesmerism, but Dickens was a natural. He wrote years later, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a Frying-Pan.”

Around the same time he took on Dickens as his pupil, Elliotson watched his career implode. The medical community was then embroiled in a fierce debate over whether or not mesmerism was a legitimate science. One of its staunchest opponents was Thomas Wakley, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet. Wakley affirmed his suspicions after conducting a trial in which the O’Key sisters, two of Elliotson’s more colorful patients, failed to respond to certain "mesmerized" metals yet produced fits in response to materials they were only told were mesmerized. The results of the trial seemed to prove that mesmerism was fake, and Elliotson resigned from his job at University College Hospital shortly after that.

Throughout the controversy, Dickens remained a loyal friend—he even asked Elliotson to be the godfather of his second child. He also continued pursuing his new hobby. In 1842, while in Pittsburgh with his wife Catherine as part of the research for his travelogue American Notes for General Circulation, he first put his mesmerism skills to the test, with Catherine agreeing to be his guinea pig. After several minutes of waving his hands over her head just like Elliotson had taught him, she devolved into hysterics and promptly fell asleep. Dickens took her dramatic response as a sign of his power, and he considered the trial a great success.

From then on, he practiced his talent on whoever was game. His sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth reacted much like Catherine, slipping into a hysterical episode almost immediately. John Leech, who did the original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, came to Dickens for treatment after injuring his head while swimming. Leech felt much better following their session and Dickens took credit for his recovery. The actor Charles Macready, however, was the rare person who didn’t buy the shtick. After Dickens tried to mesmerize him, Macready described the experience as “very unpleasant,” saying “it could not effect me.”

Dickens’s dabblings with mesmerism culminated with a visit to Italy beginning in 1844. He was once again traveling in the name of research, this time for his nonfiction book Pictures From Italy. While staying in Genoa, he became good friends with the Swiss banker Emile de la Rue. He also became close with the banker's English-born wife, Madame Augusta de la Rue—the woman destined to become his most challenging patient. Madame de la Rue suffered from a host of ailments that stemmed from her anxiety, and after hearing about her issues, Dickens offered to help the only way he knew how.

Their first session, which took place in December 1844, may have discouraged a less-experienced mesmerist. Instead of easing her discomfort, his gestures made her more agitated. Madame de la Rue succumbed to a massive anxiety attack, and Dickens took her sensitivity to the treatment as a good sign. They both agreed to see each other again, and soon the meetings became part of their routines.

Madame de la Rue’s response to the therapy grew more promising with each encounter. Her face, once tense with muscle spasms, started to soften. The volume of her thoughts dropped a few notches and she was able to fall asleep much faster. Satisfied with his success treating her physical suffering, Dickens delved deeper into her psyche. He asked her to describe her thoughts and dreams, hoping to get to the root of her illness. The most persistent vision she shared was one of a “phantom” that dogged her whether she was asleep or awake. Dickens described the power it held over her in a letter to her husband:

“That figure is so closely connected with the secret distresses of her very soul—and the impression made upon it is so entwined with her confidence and trust in me, and her knowledge of the power of the Magnetism—that it must not make head again. From what I know from her, I know there is more danger and delay in one appearance of that figure than in a dozen fits of the severest bodily pain. Believe nothing she says of her capacity of endurance, if the reappearance of that figure should become frequent. Consult that mainly, and before all other signs.”

Decades before Sigmund Freud adopted hypnosis as a psychotherapy tool, Dickens was using mesmerism to trace his patient’s visible symptoms to her subconscious mind.

Catherine Dickens didn’t share her husband's excitement for the situation. She had always been jealous of the women her husband mesmerized, and she felt especially threatened by his relationship with Madame de La Rue. And if she thought she’d have her husband’s full attention when they left Genoa to see the rest of Italy in the spring of 1845, she was mistaken. Letters from de La Rue updating Mr. Dickens on her status followed him around the country. Even though they couldn’t be in the same room, the pair continued their appointments remotely by attempting to connect through telepathy for one hour starting at 11 a.m. each day.

Though her condition had vastly improved since their first meeting, the Madame hoped to see Dickens one last time when he finally returned to Genoa in May 1845. Unfortunately a stomach bug prevented the pair from reuniting. He wrote to her in a letter:

"You must not think I am sending you an excuse in lieu of myself. I am in a hideous digestive state, cross, uncomfortable, bilious, blah and limp. A mutton chop and a long walk, and nobody to be contradictory to, are the remedies I have prescribed myself.”

After he resettled in England, Dickens’s passion for mesmerism cooled. He indulged in other mystical hobbies, however: In 1849, he performed stage magic under the pseudonym The Unparalleled Necromancer, Rhia Rhama Rhoos; in 1852, he wrote a spontaneous combustion scene into his realistic fiction book Bleak House, a decision he defended with conviction after it angered scientists. Like many fads to emerge from the Victorian era, those areas of interest have since largely faded from fashion. Mesmerism, on the other hand, laid the foundation for modern hypnosis—but today the treatment is administered by mental health professionals, not young novelists on vacation.


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