MedHum Monday Presents: Katrina, after the flood (Rivlin)

DailyDose_darkstrokeWelcome back to MedHum Mondays on the Daily Dose! Today, we present a book review of Katrina: After the Flood, a look at the damage–social, economic, and psychological–that followed in the storm’s wake. Now a decade on, the book tracks some of that fall out. While not, perhaps, immediately classified as medical humanities, this piece of investigative journalism courts our attention. After all, the disparities of health continue here, as elsewhere, and the lens of Katrina offers particular focusing power. I welcome the Dose’s brilliant book reviewer, historian, writer, and librarian Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, to comment. Welcome Anna!

Rivlin, Gary. Katrina: After the Flood (Simon and Schuster, 2015). decade ago, journalist Gary Rivilin was sent by his employer, the New York Times, from his usual beat in San Francisco to Louisiana to help cover the unfolding natural, political, and humanitarian disaster precipitated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In Katrina: After the Flood (Simon and Schuster), released August 11 of this year, Rivlin takes us on a devastating narrative journey from pre-storm preparations through the inadequate emergency response to the long-term effects of the storm on New Orlean’s landscape, culture, and the people who call the region home. By following the evacuation and recovery (or non-recovery) stories of a wide-ranging cast of characters, Rivlin impresses upon his readers that the story of Katrina and the future of New Orleans is a far from finished chapter of American history.

That the local and national response to Katrina was informed by our long history of racial injustice should not surprise any readers, and is one of the primary through-lines in Rivlin’s work. Rivlin’s black characters — from the controversial and corrupt New Orleans’ mayor Ray Nagin to the well-heeled and big-hearted black bank owner Alden McDonald to a family of sisters conflicted about whether to return to the city — are all are constrained by the structural racism infused within the disaster response. So, too, are the white New Orleanians whose race privilege inevitably shapes their role, for good or ill, in the region’s remaking. (Rivlin takes passing note, too, of the gendered narratives at play: for example, the way Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was treated by media and fellow politicians in contrast to male governors in other hurricane-ravaged states.)

Hurricane Katrina is not a simple story of bigoted whites and marginalized blacks, the moneyed suburban enclaves versus low-lying impoverished parishes — except, of course, when it is. As activist scholar Lance Hill observes in an interview with Rivlin, many middle-class, predominantly white, returnees to New Orleans leapt at the chance to reinvent the city for the (white) creative classes. Even without an active desire to exclude the poor it became a reality that those living from paycheck to paycheck often lacked the resources for a return ticket — let alone the ability to pay rent in a city with diminished housing stock and an unwillingness or inability to invest in public housing, public transit, or other socialized services. Not to mention the jobs they had been summarily fired from or which simply no longer existed in the decimated parishes they had left behind.

It’s unfortunate that Rivlin’s own narrative replicates some of these socioeconomic stratifications, with few of the dispossessed speaking for themselves. We hear about those whose Katrina experience was one of stranded starvation and sleeping side-by-side with death more than we hear from them. Rivlin’s interviewees are, more typically, middle class individuals (black and white alike) whose households had some, if not unlimited, accumulated assets and the cultural capital to wring some material assistance from a dysfunctional federal and local government.

After racialized disparity, disinvestment in community infrastructure before and after the flood is the second key takeaway from Rivlin’s work. Whether he’s writing about the slashing of FEMA’s budget, the neglect of the coastal environment, or the lack of post-Katrina leadership that might have successfully wedded community buy-in with a strong forward vision for rebuilding, Rivlin makes a persuasive case that political antagonism at multiple levels stymied action costing livelihoods and even lives. Though it began a decade ago, the damage wrought by Katrina is not yet past, and the region’s future, Rivlin convinces us, is still one full of uncertainty.

It is perhaps the mark of a successful work of longform journalism that after reading over four hundred pages of exhaustive accounting for the sins of our collective indifference and lack of political will, my first impulse was to head for my local public library and request several of the secondary works Rivlin cites in his his source notes. Katrina convinces us that, far from being a story of regional disaster, the story of New Orleans is the story of our national challenges facing the ravages of racial inequity, environmental exploitation, economic injustice, and the urban geographies across which so many of these a fault-lines make themselves known.

Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook is a historian, writer, and reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Her scholarly interests are in the histories of gender and sexuality, religion, and social justice movements in American history. She can be found online at and currently lives in Jamaica Plain (Mass.) with her wife, two cats, and over one thousand books.

Posted in Book Review, MedHum Monday, Medical Humanities, The Daily Dose | 1 Comment

Blood, Magic, and History–D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker series

fictionreboot2Today we welcome David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, back to speak with us about his latest release: the heart-stopping fourth novel in the Thieftaker series!


Blood, Magic, and History–By David B. Coe/DB Jackson.

On February 22, 1770, a mob of young men staged a demonstration in the town of Boston, as they had on several occasions in the weeks and months leading up to that day. The protests were intended to intimidate and publicly shame loyalist merchants who had been importing goods from England for sale in the colony in violation of nonimportation agreements (an 18th century term that basically means “boycott”) organized by leaders of the Patriot cause. On this morning, they converged on the shop of a merchant named Theophilus Lillie.

The night before, vandals, many of them no doubt now gathered in the street outside the store, has smeared the windows of Lillie’s establishment with tar and feathers. With the coming of morning, they had placed signs outside the building identifying Lillie as a violator of the agreements and an enemy of “liberty.” If their demonstration had followed a course similar to that of previous protests, the morning might have ended with the store vandalized, and Lillie beaten or tarred himself.

But on this day, a second man entered the fray. His name was Ebenezer Richardson, and as much as the patriots in the street disliked Lillie, they hated Richardson even more. He was an outspoken critic of Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, an opponent of the nonimportation movement, and a suspected informer for the despised Customs Board. When Richardson tried to drive off the mob and tear down the offending signs, the mob turned on him. Richardson barely made it to his nearby house in one piece. But rather than remaining safely barricaded within his home, he continued to bait the young men, and finally appeared at a window with a musket in hand. Many in the street pelted the house with rotten food, snowballs, and stones. And, perhaps, predictably, Richardson responded by firing his weapon into the crowd.

He had loaded the musket with what was known as swan shot, and one of the pellets lodged in the lung of Christopher Seider, the eleven year-old son of German colonists. Several surgeons, including the renowned Joseph Warren, struggled to save the lad, but to no avail. Seider died that night.

The boy’s death marked the beginning of a spiraling cycle of confrontation and violence in Boston that culminated twelve nights later, on March 5, 1770, with another shooting, this one on King Street in front of the Customs House. That second shooting, which resulted in five deaths and a half dozen injuries, has come to be known as the Boston Massacre.

51Wfg-AVy8L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Why the history lesson? Because these events, beginning with the Seider murder and ending with the massacre, bracket the fictional narrative in my most recent novel, DEAD MAN’S REACH, the fourth and (for now) final volume in the Thieftaker Chronicles, the historical urban fantasy I have set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. In all of the Thieftaker novels I have tried to blend historical and fictional narratives in a way that feels both seamless and coherent. Seamless in that I want it to be as difficult as possible for my readers to determine where history ends and my fiction begins. And coherent in that I also want those two narratives — the real and the fantastic — to interact, to seem mutually causal, so that one feeds the other.

In no book in the series was this a more challenging or daunting task than in DEAD MAN’S REACH. The other Thieftaker novels (THIEFTAKER, THIEVES’ QUARRY, and A PLUNDER OF SOULS) all took place over the course of a few days. In combining my story lines with the historical record I had a limited number of events that I needed to pull together. The near fortnight that separated the first shooting from the last included a public funeral for Chris Seider, several confrontations and brawls between British soldiers and the citizenry of Boston, and even a massive blizzard that nearly crippled the city. I didn’t want to ignore any of these events. On the contrary, I made every effort to work them into the fictional plot that drives the action in the novel.

The result is, I believe, the finest work I have done to date. As I relate them, the events leading to the Boston Massacre now have a distinctly magical element, and my story, which revolves around a sorcerous war between my conjuring hero and a canny, powerful villain, would seem to have profound historical ramifications.

I have a Ph.D. in history; I take my history very seriously and I work hard to bring a level of historical authenticity to my fictional work. I will admit to feeling a bit odd about using an event as solemn and significant as the Boston Massacre in this way. But I take equally seriously my responsibilities as an author of fiction. My readers expect me to entertain them, and, at least in part, that means convincing them that the story I’m telling could be real. Hence the need for historical accuracy. And hence as well my desire to blend the various elements of the narrative — fictional and historical — as thoroughly and persuasively as possible.

The Thieftaker series, and this novel in particular, works because as I combine actual events with fictional ones, I also place my point of view character right in the middle of the resulting story. He becomes a guide for my reader; he doesn’t just witness history, he also responds to it on an intellectual and emotional level. He watches the shootings happen. His magic contributes to the violence. The lives at stake in the battles playing out in Boston’s streets are those of people he knows and loves. In this way, he becomes the bridge between the real and the unreal. Or, to put it another way and make use of an analogy I used earlier, he is the thread that tightens that seam, rendering it all but invisible. Because in the end, though he is a product of my imagination, his horror, his grief, his rage mirror the emotions of the men and women who actually lived through the violence of 1770.


CoeJacksonPubPic1000David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach, which was released earlier this week, on July 21. Under his own name, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first volume, Spell Blind, debuted in January 2015. The newest book in the series, His Father’s Eyes, comes out on August 4. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.


Posted in Author Interview, Friday Fiction Feature, The Fiction Reboot | 1 Comment

MedHum Monday Presents: 19th c. Contagious Disease Acts

DailyDose_darkstrokeWelcome back to the Daily Dose!

A few years ago, I wrote a book chapter on the Contagious Disease Acts, a chapter which spoke about prostitution, unfair treatment of women, syphilis… and vampires. (I promise, it makes sense). But I left that work with a renewed interest in these problematic acts and their ethics (or not). Today, I’m very happy t0 present the work of Jennifer Brosnan, PhD student at University of Leicester. She has been studying 19th century sex education, and today she gives us a brief account of the CDA’s beginnings and their champion William Acton. Welcome, Jennifer!


The Contagious Disease Acts  caused serious contention in Britain during the 1860s and 70s, encouraging intense debate both in the public sphere and on the floor of the House of Parliament.Why? The Acts proposed a “solution” to stem the (literally) virulent rise of venereal disease in Britain, particularly in areas of the country where armed forces were based and prostitution rife. William Acton, an eminent surgeon during the mid-nineteenth century, expressed his views concerning prostitution in his book, lengthily titled Prostitution considered in its moral, social and sanitary aspects in London and other large cities, with proposals for the mitigation and prevention of its attendant evils, published in 1857. It outlined recommendations to the government on how to implement searches on “suspected prostitutes” and medically treat them. While his book generally focused on the cold hard facts of prostitution, it did give an indication of its impact on every echelon of society.

London, 1851

London, 1851

William Acton saw himself as “one of those who look upon prostitution as an inevitable attendant upon civilised, and especially closely-packed, population”.[1] He saw it as a necessary evil within Victorian society and an unavoidable occupation in a city such as London where there was a high concentration of people. Acton argued that there were four main causes for prostitution, particularly amongst the lower classes. First, Acton talks of “the extreme youth of the junior portion of the “street-walkers” as a remarkable feature of London prostitutes”.[2] He suggests that prostitution was often a family business with the children and siblings of older or former prostitutes engaging in similar activities to bring in income. Child prostitution was so common during the nineteenth century that it was “the subject of much comment by foreign travellers who have published their impression of social London”.[3] The next two causes of prostitution Acton recognises feed into one another with lack of valid employment along with low wages and the threat of starvation – or “sad hard times”.[4] Often prostitution was the only way for women to bring money to the family especially if their husband had left or died. Finally, the fourth cause was ‘the loss of virtue’. This generally applied to the upper classes and in particular mistresses, but they were less likely to be infected with venereal disease and not explored further by Acton.

Using figures provided by the Metropolitan Police and the 1851 Census, Acton stated that there were 8,600 prostitutes working in London in 1851, with 632,545 men over the age of twenty in London. With these figures he argued that there was one prostitute for every 71 men.[5] If one of these women contracted a venereal disease there was a high likelihood of approximately 70 men also catching such diseases and bringing them home to their wives, often leading to children born with congenital syphilis. In many cases these children were unable to survive and died. In 1855, 318 children under the age of 5 died from syphilis; 59 of these were in London. There were a significant amount of children dying from venereal disease as there was no effective treatment available.

Wellcome Images, congenital syphilis

Wellcome Images, congenital syphilis

In a further bid to highlight the issue of prostitution, Acton analysed the surgical out-patients of Messrs. Lloyd and Wormald during the year 1849. These amounted to 5327 during the year; of whom 2513, or nearly half, suffered from venereal diseases. Within this data the women and children are counted together because if the mother were infected, the child generally would have been infected too, due to transmission in the womb. In any case, it would have been unusual that a woman was willing to see a doctor about a gynaecological-related issue. Many, particularly in the upper classes, would have suffered in silence due to the embarrassment of having contracted these diseases from their husbands.[6]

Why would so seemingly altruistic measures to protect the population come under fire? The Contagious Disease Acts were eventually repealed in 1886 after mounting public pressure, notably by Josephine Butler, feminist and social reformer. While the acts were designed to protect the public from prostitutes spreading disease, the focus was often on demonising prostitutes rather than considering the causes and effects of prostitution. Provision was not made for rehabilitating these women but instead they were locked away for treatment and quarantine. As quoted in Dr. Schillace’s work, Butler made a case for the prostitutes as people and their male visitors–and even the doctors and Acton himself–as the perpetrators:

To please a man I did wrong first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. But men we are examined, handled, doctored. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayer and reads the Bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die” (Butler, “The Garrison of Kent, Sheild. 9 May 1870. Qtd. in Smith, 97. [7]

Thank you, Jennifer!

Whatever Acton’s original intent, the Acts punished women–even those who were only “suspected” of prostitution and subjected them to forced medical examinations. Considering that many poor or working women had to walk after dark from factories, the Acts had an economic and social bias as well. Even the best of intentions, blind to the human at the center, can end miserably, and the repeal of the Acts was considered a victory by many. And, in the decades to follow, perspective begins to shift, putting more focus on male customers (rather than “monstrous” prostitutes) as the locus of blame.


Jennifer Brosnan, University of Leicester. Email: Twitter: @Jencasbros

Contributor Bio:

Jennie is PhD Student at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Medical Humanities and Department of Sociology. She also has a BA in History and Religion from University College Cork, an MSc in Gender History from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Information Management from the University of Glasgow.

Her thesis focuses on the contribution of Elizabeth Blackwell to the sex education movement during the nineteenth century which is co-supervised by Professor Steve King and Dr Jane Pilcher. The thesis focuses on the notion of sex and the various experiences of sex through the notions of masculinity and femininity as well as class during the nineteenth century. She is also the current chair for New History Lab; an Institute of Historical Research affiliated society within the University of Leicester that acts as a hub for the midlands.


Acton, William. Prostitution considered in its moral, social and sanitary aspects in London and other large cities, with proposals for the mitigation and prevention of its attendant evils (London, 1857)

Blackwell, Elizabeth. Wrong and Right Methods of Dealing with Social Evil, as Shown by Parliamentary Evidence (London, 1883)

Carter, Julian. “Birds, Bees, and Venereal Disease: Towards an Intellectual History of Sex Education”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 10, No. 2 (April 2001), pp. 213-249

Frost, Ginger. Living in Sin: Cohabiting as husband and wife in nineteenth-century England (Oxford, 2008)

Moore, Wendy. The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery (London, 2005)

Vicinus, Martha (ed). Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (Indiana, 1972)

Walkowitz, Judith. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State (Cambridge, 1982)

Wood, Andrea and Brandy Schillace. Unnatural Reproductions and Monstrosity: The Birth of the Monster in Literature, Film, and Media. Edited collection. (July 2014, Cambria Press)


[1] William Acton, Prostitution considered in its moral, social and sanitary aspects in London and other large cities, with proposals for the mitigation and prevention of its attendant evils (London, 1857), p. 15.

[2] Acton, p. 18.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Acton, p. 21.

[5] Acton, p. 19.

[6] See Martha Vicinus (ed.) Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (Indiana, 1972).

[7] Schillace, Brandy. “Children of the Night: Dracula, Degeneration, and Syphilitic Births at the fin de siecle.” Unnatural Reproductions and Monstrosity: The Birth of the Monster in Literature, Film, and Media. Edited collection, co-editor Andrea Wood. July 2014, Cambria Press


Posted in MedHum Monday, Medical History, Medical Humanities, The Daily Dose | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review Conversations: The Means of Reproduction

DailyDose_PosterThe Means of Reproduction: A Conversation

with Anna Clutterbuck-Cook and Emily Contois

Welcome back to the Daily Dose! Today, we offer the next in a new series of “conversations,” a book review where two readers engage to discuss the work. On the table today: Michelle Goldberg’s work on reproduction. In her first book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W. W. Norton, 2006), journalist Michelle Goldberg introduced us to twentieth century American Christian nationalism — the belief that the United States was founded as a Christian state and should be governed by (narrowly interpreted) Goldberg CoverChristian principles. In her second book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (Penguin, 2009), Goldberg turns to the international scene and explores the relationship between grassroots women’s rights and the international political and financial infrastructure that shapes what is possible in much of the global south. The story of women’s global reproductive autonomy and access to medical care over the past seventy-five years is a story that implicates the recent history of medicine, gender and sexuality, religion, globalization, and race among other highly contested issues. Today we’re going to chat about how Goldberg weaves her narrative together and what scholars can (and cannot) learn from The Means of Reproduction.

Reviewer Bios:                                                        

Anna Clutterbuck-Cook is a historian, writer, and reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. She holds Masters degrees in History and Library Science from Simmons College. Her scholarly interests lie at the intersection of gender and sexuality, education, religion, and social justice activism. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter @feministlib.

Emily Contois is a PhD student in American Studies at Brown University. She holds a MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University, a MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA in Letters from the University of Oklahoma. She studies food, eating, health, and the body in the everyday American experience and popular culture, and her current project explores masculinity and dieting. She blogs at and tweets @emilycontois.


Anna: Welcome, Emily! Thanks for agreeing to have this conversation with me. I know this is a new format and forum for you.

Emily: Thank you for the invitation, Anna! I’ve been looking forward to this and hearing what you thought about Goldberg’s text, which you had read before, right?

Anna: I had, yes. My historical interests meet at the intersection of gender/sexuality/feminism and American religious history, so Goldberg’s first book on Christian nationalism put her on my radar. I read this one when it first came out in 2009, and actually had a chance to hear the author speak on campus while in graduate school. What really struck me at the time (2009) was the way she framed the relationship between grassroots women’s rights activists and international power-brokers (governments and NGOs) as a complex, two-way street rather than one of top-down exploitation or white savior politics. Re-reading six years later, I still think that is an underexplored relationship. What made you interested in picking up the text this spring?

 Emily: My path to this book was an odd and bizarrely uninformed one in that I picked it up for *free* (who doesn’t love free books?) from the Penguin books table at this year’s AAHM conference. I was drawn to the book’s topic, since gender and health is one of my areas of focus. And as evidence that sometimes it really pays to judge a books by its cover, I was drawn to it as an object too. Perhaps gesturing to the figure of Atlas, forced to hold up the heavens, the cover depicts a classically nude woman, faceless, head and body folded inward, literally shouldering the weight of the world. It’s such a visceral representation of Goldberg’s subtitle, “Sex, Power, and the Future of the World.”

Anna: It is a beautifully designed cover!

Emily: I was doubly drawn to the Marxist leaning title, a subtle enough play on access to the means of production as the source of domination and power. The joining of industrial, capitalist metaphor and the landscape of women’s bodies also made me think of Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction (1987; 2003) in which she analyzed medicine’s industrial metaphors for the female body as a reproductive machine, a corporeal economy in which labor takes on multiple meanings.

Anna: I was particularly struck, during this second reading, by the origins of global family planning in the population scares of the postwar period. Since my first read-through I’ve had occasion to look at some of those figures and discourses in more depth and it’s striking how different the political battlelines were then compared to the 1980s onward.

 Emily: I so agree. I was also surprised to learn how the Cold War shaped the earlier discourses and the United States’ role in promoting family planning (including abortion!) across the globe. I also learned how much of an impact current American anti-abortion debates have internationally; Goldberg claims more impact overseas than at home.

Anna: It seems part of the disparate impact comes down to (as so often) funding streams. Domestic accessibility is not dependent on foreign aid — and we also have a very dedicated, organized opposition (not always successful) fighting to protect individuals access to birth control and abortion care. Internationally, poorer countries seem to be held hostage by foreign aid with strings attached. What fascinated me on the international scene was how grassroots activists drew upon international resources to fight other international interventions, if that makes sense. Like in chapter five (“Rights versus rites”) Goldberg observes of one of the activists she interviewed, “No outsider could ever create the kind of change Pareyio has, but Pareyio couldn’t have had such a profound impact without outside help” (p. 147). This strikes me as an observation that is relevant to many contemporary political struggles where accusations of outside influence and non-local funding get thrown at the opposition.

 Emily: That is such a powerful example and it illustrates so well some of the critiques made of international feminism. The most effective international development work–and in my experience, domestic public health work too–gives that agency to the community itself. I also think Goldberg’s training as a journalist, so, a writer who always explores, as evenly as possible, both sides of an issue, is part of what was so effective about this book, especially in the chapter you’re referencing.

Anna: As a historian, I found myself thinking a lot about Goldberg’s approach as a journalist and whether I was comfortable with her handling of some of that background to the more contemporary narrative she was constructing. I felt like the book had more of an agenda than most works of history (though of course that likely just means it was more overt, not that it was more political).

 Emily: I would agree with that. Her thesis is very clear from the start: to demonstrate how these issues of population control, family planning, and reproductive rights are all symptoms of women’s overall gender inequality and lack of equitable access to status and power. Her evidence points to this argument and reinforces it over and over again, but I’ll agree that she uses evidence differently than a historian might if writing a book on the same topic.

Anna: I agree with you (so much agreement :)!) that she uses her evidence well, and I think responsibly. Certainly I have not read any body of evidence in the past five years that would contradict any key point of her argument.

 Emily: One thing I’ll add is that Goldberg’s work made me think about Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1998). Maybe it’s because I read it relatively recently, but both authors reveal how the dominant discourse around reproduction in the United States, particularly in election years, often focuses on issues of personal liberty and choice, while women’s reproduction is also an issue of justice, equity, and power, particularly for non-white and non-middle class women. Goldberg makes that apparent on an international scale, and as you already pointed out, linked to US funding streams that oscillate as different political parties occupy the oval office.

Anna: Yes! She doesn’t pull in American black women’s work on reproductive justice and the way that way of approaching reproductive experience and decisions as embedded within larger communities of care and abuse challenges the neoliberal liberty/choice narrative. I realize that her focus is on (white) Americans interacting on the international stage with non-American (predominantly non-white) individuals and populations … but it would have added a useful dimension to her story to acknowledge the domestic RJ work that has flowered since the 1990s. If there was a weakness to this book’s narrative, it would be a whitewashing of American feminism.

 Emily: I definitely agree, but if we fault her for that, I did really appreciate how she expanded the US feminist discourse from one of reproductive rights as “women’s issues” or even human rights issues to thinking about these variable case studies (HIV/AIDS, abortion access, female circumcision, sex-selective abortion, negative population growth rates) within a framework something more like climate change. That these are such huge, collectively global issues that they affect all women and, well, at the risk of sounding super cheesy, everyone!

Anna: Absolutely. I, too, appreciated the insistence that we all remember that women’s rights are human rights — and that recognizing the worth of women and girls as human beings, and providing them with the support for self-realization and full participation in society, is key to addressing urgent geopolitical and environmental issues. I was reminded, at points, of the book A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Mary Ann Glendon (2002). A historian, Glendon makes a very compelling argument against the charges of imperialism that came to taint the UDHR and reminds us of the many philosophical and religious traditions that supported its basic assertions. Like Glendon, Goldberg is reminding us that notions of pluralism and multiculturalism aren’t always protective of human flourishing — and, in fact, can work to support the “choice” of a reactionary community over the needs and desires of individuals.

 Emily: Yes! And we’re back at those big, broad notions of “the world” and how problematic and limited the notion of choice is in framing these debates. So, time for a thinker, Anna. How did/does/will this book inform your thinking or work?

Anna: Mm. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in recent weeks about the way in which lesbian, bisexual, and other queer women have been obscured within the mainstreamed LGBT rights movement — particularly the marriage equality campaign. Male voices (Andrew Sullivan, Evan Wolfson, Dan Savage, David Bois and Theodore Olson) tend to dominate the collective memory of the push for marriage equality. But lesbian couples, lawyers, activists have all been very active on the ground — and they tend to voice a very feminist argument for same-sex marriage (in contrast to many male arguments, which often turn on notions of domesticating promiscuous gay men). Goldberg’s work reminded me how important it is to center the voices and perspectives of women, whose lived experienced (bodily and culturally) is human experience even as it is distinct from men’s social and biological experience.

Emily: That’s really interesting. I feel like that’s something I’m still working out with Goldberg’s take: her walking of the line about universal human experience that might, or might not, fall short within feminist difference versus equality debates.

Anna: It echoes some of the work of Julie Stephens (Confronting Postmaternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory, and Care, 2013), sorting through how we meaningfully account for the unique bodily experience of those whose physical beings bear the brunt of human reproduction — and layered onto / woven into that socialized gender of various kinds — without reducing those with wombs to their reproductive capacity. I’m not sure I have encountered an author yet who has found a satisfactory way to encompass both of those equally necessary assertions. I suspect part of it — at least in a U.S. context — is that we have such a very fraught relationship with embodiment generally and sexually-implicated embodiment in particular … but that’s a topic we’d have to tackle on a different day!

Emily: Sounds like it! We’ve hit so many of the penetrating themes, maybe a good way to end is with some of the fun tidbits Goldberg includes along the way?

Anna: Go for it! What were your favorites?

Emily: Okay, here are my top three:

  1. While a congressman, George H. W. Bush was so ardent about global population control and family planning that he was nicknamed “Rubbers” (p. 40).
  2. A USAID researcher in the 1970s, Duff Gillespie recounts checking through to Tunisia a suitcase of five hundred condoms for family planning programing. When questioned by a customs agent whether the content of his luggage was for personal use, he replied, with a straight face, “Yes, it is” (p. 62).
  3. To promote fertility, the Singaporean government not only set up a matchmaking service, but also published tips on how to have sex in the back of a car. And in the Russian province of Ulyanovsk, the governor sponsored a national campaign that gave couples the day off from work to have sex, offering prizes—from home appliances to cars—to couples giving birth exactly nine months later on the country’s independence day (p. 208).

Anna: Oh! The “rubbers” story was definitely an excellent one. Hmm … let me think.

  1. I enjoyed the exchange between John D. Rockefeller III’s wife, Blanchette Hooker, and Joan Dunlop (p. 77) about how Hooker was glad that Dunlop had been hired to call Rockefeller on his bullshit. The recounting of the early years of international family planning (1960s-70s) was a fascinating tale of gender politics within these non-profits and political organizations.
  2. The Chinese newspaper People’s Daily reported Hillary Clinton’s celebrated speech on women’s rights (“let it be that human rights are women’s rights”) at the 1995 Beijing conference with the line, “The American Mrs. Hillary Clinton also spoke at the conference” (p. 120).
  3. It comes in the midst of the difficult chapter on genital cutting, but the story about Agnes Pareyio commissioning a woodworker to create a teaching model of female genitalia that she could use to argue against excision was so inspired! (p. 143) I think her husband really missed out choosing to leave her for second wife.

Emily: Oh those are great! I remember those moments as well. They’re almost like an intellectual version of comic relief.

Anna: Well put! Thank you so much for taking time out of your week to talk with me about this book and all of the ideas it touches on — it was a great excuse to indulge in a re-read.

Emily: Thanks so much for inviting me to do so, Anna! It was definitely worth the read and our discussion only made it more meaningful.






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Are we running out of Bodies? Dissection, Cadavers, and Medical Practice

DailyDose_PosterI’ve spent a surprising number of hours unearthing the unusual history of anatomy, dissection, and yes–body snatching. That story links early anatomists like Vesalius (Fabric of the Human Body) to murderers Burke and Hare, to the grave-robbery that supplied bodies to a growing medical community. Here at the Dittrick Museum, we have a comprehensive collection of dissection photography as a rite of passage in American medicine 1880-1930, and curator James Edmonson and John Harley Warner put together an entire pictorial book of them. Between my work on the history of medicine and my research for Death’s Summer Coat (US in 2015), I’ve become very aware of the progress–and problems–of cadaver use, storage, and procurement. So, when the Economist ran a story last year about cadaver shortages, I took notice.

Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.  Woodcut circa 1530 - 1545

Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.
Woodcut circa 1530 – 1545

“THEY are inert, smelly and upsetting to look at—it’s a wonder that dead bodies are in such high demand. But for medical students they are an indispensable learning tool,” says the author. But are they? Even now with so much modern technology? Many say yes. Some, however, aren’t so certain. In 2013, the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, both located in Cleveland, Ohio, announced plans to build a joint medical education building. The historic partnership will result in a state-of-the-art facility to the tune of more than eighty million US dollars. The plan is to be at the forefront of technology, a forward-thinking institution of the medical future. There is one thing that this new building will probably not have, however. There will be no cadaver lab for the purpose of human dissection.

51O9RjsA1UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As I say in chapter 5 of DSC, the decision by CWRU and CCLCM wasn’t made in a vacuum. A brief search of medical journals reveals a sizzling debate. To quote the title of a 2004 debate forum in The Anatomy Record, ‘To What Extent Is Cadaver Dissection Necessary to Learn Medical Gross Anatomy?’[i] That is, do we need a dead body to prepare medical students for practice? The forum was collegial, but not all discussions and rebuttals have been so friendly. Among medical faculty, the argument is not merely philosophical – and sometimes it simmers with bitter rancour. Human dissection has not, however, always been an element of medical training. In fact, the practice has been fraught almost since the first: a battleground over bodies, from the religious prohibition of the pre-modern period to a ‘gory’ New York City riot in the eighteenth century, when an enraged public rose up against body-snatching anatomists. What do these tensions mean? How does the cadaver relate to conceptions of death, then and now? These questions have to do with more than medicine; they get at the heart of how we deal with death as an event (with a body) and dying as a process (with an overseeing physician) today.

dissectionIn the first of a series of blog posts for Dittrick Museum, I explained the tension in social terms. The 1832 Anatomy Act in England intended to provide greater access to cadavers for medical science, but it was viewed with enormous suspicion and public outcry. Called the ‘Dead Body Bill’, the ‘Dissecting Bill’ and the ‘Blood-stained Anatomy Act,’ it allowed the unclaimed bodies of paupers to be given to the anatomy schools. The bodies consisted of poor, indigent, trod-upon groups. The 1834 Poor Law that followed added to the unease for the laboring poor in Britain; Peter Bussey, a 19th century Bradford Chartist, who claimed in 1838 that “If they were poor they imprisoned them, then starved them to death, and after they were dead they butchered them.”[ii] Our other posts covered the supposed “positive benefit” such actions were to have, Grave Robbing for the Benefit of the Living, and a bit more about some of the doctors in Buried History (including the infamous Ohioan, Horace Ackley). But in all of these, we see a graduated tension: not whether doctors should dissect, but the ethics of procuring the body. No one wanted to see the remains of a loved one strung up in a student lab (and this, in fact, did happen–one of the driving forces behind changes to the laws). And yet, other attitudes were changing too, and people began to donate their bodies to science at an increasing rate. Surely, between donation and modern means of preservation, we have no need to go hunting grave yards… can there really be a shortage of cadavers to go around?

The funny thing about history is how often it repeats itself. According to the Economist article, growing numbers of medical students has, in fact, off-set the balance. We have a tendency, at times, to consider things only from a Western perspective; when we look globally, we see that more and more people are choosing medical careers worldwide–sometimes in cultures where body donation sits in opposition to religious practice. The solution is not to malign the spiritual or ritual treatment of bodies; it is an important part of cultural and individual processing of death. But of course, this is only one small part of the larger issues surrounding body donation and cadaver availability–some others mentioned by the article include: better identification and so fewer unclaimed bodies, fewer bodies “fit” for dissection (that is, fewer young and healthy persons dying ‘before their time’).[iii]

fig26So where does that leave us? Perhaps the most interesting–and alarming–statistic comes from the body retrieval sector, what Michel Anteby, professor at Harvard Business School, calls “a market for human cadavers in all but name”. [iii] Does that mean we are returning to the practice of paying for cadavers (which is, after all, what supplied the murder trade of Burke and Hare)? Not necessarily. In May 2014, Canada’s Globe and Mail reported that approximately half of Canadian medical schools have cut back on using cadavers, opting for pre-cut body parts and high-tech imaging technology [iv]. And this new technology also has its antecedents. I spoke about SynDaverTM Labs in DSC; the company constructs simulated tissue, organs, or whole bodies for dissection. Their ‘Synthetic Human’ includes skin with fat and fascia, bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, articulating joints, a functioning respiratory system, a complete digestive system, visceral and reproductive organs, and a circulatory system. And yet, simulated cadavers appeared far, far earlier–from the Wax Venus to the papier mache models build by Auzoux in the 19th century [for more, see Paper Woman or my upcoming chapter in Steampunk Guide to Death]. The Independent‘s claim that a “lack of anatomy training could lead to a shortage of surgeons” –or the worry that such shortages might lead to nefarious activity–is probably overstatement. It may be true, indeed, that dissecting models isn’t like the real thing (though Auzoux claimed it was precisely the same). On the other hand, medical schools have adjusted already, along with changing ideas about who dissects and who doesn’t (notably, still a must for surgeons!) And, as the debate surrounding cost of new facilities in medical schools continue, no doubt the profession will continue to be as creative as ever in their solutions.

But not too creative. A body is more than muscle and tissue, meat and bone. As any student of anatomy (or forensic anthropologist) will tell you: this is (or was) a person. The respect given to the cadaver in the years after those “rite of passage” photographs has, at least seemingly, deepened. This is your teacher, your instrument, your body. Protect it, guard it, learn from it. True for all of us, who get but one body–doubly true of the medical doctor in training, who–if he or she is very lucky–will have two.

[i] G. D. Guttmann, R. L. Drake, and R. B. Trelease, ‘To what extent is cadaver dissection necessary to learn medical gross anatomy? A debate forum’, Anatomical Record 281(1): 2–3.

[ii] Knott, John. “Popular Attitudes to Death and Dissection in Early Nineteenth Century Britain: The Anatomy

[iii] R. MCS. “Why there is a shortage of cadavers” The Economist. Jan 19, 2014.

[iv] Harrah, Scott. “Global Cadaver Shortage & Why Almost Half of Canadian Medical Schools are Cutting Back” The UMHS Endeavor. May 12, 2014.

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Friday Fiction Feature

fictionreboot2Hello all and welcome back to the (now monthly) Friday Fiction Feature! This week Tabatha is back with another themed Feature. As mentioned in last month’s feature, I’m getting ready to travel far, far away. Far enough away to have many flights, a lot of luggage, and oh my goodness so much packing… so this month’s feature is themed around the fact that I expect to be on a plane in less than a week! (Unless you don’t read my posts the minute they go online–for shame). And so I thought I’d share some thoughts, advice, and hopes as a soon-to-be world traveler.

Moving Day: A Thriller by Jonathan Stone

Moving Day: A ThrillerAs I look forward to the adventure of traveling abroad, learning a new language, seeing new people and places, I am learning something more thoroughly than I ever have before: Packing Sucks. It is just awful. It takes forever, it’s a pain, and I don’t get to just unpack everything six blocks away the same afternoon. That is why I am taking a rather unorthodox approach to the setup of Moving Day. The book begins when a man’s possessions are stolen in a moving-day scam. Now I know, I know, that’s bad and it’s awful to lose all of your stuff. But after weeks of sorting, packing, and unpacking-to-get-at-stuff-I-still-need, that just sounds nice. No more junk to worry about, no more real-life tetris trying to get everything to fit in an old sedan… ah. Just imagine the freedom of it. Only a few suitcases of junk to move around… Or you know, imagine that sounds like the worst thing ever and that the criminals are terrible people who must be tracked down, etc. (since my version does tend to undercut the novel a little I suppose…)

Forty years’ accumulation of art, antiques, and family photographs are more than just objects for Stanley Peke—they are proof of a life fully lived. A life he could have easily lost long ago.
When a con man steals his houseful of possessions in a sophisticated moving-day scam, Peke wanders helplessly through his empty New England home, inevitably reminded of another helpless time: decades in Peke’s past, a cold and threadbare Stanislaw Shmuel Pecoskowitz eked out a desperate existence in the war-torn Polish countryside, subsisting on scraps and dodging Nazi soldiers. Now, the seventy-two-year-old Peke—who survived, came to America, and succeeded—must summon his original grit and determination to track down the thieves, retrieve his things, and restore the life he made for himself.
Peke and his wife, Rose, trace the path of the thieves’ truck across America, to the wilds of Montana, and to an ultimate, chilling confrontation with not only the thieves but also with Peke’s brutal, unresolved past.

Moving is Murder (A Mom Zone Mystery #1) by Sara Rosett 

Moving is Murder (A Mom Zone Mystery, #1)Fortunately the cozy mystery industry has come along with books like Moving is Murder to remind me that moving isn’t that bad. It’s still awful, and a pain in the but and… ahem. Sorry. Already said all that… Anyways, small reminders that as obnoxious as moving is, at least this move hasn’t involved any corpses. (It would probably be the hardest thing to pack up and ship anyways).

Moving four times in five years has honed Ellie’s considerable skills. But unpacking with a newborn daughter, record-breaking heat wave, and the realization that their dream neighborhood is known as Base Housing East is enough to make her turn to chocolate for comfort. She and her husband, Mitch, moved off-base for privacy. Now half of their neighbors are with the 52nd Air Refueling Squadron. Driving home from her first squadron barbecue, Ellie finds neighborhood environment activist Cass Vincent dead on the side of the road. The police call it an accident — but Ellie’s not so sure. She saw Cass argue violently at the barbecue with Mitch’s buddy Jeff… and it just so happens Jeff knows a lot about bee-keeping. Hoping to clear Jeff’s name before the police suspect him, Ellie starts snooping in earnest. What she finds shocks her. But what’s the connection to Cass? When suspicious accidents start happening in her own backyard, Ellie realizes she’s getting closer to the killer… maybe too close!

Moving Mars (Queen of Angels #3) by Greg Bear

Moving Mars (Queen of Angels, #3)Now I would love to continue this trend of ‘at least it’s not…’ with Moving Mars, but honestly, a Martian revolution isn’t really all that much worse than what people tell me I’m headed into. [It should be stated for the record that I don’t much believe them] But the way our more worried relatives and more alarmist friends tell it we’re headed into a terrifying land of maniacs who stay up nights thinking of new ways to torture house pets and give travelers food poisoning (*a word to the wise, don’t watch any youtube videos you are sent before traveling somewhere new. The people who sent them are just meanies who don’t want you to eat ever again).

Moving Mars is a story of human courage and love set within the greater saga of a planetary liberation movement. Mars is a colonial world, governed by corporate interests on Earth. The citizens of Mars are hardworking, but held back by their lack of access to the best education, and the desire of the Earthly powers to keep the best new inventions for themselves. The young Martians — the second and third generations born on Mars — have little loyalty to Earth, and a strong belief that their planet can be independent. The revolution begins slowly, but will grow in power over decades of political struggle until it becomes irresistible.
Told through the eyes of an extraordinary character, Casseia Majumdar, a daughter of one of Mars’ oldest, most conservative Binding Multiples,Moving Mars is Greg Bear’s brilliant conception of the human colonization of the red planet, with lovingly painted details and a grand historical sweep, embellishing an audacious scientific speculation.

Have Space Suit—Will Travel (Heinlein Juveniles #12) by Robert A. Heinlein

Have Space Suit—Will TravelSadly, this title is not a very apt description of my upcoming travels. Perhaps that will be my new life goal: to be able to say Have Space Suit, Will Travel and mean it. (Because you know what, owning a space suit, even if you don’t get to take it to outer space, is pretty rad). And maybe it’s not so unrealistic! I mean come on, read the description here, a kid from the middle of the Midwest (yup) who works crappy college jobs (yup & more yup), and you know…other similarities I’m sure… why not? Hey, it’s not my fault the description is too short to show how similar my story is to this one. I guess you’ll just have to read it to find out likely it is I’ll get to follow in their footsteps and continue my travels “where no (wo)man has gone before!” (yeah, I know. But I couldn’t resist ;) )

Kip from midwest Centerville USA works the summer before college as a pharmacy soda jerk, and wins an authentic stripped-down spacesuit in a soap contest. He answers a distress radio call from Peewee, scrawny rag doll-clutching genius aged 11. With the comforting cop Mother Thing, three-eyed tripod Wormfaces kidnap them to the Moon and Pluto.

The Traveling Vampire Show by Richard Laymon

The Traveling Vampire ShowI’d like to end today’s Friday Fiction Feature (and my last Feature for a long time written on this continent) with a book that serves a very different function. The others have shown annoyance at moving, the (real-ish) dangers of travel, totally unrealistic travel goals, and ‘at least it’s not _____’s. But this book, dear readers, is more of an inspiration for a level of awesome. The level of awesomeness inherent in the title Traveling Vampire Show. While I don’t exactly expect to make a fortune with the “Traveling Tabatha & Co. Show” but hey, we all need something to aspire to, and if only I can make the stories of my travels one third as interesting as the promise of a totally-not-a-scam Traveling Vampire Show I think I can consider this next year a success. I don’t even need starry-eyed teenagers to come in search of a mere glance at my awesomeness (though, you know, if they felt compelled, well that’s hardly my fault is it?).

Though gloomy with clouds, it is a hot, August morning in the summer of 1963. All over the rural town of Grandville, tacked to power poles and trees, taped to store windows, blowing along the sidewalks, fliers have appeared announcing the mysterious one-night-only performance of The Traveling Vampire Show.
The show will feature Valeria, the only known vampire in captivity. According to the fliers, she is a gorgeous, stunning beauty. In the course of the performance, she will stalk volunteers from the audience, sink her teeth into their necks and drink their blood!
For three local teenagers who see the fliers, this is a show they don’t want to miss. But they may have to.
Though they can probably scrape up the price of admission, other obstacles stand in the way. One problem, nobody under 18 years of age is allowed into the show. Dwight, Rusty, and Slim are only 16. Another problem, the show begins at midnight and the three teens always have to be home by then. If that weren’t bad enough, the show is to take place at Janks Field — a desolate patch of ground with a nasty history — that has been declared off limits by their parents
The situation appears hopeless.
Though Dwight and his friends fear they won’t be able to attend the actual performance of the Traveling Vampire Show, they do have the entire day to themselves. Why not hike out to Janks Field and take a look around? With any luck, they might be able to watch the crew make preparations for tonight’s performance. If they’re really lucky, maybe they’ll get a peek at Valeria, the gorgeous vampire.
And so the three friends set off on foot for Janks Field…
Dwight is a solid, honest kid, long on common sense and loyalty to his friends. He always tries to do what’s right.
Rusty is a husky guy who relishes trouble.
Slim, their long-time pal, is the brains of the outfit, a voracious reader of novels, an aspiring writer, and a girl. Also, she is sometimes too brave for her own good.
The Traveling Vampire Show is the tale, told in Dwight’s own words, of what happened to him, Rusty and Slim on that hot summer day they hiked to Janks Field. It’s the story of their friendship and love, their temptations, their betrayals, and their courage as they went where they shouldn’t go, did what they shouldn’t do…and ran into big trouble.


Farewell for now good readers, and remember, the FFF will return, this time as an international series!

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A Study in Spenzer: Cleveland’s Sherlock

ForenscisSmallAs many of you know, I have been working for the past year on the archive of John George Spenzer, toxicologist and forensic expert in Cleveland Ohio (1864-1932). Today, I would like to introduce the intrepid student who has been assisting in this research, Elizabeth Fregoso. In today’s post, she gives us a wonderful tour through that archive in A Study in Spenzer: an Evening of Amateur Deductions. Welcome Elizabeth!


A Study in Spenzer
Elizabeth Fregoso

My experience working with the Spenzer collection and thoughts/ analysis on his personal effects.

During my most recent year at university, I had the great fortune of spending lots of quality time with renowned forensic toxicologist and professor of chemistry and medicine at Case Western Reserve University, none other than Dr. John George Spenzer.

That is to say, I rummaged through his belongings and catalogued them in as much painstakingly personal detail as possible. Spenzer himself died in 1932.

But allow me to explain! This opportunity came unexpected, by way of an article I discovered online about a fantastic exhibit entitled “Forensic Science, Sherlock, and Steampunk” showing at the Dittrick Medical History Museum. I found this article while I was rather vainly entering the search term “ ‘Sherlock Holmes’ ‘Case Western Reserve University’ “ into Google in an effort to find some interesting Sherlockian attractions near campus. I should mention that I am an aspiring Baker Street Irregular and actually celebrate January 6th in an entirely ‘un-ironic’ fashion, so naturally, I’m pretty interested in anything related to this particular interest.

The next day, I trekked out to check out this exhibit. If you haven’t yet been, the exhibit contains a collection of various medical and Victorian artifacts with a focus on the evolution of forensic science around the turn of the 20th century, and I HIGHLY recommend visiting the museum next time you’re in town. While perusing it closely I was lucky to meet the inestimable Dr. Brandy Schillace, who introduced me to the doctor personally in the form of numerous amusing anecdotes and plenty of odd and intriguing similarities between Spenzer and Sherlock. Interest piqued, it was about a week later when I returned to the museum and at the invaluable suggestion of my first-year advisor inquired into an undergraduate research position. On getting hired, little did I suspect that I was just beginning a fascinating and intimate association with this incredible man.

I can indeed confirm that it was just as Dr. Schillace said: time and time again I was reminded of the Great Detective while going through Spenzer’s things. He kept a bunch of commonplace books where he stored information he found relevant – he was intensely involved in the subject of crime and followed it closely –he was occasionally a bit of a ‘sassmaster’ — sometimes I couldn’t even tell which of the two was the one cramping the other’s style. It was this inextricable linking that gave me the idea to have a little fun while I was going through Spenzer’s notes – Sherlocking about a little, if you will. I decided to put my skills of deduction to the task of building up a sort of idea of the man. What follows is my attempt to apply Sherlock’s own methods to my examination of Spenzer’s belongings, and deliver a brief analysis on the character of the man behind the infallibly well-groomed moustache, Dr John George Spenzer.


Spenzer_cane_5x7.5Born in 1864, Spenzer had quite the drive to achieve, even from a young age. Though he was born in the United States, he moved to Germany at 15 years old, when American law at the time deemed him too young to obtain his degree. He completed his education abroad and, from there, he moved to Cleveland and became a professor at what is now Case Western Reserve University. It was while here that he became known as “Cleveland’s Sherlock Holmes”, having a hand in multiple sensational criminal trials. Among his achievements were providing definitive evidence in the 1916 trial of Josh Kiser as well as identifying toxic chemicals in the Cuyahoga River that led directly to federal efforts to understand pollution during an age when many companies were permitted to use rivers as industrial waste dumps.

The majority of the Spenzer collection that I interacted with was composed of notes on printed-slides-3_8x5various topics relevant to Spenzer’s known areas of expertise: medical jurisprudence and forensic investigation. All the material were contained in binder upon forest-green binder and on paper so thin it could have been used for tracing. Most of the copied articles were excerpted from published textbooks; the one he favored most seemed to be Eduard Von Hofmann’s Atlas of Legal Medicine. Apparently, Spenzer was a man on a mission to catalogue everything that piqued his curiosity, a continual quest to hone his skills and build on his professional knowledge. There must have been about 100 pages per binder per subject, and there were even accompanying illustrations. In watercolor.

Title Page_cropPretty impressive, eh?

Well, clearly he thought so too, because he went a long way in convincing his readers (or maybe just convincing himself) that he was striving for nothing less than perfection. Check this out: in many of the binders and positioned before all the content, there was a manufacturer’s tag clipped in the very front firmly attesting to the “mechanical perfection” of the binders.

How’s that for some old-fashioned, passive-aggressive vanity?

As for the content itself: Spenzer collected miscellanea on a variety of topics that today would be intimately familiar to any forensic scientist. Fingerprinting, ballistics, hangings, drownings, electrocution… just a handful of the subjects he collected materials on. Though I haven’t cataloged it yet, there was an entire binder on the infamous Rasor trial. A sensational case for its time, Guy Rasor was accused of murdering his lover, Ora Lee. It was a case in which Spenzer was personally involved as an expert witness – and enjoyed making the ‘expert’ part known, especially. Take a look at this exchange, which I transcribed from a photo I took in order to use as a reaction image whenever I thought a friend was wrong about something in a text conversation:


SPENZER: A heart-shaped piece was cut out of the right-hand pocket.

ATTORNEY: And by whom?

SPENZER: By myself. From this point below and posterior to the left-hand pocket a rhombohedral piece was removed.

JUDGE: Will you put it in United States, Doctor?

SPENZER: A rhombohedral, your Honor, is a certain, definite shape, like a square is a shape, or a rectangle.

ATTORNEY: The trouble is we don’t understand that, Doctor.

SPENZER: A faulty education.


I’m definitely no Sherlock Holmes, but I’ll go out on a limb here and deduce from this particular exchange that Spenzer could be a bit of a Holmesian know-it-all when he wanted to be.

I did get to catalogue an entire binder on the Crippen trial, a case in which Spenzer was not directly involved. You wouldn’t think it though; from the sheer amount of materials he collected on this trial’s proceedings, he was certainly an interested third party. Doctor Harvey Crippen is accused of murdering his then-wife Cora and disposing of her body in the basement. The two expert witnesses in the case are entirely at odds about what the chemical evidence means. In fact, much of the transcript Spenzer had on record was argument on each scientist’s methodology, as the judge and attorneys attempted to figure out how two radically different conclusions could be reached from the same evidence.

This binder stood out to me. Unlike the other binders, it wasn’t just a collection of useful and interesting tidbits. It was one of only two I had gone through – the other being “The Forensic Detection of Blood” — that appeared to be set up as a textbook, complete with a table of contents, multiple sources, and original commentary. Of course, much of this commentary was thinly veiled criticisms of the investigators involved and laments on how, if it were him on the case, he would have done things differently. But the main idea is that much of the language was directed at a third party, as if someone were meant to read these notes in the future as instructive exercises on chemical toxicology, and its limits. It would seem not all of the work was private; some of it was meant as a field guide for future generations of forensic scientists.

A last feature of note: nearly every entry had hand drawn ink and watercolor illustrations accompanying them – save for those with parent articles that had none. These illustrations came in either color or in black and white, but were always copied meticulously from the source material. In my opinion, the most charming of these illustrations wOhio-vs-Murray7x5ere the ones on the spines of each binder, indications of the specific binder’s subject materials. With little touches like that, beginning an impressive new tome always gave me the definite feel of cracking open an actual textbook.

A name commonly showed up alongside these illustrations: “Louis Karnosh”, about whom surprisingly little can be found on Google, besides that he was a practicing MD in the Cleveland area around Spenzer’s time and was 44 by the time of the 1940 census. It’s fairly reasonable to assume that he was involved in the reproduction of these images somehow – possibly Spenzer did the lineart and Karnosh supplied the watercolors? In any case, there’s no confirmation on what role he played exactly, but the pictures are quite detailed and, despite showing graphic images of violent crimes, are rather beautiful. However Dr. “Louis Karnosh” of Cleveland was involved, he deserves a little bit of the limelight.

Speaking of the limelight, it is here that we may be witness to a rare expression of humility on the part of our good Dr. Spenzer: deferring a portion of his personal, work-related project onto someone with known skill that he considered worthy of inclusion in his Perfection Collection. As anxious as he was to make his own expertise known – and not without good reason, of course — he was not above acknowledging the skill and expertise of others.


So, to conclude my Study in Spenzer, as it were: here we have a chemist and forensic investigator of note—sharp as a tack, dedicated to his studies, and deeply invested in his work on both a professional and a personal level. A perfectionist and concerned with high standards of presentation, he worked tirelessly to ensure that his methods were reliable and his records flawless, as seen in his immense dedication to keeping commonplace books to paste newspaper abstracts and transcripts for reference. Despite being somewhat standoffish and arrogant, Spenzer was readily able to recognize and acknowledge the unique talents of those around him. He was also anxious to have a hand in influencing future forensic scientists, both in the classroom and on the page. In conclusion, Spenzer was a highly intelligent and motivated man, and all of his efforts in the field of forensic science were taken up with the aim of more easily and efficiently getting to the truth, serving justice, and keeping the peace in common society.

Sound like someone else you might know?

I thought so, too.

Elizabeth Fregoso is an undergraduate engineering student at Case Western University and currently lives in Parma, OH. She takes special interest in true crime, behavioural science, and chemistry, and her dream is to find (or invent!) a job in which she can indulge a combined interest in storytelling, imagination, and problem-solving on a daily basis. She enjoys filling rare moments of spare time with gourmet sodas, free online courses, and copious amounts of Sherlockiana.

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