Variations on “dead men tell no tales” go back at least to 1560 or thereabouts in my language. The idea is much older.1
As advice goes, it’s arguably flawed. Folks who are dead aren’t chatty, but their bodies occasionally pop up at inopportune times.
I’ll be talking about unmarked and unremembered graves, insane asylums, and similarly-uncheerful things. It’s not all bad news, though.
- Caring for others
- Graves in the news
- Cautious optimism
It was probably copied from older texts. Some of the cures probably weren’t effective, except as placebos.
We still haven’t improved on its treatment for Dracunculiasis: wrapping the worm around a stick.
Incantations like those in the Papyrus, meant to turn away disease-causing demons, aren’t taught in today’s medical schools. That’s just as well, since the magical end of ‘traditional cures’ is a bad idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2117)
The Ebers Papyrus discusses ailments we recognize as depression and dementia, which brings me to ancient Greece.
We don’t know much about Greek medicine before Hippocrates, apart from what’s in Homer’s Iliad. Dealing with a plague by dedicating a sacrifice to Apollo may show that Greeks thought disease was caused by angry gods.2 That tale is in Iliad, Book I.
Hippocrates of Kos gets credit for starting the idea that diseases come from natural causes, not gods. He thought diseases, including conditions like melancholia, happened when the four humors were out of balance.
The Hippocratic theory of disease, humorism, dominated Western medicine for more than two millennia. Bloodletting, practiced well into the 19th century, was an occasionally-lethal application of humorist theory. (August 21, 2016)
Folks in ancient Greece and Egypt weren’t the only ones dealing with disease, of course.
The earliest record of the Huangdi Neijing is in the Book of Han’s bibliographic section. That was about 21 centuries back now, but scholars figure Huangdi Neijing was written somewhere between Hippocrates’ time and Gaozu’s.
Like post-Hippocratic Western medicine, Huangdi Neijing assumes that disease has natural causes. What’s different are the forces and principles they say should be in balance, and how to achieve that balance.
Another of my homelands were apparently ‘off the radar’ for Romans. Half my recent ancestors are the dark-haired folks who lived west of the Gotlanders and north of Jutland. Roman tech in Danish graves makes it likely that Danes served in Rome’s army.
That wouldn’t have mattered much to my forebears living uphill from what would be the site of Clemenskirken and Mariakirken i Oslo. I’d be surprised, though, if some Roman wealth in Scandinavia’s southern march didn’t cross the water. Trade happens.
When the Empire collapsed, we coped; developing new economic systems and new tech.4
Maybe hops aren’t as “civilized” as bronze statues, but what can I say? Beer is a very important part of our culture.
Small wine presses had existed for millennia. Monasteries in what’s now France and Germany upgraded Roman designs to deal with the larger quantities of wine they produced. We’d lost the Empire, not the knowledge.
I’ve heard that Gutenberg’s printing press was based on wine press designs, but that’ll wait for another post.
I’d like to say that we developed the first horse collar, but that was an import.
Neck straps work, but not very well. Someone in east Asia improved on that design during China’s Warring States period.
Europeans might have started using the new tech sooner, but most east-west trade and communications ended along with Roman authority. We had our hands full, dealing with local and regional issues.
(From Saharadesertfox, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission)
(Disibodenberg in July 2005.)
Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote “Physica” and “Causae et Curae,” combining practical knowledge from her work with Disibodenberg’s garden and infirmary with theoretical knowledge gained by studying the monastery’s library.
Folks used Disibodenberg as a quarry after the Reformation hit, re-excavating the ruins in the 1980s. We kept St. Hildegard’s research, though, and kept learning.
(From William Hogarth, via McCormick Library, Northwestern University/Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Hogarth’s 1735/1763 engraving of Bedlam, from A Rake’s Progress.)
“…Many of the poor come into this house of God because the city of Granada is large and very cold, especially now in winter. There are now more than one hundred and ten people living in this house, including the sick, the healthy, the servants and pilgrims. Because the house is open to everyone, it takes in all manner of sick people. There are people with useless limbs, the maimed, the lepers, the dumb, the insane, paralytics, and some who are suffering from cancer….”
(From a letter of St John of God, (Cartas y Escritos 18-19; 48-50) via Pontifical University Saint Thomas Aquinas)
“A Church of Our Lady that is named Bedlam. And in that place be found many men that be fallen out of their wit. And full honestly they be kept in that place; and some be restored onto their wit and health again. And some be abiding therein for ever, for they be fallen so much out of themselves that it is incurable unto man”
(William Gregory, Lord Mayor of London, c. 1450; via Wikipedia)
Lunatic asylums started being called psychiatric hospitals after Hogarth’s day, again with good intentions.
Folks don’t visit lunatic asylums for entertainment these days. I don’t know if reality television is an improvement, and that’s yet another topic.
I also don’t know if abuses of comparatively helpless folks are more or less likely when outsiders might pop in for a look.
“‘7,000 bodies buried’ beneath Mississippi university”
(May 8, 2017)
“The remains of at least 7,000 people may be buried beneath the University of Mississippi, officials estimate.
“The bodies of the state’s first mental institution – called the Insane Asylum – stretch across 20 acres of campus where administrators want to build.
“Officials predict that it may cost up to $21m (£16m) to exhume and rebury each body – more than $3,000 for each.
The campus medical centre, where the bodies have been discovered, is looking at cheaper alternatives….”
The good news is that at least some of seven-thousand-plus bodies are buried at the U. of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) were in coffins. That wasn’t clear in the first several headlines I saw.
I didn’t know what to expect. The number of corpses argued against this being the work of a mass murderer.
The connection with a medical center, and the size of the sample, suggested that the folks might have used in an experiment. Medical ethics isn’t an oxymoron, and many doctors value their patients’ lives. But I realize that alternative attitudes exist. (October 7, 2016)
Since the university could spend more than $3,000 to exhume and rebury each body using outside facilities, I can understand why they want to keep the job in-house. That would have an added benefit for them:
“…They also hope to create a memorial and laboratory where students can study the patients’ remains, as well as remnants of clothes and wood unearthed in the process….”
Many folks are understandably uneasy about death and autopsies. The same applies to science and newfangled ideas, which may help explain the lasting popularity of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” tale. (March 31, 2017; August 5, 2016)
It looks UMMC wants to do what’s right. UMMC’s director, Ralph Didlake, told a newspaper that “‘We want to show them care and respectful management.’…”
Respect for the dignity of persons is important, and doesn’t stop when we’re dead. Scientific research is a good idea. Autopsies for legal inquests or scientific research are okay. (Catechism, 2292–2295, 2299–2301)
I’ve talked about faith and medical science before. Also Lovecraft, autopsies, and ignorance. Since I’m a Catholic, I don’t worry that science will ‘offend the spirits.’ (December 16, 2016; November 11, 2016; July 15, 2016)
“Who are the 55 bodies buried at the Dozier school?”
Kate Dailey, BBC News (April 16, 2014)
“Forensic anthropologists are disinterring the remains of children at a Florida reform school. Former students hope the dig will provide answers about alleged child abuse within the school’s walls.
“Within the past year, anthropologists working for the University of South Florida (USF) have exhumed the remains of 55 children on the grounds of the now-shuttered Arthur G Dozier School for Boys.
“The boys were buried in simple coffins in the Boot Hill cemetery section of the school. The remains were recovered along with items like belt buckles, buttons, and in one case, a marble….”
The oldest part of this institution was renamed “Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys” in 1967, to honor a former superintendent. That is not the sort of honor I’d want.
Florida’s authorities sent boys to this processing center from January 1, 1900, to June 30, 2011. On paper, it was supposed to “reform” them. In practice, some were raped, some killed, some abused in other ways. Allegedly. Some survived.
It’s possible that survivors who talked are lying, but bodies being found say otherwise.
USF’s forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle said her team’s investigation found that some boys died when a fire reached the rooms they’d been locked up in.
Others died when a flu epidemic left them with no food, medicine, or staff. The adults, perhaps understandably, stayed away until it was safe. I think that was a bad idea. (Catechism, 1861, 2258, 2278–2279)
Some parents got their sons’ bodies back, others didn’t. They were told that their children had been buried, but Dozier staff wouldn’t tell them where.
“…’It’s their desire to have the remains back to bury them next to their parents,’ says Kimmerle of the surviving relatives. ‘It wasn’t something that was an option in the past when the deaths occurred. We feel it’s very important to support them in that effort.’…”
(Kate Dailey, BBC News)
Now that the “school” is closed, folks other than school staff are looking over the grounds. The property is being sold, which gives USF’s forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle until August to find and recover bodies.
That wouldn’t have been possible until recently. Ground-penetrating radar dates back to the early 20th century, but wasn’t practical until the 1970s. The first affordable civilian equipment came in 1985.
Maybe kids killed while the place was in operation will all be found and identified. It’s a step in the right direction.
Staff at the “school” weren’t trained adequately. They didn’t get around to telling folks at the state level about assorted beatings, rapes, deaths, and leg irons.
Maybe state bureaucrats felt that ‘no news is good news.’ Maybe they didn’t see a point in telling Dozier staff how to deal with “incorrigible” boys.
I could blame families of kids who disappeared there for not hiring the best lawyers in Florida, but many were at the low end of the economic scale.
I could blame everyone in Florida, but I gather that not many knew about the mess. Besides, Florida isn’t the only place with problems.5
Applying one set of biases, the boys at Dozier and their families are victims. Another set makes them guilty of being ‘of low type.’ I figure they couldn’t afford lawyers, and may not have realized that questioning authorities was an option.
I remember the ‘good old days’ before 1964, when some Americans were still getting over the shock of women voting. Unqualified respect for authority wasn’t nearly as universal, or well-deserved, as some apparently believe. And that’s yet again another topic.
(Brookdale Cemetery, as it was August 18, 2013. Folks with the local Knights of Columbus had a fence up by then, marking the boundary.)
“Questions linger about history of Brookdale Cemetery”
Bryan Zollman, Sauk Centre Herald (June 19, 2013)
“John Olson was 10 years old when he stood on the grounds of Brookdale Cemetery and watched his father dig a grave for an infant.
“After the grave was dug and the baby’s remains secured in its box and placed in the hole, John’s father refilled the grave. Another man, Bill Johnson, held a bible in his hands and said a short prayer for the baby as John and his father stood nearby. It was just the three of them….”
At least 14 folks are buried here. Most are babies who died at an old “reform school” on Sauk Centre’s north side.
The State Industrial School for Girls (SISG) opened in 1911. The idea was giving “care, training, and education of girls who had been declared delinquent and committed by the courts.” I don’t know how effectively that good intention was carried out.
Some kids entered Red Wing when they were eight, and left when they reached 21.6
Severely retarded kids lived at the Sauk Centre Home for Children, a subdivision of the SISG, starting in 1951. SISG had been renamed Home School for Girls by then.
Starting in 1959, Minnesota had a Corrections Department. The Sauk Centre Home School was in its Youth Conservation Division.
In 1967, we were back to putting adolescent boys and girls in the same facility. The place got yet another new name in 1979: Minnesota Home School. From then until it closed in 1999, the place was coed.
I doubt that many folks living on Sauk Centre’s north side, particularly those within easy walking distance of the Home School, miss the place.
Local speculation was that the kids knew a good thing when they saw it. They had free room and board, and recreational facilities that occasionally included a stable.
Aside from a comparative lack of privacy and freedom, their standard of living was on a par or better than many Sauk Centre residents. Leaving without permission and stealing a car made an extended stay a near-certainty.
I don’t think conditions at the Home School should have been worse, or that the kids were being pampered. I do think that the system was as imperfect as any other we’ve used, for dealing with youngsters who misbehave.
Some may be young mothers from the old reform school.
“…Pregnant girls were often brought in by train so they could give birth at the reformatory with the agreement that the baby would become property of the state and then put up for adoption….”
(Bryan Zollman, Sauk Centre Herald (June 19, 2013))
Childbirth is far from easy, and some young women were likely enough not in the best health when they arrived in Sauk Centre.
Records of who was buried were lost, somehow.
Grave markers would have helped identify the bodies, but there aren’t any.
Someone, presumably a state employee, took the markers. I don’t know why. Maybe the markers were made of metal, and recyclable.
Ideally, folks like the Ritters would have realized that the government wasn’t reliable, and kept their own records.
That didn’t happen, so now some members of the local Knights of Columbus built a fence, have started mowing the grass, and are trying to reconstruct burial records.
Some records did survive. Many are not available to the general public. Privacy rules say that some personal data must be sealed for 75 years from the date of the last entry.
On the ‘up’ side, Minnesota’s Historical Society has online resources that should help researchers get started.7
Fashionable melancholy isn’t limited to spiritual wannabes.
Pessimism above and beyond the call of reason has been a required attitude for centuries, off and on, for folks with pretensions of high culture.
They’re not the only ones.
The ‘gloominess is next to Godliness’ attitude may account for my culture’s perennial End Times Bible Prophecies and their secular equivalents.
The Reverend T. Robert Malthus offered an alternative to the usual Four Horsemen thing in 1798, with his “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” It’s been as influential, I think, as Johnathan Edwards’ 1741 ‘Angry God’ bestseller. (March 5, 2017; February 10, 2017)
I don’t know why so many folks use fear as a motivator.
Maybe scaring folks into supporting an idea is easier than showing that it makes sense. Maybe folks just enjoy feeling insecure.
Malthusian assumptions and angst from Ehrlich’s 1968 “The Population Bomb” bestseller were dusted off again recently:
- “Stephen Hawking says humans must colonize another planet in 100 years or face extinction”
Arjun Kharpal, CNBC (May5, 2017)
- “Stephen Hawking will test his theory that humans must leave Earth. Let’s hope he’s wrong.”
USA Today (May 4, 2017)
The headlines are right. That’s a reasonable summary of what Hawing has been saying. What’s new is how much time he says we have left.
I think he may be sincere. He’s also got a new documentary coming on BBC: “Stephen Hawking: Expedition New Earth.” His proclamations of doom are likely to boost the show’s ratings.
I think he has a point: to an extent.
We can also deal with them.
Starting in the mid-17th century, rapidly-changing technology and economic systems streamlined growing and distributing food.
Food still isn’t getting to all the folks who need it. But I think it’s a distribution issue.
The new technology isn’t idiot-proof safe.
No technology is safe. Even fire is dangerous if we don’t use our brains.
Living in a dangerous world is nothing new. What’s changing is how much we know about assorted threats, and what we can do.
We’ve been learning that asteroids and comets hit Earth at irregular intervals.
We don’t want a repeat of the last big one.
We couldn’t prevent Chicxulub-level impact with off-the-shelf hardware, but asteroid impact avoidance is a very international effort. I think we have a very good chance of being ready when the next 10-kilometer-wide rock heads our way. (November 4, 2016)
We learned that neonicotinoids, radium, and PCBs aren’t nearly as risk-free as we’d thought. We’ve learned to be careful with radium, started cleaning Flint’s water, and most of us stopped making PCBs. (April 7, 2017; February 17, 2017)
I’ve mentioned Bailey Radium Laboratories’ “Perpetual Sunshine,” patent medicines, and a lead-lined coffin, before. (October 14, 2016)
The point is that we’re learning.
I think we should. It looks like smallpox started in African rodents more than a dozen millennia back. Infected critters could still be around, and viruses have a habit of moving from one species to another.
We do not want to go through something like the 1870-1875 pandemic again.
Getting back to Hawking’s warning and documentary, I don’t think that we must begin living on other planets in the next century.
But I’m pretty sure we will. We’ve already taken the first steps on the next leg of a journey we began at least 1,900,000 years ago.8
Today I’ll repeat two of their one-liners, with a brief — for me — look at why I think they have a point.
“…history treats almost exclusively of these bad men who subsequently became good men!”
(“Daybreak — Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality,” Friedrich Nietzsche (1881) via Wikiquote)
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
(“Reason in Common Sense,” George Santayana (1905))
I was one of ‘those crazy kids,’ a half-century back, who thought that much of what passed for “morality” in America made little or no sense.
Some of the reforms we’ve seen since then didn’t work out as well as I hoped. But I remember the ‘good old days,’ and thank God that they won’t return. (February 5, 2017; October 30, 2016; August 14, 2016)
That’s why I think Santayana’s ‘remember the past’ quote makes so much sense.
‘The good old days’ weren’t. Societies in some parts of our long story have respected the transcendent dignity of humanity more adequately than others. But there has been no “golden age.”
Our actions will lead to a better world: or not. Generations who will live in the centuries, millennia, and more, ahead depend on our decisions. That’s nothing new. What’s changing is how much knowledge we have accumulated: and how much wisdom we use.
If we remember that people matter, all people, I think the future looks — not perfect, but good. Better than today, for the most part.
“…You have not only a glorious history to remember and to recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished! Look to the future, where the Spirit is sending you in order to do even greater things….”
(“Vita Consecrata,” Pope St. John Paul II (March 25, 1996))
“…In this sense the future belongs to you young people, just as it once belonged to the generation of those who are now adults…. …To you belongs responsibility for what will one day become reality together with yourselves, but which still lies in the future….”
(“Dilecti Amici,” Pope St. John Paul II (March 21, 1985))
“‘Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom….
“…I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live”
More of how I see life and the long view:
- “Emmaus: Looking Back and Ahead”
(April 30, 2017)
- “Deciding Who Dies”
(January 11, 2017)
- “Authority, Superstition, Progress”
(October 30, 2016)
- “Elastic Brains and New Tech”
(October 14, 2016)
- “Amos and Social Justice”
(September 25, 2016)
- “Dead men tell no tales.
But their bodies sometimes do.”
(“Night Watch: A Long Lost Adventure In Which Sherlock Holmes Meets Father Brown,” page 108, Stephen Kendrick (2006) via Google Books)
- Dead men tell no tales
- More at “The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs,” page 69; Google Books
- “A dead man does not bite.”
The Life of Pompey,” Plutarch, chapter 77, Loeb Classical Library edition, via The University of Chicago
- “Face Transplant at Mayo” (February 24, 2017)
- “Polio, Zika, and Using Our Brains” (August 21, 2016)
4 It took post-Roman Europe more than a thousand years to build heated baths on the scale of Imperial architecture, and distinctly-European Gothic architecture. At first we concentrated our efforts on what possible in a world with little or no security beyond the village border, and very limited trade beyond our immediate neighbors. China, I think, is only now recovering from the Qing dynasty’s meltdown:
- Chinese exploration
- Dzungarian Gate
- Economics of English towns and trade in the Middle Ages
- Gothic architecture
- Hanseatic League
- Public bathing
- Silk Road
- Tea Horse Road
- Comparing Roman and Medieval Technology”
Unam Sanctam Catholicam, reposted from January 17, 2010
- Minnesota Historical Society
- Minnesota Home School for Girls at Sauk Centre
Minnesota History Center, Gale Family Library
- Red Wing Training School for Boys & Girls
Minnesota History Center, Gale Family Library
- Sauk Centre Home School for Girls (pdf)
An Inventory of Its Subject Files, partially restricted (For details, see Administrative Information.); State Archives
- Minnesota Home School for Girls at Sauk Centre
- 1907 – 1920
History; Minnesota Department of Corrections
- Minnesota Historical Society
- State Correctional Institution (Prison) Records Request
- Records (Not complete, restricted access, includes personal data)
- State Correctional Institution (Prison) Records Request
- “Knowledge: Opening the Gift” (March 26, 2017)
- “Bogs and Bison” (February 10, 2017)
- “Authority, Superstition, Progress” (October 30, 2016)
- “Europa, Mars, and Someday the Stars” (September 30, 2016)
- “Earth Overshoot Day and Pollinators” (August 12, 2016)