Dublin’s Body Snatchers and Napoleon’s Teeth
Dublin’s Body Snatchers and Napoleon’s Teeth
Dr. J and The Twin Doctors Travel Bag continue their Ancestry.com inspired Heritage Tour of Ireland by exploring Dublin’s massive Glasnevin Cemetery. A place where Body Snatchers once roamed. After that, Dr. J sets out in search of the great Napoleon’s Bonaparte’s missing teeth.
The Brazen Head Pub
After leaving St. Michan’s Church, its burial crypts and “Igor The Creepy Custodian” all behind, I walked about 4 blocks to The Brazen Head pub. Opened in the year 1198, The Brazen Head pub is officially “Ireland’s Oldest Pub”. How much of the original pub structure is still standing is up for some debate, but what is not up for debate is the true sense of history that you feel when walking through the doors of The Brazen Head.
Having clearly expanded over the years, The Brazen Head pub now has a central court yard that is surrounded on 3 of it’s 4 sides by separate but connected taprooms. These taprooms together form a U-shape around the central court yard. The Brazen Head pub features live music nightly, and its menu is replete with traditional Irish dishes. I myself had the Fish and Chips, an oldie but a goodie. Prior to the waiter bringing me the fish and chips, he innocently asked me whether or not I would like any bread before my meal was served? With this question my knees instantly began to shake, and my palms (now hidden beneath my thighs) began to sweat. “Hummm” I thought to myself. “Would I like some bread”, my excitement quietly growing as I dared to entertain the possibility that I might once more be reunited with the beautiful brown Irish beauty that goes by the name “Irish Soda Bread”! I looked at the waiter, almost feeling guilty as I feigned indifference. “Yeah sure, do you have any of that umm, oh, gosh, what-what do they call it”? “I don’t remember exactly” I continued,” but it looks kind of similar to wheat bread”. Now I was trying to act cool and collected my friends. But when the waiter looked at me quite quizzically, for a moment there I almost freaked out! For a moment there, I feared that I may have over played my hand too much. Maybe he wouldn’t know what type of bread I was subtly trying to allude to. “It’s Irish Bread you dope” I screamed in my head!!!! “Please, please don’t make me beg for it” I thought, “because I will. I’ll beg for it if I have to”! With profound anguish and desperation starting to set in, it was as if a light bulb had gone off in the poor waiter’s head. “Oh yeah mate, you mean Irish Soda Bread don’t you”? “Yes man, of course I mean Irish Soda Bread” I thought!! “Now run, run like the wind and go fetch it for me at once” my mind continued. But outwardly I remained calm, simply looked at him and replied “yeah, I think that’s what it’s called, thanks”. So Newgrange, St. Michan’s Church and burial vaults, Ireland’s oldest pub The Brazen Head and now fish, chips and Irish Soda Bread served at breakfast and lunch. Good God, by early afternoon, day 2 in Ireland was shaping up to be a pretty good one! You can read about the time that I spent at the Newgrange megalith and at St. Michan’s famous underground burial crypts and vaults before happening upon The Brazen Head pub here.
After finishing lunch at The Brazen Head pub, I decided that I wanted to see Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum. Glasnevin cemetery is Ireland’s largest cemetery, and much like St. Michan’s Church and burial vaults; Glasnevin also has a bit of a macabre history. Since February 21st 1832 when the grounds of Glasnevin cemetery were first consecrated, and the now sprawling necropolis opened to the public for the burial of eleven-year-old Dublin resident Michael Carey; Glasnevin Cemetery has become the final resting place for close to 1.2 million people. The richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor all reside in Glasnnevin. National Heroes and national villains. Artists and authors. The versed and the illiterate, they all lay side by side, sharing a massive and picturesque patch of Irish earth. As a travel blogging Doctor I’ve come to realize that you can learn a lot about how a nation of people live by first learning about how they are most likely to die. And as a history buff, I’ve come to realize that you can learn a lot about the history of a place by first learning more about the life and times of those buried within that place’s cemeteries. And when it comes to cemeteries that double as classrooms, there is no better place than Glasnevin. Together the cemetery and it’s adjacent museum, with the aid of guided tours and dynamic exhibits, tells the story of the Irish and of Ireland better than just about anyone.
When I arrived at Glasnnevin, what previously had been a sunny and somewhat unseasonably warm Irish day had turned overcast, gray and quite a bit cooler. And as I walked the ground, there also seemed to be the constant threat of rain in the air. Thankfully though, the threatened rain never materialized. Instead the gray and overcast weather just hovered, stubbornly refusing to pass. In doing so, the weather helped to create the perfect atmosphere for touring a cemetery. Strolling through the massive cemetery grounds of Glasnevin, I was almost immediately struck by the fact that many of the older grave’s headstones were in varying states of disrepair. Not surprising I guess given the age of some of Glasnevin’s graves. But still the sight of headstones; many of which were faded, chipped and leaning backwards, forwards or to the side; was a bit startling nonetheless. The appearance of the older headstones weathered and askew made it look almost as if the people whose graves they once so proudly marked had clawed their way out of their “final” resting places. Recklessly pushing their headstones backwards, forwards or to the side as they emerged from the slumber. This impression of restless and disturbed graves was made all the more creepy when considering Glasnevin’s place in Irish medical history, and the role that Grave Robbers at Glasnevin played in the training of Dublin’s 18th and 19th century Medical Doctors.
One look around Glasnevin reveals that, in addition to the cemetery being utterly massive with 1.2 million graves in all stretching as far as the eyes can see, it is also a place that has a number of tall watchtowers. These watchtowers are each strategically placed around the perimeter of the cemetery grounds. While not original to the cemetery, the watchtowers were later erected as part of an effort to combat a body snatching epidemic that once swept across Ireland. This epidemic saw hundreds, if not thousands of once buried bodies exhumed by Grave Robbers during the 18th and 19th centuries. Once exhumed, the Grave Robbers would sell the pilfered remains to local medical schools. At these schools the bodies would then be dissected and used to train medical students in human anatomy. Included among the medical schools that bought stolen bodies was Dublin’s world famous Trinity College. During the grave robbing epidemic of the 18th and 19th centuries, under the cover of darkness, enterprising Grave Robbers would dig up and steal bodies from Glasnevin and from cemeteries like Glasnevin. They would then sell these stolen adult bodies for a flat fee of about 2 Pounds. They might be paid a little bit less however if the body was in suboptimal condition. This of course meant that the bodies of the recently deceased were much more likely to be liberated from their graves by robbers than were the bodies of those who had been dead for some time. As a result, when grave robbing was at its worse in Ireland, many Grave Diggers would actually work closely with Grave Robbers. Often times informing them of when and where newly deceased bodies had been buried. In fact, some Grave Diggers by day even worked as Grave Robbers by night.
While the dead bodies of adults would fetch upwards of 2 Pounds, the dead bodies of children were sold by the inch. Because of this pricing technique, a child’s body typically fetched a higher overall price than the body of an adult. This was in large part because children’s bodies were harder to come by. In addition to stolen corpses, teeth were also highly sought after by medical schools. A full set of teeth could fetch an enterprising “Resurrectionist”, the term used in 18th and 19th century Ireland to describe Grave Robbers, upwards of 1 Pound. After “resurrecting” a stolen body, most Grave Robbers would use a technique called “Staggering Home” to get that stolen body to the medical school that they had made arrangements to deliver it to. This technique involved two Grave Robbers, one on each side of the stolen corpse, supporting the body as they drug it down the street. Pretending that the corpse was a drunken friend who needed help as he or she staggered home.
Two of Ireland’s most prodigious and notorious body snatchers were William Burke and William Hare. Burke and Hare, maybe in an effort to get a maximum return on the bodies that they delivered to medical schools for anatomical dissection, graduated from simple grave robbing to murder. After murdering someone, Burke and Hare would then sold the extremely fresh body of their newly murdered victim for top profit. It was in part in response to the activities of Burke and Hare, and the rampant body snatching epidemic that created the likes of Burke and Hare, that Irish government passed the Anatomy Act of 1832. This act allowed unclaimed bodies, as well as those bodies that were voluntarily donated by relatives of deceased people, to be used for the purpose of anatomical dissection. This law also required that all Anatomists, people training students in Anatomy, be licensed by the government. Ultimately it was because of this law that the body snatching epidemic, and the resulting underground trade in stolen corpses, finally ended in Ireland.
No tour of Glasnevin Cemetery and it’s museum would be complete without taking a professionally guided tour of the grounds. The tour guides who work at Glasnevin really do an awesome job of bringing the history of the cemetery, its inhabitance, and 18th, 19th, 20th and even 21st century Ireland to life. They share stories, anecdotes and reflections about the people that have been laid to rest at Glasnevin. Detailing their lives and their contributions to Irish society. Among the notable people laid to rest at Glasnevin include Author and Playwright Brendan Behan; Christy Brown, the writer of “My Left Foot” and the subject of a film by the same name; Irish Revolutionary Michael Collins who was the subject of the movie “Michael Collins” and who was played in that movie by Actor Liam Neeson; former Irish President Eamon de Valera and revolutionary political leader Daniel O’ Connell. The same Daniel O’ Connell whose bullet riddled statue we saw standing high atop O’Connell street on the first day of our Irish adventure. So a tour of Glasnevin Cemetery tells you less about the Irish dead and more about how the Irish lived and continue to live.
Royal College of Physicians of Ireland
After leaving Glasnevin Cemetery, I had one final mission in mind before completing my second day in Ireland. I wanted to go to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, and I wanted to learn more about Irishman and Doctor Barry Edward O’ Meara, Napoleon’s personal Physician. I wanted to learn whether or not the stories that I had heard about Dr. O’Meara and Napoleon’s teeth were true. Had Dr. O’ Meara removed some of Napoleon’s teeth after Napoleon suffered a bout of scurvy? If O’ Meara did remove these teeth, did he then later display them publically? I also wanted to know, if in fact Dr. O’Meara had removed and kept some of Napoleon’s teeth, whether or not those teeth were now actually being housed in the Royal College’s Heritage Center, as many had claimed? So after leaving the Glasnevin grounds, I hailed a taxi and I made my way to Number 6 Kildare Street. The location of The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland’s Heritage Center.
Arriving at the Royal College’s Heritage Center unannounced, I found the building’s entry foyer and the surrounding meeting spaces to be full of people. I almost immediately realized that the Heritage Center was having a function of some sort, and figuring that the function was likely one by invitation only, I considered leaving and coming back another day. But just as I turned around to leave, I thought that I heard something. Now it is all together possible that I may have just been having auditory hallucinations given my jet lag. Especially given the fact that my first two days in Ireland had been busy ones. But I really did think that I had heard something or someone. And so I turned back around, and I took a moment to focus and to listen. And then, I heard it again. It was the voice of a Frenchman with a very pronounced French accent. What he said was to “take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in”. Whoa I thought to myself….that was a famous quote of Napoleon’s. Could Mr. Bonaparte the great French political and military leader himself be communicating with me? Was he encouraging me to press on in-spite of my having shown up to The Royal College’s Heritage Center unannounced in the middle of a busy function? Were his teeth there just waiting to be discovered? I had to find out. And so I walked around the Heritage Center for a few moments, darting in, out and through the crowd of people until I located an Information Desk.
At the Information Desk I encountered a smartly dressed woman. As I approached her, she was looking down at what appeared to be a stack of papers strewn about. In a hushed tone, and with a bashful look on my face that I hoped said “pardon my interruption”, I said to her “excuse me, but can you tell me if Napoleon’s teeth are here. And, it they are here, can you tell me where I can find them”? She gave me a bit of a quizzical look at first. She then asked me whether or not I had an “appointment”? I told her that I did not have an appointment and that I also did not know that I needed an appointment before coming. That of course was partially untrue, as I had done some research on the Heritage Center’s website earlier in the day using my iPhone. And I did read while doing this research something that said that some of the center’s archives could only be viewed “by appointment”, but she didn’t know that I had read that. Nor did she need to know that I had read that.
After telling the women behind the Information Desk that I did not have an appointment, and after also telling her that I did not know that I needed an appointment; I then told her that I was a Doctor from the United States and that I would only be in Ireland for a few days. Upon hearing this she didn’t stop me and so I continued. “I just want to see Napoleon’s teeth, then I’ll be out of here quicker than you can say cheese”. With that corny little joke she looked briefly over her shoulder, almost as if she were going to tell me a secret, and then she said “we are having a function here today. Technically you need an appointment before viewing anything in our archives, but quickly follow me”. Follow her I thought? Well after hearing my story, if she is leading me anywhere then it must be to see the teeth of the great Napoleon Bonaparte I reasoned! So I quickly followed behind her. After we climbed a short set of white marble stairs with a plush green carpet runner, she led me to a small display case that was tucked away in a nondescript corner. “Surely his teeth can’t be here” I thought, expecting an “exhibit” far grander than the display case that stood before us. And I was right in that thought, his teeth weren’t in that little display case. Instead, within that small display case tucked away in the nondescript corner were two small figurines of Napoleon, a green marble slab with some sort of bronze animal head attached to it, an old tooth brush and a lancet.
My impromptu tour guide informed me that the lancet contained within the display case was used by Dr. O’Meara on a number of separate occasions to “bleed” Napoleon. “Bleeding” or “bloodletting” was once a commonly used medical practice that was thought to prevent and/or cure multiple medical illnesses. The practice was based upon the believe that blood and other bodily fluids (which were collectively referred to as “humors”) had to remain “in balance”. If one of the humors became “unbalanced”, it was believed that disease could ensue. So the practice of bloodletting was thought to help bring the humors back into a better balance, thusly preventing and/or curing disease.
I was told that the old tooth brush in the display case was one of Napoleon’s own tooth brushes. My guide informed me that it was given to Dr. O’Meara by Napoleon as a gift. Apparently Napoleon was well known for giving away his personal effects to friends and companions as gifts; likely being keenly aware of what his place in history was and likely would be. The green marble slab in the display case with the odd looking animal head attached to it was as I was told, an adornment reportedly removed from one of Napoleon’s coffins during one of his three exhumations and reburials. But the teeth, where were the teeth? I didn’t see any teeth. I saw one of the toothbrushes used to clean the teeth, but where were the teeth? Unfortunately as my guide informed me, The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland had never been in procession of Napoleon’s teeth. No pun intended but, “that bites” I thought to myself! So feeling slightly disappointed, though not entirely surprised, I still reflected on just how cool it had been to actually see one of Napoleon’s old toothbrushes as well as an antique lancet that had been used to let his blood. And all because I listened to that little French voice inside of my head, “take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in” that voice had said. Well “go in” I did! I came, I saw, I conquered! Yay Jamil! Feeling that I had taken up enough of my guides time at that point, I thanked her for her impromptu tour and then made my way for the exit.
After doing a little bit more independent research after leaving the Heritage Center, I found out that Dr. Barry Edward O’ Meara did in fact remove one or more of Napoleon’s teeth in either the year 1816 or 1817. He did this after Napoleon suffered from recurrent and painful dental abscesses and loosening of multiple teeth due to scurvy. Scurvy is a Vitamin C deficiency that was quite common a few centuries ago. Among other things, scurvy affects the gums and the teeth. At least one or more of the teeth that Dr. O’ Meara removed from Napoleon’s mouth he did in fact keep, and in the year 2005, one of those teeth was sold at an auction in London for over 13,000 pounds. So the stories about Napoleon’s Irish Doctor were true. So too were the stories about the teeth that his Irish Doctor removed from his mouth. Unfortunately, the story about those teeth being kept at The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland were nothing more than a tall Irish tale. Nonetheless, I sure had fun looking for the General’s old choppers. Sometimes it’s the journey and not the destination.