To Exhume or Let Rest in Peace

In recent news there have been two debates over whether two famous burials should be opened up in order to solve historical mysteries, or if we shouldn’t disturb the dead. Last year I discussed the opening of famous tombs of Edward I and Tycho Brae in order to conduct research. Both were highly debated, and both were opened for scholarly research, though in very different manners. Now, the debate is focused around two very different people: one is only a local celebrity, and the other is a famous enigmatic celebrity known around the world.

The Leatherman was a vagabond who lived from 1839–1889 and traveled a circuit from the Hudson River Valley to Conneticut. His origins were unknown, but it was thought that based on his broken English and the presence of a small French bible on his person, that he may have been French or Canadian. Speculation and research determined his name was Jules Bourglay, but this was never confirmed. He was famous because he wore only leather products that he had made himself, and communicated primarily through grunts and gestures. As a local celebrity across Connecticut he was exempted from Tramp Laws which forebade giving vagabond food. Although he was able to survive blizzards and ice storms by hiding in caves, he died of mouth cancer on March 24, 1889 in New York.  His gravestone in Sparta, NY reads:

Jules Bourglay
who regularly walked a 365 mile route
through Westchester and Connecticut from
the Connecticut River to the Hudson
living in caves in the years

The exhumation of the Leather Man was called for when archaeologists were required to move a number of individuals from the cemetery due to road construction. While the initial movement of the burials was meant to protect the burials, and did not include the Leather Man, physical anthropologists saw it as a unique opportunity to also examine his physical remains in order to better understand his life and death. This is where the controversy began two years ago, and has continued to this day (McLoughlin 2011). While historians have successfully petitioned for his exhumation, a number of petitions are being circulated to prevent this. Connecticut state Archeologist Nicholas Bellantoni is leading the project, and they intend to look at the remains for a short period, then rebury the body in a more prominent location in the cemetery. Petitions against his exhumation are fierce, including a website devoted to the cause: Leave the Leatherman Alone. This website which includes a blog, resources for petitioning against exhumation, and information on the Leatherman is quite extensive. What is actually beneficial about the site it that they give a full run down of all alternatives for the exhumation and mitigation during construction- including what will actually occur if he is given 100% to the physical anthropologists. While the site is aimed at preventing his exhumation, it does give a fair analysis of the opposing side, and a number of fairly creative alternative ways of remembering and protecting the memory of the Leather Man.

The more famous exhumation under debate hopes to solve the mystery of a famous smile: Mona Lisa. While the debate has been raging since scholar Giuseppe Pallanti first announced he had found her final resting place and began petitioning for exhumation.  Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo, known as the famous Mona Lisa, has remained mysterious due to inspiring the Mona Lisa painting, enigmatic smile, and as Pallanti argues- her oversized hands (a feature I never actually noticed).

An archaeological team is currently excavating what is believed to be her remains at St Ursula convent in Florence. In the location where she was supposed to be located were found two crypts- one of which may be the Mona Lisa. The team intends to conduct DNA tests to know her identity, as well as do facial reconstruction t better understand her smile. A relative of Mona Lisa, Natalia Gucciardini Strozzi was present at the dig. At first, she had petitioned against this exhumation but is now supportive of the dig as she believes it will reveal important information on Lisa’s life (Pisa 2011). Within the next month the remains will be identified and studied, and then returned to their grave. What will also be interesting is discovering who the second individual is.

It is difficult to form an opinion on whether or not these individuals should be exhumed. While I do agree that scientific research is extremely important, I doubt whether skeletal analysis of these individuals will actually aid in the preservation of their memories. Overall, simply the debate over the exhumation may bring enough attention to them to be better preserved in the future. Personally, in the case of the Leatherman, I think some of the alternatives, such as creation of more extensive digital maps that track his route through the Hudson River Valley to Connecticut, and better maintenance of the cemetery may be more appropriate than complete forensics analysis and destruction of  portions of the bone for research. The study of Lisa however has a wider appeal, and given the finding of two bodies, this may be part of a larger mystery that would appeal widely and could aid in he reconstruction of her life. However, both sets of remains should be treated with care and examined as quickly as possible and then returned to their graves to respect the individuals.

What do you think? When is exhumation appropriate?

Works Cited

Pisa. 2011. Mona Lisa Grave Dug Up. Daily Mail.

McLoughlin. 2011. Grave Concerns: Should the Leatherman be exhumed? Middleton Press.

2 responses to “To Exhume or Let Rest in Peace

  1. Pingback: Links from Week 20 « Then Dig·

  2. Pingback: Update on Leatherman and Mona Lisa | Bones Don't Lie·

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