Friday, February 12, 2016

Fiends, Omens, Countrymen, lend me your hands....

(I started this over a month ago and have been lollygagging about, so it's a bit of old news at this point.)

Some cadavers have a more active life than many people who assume they are alive.  Ever see Weekend at Bernie's?  S'nuff said.  Bernie had so many adventures they had to make a sequel to relate them all.

Take Abraham at least one man has already tried!  The 16th President's corpse has traveled more than many people I know.  His coffin has been moved no less than 17 times and opened on at least five occasions.  That's five documented times.  Who knows who else has snuck a peek?  His tomb wasn't guarded for years.  Anything could have been going on in there.

When it was moved for what is said to have been for the last time, those present opened the coffin to ensure that yes, indeed, they were moving the President; they found his body to be in a remarkable state of preservation, incorrupt, like a saint's remains.  The witnesses half-expected him to sit up and begin telling one of those cryptic anecdotes he was famous for and for which people thought he might have been a total simpleton.  Given his (now) well-documented prowess as a vampire hunter, this would not have been beyond the realm of possibility.  His nocturnal habits and amazing constitution had many people "in the know" speculating about whether or not he'd been bitten and turned, but all that was settled when the fanatical John Wilkes Booth, Knight of the Golden Circle, cried out "Sic semper" and settled the question once and for all.

OK, the vampire thing is bullshit, but it's true his body was said to have been remarkably well-preserved, but perhaps no more than any other.  Lincoln had risen to such a status that by the 20th century he was almost a mythical being.  His memorial, completed in 1922, is almost like the shrine of a God Man.  It's an impressive and humbling statue, strangely intimate for something so grandiose.  Lincoln has a special place in the hearts of many Americans, often ranked as the best of our presidents.  This aura is what led to the attempt to steal his body in 1876.

Without soaking the story with all the details, the outline is this.  A Chicago mobster named James "Big Jim" Kennally ran a counterfeiting ring and his engraver, one Benjamin Boyd, had been arrested.  Kennally needed him back so he conceived of a plot to steal Lincoln's body from his unguarded tomb and ransom it for the release of his engraver; for good measure, he was also going to demand 200,000 dollars.

Kennally and his rather maladroit minions were caught and arrested after one of the guys he'd brought in for the caper turned out to be a Secret Service agent working undercover.  The SS was at that time dedicated to capturing counterfeiters and only later, partially due to this plot, did it evolve into the agency responsible for the permanent security of the President.  Oh, how far we've come from the days when a man or woman could walk up to the White House, knock on the door, and ask to see the President.  And most likely get an audience.  Simpler times that assassinations made more complicated.  Even then political violence was associated with a decrease in personal intercourse.  (Reviewing this post for publication, I have no idea why I wrote that last sentence or how it's relevant exactly, but I kind of like the phrase so, I'll leave it in; why not?)

Sometime last year, at least by December 11th, a plaster study of Lincoln's hand was stolen from the Kankakee County Museum, the work of Lincoln admirer G.G. Allin....woups, I mean G.G. Barnard.  According to the NYT, the police notice said the museum curator described the sesquicentenarian hand as being “the size of a 8-10 pound ham.”  Talk about your ham-handed press releases.

While the hand wasn't a real one, there is something of the grave robbery to this case.  Maybe  it's because death masks produced during this period were also in plaster.  Maybe it's some kind of lingering Medieval notion about the power of the image -- statues that weep and heal -- or even a bit of the magical thinking that actually make Voodoo dolls work; they work because people think they do.  Basically, there's a strain of thought in the Western mind that makes the graven image something powerful, alive even.  Pygmalion, Constantine's head, Baphomet.  And then there's the negative power given them by iconoclasts, principal tenets of both Judaism and Islam, not to mention once-sporadic outbreaks of image smashing in the Orthodox world.  The Egyptians at times held that the obelisk was a petrified ray of light and thus contained the essence of Ra himself.  Their funerary practices placed a special emphasis on the objects the Pharaoh would need for the afterlife, the objects and sarcophagi were imbued with their power.  Lincoln, our martyred President, may have developed such an aura of sanctity that even a ham-sized plaster hand made from life could be considered as something akin to a holy relic.

It seems weird, but the holiness of Presidents was a  paleo-meme in the making during the mid-19th century.  Take Brumidi's The Apotheosis of Washington from 1865, which graces the Capitol's rotunda.  The painting references a sculpture from 1840 by Horatio Greenough which portrays Washington as a muscular godling, hand pointing up as opposed to down.  As above etc.  They both hold their swords in a non-threatening manner and have draped material over their knees.  Brumidi, however, took care to keep Washington clothed.  The weirdness of the Grrenough piece, and Washington's naked torso, did not go unmentioned at the time.  It too was designed for the rotunda, but was so scorned and derided that it was moved at least four times before ending up on the second floor of the National Museum of American History, where it has been tucked away since 1964.  Interesting that the essential pose of the sculpture was maintained in the rotunda fresco and specifically turned into an apotheosis; why did they need this Hermetic pose in the rotunda?  Also interesting that this dates from just after the assassination of Lincoln.  The nation's first martyred president.  By that act he'd become something of a god.

A lithograph roughly contemporary with Constantino Brumidi's painting shows Lincoln and Washington in an oddly intimate embrace, as if Washington is pulling Lincoln to his feet, resurrecting him perhaps, and holding a laurel wreath over his head; it is titled Washington and Lincoln. (Apotheosis)Apotheosis represents the ultimate step on Lincoln's journey.  Where can he go now that he's become a god?  First a crowned martyr, then....deification.  Making good men better.

On LoS we've posted a few times about the political uses of the corpse.  In No body home, we compare the postmortem treatment of Osama Bin Laden and Che Guevara.  Both were rather hurriedly disposed of so as to avoid any prolonged controversy about their ultimate destination.  Bin Laden was dumped into the sea and Guevara dismembered and sent to many secret locations.  No grave in order to prevent their final resting places from becoming shrines, rallying points for disaffected young radicals.  The Soviets were hip to this risk as well, which is why they never really buried Hitler's body.  They wanted to prevent any place from becoming a pilgrimage destination for a new generation of Nazis; they were afraid of the corpse's power.  They burned it, ground it up and burned it again, eventually scattering the ashes in the Dneiper.  But always in almost tentative baby half-steps.  They apparently kept some charred skull fragments hanging around until god knows when, for all we know they could still be an a shoe-box somewhere in a vast Russian warehouse like the Ark in Indiana Jones.  The Soviets were into the power of corpses as shrine-fodder.  They did, after all, put Lenin on display at Red Square, as if his corpse were the golden milestone of the U.S.S.R.

Many believe Hitler may have not died at all.  He may have been ferreted off to Argentina....  That's the danger of not producing a body.  People will say Hitler's death was a fabrication, or that Osama had been long dead and only used as a bogeyman to scare the American people like children afraid of being carried off in a rotten sack by a smelly old man.

A disappearing body is a powerful religious symbol; one could reasonably argue that the empty tomb is the critical circumstance which saved Romano-Hellenized Judaism from obscurity; just another failed Messiah.  But this Nazarene was something different; and even he spoke of the severed hand.
And if your right hand subverts you, cut it off, cast it from you, for it is profitable for you that one of your members be lost, and not that your whole body fall into Gehenna.
-- Christ, Jesus H. (Matthew 5:30 | Aramaic Bible in Plain English).
Argentina has produced one of the strangest cases of postmortem dismemberment I've read about.  This is the case of the surgical removal of Juan Peron's hands long after his body his was laid to rest in his mausoleum; the "theft" was a hornet's nest of conspiracy theories, said to involve the P2 Lodge, the Mafia, and elements of the Military junta who brutalized the country at the time of the grave robbery.  There are many theories behind the theft.  Some say it's related to occult practices like those which result in the creation of a Hand of Glory.  In addition to the occult value of the Hand, which allows its bearer to unlock any door, it might have actually worked -- some speak of Swiss bank accounts accessed with his thumbprint.  Others cite alleged Masonic punishments for breaking one's oath.  Still others point to a kind of symbolic and even more potent kind of castration; the hands -- being very visible in his televised speeches -- became associated with his gift of oratory, which was one his most effective tools in swaying the people.  Incidentally, in an older post (The hand is the whole, 29 January, 2011) we made the connection between the Hand of God and the Voice of God in medieval iconography.  Scientists measuring brain activity have noted that the language centers of the brain are stimulated to the same degree and in the same location whether the language be spoken, or communicated via sign language.

In The hand is the whole I wrote quite a bit about the relationship between the hand and images of power and authority, citing several popular expressions.  These metaphors are often about force, dominance and the effective exercise thereof. 
  • His response was a bit heavy-handed.  
  • She rules the office with an iron fist.  
  • The man was strong-armed into signing the contract.  
  • He can't escape the long arm of the law.
In Star Wars the changing balance of power between Vader and Luke is always preceded by a de-handing.  In another quasi-Oedipal conflict, Hook chases Peter Pan, to exact revenge for having been de-handed by him.  ("Peter" being slang for penis is surely a coincidence).  He is also driven into paroxysms of fear at the sound of an approaching clock.  The Lost Symbol is kicked off, if we can mix up our body parts, by the discovery of a Hand of Glory in the Capitol rotunda, which sits at one end of the National Mall, that Tree of Life directly across from the Lincoln memorial.  It occurs to me that in Game of Thrones, Ned Stark, the King's "Hand" (who is beheaded!) is a perfect illustration of this point.  The Hand represents the King, can speak on his behalf -- recall that the hand and the tongue activate language centers in the listener is the same manner -- and generally enforces his Will; the instrument in short, of Power.

The de-handing of Perón was more than a simple castration; it was killing of the father, as in the Star Wars films.  A hand-less man is diminished in ways a legless man is not.  The hands are part of effective communication and without hands we are rendered partially mute.  I'll paste back in a fragment I wrote earlier:  "it was a cutting out of the tongue, for these hands held vast powers of communication."  Perón, from beyond the grave, could not exercise power over the popular imagination as he might have been able had he been whole.  In Buenos Aires, an enormous pair of portraits of Evita face the Obelisk, symbol of the Republic.  Graffiti to Evita is everywhere.  She is worshiped like one of the legendary folk saints that flourish in Argentina:  San La Muerte, Gauchito Gil, La Difunta Correa.  But Juan is strangely mute.

From Alpha-Zeta 16 October, 2012:
Eva Perón's body also suffered indignity in death; her corpse was ignobly shuffled about before returning to Buenos Aires.  After the military coup of 1955 her body disappeared.  It was secretly put into a crypt in Milan under the name María Maggi (Mary Magdalen?).  "Evita" was exhumed and repatriated in 1971, placed in an elaborate and highly secure tomb, which has become a popular shrine, and she, revered like a saint.   What is important is that her body has remained intact.  In his essay on "Latin America" in The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, John McManners "claims that Eva Perón consciously incorporated aspects of the mythology of the Virgin and of Mary Magdalene into her public persona."
Anyway, Lincoln's hand -- a few weeks later -- remains lost.  The nation hasn't crumbled.  Whoever took them probably just wanted a nifty and easy to score souvenir.  But given the recent spate of attacks on Confederate flags and memorials, it could be a kind of revenge by a lone "Lost Causer" of the sort who put a bullet into Lincoln's head in the first place...

And I just noticed that the museum director in is named Connie Licon.  Missing two letters.  Like two missing hands!!!!                 



  1. "Christ, Jesus H." H for "heh heh" I presume?

    A google image search for Lincoln's hand is strangely beautiful:

    Note that a couple of those pics point here:

    My hands match the uncles, not good :(

    1. You think you have Marfan's? I wonder if any of those pics are of the stolen hands?

      Also, did you get that Pynchon email?

    2. I thought I replied to this but don't see my comment now? I don't think I have Marfan's, but that hand check lines up perfectly for me, so worth checking out at least.

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