Macabre New York: the charnel house that almost was

Author’s note: In 2011 my book the Empire of Death was published, and presented for the first time an overview of the history of charnel houses, predominantly featuring fantastic displays constructed in Baroque-era Europe. During the ensuing book talks, I was consistently asked the same question: did we ever have anything like that in the United States? It was presumably intended as a rhetorical question, because everyone knows that no one in the USA had ever attempted to construct a massive, flamboyant ossuary. I certainly knew that . . . or so I thought . . . until during recent archival research I came across the story of the efforts of a pair of doctors and a nurse in the late nineteenth century . . .

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In June of 1899, newspapers across the country trumpeted the story of New York City’s newest sight, something so strange and macabre it would have rated the highest attention even in the heyday of PT Barnum. Reported first by the New York Journal and then picked up by the newswires, it was the story of a hospital room that was being decorated entirely with human bones, in order to present a specter of mortality that was intended to eventually rival such morbid monuments at the Paris Catacombs or Rome’s Capuchin Cemetery.

The masterminds of the project were a pair of doctors, Northway Meyer and Howard Neilson, both on staff as anatomy demonstrators at Flower Hospital at 63rd and Eastern (it would later merge with other hospitals to become the New York Medical College), and William Flater, the head nurse of the dissecting room. The trio had converted the anatomy lab into a veritable charnel house. A pyramid composed of bones from all parts of the human body and a surmounted by a skull were set on a long table as the room’s centerpiece, and were flanked by skulls hollowed into drinking cups atop what the newspapers described as “tripods of tibiae.” Next to this was a full skeleton, enthroned in a large chair, with his arm resting on the table and his gaze overlooking the pile.

The room also included signs lettered with toe and finger bones. These spelled out the names of Meyer and Neilson against a black background, and noted the initials of the institution’s proper name, NYHM & C, in large blocks: New York Homeopathic Medical College and Hospital. Various skulls and crossbones adorned the walls, and garlands of bones had already been hung, with additional planned so that the ceiling itself would be obscured by a sea of human remains. Finally, as one newspaper account explained, “up and down the walls, like ghastly white serpents, crawl coils of vertebrae.”

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Wire service reports dubbed it “the most weird and gruesome apartment in the world,” and said that “if the feeling of dread for the specimens displayed can be overcome . . . (the display is) quite enough to excite the interest and imagination of the most case-hardened sight seer.” Sensational it was, but the project was also not in the least controversial. What was the point to this macabre display, or was it all simply the gratuitous fantasy of sick minds? Flater, who performed the actual labor of assembling the bones and was noted as “the artist whose eccentric inspiration is accountable,” was quick to provide a defense. It was meant to be didactic, a kind of learning aid, he explained. “Our bone room is intended to serve as a practical aid to students of anatomy,” he told reporters. “Human bones of every description can be found grouped about in artistic confusion,” he continued, and this would allow the anatomy lecturers to quiz students in novel ways on their knowledge of the parts of the human body.

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Flater’s explanation struck many as a bit hollow. Was there really academic value in instructors pointing at bones hanging on wire from the ceiling as a means of pop quiz? The scholarly value of the room was not the only issue of debate, however. There were also questions about the exact provenance of the bones. Flater told reporters that they had been obtained several years before, when acquiring human remains was easier, and had been “lying around the college, many packed away in boxes and of little use to anyone.” No doubt the medical school had bones stored away, but whether they had quite so many was another matter, and one theory that made the rounds during the meeting of a local medical association involved the distasteful idea that the trio had stolen or otherwise obtained them from the potter’s field, or pauper’s cemetery, on Hart Island.

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For a long time, Hart Island has been New York’s naughty secret. A mile long island at the eastern end of the Bronx, Hart has served many functions throughout its history, including acting as a Civil War prison camp, a tuberculosis sanatorium, and a Shutter Island-style psychiatric hospital. But most notably, it has acted since the late nineteenth century as a dumping place for New York’s impoverished dead, and holds the distinction of being the world’s largest pauper’s cemetery, with over a million interments. The first burial was in 1869, and the volume eventually grew so high that the dead were placed in large mass graves, three layers deep, with a level of sod between each layer—pits for children, for instance, were so vast that they held up to 1000 burials.

By the time the room at Flower Hospital was being decorated, there had already been 110,751 burials on Hart, so there were potentially plenty of bones to be obtained there. Bodies were delivered to the island by a boat named the Fidelity, captained by Edward McEvoy, who had received several demerits for misconduct while in the Navy. He would sail the East River to pick up bodies from the city morgue and Harlem Hospital, among others, and twice weekly during the winter and three times a week during the summer, drop them off on Hart. The Fidelity could hold up to 100 corpses, which were covered over on the deck by tarps so that passing boats would not be able to see the gristly cargo. On the island, they were received by superintendent of burials John Bopp, who then processed them with a team of 50 convicts from Riker’s penitentiary. It was a nauseating spectacle, and as a crew member from the Fidelity told a reporter in 1900, “it’s all the same after you’re dead, but if you want to know the advantage of passing away among friends, take a trip to Hart’s Island on burying day.”

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It would have been scandalous to the hospital if it were to turn out that the trio had been obtaining bones from the graves on Hart Island for their project, but the suspicious past of Meyer and Neilson meant that the question would not go away easily. The pair had already come under media scrutiny in 1894, when the New York Times carried a story about how they were using narcotics to place stray dogs into comas in order to experiment with a potassium solution as an antidote to morphine poisoning. Meyer at the time was known by his true first name of Oscar, although when he went into professional practice he adopted instead his middle name of Northway, apparently in order to avoid confusion with the Oscar Meyer Wiener Company, which had been founded in 1883. At the time, neither of the two were even properly physicians, having yet to graduate medical school, and they instructed the paper to omit the title of doctor, since as they described it they were “simply students with an inquisitive bent.” They would administer morphine intravenously to the dogs until they fell into a coma (very quick for a small mongrel, up to four hours for a large dog), and follow that with a solution of permanganate of potash. The validity of their “experiment” was questionable, but at least none of the dogs died–or so they claimed.

Not surprisingly, the weight of both public and private opinion was falling heavily against Meyer, Neilson, and Flater. The latter was vehement in his insistence that not only was the display ethical, it wasn’t even intended to be morbid. “If the bones present a sight most gruesome,” he argued, “it is because of the nature of the subject and not because I had any idea of arranging such an effect.” Despite the claims of the trio that the room was simply a means to put the remains of the dead to good and practical use, the hospital’s governing board eventually mandated that not only would they cease adding to the display, they would remove what had already been constructed. Such a spectacle might be fine for the Catholic bone houses of seventeenth century Europe, but modern New York would not tolerate it. And with that—amid suspicions of grave robbing and professional misconduct–America lost its one and only attempt at a fantastic charnel house.

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