“The companionship of dead writers is a wonderful form of live friendship” ― Julian Barnes
Life as a 18th Century anatomy professor could be tough. It was one of those career choices that while relatively prestigious, required a certain talent for procuring corpses. While you might get invited to all the cool mortician parties, most folks shy away from life choices that encourage a lot of contact with the recently deceased. And although the average post-mortem chap suffers from a lack of hygiene (not their fault, being dead with the inevitable deterioration of grooming standards), they do have the virtue of not being especially talkative. Occasionally, you’ll get a ghost whining about the unfairness of it all, but in large part corpses remain thankfully uncommunicative. Except for one particular dead fellow that wound up at the doorstep of Professor Junker of Halle, Germany.
Physician Friedrich Christian Juncker (1730-1770) succeeded his father Johann Juncker as an esteemed professor of medicine at the University of Halle, a center of the German Enlightenment in the 18th Century, and their emphasis on rationality over theology has led historians to refer to Halle as the “first modern university”. Sadly, they were more modern than they knew. Professors of medicine needed to provide their own dissectible corpses for the edification of their eager students. Professor Junker was no slouch, so when opportunities for a nice fresh corpse presented itself, he was always quick to gather up the windfall. At the time, folks looked askance at grave-robbing or murder in the name of science, so Junker had to content himself with accumulating the unclaimed bodies of criminals. When it comes to corpses it’s catch as catch can, so when a pack of ghoulish body brokers arrived at his house one night with two dead bodies in cloth sacks. Waste not, want not. As he did not immediately have access to the dissection room at Halle, he ordered the bodies to be placed in a closet in his apartment, whilst he continued his nightly literary labors. Publish or perish, you know. Better somebody else has to perish in service of the goal.
The key of the dissecting room not being immediately at hand, when they were carried home to him, he ordered them to be laid down in a closet which opened into his own apartment. The evening came; and Junker, according to custom, proceeded to resume his literary labour before he retired to rest. It was now near midnight, and all his family were fast asleep, when he heard a rumbling noise in his closet. Thinking that, by some mistake, the cat had been shut up with the dead bodies, he arose, and, taking the candle, went to see what had happened. But what must have been his astonishment, or rather his panic, on perceiving that the sack which contained the two bodies was rent through the middle. He approached and found that one of them was gone. The doors and windows were well secured, and he thought it impossible the bodies could have been stolen. He tremblingly looked round the closet, and observed the dead man seated in a corner (Taylor, 1815, p75-79).
Dead men hanging out in the corner of your salon are a bit off-putting, especially for a respected anatomist. Death be not proud, but in general its considered a permanent state. Dissecting live people is typically considered bad form, unless of course you’re considering menu options. Tastes like chicken, I hear. Well, Professor Junker had two corpses, executed criminals dispatched by hanging, and now he had one, still quite dead, and another sitting in his drawing room. Now it would be rather rude for the formerly dead to not provide some sort of justification for their presence in the private quarters of a respected professor. Said corpse begged for mercy, commenting “He besought the professor for mercy, help, and means for escape, as he was a deserter from the army, and he would be severely punished if caught” (Tebb, 2896. p252-253). Obviously, having been hanged once, he was not eager to repeat the experience.
The Professor then retired, step by step, with his eye still fixed upon the object of alarm and holding the candle in his hand until he reached the door. The dead man instantly started up and followed him. A figure of so hideous an appearance, naked, and in motion, the lateness of the hour, the deep silence which prevailed—everything concurred to overwhelm him with confusion. He let fall the only candle which was burning, and all was darkness. He made his escape to his apartment, and threw himself on his bed; thither, however, he was followed; and he soon found the dead man embracing his legs, and loudly sobbing – Repeated cries of “leave me! leave me !” released Junker from the grasp of the dead man, who now exclaimed, “Ah! good executioner, good executioner! have mercy upon me!” Junker soon perceived the cause of what had happened, and resumed his fortitude. He informed the re-animated sufferer who he really was, and made a motion, in order to call up some of his family. “You then wish to destroy me,” exclaimed the criminal. “If you call up any one, my adventure will become public, and I shall be taken and executed a second time. In the name of humanity, I implore you to save my life” (Seward, 1823, p220-223).
Professor Junker was not a cold-hearted bastard and figured one execution was enough for a lifetime. He opted to assist his corpse to escape the long arm of the law.
The physician struck a light, decorated his guest with an old night gown, and having made him take a cordial, requested to know what had brought him to the gibbet. “It would have been a truly singular exhibition,” observed Junker. “to have seen me, at that late hour, engaged in a tete-a-tete with a dead man, dressed out in an old night gown”. The poor wretch informed him, that he had enlisted as a soldier, but that having no great attachment to the profession, he had determined to desert; that he had entrusted his secret to a kind of individual—a fellow of no principle, who recommended him to a woman in whose house he was to remain concealed; and that she had discovered his retreat to the officers of the police. Junker was extremely perplexed how to save the fellow; it was impossible to retain him in his own house, and keep the affair secret; yet, to turn him out of doors, was to expose him to certain destruction. He resolved to conduct him out of the city, in order that he might get him into a foreign jurisdiction; but it was necessary to pass the city gates; and they were strictly guarded. To accomplish this point, he dressed him in some of his, own clothes, covered him with a cloak, and at an early hour, set out for the country with his protege behind him. On arriving at the city gate, (where he was well known) he said, in a hurried voice, that he had been sent for to visit a sick person in the suburbs, who was dying. He was permitted to pass. Having both got into the fields, the deserter threw himself at the feet of his deliverer, to whom he vowed eternal gratitude, and after receiving some pecuniary assistance, departed, offering up prayers for his happiness (Watts, 1825, p218-219)
Reanimation is a tricky business, and Professor Junker was obviously a man of good character that a general sense of the absurdity of the universe, doing his best to deliver the reanimated corpse to more receptive climes where he would not be summarily hanged by the neck again. For this alone, I think we need to award a certain amount of cool points to the kind Professor Junker. One likes to think that no good deed goes unpunished, given the state of affairs of the universe, but Junker had a strange encounter in Amsterdam years later.
Twelve years later, Junker having occasion to go to Amsterdam, was accosted on the exchange by a man well dressed, and of the first appearance, who, he had been informed, was one of the most respectable merchants of that city. The merchant, in a polite tone, enquired whether he was not Professor Junker of Halle? and, being answered in the affirmative, he requested, in an earnest manner, his company to dinner. The professor consented, having reached the merchant’s house, he was shewn into an elegant apartment, where he found a beautiful wife, and two fine healthy children; but he could scarcely suppress his astonishment at meeting so cordial a reception from a family, with whom he thought he was entirely unacquainted. After dinner, the merchant, taking him into his counting-room, said, “You do not recollect me?” – “Not at all.” “But I will recollect you, and never shall your features be effaced from my remembrance: you are my bene-factor: I am the person who came to life in your closet, and to whom you paid so much attention. On parting from you, I took the road to Holland; I wrote a good hand; was tolerably good at accounts; my figure was somewhat interesting, and I soon obtained employment, as a merchant’s clerk. My good conduct, and my zeal for the interests of my patron, procured me his confidence, and his daughter’s love. On his retiring from business I succeeded him and became his son-in-law. But for you, however, I should not have lived to experience all these enjoyments. Henceforth, look upon my house, my fortune, and myself, as at your disposal” (Professional Anecdotes, 1825, p194-195).
A few morals to this story. Don’t assume folks are dead. Or at least not permanently. Also. Dead people can be incredibly gracious. The trick is sorting out the dead from the living. Here’s a tip. Living people are usually ungrateful jerks. A good rule of thumb is that expressed by Anthony Hicks, who observed, “Dead people have a right to be heard and seen.”
Seward, John. The Spirit of Anecdote and Wit. London: Walker and co.; [etc., etc.], 1823.
Taylor, Joseph, 1761 or 2-1844. Apparitions: Or, The Mystery of Ghosts, Hobgoblins, And Haunted Houses Developed. 2d ed, London: Lackington, Allen, 1815.
Watts, Joshua. The Museum of History: Or, Narratives of the Most Remarkable and Interesting Events Which Have Taken Place In Modern Times… 3rd ed. New Haven, [Conn.?]: H. Mansfield, 1825.
Tebb, William, 1830-1918. Premature Burial and How it May Be Prevented: With Special Reference to Trance, Catalepsy, And Other Forms of Suspended Animation. London: S. Sonnenschein & co., 1896.
The Terrific Register: Or, Record of Crimes, Judgments, Providences, And Calamities … London: Sherwood, Jones, and co.; [etc., etc.], 1825.
“Professor Junker”. Professional Anecdotes, Or Ana of Medical Literature. London: J. Knight & H. Lacey, 1825.