March 26, 2012

Death and Immortality in the American West

by Stan Thayne

Two vignettes:

Vignette 1: Frozen Dead Guy Days

“Are you here for the frozen dead guy?”

A question like that takes you back, especially when you are not there for the frozen dead guy. You’ve never heard of the frozen dead guy. You came into the small-town Colorado diner for a little breakfast before another day of skiing. And now the waiter is asking if you are here for the frozen dead guy. Is that on the menu?

The frozen dead guy, you learn, is Grandpa Bedo Morstoel, who died in Norway in 1989. After his death, his grandson packed his body in dry ice and shipped him to the Trans Time center in Oakland, California, where, through a process known as cryonics, the body was preserved in liquid nitrogen. In 1993 Grandpa Bedo was moved to Nederland, Colorado, where he is kept constantly on ice in a Tuff Shed in his granddaughter’s backyard. Keeping Grandpa Bedo cryonically preserved takes not only dedication but 1,600 pounds of dry ice every month and a lot of cold cash to pay for it. Accordingly, an annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival was got up to raise funds for Grandpa Bedo’s icing. It has become the major event of the town: three days of partying, usually in early March, complete with casket races, live music, a parade, and a polar plunge. But Grandpa Bedo will not be kept forever on ice. Someday, when science has finally figured out how to revive the dead, Grandpa Bedo’s indefinitely great grandchildren will thaw the old man out so he can finally live again.

Vignette 2: The So-Called Death of Edith Peshak

“She is not dead—there is no death!”

A statement like that also takes you back. It surely took aback San Juan County, Utah, Attorney Donald T. Adams in 1935 when he was sent out to the Home of Truth settlement in Dry Valley, Utah, to investigate claims that they were harboring a dead corpse and refused to bury it/her. He had been contacted by the Utah attorney general who had been contacted by the daughter of the corpse in question requesting investigation into the matter. So he went out to Dry Valley and met with the community’s leader, Marie Ogden. “She told me the woman wasn’t dead,” he later recalled. “She said there is a cord that connects the hereafter and the present life and this cord had never been severed. She [the “deceased,” Edith Peshak] had the option to stay in this life or to sever the cord and go back, but she [Ogden] kept the nurses there taking care of this woman all the time.”

Marie Ogden had arrived in southern Utah in 1933, having migrated there from Newark, New Jersey, with a small group of followers. The nurses Adams mentioned were two of Marie Ogden’s followers: Home of Truth members Mary Cameron and Aletheia Chamberlain. Cameron was one of Ogden’s original followers who migrated out to southern Utah’s desert country from the eastern United States, in 1933. She was a registered nurse and a graduate of Boston City Hospital; she served on the editorial staff of The American Journal of Nursing from 1906 to 1916 and as a nurse in the Army Reserves during WWI. Chamberlain, a trained nurse from New York arrived in the valley in 1934.

Two other nurses soon became involved in what was quickly becoming a legal imbroglio. Ogden had refused Adams a view of Peshak’s body on his first visit and did so again when he returned with the sheriff. Ogden apparently informed him, however, that she would allow the local doctor, I. W. Allen, to have look. So Adams went to Dr. Allen’s clinic, found two of his nurses there, and asked them to assist him in one more effort to examine the body. Once again, Adams, the nurses, and a group of curious tagalongs who accompanied them were denied access to the body. Finally Adams was able to contact Dr. Allen and convince him to go out to the community to determine whether Peshak’s unburied corpse posed a public health hazard (which would have provided legal means for a coerced burial). After wrapping things up for the day at the clinic, Dr. Allen made his way out to Dry Valley, once again assisted by his two assistants, nurses Leda Young and Dorothy Bayles.

Leda Young later recalled what happened: Ogden met them on the road and only allowed Dr. Allen to go in to examine Peshak’s body. Fifteen or twenty minutes later he emerged from Ogden’s cabin, “chuckling all over” as Ogden escorted him back to the car. After “considerable persuasion,” Allen finally convinced Ogden to allow his nurses to examine the body to see if they could detect a pulse—something he apparently had failed to do. This is what Leda Young remembered:
We found the two nurses had everything well in hand. Twice a day they gave the patient a salt bath, and a milk enema. The milk was to give her nourishment and replace the dead cells in the live tissue, and the salt baths kept her clean, and well preserved. The nurses instructed us to press our fingers in the soles of the patient’s feet, and when we could not detect any pulse they had us press our fingers on the crown of her hear head. Since we could not find a pulse the nurses determined we did not have a sixth sense, something they professed to have. Dorothy and I were not fooled. We knew poor Mrs. Peshak was a corpse, well preserved and very clean. She has skin stretched over small bones with no muscle or fat, as she had died of cancer, no telling how long ago. However, there definitely was no public health hazard, so we drove away exited [sic] over what we had seen.
The issue was, for the time being, laid to rest, even if Edith Peshak’s body was not.

Several obvious themes unite these two vignettes.  But a question I want to explore here: Is there something western about these encounters with—these denials of—death? Or are they both simply incidents that happened to occur in the West? Of course, Grandpa Bedo’s death occurred in Norway, but the body was then moved to the West—to the Oakland Cryonics center—for preservation, and then settled in the Rockies for the deep freeze (a movement similar in some thematic ways to Maynard Dixon’s migration: roving east from California to see the “true West”). Similarly, Marie Ogden’s movement began on the East Coast but then moved west in their quest for a site for a metaphysical community that would allow them to transcend death and live forever. Marie Ogden’s writings about the Home of Truth are full of rhetoric about the desert and the West—“our desert home” our “Western abode”—such that they seem to be crucial elements in her thinking about the apocalypse and survival into the new age. Granted, these are only two examples, not enough to make any firm conclusions, and there are surely counterexamples—eastward movements to defy death—but the movement still intrigues me. South and West: the directions of Thoreau’s Walking, the direction of freedom. Is escape from death—to the Western mind (if I can posit such a thing)—the ultimate freedom? Is there a certain strain of American religious thinking in regards to death and immortality that, at least for a portion of the population, suggests—and often leads to—a westering movement: a migration? Westward the quest of immortality takes its way?


Professor Keller said...

Great vignettes, and I suppose it'd take a bit of research into corpse stories to figure out if there is/was a density of corpse/immortality cases with which to evaluate this coupling. I'm still imagining a google earth searchable cultural atlas tool that would serve this function (among other religious studies interests).
In the spirit of blogosphere community, I've tried chewing on your story but not in an academically rigorous way and for that ask your kindness if the shortcomings of the following are damning.

On the one hand, California gets the status of place where youth and immortality are most prized, so the first case has a lot to do with California's unique exoticisms, yes? The move to Colorado, and the fact that an immigrant corpse can become the town's biggest annual event and fund raiser seems the perfect oddity for a Colorado Rocky Mountain High--we're not Aspen, we're not Vail, we're the dead guy on ice town. Let's see how fast coffins can go downhill.
The nurses in Utah seem more like a Utah event to me: women's care of intergenerational welfare with an emphasis on hygiene and hard work? The coupling of science with healing intuition seems to fit with the welfare theocracy of a Mormon dominated landscape.
In neither case is the dead and removed status of Indigenous people ever faced. Keeping immigrant white corpses going is more palatable than knowing/remembering/restoring the ancestors and descendants of the Indigenous people? On my last trip to USU, Logan I was repeatedly told by students and even Park Rangers that there were no Indians near Logan, so I'd say if anything, maybe what the West as "the American West" signifies in both stories is the embrace of the idea of the tabula rasa on which meaningful deaths, white deaths, can linger as the "new" and eternal presence. It's why we ski here and settle here. We were pioneers on an empty land. If "death adds value to the sacred" then these lingering corpses can be said to hold the currency (from fundraising to intuitive pulses) of meaning for the settlers. Moving across the surface of settler belonging, these bodies do not dig deeper into the soil where the evidence of American Indian presence would otherwise haunt the settler sense of who belongs and why. So I'm giving a nod to these corpses as evidence of the way whiteness takes place in the American West.

Stan Thayne said...

Professor Keller: Thank you for your very thoughtful and thought provoking, and very well-put, comments; they are really helping me think through several things here.

In response to your comment situating the second vignette as a Utah/Mormon event: the main snag there is the fact that neither Marie Ogden nor her two nurse followers (nor the majority of her followers) were Mormons; nor were they from Utah. They were all recent migrants to Utah from the East Coast: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts... The majority of the community’s members were not westerners but had only recently come west (though Edith Peshak was from Idaho). The community interacted with nearby Mormon communities, but in teachings and practice they are more in line with Theosophy or what they called “Metaphysical Truths” (in line with Catherine Albanese’s “Metaphysical religion” or Courtney Bender’s “Metaphysicals”). I am intrigued here with the movement west. Why did this take place in southern Utah rather than in the Northeast where most of these Home of Truthers were from? Is it the “welfare theocracy of a Mormon dominated landscape” that drew them, or something else in the broader American mythos about the West (and particularly about the desert country in the West)?

I am really intrigued by your very astute comments on whiteness and the lack of facing up to the “dead and removed status of Indigenous people.” I was actually originally thinking of this second vignette as a stand-alone post along similar, but not very well developed, thematic lines (your comments are really helping me think through this in more instructive ways). In a lot of the local literature discussing the imbroglio over Edith Peshak’s “corpse,” the “mummified” body was frequently compared—in newspaper accounts and later local histories—with the numerous mummified “Indian remains” that could be found throughout the region. Part of the reasoning provided by those in the nearby communities (primarily but not entirely Mormon) who felt that Peshak’s corpse did not pose any real health hazard was the presence of so many “Indian remains” in the desert country, which were described as innocuous items of curiosity. Peshak’s body, the argument went, did not pose any more of a threat than Indian remains did—an observation that speaks volumes (and probably deserves a separate post or something). So, yes!, I agree with your insight that these corpses are striking examples of the ways whiteness takes place in the American West. But in the second case (though I didn’t give any evidence of this in my vignette) this is due not so much the absence of any recognition of Native presence, but the assertion of that presence as being dead and non-threatening—mere remains—just like Edith Peshak’s body. (I guess the question I am dealing with here now, though, is how Peshak’s body is being marked by the outside discourse around it. As white? Or is it being marked as almost Indian here—dead and unburied—in opposition to whiteness, which is here asserted as a property of living bodies?) But on the internal discourse, among community members, your point is very well taken. I cannot think of any mention in community members’ writing (something I should check up on) regarding Indigenous presence or absence.

Professor Keller said...

Hey Stan--I love it when the details and the context only make the story more interesting. That people in the community were comparing her body to the non-threat of mummified Indian remains really grounds the context.
If I read your comments re: the constitution of the community and its quest to build a metaphysical community correctly, then indeed in part it is the emptiness of the landscape (writ in the imagination as "free for the taking") that would make it attractive to the Mormons who fled persecution as well as to the Theosophical aspirations of Marie Ogden and the Home of Truth. The fundamental truth for both "schools" so to speak was that the land was their divine gift, and its Indigenous people erasable in the name of Truth? I think it is really important how they did and did not speak of the Indigenous remains, so to speak. It sounds like the references are to an anachronistic, mummified, presence. There is no ethical accounting required for your presence if the Indian remains are from an irrecoverable past. Your Truth stands.

Morstel and Peshak are both "newbies," immigrants, compared to 12,000 years of Indigenous presence, but both of their bodies aroused their communities to keep them going in the Rocky Mountain West. I am wondering what it's like to change the ice, or rinse the body with milk as part of one's relationship with the world. Something about the craziness of that labor is important as well. Enacting denial as community duty. Peshak's cord and Morstel's potential revivification--utopian? dystopian?

As things grow hotter in the Rockies, the labor to keep Morstel on ice is a beautiful allegory for the denials we still enact. At some point even the snowmaking won't work anymore. Maybe they'll put wheels instead of skis on the coffins.