I: Evidence from Early Colonial America

In their chapter, Thomas Crist and Marcella Sorg discuss the oldest skeletal evidence of postmortem examination in the New World. During the severe winter of 16041605, 35 of the 78 colonists in the New France colony on Saint Croix Island died from what Samuel de Champlain described as “mat de la terre,’ later diagnosed as scurvy (Crist and Sorg 2014). Champlain published his account of the events from that winter and described in detail the autopsies that were performed in an effort to determine the cause of these deaths. Excavations in the 1950s and 1969 identified the remains of 25 individuals, but it was not until a 2003 (re)excavation that skeletal evidence of an autopsy was observed in a single individual. Crist and Sorg provide a rich historical background to this evidence, discussing the history of dissection , autopsy, and anatomy and the changing perception of the relationship between the body and the soul. The authors consider if social status and religion may have contributed to who among the colonists were autopsied. While ultimately concluding that these factors had little influence, they note that this may have played a role in how the men were memorialized.

Working with skeletal remains from very nearly the same time period, Karin Bruwelheide and colleagues discuss evidence from the first successful English colony of Jamestown . Fragmented crania from three males were recovered from pre-1617 fill located in three different contexts (a bulwark trench, a cellar, and a well). While only one has evidence of dissection, all three were found in association with discarded medical equipment. This led the authors to suggest that these remains may have been retained by Jamestown surgeons and was disposed of upon their death or departure from the colony. The disposal of the crania as waste may not be due solely to expediency, but also may be reflective of the status of the deceased. The precedent of using dissection as a form of postmortem punishment had already been established in the reign of Henry VIII and it is possible that these remains represent criminals whose bodies were consigned to the surgeon’s table upon their death.

Ellen Chapman and Mark Kostro marshal skeletal evidence recovered during the excavation of the Charlton Coffeehouse in Williamsburg, Virginia (ca. 1755-1767) to discuss the performance of the dissection and its relationship to the medical training and the medical profession in early Colonial America. As discussed by the authors, coffeehouses were spaces that were simultaneously public spaces where socioeconomic distinctions could be temporarily suspended but also where an elite social status may be established and reinforced. Skeletal material recovered from a trash midden exhibiting cutmarks suggests that the coffeehouse was used as a semiprivate space in which observers and participants could have furthered their medical training while engaged in negotiating their socioeconomic status.

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