Bayou City Body Snatchers

How cold war fears fueled a hot market for Houston's human parts business.

Joseph Jachimczyk knows a big, if indirect, piece of this Houston history. Now 78 years old and retired, he served as Harris County's medical examiner from 1957 to 1995. The gleaming, modern county morgue is named in his honor. It's a stark contrast to what existed before Jachimczyk took the position of medical examiner. "Before 1957," Jachimczyk recalled in a recent interview, "Houston was highly unusual in that it was one of the largest cities in the country, but it didn't have a medical examiner system. Things here were run the way they still are in little rural counties in Texas: There was no medical examiner, so justices of the peace acted as coroners. If an autopsy was needed, they would rely on the county pathologist. Back then, you heard stories, say, about cause of death recorded as a heart attack, then at the funeral parlor the embalmer would find a knife in the dead person's back. Yup, that was a heart attack, all right -- an attack by a knife!"

Harris County had no official morgue, either. Autopsies were done at Jefferson Davis General Hospital. Built on Allen Parkway in 1938, it was the city and county charity hospital. As described by Jan de Hartog in his nationally acclaimed '60s book The Hospital, Jeff Davis was as ghastly as Dante's inferno:

"The floors were slippery with blood and vomit, littered with soiled linen…blood-soiled mattresses had been flipped over… each man lay in the blood of his predecessor…This was not a hospital," de Hartog noted. "This was a public utility to keep the dead and dying off the streets." It goes without saying that most of them were indigent. Most were also black; white patients were segregated on separate wards. Harris County's de facto morgue was in the basement. It was little more than "a room, about 20 feet by 20 feet, next to Housekeeping," Jachimczyk remembers.

Gerstner was another Nazi scientist involved in the studies.
Gerstner was another Nazi scientist involved in the studies.

Meanwhile, the Harris County Cemetery on Oates Drive in east Houston was (and still is) the graveyard for paupers, bodies that cannot be identified, and those whose families decline to make private arrangements. The county buries or cremates only a fraction of the overall numbers of the deceased who are needy or unclaimed. When it contracts with funeral homes to do the work, it pays far less than what those businesses charge private clients. In the 1950s the paupers and the unidentified dead were at the mercy of public officials and undertakers. "I heard a lot of hearsay," Jachimczyk said. "For example, that a funeral home would keep a body ten or 15 years after embalming it and collect money from other families with a deceased member, and when they collected enough funds, the funeral home would finally bury the body."

When funeral parlors were unable or unwilling to take on the charity burden, Houston's unclaimed dead were a problem. It could take weeks to identify a body or find family members. Meanwhile, Jachimczyk noted, there was very little refrigeration at the Jeff Davis "morgue." So the Texas Anatomical Board often took over. "Some bodies of paupers were given to the board, who allocated them to medical schools such as Baylor, UT-Galveston and Southwestern in Dallas," Jachimczyk said.

Students at the schools would cut up the cadavers in anatomy class. Professors would do their own dissections and sometimes pickle their work in formaldehyde, then display it in the schools' impromptu teaching museums. Baylor College of Medicine in Houston had such a "museum" in the early 1960s. As the then-teenage daughter of a Baylor researcher, this writer remembers inadvertently wandering into a room there filled with glass tanks.

Smaller tanks contained cross sections of heads that looked like they had been put through the slicer at a delicatessen. The cores of the slices were anonymous reticulated gray matter, but the edges showed features of everyday living people: scalp hair, the curve of a nose, a moustache, lips. Larger tanks held entire torsos: naked bodies with heads, faces, chests, pubic hair, genitals. As I recall, they were males, so intact that they had half-smiles on their faces. And -- I still remember this almost 40 years later -- the cadavers were all black and Hispanic.

Of course, people also willed their bodies to science. But the race factor in Baylor's old "museum," combined with Houston's skewed socioeconomics, suggests that these cadavers were indigents who never signed a donor card. Texas law at the time allowed researchers to use unclaimed bodies for any scientific purpose. They could also take tissue from dead people who were claimed, without permission from next of kin.

"Justices of the peace had almost unlimited authority to allocate bodies," said Jachimczyk. "The county was delighted to get rid of them."

Enter Project Sunshine.

Willard Libby of the University of Chicago was already well known among fellow scientists when he became director of the strontium 90 study for the Atomic Energy Commission in 1953. A few years earlier, he had discovered how to use carbon 14 testing to determine the age of artifacts thousands of years old. Libby received a Nobel Prize for that work. In 1954, however, he was busy figuring out how much radiation -- in the form of strontium 90 -- humans could absorb without, as one AEC member put it, "producing monsters."

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