My dearest planchette pushers:

As you know, I traffic in the macabre. I write about mayhem and death and how those things haunt us. This week’s story is one that I’ve been turning over in my head for a month, trying to make sense of and wanting to tell in the right way. It’s brutal, but it’s important. This is one of those stories that can lead to a change in the way we do business, as a society, if we tackle it head on.

I’m talking about the spectacular mishandling of victim remains from Philadelphia’s MOVE bombing. If you haven’t heard this story, here it is in a nutshell: In 1985, Philadelphia dropped a bomb on a house while trying to evict the residents. An actual fucking bomb. It started a fire that got out of control and burned 61 homes. 11 people died in the fire, including 5 children. Twenty years later, a Princeton professor was caught using the charred remains OF THE DEAD CHILDREN in a forensic anthropology class. Without the permission of the family or the state. So how the fuck did this happen???

The Move Bombing

MOVE was a mostly Black commune in Philadelphia in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They’re hard to categorize – kind of hippies, kind of a cult, definitely political (I’m using present tense because they’re still around). Some sources describe them as Black separatists, but they were adamant that they served all races. Members changed their last names to Africa, to honor both the continent and their leader, John Africa. They lived communally and believed in “life” over “technology.” They lived in what looked like squalor – they didn’t use electricity, they didn’t let children eat cooked food. They were animal and civil rights activists who had a total of 97 court cases and 193 arrests among them.

They also seem like total pain in the ass neighbors. They tore up the sidewalks to “restore life,” used a loudspeaker at all hours to harangue neighbors, and conducted weapons displays on their front porch. Cops and neighbors hated them. In 1977, Philadelphia police raided their compound and forcibly evicted them, which led to an armed standoff, a dead cop, and a member beaten badly in the street.

The group moved to a new location in 1985 and began fortifying their house, building a bunker on the roof. After numerous complaints and warrants, police planned an armed invasion to evict them from the property. They evacuated the rest of the neighborhood, set up a siege perimeter, and fired water cannons and bullets at the house. They fired so much fucking ammunition (TEN THOUSAND ROUNDS) that they had to restock. The footage of this is absolutely insane: I highly recommend that you watch the documentary “Let the Fire Burn,” to see how this went down.

A man in a police uniform stands amidst the rubble before what remains of several bombed out buildings

The aftermath of the bombing. Image Source: NPR

After a day of this fighting, Philadelphia police (with the consent of the mayor), stuffed a bomb in a backpack and DROPPED IT ON THE ROOF OF THE HOUSE WITH A HELICOPTER. A BOMB. IN THE MIDDLE OF A DENSE URBAN AREA. As planned, the bomb exploded and started a fire in the house. And that’s when the authorities made the decision to “let the fire burn” – chasing the members out of the house or burning them. This is a good time to remind everyone that there were SIX CHILDREN in the house at the time – the city did not care! The fire eventually burned the house down but also caught the entire neighborhood on fire. By letting it burn, they lost control and destroyed 61 houses. A 4 block area was completely razed because exasperated and vindictive cops AND A MAYOR took a “by any means necessary” approach to evicting 13 people. Only one adult and one child made it out alive – 11 people died a horrible death in that house, and hundreds were left homeless.

The Bones

Fast forward thirty years to Professor Janet Monge at the very fancy Princeton University. She’s teaching an online class called “Real Bones: Adventures in Archaeology.” In this course, she handles some burned human bones, a femur and part of a pelvis, explaining what they look and feel like. She describes them as “juicy” and says they smell “like older-style grease.” The bones she’s handling belong to Tree Africa and Michael Africa, Jr., two of the children who were murdered in the MOVE bombing. She’s talking about their bones and touching them and smelling them and showing them online to thousands of people. The relatives of these children are still alive, and in case it needs to be said, they had no idea the remains were being used this way, and they did not give permission.

Princeton University

Princeton University

Take all the time you need to scream it out.

How we got here is complicated, so I’ll try to simplify the timeline. After the bombing, Philly established a commission to investigate. The human remains were inspected by the Medical Examiner and the state’s forensic anthropologist. The Commission asked University of Pennsylvania Professor Alan Mann to consult on the findings. Mann took possession of the bones and just…never gave them back. At the time, Janet Monge was his student. She put them in a FUCKING CARDBOARD BOX and STUCK THEM ON A SHELF at Princeton, trotting them out for this online course and who knows what else. Sources report that the bones were an open secret at the university, and we know about them now because someone got the press involved.

This was allowed to happen through a combination of disregard for the law, neglect, disrespect, and yes – racism. Sorry! We have to say it! A professor at one of the most respected universities in the US is handling the bones of Black children murdered by the state and talking about them like they’re BBQ! I don’t see how you can take racism out of the equation. If nothing else, this case shows us that fundamentally, Black children aren’t afforded the same kind of sanctity and protection as white kids are – even in death.

I know some of you are not with me, so I’d like to offer an example. Remember the siege against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas? The one that killed 26 children? David Koresh was leading a cult. He was doing dangerous shit, mistreating kids, and he was armed to the teeth. BUT TWENTY SIX CHILDREN DID NOT DESERVE TO DIE. Now, can you imagine an online class offered by Rice University in which a professor handles those kids’ remains, describes them like a piece of rib meat, and then puts them in a cardboard box on the shelf? I cannot. Maybe I’m wrong! But with the heat on that story, I don’t think anyone would have dared.

To be fair, the racial implications of the MOVE bombing itself are complicated. They are more complex than the average retelling of the story would lead you to believe. Members of MOVE weren’t just a Black liberation group, they were bizarre and annoying and there were genuine concerns about child welfare. The neighbors who put pressure on the city to get them out were also Black – MOVE was disrupting their lives and scaring them. After all, they were building a fucking BUNKER on their roof and patrolling the front yard with guns. The mayor who authorized the siege, the bomb, and removal “by any means necessary” was Philadelphia’s first Black mayor.

However – the fact remains that police conducted two violent offensives on a house full of children and let a fire burn AN ENTIRE BLACK NEIGHBORHOOD. Members of MOVE were targeted and surveilled by Philadelphia police, and the cops were out for blood after one of their own was shot. In fact, they invited the officers who beat one of the MOVE members half to death in the street to participate in the siege. When a policeman testified about trying to save the life of Michael Ward Jr., the only child to survive, fellow officers wrote “[n-word] lover” on his locker. You know, for helping a child. The racist antagonism between Philadelphia PD and the Black community cannot be understated.

So Now What?

Philadelphia continues to be a whole mess. First they said they cremated the rest of the remains in 2017, without the permission or knowledge of the family, causing the health commissioner to resign. Then they said WAIT NO, WE FOUND THEM, they were (AGAIN) in a box in the ME’s office. The family finally has possession of their loved ones’ remains, and can inter them and get some peace. That’s the only good news in this whole story.

The University of Pennsylvania is going through some shit, too. It’s finally acknowledging the gross and racist use of bones and skulls in their museum collection. The bones were acquired in the 19th Century as part of a racist phrenology campaign led by Dr. Stanley Morton. They were collected from battlefields (yikes) and gallows (yikes but also predictable) and DUG UP FROM AFRICAN AMERICAN BURIAL GROUNDS IN THE US AND THE CARIBBEAN. Penn is working on repatriating the bones but it’s a lot right now, isn’t it?

For my part, I struggle with where to go from here. I want to tell you the story because it’s horrifying and gothic and there’s a social lesson to be learned – which is exactly in my wheelhouse, right? But it’s difficult for me to digest my role in the big picture. Because we, collectively, are immersed in the macabre. I write about it, you read it. It’s truly fascinating! We love it! But the macabre *always* has a human story behind it. All of the bones I gawk at in museums, all of the true crime I read, all of the archaeological expeditions, even the ghost stories: they’re all about humans who were once alive. How do we keep their humanity centered while still exploring the intersections of horror and the social conditions that led to death or violence? At what point does this storytelling go beyond education and become exploitation?

The University of Pennsylvania Museum
The University of Pennsylvania Museum

This incident seems to be something people can universally agree on: don’t steal the bones of murdered children to use in your online class. RIGHT??? From here the issue branches out into more difficult questions: what to do with unclaimed remains, how to ethically use remains to teach, what to do with stolen or dubiously acquired remains in museums. It’s definitely got me thinking about it.

Until next time –