Postmortem, Ep. 5: A reckoning

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(Richard T. Nowitz/Getty Images)
(Richard T. Nowitz/Getty Images)

In Episode 5 of Postmortem: The Stolen Bodies of Harvard, reporter Ally Jarmanning digs deeper into the "legitimate" realm of body-parts collecting ⁠— museums ⁠— and asks the burning question: How different is this from the world of Jeremy Pauley in his basement or Cedric Lodge seizing a financial opportunity at Harvard's morgue.

At the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, she takes us through displays of skeletons and sometimes-troubling human specimens. What comes up here and at museums around the country ⁠— did the people who used to belong to these bodies ever imagine themselves in a jar, or on a shelf? Did they give permission for decades of gawking?

After all this reporting, Jarmanning examines the ethics of it all, probing how we should treat the dead, and who gets to decide. And she returns us to Harvard, where hardly anyone, except Lodge, has been held to account.

If you have questions, comments or tips about this story, you can reach us at


Ally Jarmanning: A heads up, this episode could get graphic, at times. We're talking about dead bodies here. Take care while listening. 

Ally Jarmanning: When I told people I was working on a project about the thefts at the Harvard Medical School morgue and would be diving into the world of human remains buyers and sellers, I got a couple of standard reactions.

The first, more common one went like: Ew, gross, what?

But some others told me: You're writing about dead bodies? You have to visit the Mütter Museum.

I'd never heard of the Mütter so I looked it up. The museum is part of one of the oldest professional medical organizations in the country, and is housed in a big brick building in downtown Philadelphia.

The Mütter is advertised as a medical history and science museum. Online reviews call it a "strange and beautiful place" and "fascinatingly bizarre" but also, horrifying and exploitative.

I'm not sure what I was expecting. But the Mütter, it's unlike any museum I've been in before. It doesn't look like a museum at all.

More like a library, so I feel like I have to whisper.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): All right, walking in, you're just, the first thing you're struck by is this long wooden and glass cabinet filled with skulls.

Ally Jarmanning: 139 skulls, to be exact. And that's just the start. There's the world's tallest skeleton on display, tumors in jars, a distended colon. All together, the Mütter has around 6,600 human remains in its collection — about a fifth of all its items.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): Ear with ear basal cell. Skin growing tumor. Venereal warts. Tattooed skin. Vulva, in a glass jar.

Ally Jarmanning: The museum is frank about what it is.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): Welcome to the Mütter Museum, the museum about you. We are a museum of medical history, but what is on display is also the tale of a universal human experience. Sickness and injury. For we are human, and we have bodies that, at some point in our lives, will fail us.

Ally Jarmanning: I read one more line, an inscription found in the oldest surviving dissection theater at a university in Italy, one of the world's original anatomy labs. The words were a promise to those medical students and a promise to the Mütter's visitors.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): This is the place where death delights to help the living.

Ally Jarmanning: Here at the Mütter, it feels like the right last stop among all the places we've been so far.

Harvard's campus, to figure out how the thefts of body parts from the morgue could have happened.

In New Hampshire with Amber, to hear about her mother and how the thefts triggered a new awful grief.

Among the skeletons in Justin and Sonya's living room, to understand why people want to own human remains.

And the anatomy lab of Quinnipiac's medical school, to look at the long, slowly shifting history of how medicine and the law treat the dead.

I'm reporter Ally Jarmanning and this is Last Seen: Postmortem: the Stolen Bodies of Harvard.

Episode 5: A Reckoning

The Mütter is among the most famous public repositories of human remains. But it's also an institution struggling with the same questions I have. What universities and donor organizations, families and body parts buyers, ethicists and anatomists all have differing opinions on: how should we treat the dead? And who gets to decide?

The Mütter is small, just a few rooms inside a much larger building, but it's packed to the brim. It's full of medical specimens, tools and wax models.

It feels like walking into a 19th-century study. Wooden cases span the walls. Heavy drapes cover the windows. There's this haunting music that’s filtering in from an exhibit about the 1918 flu pandemic.

Music: Protect yourself from infection / keep well and don’t get hysterical

Ally Jarmanning: Some call the Mütter an oddities museum. But that's not the intention.

Kate Quinn: The mission of the museum is the mission of the college, which is to advance the cause of health while upholding the ideals and heritage of medicine.

Ally Jarmanning: Kate Quinn is the executive director and is showing me around today. The museum is closed on this Tuesday, so we have the space to ourselves.

The Mütter is part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia — which is kind of a misnomer. It isn't really a college. It's a fellowship of doctors — one of the oldest medical organizations in the country, founded in 1787. And it played an important role for its fellows in its early centuries.

Kate Quinn: Part of the perk of fellowship, is that you could come in and you have access to these collections to better your practice and to better understand when you're headed into surgery what a spleen looks like, how does the muscle form over the bone and things of that sort.

Ally Jarmanning: The collection began with Dr. Thomas Mütter, a physician in what was then the emerging field of plastic surgery. He was collecting medical specimens along his journeys, and in 1858 he wrote the college to see if they wanted to take all his stuff.

The museum opened in 1911 and the collection started to grow. Doctors sent tumors and samples they collected from their patients — some obtained with patient permission, some not. A few people called up the museum and offered their soon-to-be transplanted heart, or an ovarian cyst set for removal, in a few cases, their whole bodies.

For decades, the museum did okay, a trickle of visitors every year.

Then, a new charismatic leader came in, and got herself a regular segment on late night television.

David Letterman: Uh, if you go to Philadelphia, ladies and gentlemen, they have there this museum. It's called the Mütter Museum, and it's, uh, just full to bursting with all manner of odd and obsolete medical items.

Here now is the director of that museum, Gretchen Worden. Oh, Gretchen!

Ally Jarmanning: Gretchen Worden made appearances on David Letterman in the '80s and '90s, taking the train up from Philadelphia with suitcases filled with tools and medical oddities.

Gretchen Worden: Calves can grow hairballs and humans can grow horns.

David Letterman: Oh no, really?

Gretchen Worden: Yes. This is from a 70-year-old woman. It took seven years to get this big and it was actually the second horn that she'd had, possibly in the same location. Probably removed from her head.

Ally Jarmanning: Before that episode went to commercial, Gretchen pretended to give Dave a lobotomy.

David Letterman: It’s fun to pretend, isn’t it?

Ally Jarmanning: Between Gretchen's Letterman appearances, a renovation in 1986 and the internet's morbid fascination with the Mütter's collections, attendance exploded. Today, more than 130,000 people come through the Mütter's doors each year.

One of those visitors who found the Mütter was a 15-year-old Kate Quinn, growing up in Delaware County outside Philadelphia. Teenage Kate was awestruck by the wall of skulls, what's known as the Hyrtl Skull Collection.

Kate Quinn: There's just something riveting about looking at these skulls and just seeing how different they are. Um, so there is, certainly it's a connection to humanity in ways that you can't get.

This is remarkable to be able to compare these, these skulls. And there's a fascination with that.

But, there's also the flip side that when I'm here, and I know that these folks were stolen, people committed suicide, they were in mental institutions.

There's a harder aspect of feeling comfortable viewing them in that way.

Ally Jarmanning: Adult Kate Quinn, museum director Kate Quinn, sees these skulls a little bit differently. She looks through the descriptions on placards underneath each skull. There is the most basic of information: a few have names, how they died, their ages. She looks at one skull in particular and reads the description underneath.

Kate Quinn: What happened with this woman who is a child murderer, who was executed in Ukraine? What was her story? What was happening there? Did she murder her own child? Was she really a child murderer? I mean, going back, you can't help but think of the humanity of this person.

Ally Jarmanning: It's these questions that have led the Mütter to take some existential steps. For the first time in 80 years, they're undertaking an audit to understand what objects and remains they have and where they may have come from.

And they're asking themselves how and why some of the human specimens are on display. Not just can we display this, but should we? What is ethical? What does consent look like?

At the Mütter, some of the remains on display… there was no consent.  Some were flat-out stolen. There are portions of Albert Einstein's brain in a glass case, despite his desire to be cremated and never be put on display. There is the "soap lady," a woman whose body was mummified in her own fat and basically stolen from a graveyard. There’s the American Giant, a seven-foot six-inch skeleton who was gifted to the museum with the caveat that they never ask who he was.

Kate Quinn: What should happen with those remains, I think we need to have provenience and provenance collected about every individual. We have an obligation to know who belonged to this skull? Who belonged to this skeleton? What did they want?

If this was your grandmother, and you knew your grandmother was a devout Catholic who needed to be buried, is it okay that we have that information and they're on display here?

That feels incorrect. But if there's informed consent, and folks know that they're giving these collections of themselves, literally, to individuals or to museums, then that, there's more power in that, for sure.

Our questions moving forward: Is this research? Is this science? What does it mean to be on display? Is that something they would have agreed to?

Ally Jarmanning: The Mütter isn't the only institution asking these questions. The American Museum of Natural History in New York pulled all its human remains from public display and is working to repatriate what it can.

The Smithsonian Institution recently returned an Alaska woman’s brain to her family — 90 years after it was taken for a so-called “racial brain collection.” The institution has apologized for how it collected human remains, calling it the Smithsonian’s “darkest history.”

Harvard is addressing these issues too. It has a whole anatomical museum that’s now closed to the public. And remember how remains collector Jeremy Pauley was binding books in human skin? Well, Harvard had its own flesh-bound book in its collection. The 19th-century volume was owned by a doctor who took the skin — without consent — from the unclaimed body of a female patient in a French hospital.

Until recently, anyone could view the book. Some students were pushed to check it out as part of a hazing ritual.

But just this spring, Harvard announced it removed the human binding and is working to find a final respectful resting place for the remains.

For a museum like the Mütter, though, it's not as simple as just removing a few exhibits. Because their whole thing is human remains. Fans of the museum are worried that the end result will be a sanitized Mütter that is unrecognizable.

Some have said the administration is being too "woke" and that "cancel culture" is coming for the Mütter.

The museum has held open houses and feedback sessions. Like this one, from October.

Meeting facilitator: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to tonight's forum. We're so glad that you're here.

Ally Jarmanning: Folks brought their frustrations, their fears and their personal experiences with the Mütter.

Meeting participant 1: Trying to retroactively apply standards from today to the past is incongruous. It's like asking somebody who built a house 400 years ago for their mortgage paperwork.

Meeting participant 2: Death is not a comfortable topic, especially in a culture that avoids looking at it that hides it away.

We have a museum here that allows people to come and sit in their discomfort and have emotional responses to that discomfort and then learn through it and process that discomfort.

Meeting participant 3: I was born with a rare congenital deformity called Ectrodactyly, otherwise known as Lobster Claw Syndrome. The Mütter Museum's exhibit on congenital deformities is the only place in the city of Philadelphia where I can see people like myself represented.

For some of us, places like the Mütter and all of its complicated, sometimes macabre glory are the only place we can go to feel human. Places like this hold our histories. We deserve to be able to see ourselves reflected somewhere in this world, even if it's under glass.

Ally Jarmanning: It's this complexity that made me want to visit the Mütter. Not so I could ogle some dead bodies, but to find out how Kate Quinn and her staff are working through these questions.

Kate says the Mütter will always be a place for people to see the breadth of the human condition, what makes up each of us inside.

Kate Quinn: We will find through our research where it seems to be acceptable for us to have remains on display.

I can't imagine a Mütter that doesn't. But we need to make sure that we have them ethically and that we've got some measure of all of the research that we can about these individuals to say that we feel with confidence this person would have been all right being here.

Ally Jarmanning: Still, she thinks they'll be lucky to identify half of the human remains the museum holds.

After the break, Kate and I go deeper into the museum, and I come face to face with an exhibit that forces me to ask some hard questions.

Ally Jarmanning: Kate Quinn and I walk downstairs to the bottom floor of the museum, where some of the most famous residents are displayed. The death cast and shared liver of Cheng and Eng, the conjoined twins from Siam, now Thailand, who made a living traveling the world and giving lectures. The eight foot long "mega colon" that held 40 pounds of human waste when the individual died. There are the skeletons of Harry Eastlack and Carol Orzel, two Philadelphians who suffered from a genetic disorder that fused their joints and created painful posture. Both Harry and Carol voluntarily gave their bodies to the Mütter. Carol with the request that the museum show off a portion of her collection of costume jewelry alongside her bones.

And then there’s this: fifty-plus fetuses and newborns in jars. Two hundred more are in storage. The disorders on display range from spina bifida to hydrocephalus. There are fetuses that couldn't survive outside the womb, because their brains were growing outside their skulls or were missing altogether.

Kate Quinn: Folks did refer to this place as the, as the dead baby museum and you can see why. I mean, you come through and these, these specimens, these displays, um, they stick with you for sure.

Ally Jarmanning: I'm looking at these fetuses — and the fetal skeletons next to them — and I'm thinking of my time among the skeletons just the night prior, at Justin and Sonya's house in Delaware. And my surprise — and shock — that they owned a 36-week-old fetal skeleton, what Justin called Mini Me.

Here I am looking at a whole wall of fetuses and skeletons. And I realize, just because this is a museum doesn't mean I shouldn't be asking the same questions that I did of Justin.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): Yeah, I think I told you about the 36-week-old fetal skeleton that the guy was talking to you last night had. I was thinking like, "Where did this baby come from?"

Does whoever gave birth to this child, this stillborn child. Do they know what happened? Do they know where it is?

Kate Quinn: I have those questions, too and again, we do have some of the records and some did give consent for the specimen to be taken after, as they left the hospital. The consent forms, you know, are for research or to science.

And so, you know, does that mean display? This is one of the collections where I think that question comes up pretty strongly. Also, I'm not a mother, but I can imagine that this would be one of the most difficult times in your life, if your baby died, um, if your fetus didn't survive, could they make a decision in that time frame that was really informed?

Ally Jarmanning: I wonder about the doctors who kept these specimens, did they stop to ask that question.

Kate leaves me to look around the museum alone. Even though nobody alive is around, I feel like I need to whisper.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): It's odd being here alone. I'm glad I am, because I really get to take everything in. But it's also kind of unsettling to, to kind of just be with myself.

Ally Jarmanning: I have time to look around, spend some time with the displays, and think.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): It's kind of overwhelming the longer you're in here. Especially reading everything, and not just looking at it.

Fetal skeletons from two months gestation to newborn infant. This collection illustrates the development of the fetal skeleton. Infants are born with about 300 individual bones.

Kidneys, bladders, kidneys, prostates, another kidney, another kidney, some with kidney stones, kidney with high blood pressure, a bladder that was shot during World War I.

This one doesn't have a sign. It's someone's bottom half,  I can see a penis and testicles. Veins. Muscles. Legs look like they've been barbecued.

All right, I think I'm ready to go.


Ally Jarmanning: Out of the dark of the museum and back in the bright light on the sidewalk outside, I thought about this broader story, about how the Mütter fits into the bigger world that I've immersed myself in. And it raises some uncomfortable questions.

What role does a place like the Mütter play among collectors? Do people visit here, then go home and log onto Facebook to find their own piece of history? Is the Mütter, unwittingly, normalizing the practice of collecting human remains?

Some of the collectors I spoke to talked about this desire to open museums of their own. Because, why should highbrow institutions be the only places that get to keep these items?

Jeremy Pauley is one of them. Remember him? The guy with buckets of body parts in the basement, whose arrest sparked the whole Harvard investigation? Jeremy ran a traveling exhibit of his collections called the Memento Mori Museum — that's a Latin phrase meaning "remember you must die."

He wanted a brick-and-mortar museum someday, to show off his medical specimens, his skulls, those fetuses he loved that showed the march of human medicine.

Many people are deeply disturbed with someone like Jeremy having his own little collection of fetuses and skulls. Yet visitors pay 20 bucks apiece to look at many of the same sorts of items at the Mütter.

Is it okay if it’s in a museum? Or is none of it okay?

I think about the supply, the source for these items. There are only so many historical medical specimens out there, collected decades or centuries ago under murky but somewhat more acceptable circumstances to our modern minds.

Doctors who convinced bereft mothers to sign away their stillborn babies. Grave robbers who dug up fresh bodies for dissections.

How far away is Cedric Lodge from them? Could a place like this — its existence and society's acceptance of it — give him some moral permission when he decided — allegedly — to start stealing body parts from donors at Harvard?

So far, he hasn't said.

I tried to reach him. I visited his tidy split-level home in Goffstown, New Hampshire.

As I walked up to the door, I could see someone who looked like Cedric through the window.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): Oh, someone's home. I can see somebody in the dining room.

He's here, but he's not gonna answer.

Ally Jarmanning: When I turned around to leave, someone had closed the shades.

We still don't know how Cedric got the idea to allegedly do what he did. And I have to still say allegedly because, as of this writing, he's pleaded not guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and interstate transport of stolen goods.

He's scheduled to go to trial in August.

But as the months tick on, more people in the scheme have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. I told you about basement body parts guy Jeremy Pauley — he got two years probation for state charges of abuse of a corpse. He's still awaiting sentencing on the federal charges. The Arkansas mortuary worker who sold Pauley so many stolen remains — including Lux, the stillborn fetus — she pled out.

And even Cedric's wife, Denise Lodge, has changed her plea to guilty — for interstate transport of stolen goods. She faces up to 10 years in prison when she's sentenced.

I got Denise's attorney, Hope Lefeber, on the phone and asked the obvious question: Why did Denise do this?

Hope Lefeber: Um, just, you know, her husband, her husband was doing this and she just, you know, kind of went along with it.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): Mm, okay. It wasn't her idea?

Hope Lefeber: No, no, no.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): Do you know why he decided to start doing this?

Hope Lefeber: No, I don't. Um. There may have been financial prob — I think there were financial problems, health problems.

Ally Jarmanning: Maybe Cedric just saw those body parts as a commodity, objects to make money off of.

Or maybe there was some kind of darker fascination with this world. He did drive his Subaru around with that Grim Reaper license plate, after all.

Which brings us back to Harvard Medical School, the place that employed Cedric Lodge for almost three decades, the institution donors and their families trusted. What happened with them?

Well ... nothing.

The donor families' lawsuit against Harvard is stalled after the judge dismissed it. The families have appealed and hope they can get Harvard officials to sit for depositions and hand over records that might explain what went wrong in the morgue and who should be held accountable to try to ensure this never happens again.

After the news broke last June, Harvard named an outside panel to review the anatomical gift program. And even though this was Harvard's handpicked group they still found faults with how the program was run: Lax security. Cracked floors and damage to a walk-in freezer used to store bodies. Worn out student labs built three decades ago. No protocol for tracking body parts that are held long-term. And an onerous, manual tracking system for all the donor bodies.

It’s hard to know for sure if Harvard has made any of the changes the panel called for, and if the program is more secure now. They wouldn't let me visit the labs. And Harvard's administration has refused my requests for interviews.

They did provide a written statement in response to my many questions. They say a task force is working through the outside panel’s recommendations and that they’ve made “significant security upgrades,” though they didn’t replace their security contractor.

Here’s more of their statement: “The alleged criminal actions by former employee Cedric Lodge were shocking and abhorrent..” It continues: “We reaffirm our deep sorrow for the uncertainty and distress that families face as the criminal proceedings continue.”

Still … it’s clear Harvard wants to move on from this chapter.

As far as I can tell, nobody — other than Cedric — lost their jobs. When I asked if anyone else was disciplined or fired or even investigated, Harvard’s responses focused only on what was in the indictment and who was criminally charged. They wouldn’t say whether anyone else was held accountable for failing to supervise Cedric.

Both of Cedric's bosses are still still appear to be working there. I actually saw one of them, Tracey Fay, pop up on a zoom in as an attendee in a webinar a few months ago. The session’s title? “The Way Forward: Operating an Ethical Body Donor Program in the 21st Century.”

Harvard voicemail: You have reached the anatomical gift program at Harvard Medical School.

Ally Jarmanning: After a five-month pause last year, Harvard’s taking donor bodies again.

Harvard voicemail: If you are calling to report the death of a registered donor during business hours, please leave a message with your name and telephone number, and we will return your call as soon as possible.

Ally Jarmanning: They had been turning away registered donors and referring them to Tufts Medical School, but no longer.

And it looks like they’re filling Cedric’s old job. In February, Harvard advertised a position that sounds a lot like Cedric’s. The title isn’t “morgue manager,” it’s "research assistant III." The job reports to the managing director of the anatomical gift program And — get this — the person will work under quote “minimal direction.”

The duties are what I'd expect: assisting with embalming the donor bodies, preparing them for cremation, keeping the morgue clean and neat.

The last item on the list of responsibilities for the position stood out. "Upholds highest standards of care to ensure the utmost respect of all human body donors."


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Ally Jarmanning Senior Reporter
Ally is a senior reporter focused on criminal justice and police accountability.


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Paul Vaitkus Production Manager, Podcasts
Paul Vaitkus is the production manager for WBUR's podcast department and is responsible for all things audio.


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Emily Jankowski Sound Designer
Emily Jankowski is a sound designer for WBUR’s podcast department. She mixes and designs for Endless Thread, Last Seen and The Common.



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