New Orleans witch faces charges for stealing human bones: implications for natural history museums

ender-darlingNEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, USA. – Reported on September 15, 2016 “Ender Darling”, whose legal name is Devon Marie Machuca, is charged with several counts of trafficking in human parts and burglary of a cemetery. The charges come after a January raid on Darling’s home yielded human bones.

Darling, a practicing Witch, caught the attention of authorities after a Facebook post offering to send human bones to other Witches went viral to the point that the story got its own hashtag #bonegazi. By some accounts, Tumblr alone showed were well-over 40,000 notes and shares on a single mention.

Louisiana Assistant Attorney has said that there is currently an ongoing investigation into the possible removal of human remains from Holt Cemetery — known locally as the “Poor Man’s Cemetery.” Seidemann said that Ender Darling’s Facebook screenshot was what prompted the Attorney General’s office to start looking into it.

holt-cemetary

Holt Cemetery, Louisiana. Photo: Infrogmation, via Wikimedia

Police linked Darling to the thefts through a post Darling made in a Facebook group in which she asked if anyone would be interested in buying bones she recovered from the New Orleans cemetery.

Thinking about museums

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Photo: Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology

In a time where the ethics around display of human remains is becoming an increasing issue, the massive coverage on social media highlights the intense public interest in the topic. Although this was certainly aided by the fact that Ender Darling used Facebook to advertise their availability, that alone doesn’t completely provide the answer.

When natural history museums respond to public interest, what happens when that morbid fascination turns ghoulish? What is our responsibility to tell the stories from a scientific or historical perspective, when allowing people to make their own meaning from a display (now something of an industry standard) might take them a place we’d hope they wouldn’t go? The Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology in Turnin, Italy, is an excellent example of how this can play out. The displays feature the now-rejected view that  a person’s criminal history can be predicted by their anatomical features (see a full description here), although they are careful to say that modern science has moved on from here. Despite the caveat, people can – and do – make up their own mind about it and the Lombroso has had its fair share of critics, culminating at one time in an unsuccessful local campaign to shut the facility down.

To some, picking up bone fragments washed out of a grave in an abandoned cemetery is an assault on human dignity and an unthinkable sign of disrespect. To others it is as innocuous as gathering mushrooms by the side of a road. “They [the police] were coming in seriously expecting to find bodies and human organs and have me and my roommates arrested for black-marketing human remains,” said Darling. “You should have seen their faces when they walked into the house and found a bunch of sleeping hippies.”

So much depends on perception.

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