Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Trail of Cthulhu: Overlooked Corpses (Bookhounds of London)

Once upon a time in Oaklahoma there was an enterprising young idiot named Elmer McCurdy, who wanted to be a train robber but lacked any kind of talent, or indeed common sense. After yet another failed attempt the law caught up with McCurdy and, though the Sheriff would have much preferred to get the $2,000 reward for bringing him in alive, shot McCurdy through the heart after a fierce gun battle. This happened in 1911.

In steps the undertaker who thinks, 'I can make a quick buck.' After embalming the unfortunate McCurdy the undertaker put his corpse on display, and for five years earned a crust from his dead exhibit before finally selling him on to a carny operator, who eventually sold him on to another carnival, then a wax museum, a haunted house ... you get the idea. In 1976 some poor fool working at Queen's Park amusements in California discovered that the body everyone assumed was just a prop was actually McCurdy. They were filming the Six Million Dollar Man at the park at the time. You have to wonder what Steve Austin would have done about it.

McCurdy eventually got to be buried, which is more than he might have expected given the circumstances, but there's something to be said for giving this a Trail twist.

Embalming has a history that long predates the Civil War, when embalming techniques became more common. In England before autopsies were legitimized the bodies of convicted criminals were used as practice cadavers by eager would-be doctors. Highwaymen flourished in England for some time, the last incident occurring in 1831; the improvement of the roads coupled with an expansion and improvement in the police service brought the practice to a close. Take those elements, mash them together and you have:

James 'Yellow Jack' Donegan, born Dublin, 1761, fought in the East India Company's wars before being repatriated in 1796, having lost his left hand in an explosion. He spent some time in London as a dock worker - or at least, he hung around the docks looking for an easy score - before taking to the roads as 'Yellow Jack', gentleman bandit. So called because of his colorful clothes as well as his fading tan, Yellow Jack made the area around Blackheath his haunt for six months or more, before the authorities made it too hot for him. He vanished for a time, only to return in the summer of 1798 when he was captured, through sheer bad luck, at the scene of his first robbery since his return. His trial was the talk of the summer, and his execution well attended.

His body was given to Paston Syme, a physician of questionable repute; ten years after this, Syme would be accused of acting as go-between for a league of bodysnatchers, and be forced to flee to Australia to escape trial. Doctor Syme used the opportunity afforded him by Yellow Jack's cadaver to make an exhibit, one that he hoped would make him famous. Syme believed he had found the perfect preservative and he had a flair for the imaginative: Professor Gunther von Hagens would recognize a kindred spirit in Syme, though Syme's techniques were far inferior to von Hagens' plastination. Syme's grotesquerie involved a half-dressed Yellow Jack, part in the colorful costume he wore in life, part skinned down almost to the bone, exposing every least element.

It was a display that Syme intended to show only to those he trusted and were willing to pay a fee, but word soon got out, and the public - who distrusted and feared the anatomists - rebelled. Syme had to flee London for a time, for fear of being lynched, while his creation stayed in a box in a medical museum for several decades, lost and forgotten.

Eventually it vanished from that museum - nobody will admit to knowing how - and ended up on a tour of the continent, appearing in all manner of side shows. It's known to have been used as a prop in Paris at Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol; Orton and Spooner are believed to have owned it around 1900. However its ownership history is sketchy at best, and if anyone remembers Yellow Jack nowadays it's as a cautionary tale, not as an actual cadaver.

Yet if someone were to take a closer look at the cadaver kept behind glass at Buck's Corner Public House, in South London, they might get a shock. Buck's Corner, itself a home for all kinds of odd knick-knacks, gave Yellow Jack a home shortly after the Great War, bought as a job lot with six stuffed cats, an owl, and half a dozen musty books, all of which were promptly put up as decoration. Buck's Corner, currently owned by Meux's Brewery Co Ltd (Jonas Skelp, landlord), does a good bitter and a mediocre porter, but is best known for its Ghost Society, which meets every third Thursday in the month to swap tall tales. Several would-be writers are among its members.

Arabesque: Yellow Jack's fathomless eyes seem to follow one about the room, and his gaunt cadaver has inspired more than one spooky tale from the Ghost Society. Yellow Jack whispers his story to whoever is sensitive enough to listen; if they listen long enough, they might learn all kinds of strange and terrible things. Listeners can gain 1 potential Magic Point at a cost of a Stability Difficulty 5 check, provided they are prepared to stay after closing and listen to all of Yellow Jack's tale.

Technicolor: Syme's technique was based on Mythos experimentation, and though nobody realizes it, Yellow Jack is still alive in there. His brain - exposed and somehow glistening - is alert, and after decades Yellow Jack has learned to see again, and hear, in a limited fashion. He's biding his time, as there's nothing he thinks he can gain by going out in the world of men again; but there's a bright young woman, a member of the Ghost Society, who awakens so many memories of long ago that it's painful for Yellow Jack to look at her. Anyone who threatened her, or seemingly threatened her, would be the target of Yellow Jack's wrath. Syme's notes, if found, could reveal how the trick was pulled off, and what might be used to put an end to Yellow Jack.

Sordid: Yellow Jack's legacy is violent crime. Anyone who has ever spent a long period of time with it - days, or weeks - eventually is inspired to commit assault, murder, or even rape. The corpse's one joy is to make others suffer as he suffered, and hang as he once swung at Tyburn. He can appear as a ghost, but only to those whose mind he has infected. Close contact with the thing - touching, especially - spreads a kind of rash or fungal infection that will soon reduce the victim to a kind of flayed state, as Yellow Jack is flayed, before finally ending in death.


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