Thursday, 4 December 2014

Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London: Brains!

You may have already seen the news item about the University of Texas' 100 missing brains, including among others the school shooter Charles Whitman who, one fine day in August 1966, climbed a University of Texas campus tower with a rifle, killing 16 and wounding 32. In a letter written before the attack, Whitman said he did not know what compelled him to carry out the shootings, and asked that he be autopsied; 'donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.' Nobody knows where his brain is now; perhaps it was stolen, perhaps it's just missing.

People have been preserving brains since the mid-19th Century, and more often than not, these collections are the work of enthusiasts and specialists whose efforts go neglected after their deaths. Harvey Cushing's Yale collection vanished after his death in 1939, only to be rediscovered decades later by students who made the collection part of a ghoulish pilgrimage that all new students had to undergo. Eventually Dr Dennis Spencer, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, rescued them and made them the centerpiece of a museum dedicated to Cushing's work. La Société d'autopsie mutuelle carried out the same kind of task in Paris in the 1870s, collecting both brains and the recorded history of their former users, until the Society died out in the 1890s.  There are probably thousands of brains scattered all over the world, hidden away in hospital basements, or some other temporary final resting place.

With all that in mind, consider the following possibility: a society of surgeons, working in Moscow in the later 19th and early 20th century, have been carrying out autopsies and preserving the brains of the dead. Their focus has been on the study of madness and suicide, and their collection includes several murderers as well as the deranged and self-harming. It's said that they even managed to collect Rasputin's brain, complete with the fatal bullet that went through it. However when the Revolution upended everything in 1917, several prominent members of the Society determined to preserve their life's work, and fled Moscow with the Society's collection, as well as its valuable library containing many important works, including a complete edition of Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring's anatomical encyclopedia in the original German. This collection is supposed to have been in Paris for about five years after the Revolution, but the surviving members of the Society were unable to persuade any French academic institution to accept the collection. With little money of their own to sustain it, the Society members took their collection to London in hopes of persuading one of the Universities to take their treasures.

Unfortunately for those three surgeons, Apetkar, Veselov and Zarubin, the English academic world was as unenthusiastic about their collection of preserved brains as the French had been. Though Rasputin's brain attracted mild interest, there was no real provenance, nor could there be under the circumstances. Unless they could prove, somehow, that it really was Rasputin's brain, it had no value to anyone. There was some demand for the library, but the Russians weren't willing to give up one half the collection without finding a home for the other. Zarubin is supposed to have put the collection in storage on or around 1926, while the three considered how best to raise the money needed to properly house it. Then Zarubin went missing in April of 1926, possibly a victim of the GPU's Operation Trust, before he could tell his partners Apetkar and Veselov where the collection was stored.

Since then many fantastic tales have been told about this collection of brains, and it's become a favorite ghost story for doctors and surgeons training in London. Every tale-teller claims that the preserved brains are floating around in the basement of one of London's hospitals. Nobody knows what became of Apetkar, though Veselov took up his old profession and can be found in the East End managing a small practice; most of his patients are Russian immigrants.

However the library is supposed to be remarkably valuable, to the right sort of client. Any number of book scouts claim to know where Zarubin hid the collection, and whenever a Russian book on anatomy turns up rumors begin anew that the Zarubin Collection has been found. None of those rumors have ever been proved true.

There are three factions known to be after the Zarubin collection:

  • Veselov is supposed to have been able to gather enough money from other Russian emigres to house the collection, if only he could find it again. It's debatable whether he actually has the cash; he certainly doesn't look or dress the part, and these 'rich Russians' of his have never been seen by anyone other than him.
  • Andrew Harding, a devoted Communist with deep pockets, is always buying Russian artifacts of whatever type, without any regard for what they are. It's said he's actually funded by OGPU, and tasked with recovering anything and everything that Russian emigres brought with them when they fled the country.
  • Arthur Poole, solicitor and coroner for the Municipal Borough of Bromley, is fascinated by criminals of all kinds, but particularly murderers, stemming from his ten years as coroner. He's been involved with three capital cases so far, and in each case has argued for the preservation of the brain of the condemned, for further study. Some say he has history with the Golden Dawn as well, but this is more gossip than proved.

There are two other factions, less well known, interested in Zarubin's brains:

  • The Supper Club, a loose collection of aesthetes who some claim have connections with the Keirecheires Y'Golonac cult, is willing to pay significant sums of money for any brain from the Zarubin Collection. It's not known whether they're after the alcohol used to preserve the brains, or the brains themselves.
  • Pavel Tchelitchew, surrealist artist and Russian emigre currently living in Paris with his partner Charles Ford, is supposed to be interested in the collection, and is willing to pay a high price for them. It's not known precisely why Tchelitchew wants them; there may be a Dreamhounds link here, or it may be that Tchelitchew's name is being used by another, more clandestine collector who would prefer to keep his identity secret for reasons of his own. This is most likely if the scenario takes place after 1934, since Pavel and his partner went to New York City in that year; this fact may not be known to Bookhounds, living far from Paris. 

No comments:

Post a Comment