“On Raking Up the Dead” by Ben Reed
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “On Raking Up the Dead,” a nonfiction finalist in our 2022 Perkoff Prize contest for writing about health and medicine, Ben Reed considers some striking similarities between the plague years in Prussia and public response to COVID-19 in the United States.
On Raking Up the Dead
How the unusual afterlife of a Prussian servant sheds light on social-media comeuppance in the time of COVID-19.
Were it unlawful to speak ill of the dead, it would follow that no histories ought to be wrote.
–Andrew Le Mercier
A Treatise Against Detraction, 1733
In his fascinating 1905 chronicle, A History of the Plague in East Prussia*, German historian Wilhelm Sahm recounts a curious incident during an epidemic that ravaged the Baltic region in the early 1700s. In March 1710, a domestic worker named Barbara Thutin was found criminally responsible for fatally infecting both herself and her employer with plague. Following something akin to contact tracing, the civil and sanitary authorities in Königsberg determined that Thutin had stolen clothing from one of the many houses deserted through exodus or death and that she had taken in a sick relative without her employer’s consent. However, by the time the judiciary handed down its decision, Thutin was already dead and buried. What happened next is astonishing: Barbara Thutin’s body was exhumed from its burial place in the new churchyard, and on the following day, it was hanged, inside its coffin, from a gallows. After being left on display for three days, body and coffin were cut down and burned to ash. Dead or not, there was still a price to be paid, if only symbolically.
By the start of 1710, Prussian state and ecclesiastical authorities were already struggling to mitigate an unprecedented crisis. Central Europe had been wracked by outbreaks of plague since the Black Death in the late 1340s, but this latest epidemic, one of the very last plagues to afflict Europe, was the deadliest wave ever in some parts of Prussia, Estonia, and Lithuania. A consequence of the Great Northern War between the Swedish Empire and the Tsardom of Russia, infection spread across the region as far as Germany and Sweden, killing between one quarter and two thirds of the populace where it struck the hardest. Many died from hunger, as agricultural production was virtually halted. And because the farmlands in the worst-affected areas of Prussia were predominantly owned by the crown, the bottom fell out of the national economy. Attempts to throttle the spread of plague were insufficient or tragically delayed. Despite widespread understanding of the threat of epidemic, early cases were downplayed until the disease had taken root, after which news of the devastation was hyperbolically exaggerated, undermining trust in the state’s authority, particularly in the new sanitary ordinances. The missteps were many, leading to civil unrest. In the autumn of 1709, after the closure of the eastern capital city of Königsberg, the “fiery, irascible Pietist” and professor of theology Heinrich Lysius—later accused of being “a Cartesian and Copernican”—gave a sermon in which he rebuked threats by the authorities to hang citizens who might attempt to break through the plague barrier outside the city, suggesting instead that the people who deserved to be hanged were those who ordered the city to be closed, as they were the ones who had done the most to increase general misfortune. The sermon was later confiscated.
Writing almost two hundred years later, the historian and schoolteacher Wilhelm Sahm wistfully observes, “How should the epidemic be stopped under these circumstances! After all, it may be difficult to absolve the state authorities of individual mistakes, but it would mean misjudging the facts, if one were to unjustly attribute the whole severity of the problem to them.”
The difficulty of contending with early mistakes, disinformation, social disorder, and widespread distrust of government health officials are just the beginning of the similarities between the plague years in Prussia and the public response to coronavirus in the United States today. Sahm writes that unrestricted personal movement and simple carelessness contributed to the early spread of the disease across Prussia. Economic trade tapered off in numerous sectors, leading to high unemployment. The cost of goods spiked. Jews, foreigners, and the homeless were targets of suspicion. City streets were filled with turbulence and mayhem. Robbery and violent crime rose sharply, precipitating the formation of armed night watches. Citizen militias—or Bürgerwache—frequently clashed with police, who in turn were given enhanced latitude to battle mobs and quell riots. Agitators such as Professor Doktor Lysius were censored and punished for giving provocative speeches. Many Prussians sought bizarre folk remedies with no empirically observed history of efficacy, and some attempted to worsen the outbreak by decapitating plague corpses, in the belief that this would strew plague-causing poisons. One government doctor bemoaned the populace’s “foolish resistance” to the sanitary ordinances, and the “mindless defiance” of infected patients who stubbornly refused the prescribed remedies. He complained that the threat of the most common punishment—public lashing with a braided whip—was “not respected at all” and speculated “whether a harsher example should not be made.”
In the spring of 1710, officials in plague-beleaguered Königsberg must have thought that Barbara Thutin, owing partly to her social status as a servant and partly to her being dead, could provide an opportunity to make a sufficiently harsh example. Previously, violators of plague edicts were publicly whipped or put in a stockade, but state warnings that more serious penalties—life imprisonment, or execution—would be handed down were understood to be disingenuous, even by the Berlin Medical Council responsible for issuing them. State authorities and the citizenry were seemingly of the same mind that it would be an injustice to hang an individual just for trying to escape the daily miseries of urban quarantine or find food or do a little commerce, at least not while public morale was already so low. Such callous punishments would cause only more rioting, whereas Barbara Thutin was not only dead; she had done something that had reliably increased one’s chances of being executed for centuries in Prussia: she had contributed to the death of her employer. Her corpse could be hanged and burned, almost as an effigy, with little threat of backlash. Just as astonishing, this gambit seems to have elicited a promising response. Three months later, Prussian state authorities prompted the clergy to read a new edict from the pulpits, announcing, in effect, that Barbara Thutin’s posthumous punishment had been promulgated into law, with notable expansion. In June 1710, church leaders warned parishioners that anyone who died after violating the sanitary ordinances would be considered a suicide and that their body would be exhumed and publicly hanged by the judiciary. The clergy also proclaimed, “The same punishment would also apply to those who died after refusing to take the prescribed medications.”
Today, inflicting physical punishment on a dead body strikes one as both ludicrous and ghastly. In fact, postmortem punishment was commonplace in medieval and premodern Europe, and the castigation of those who died by suicide persisted much longer. Ignominies and abuses were inflicted upon suicide corpses in many parts of Western Europe until the early 1800s in a diverse range of rituals and state-sanctioned practices that all underscored a general repugnance toward the body of a person who had died by their own hand. What was exceptional about Barbara Thutin was not the calculated mistreatment of her remains but the postmortem administrative recategorization of her death by disease as a suicide and the development of this recategorization into policy. Once Thutin had been officially designated responsible for her own death, her remains became available for public humiliation.
In Europe, well into the 1700s, the bodies of those who committed suicide were frequently subjected to public indignity, such as being dragged through the streets or transported in the same cart that carried condemned criminals to the gallows before being left on public display. In England, stakes were sometimes hammered through the hearts of suicide corpses. Typically, across cultures and over centuries, the principal chastisement was the denial of proper burial. Bodies were burned and cast into a river or corpses were exposed and left to be ravaged by animals and the elements. In Ireland, suicide corpses were buried at the seashore. In southern Germany, these bodies were sometimes sent downriver in barrels in a practice called “running” or even used as bait for wolf hunts. Frequently the job of handling the body of a suicide was left to the hangman, the same local figure often tasked with killing rabid dogs, running lepers out of town, and cleaning out cesspits. Willful suicide committed by an outwardly sane person was a crime and a sin, widely understood to be the result of diabolical or supernatural intervention, rendering such bodies untouchable, out of a fear that physical contact might transmit demonic enchantment. As a consequence, the place of final interment was often adjacent to the gallows or in the same potter’s field where executed criminals were buried.
In 1710, faced with the difficult task of reducing criminality and mitigating the spread of disease within an unruly population, the Prussian state needed an opportunity to demonstrate natural authority. This was achieved not simply through the dreadful spectacle of exhuming, hanging, and burning Barbara Thutin’s body, but also by playing on a deeply seated cultural revulsion of suicide and the awful implications of being denied interment in hallowed ground—of being not simply unremembered by one’s own community, but deliberately ostracized from human society, even after death.
In Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany, 1600-1987, Richard J. Evans observes that suicide alone was not traditionally a cause for posthumous execution in medieval or early modern Europe. Despite the litany of degradations and physical insults commonly inflicted upon the corpses of suicides, the hanging or beheading of the dead was generally reserved for criminals who had killed themselves in order to escape capital punishment. Such was the case of Johann Lätsch of Erfurt in 1806, who was condemned to die on the wheel but committed suicide the night before. The local authorities decided to “execute” his corpse, as “the intention of the law is that the sentence shall be carried out on suicides of this kind, as far as is possible, to serve as an example for the deterrence of others.” In 1704, a Vienna newspaper reported on a man who was accused of murdering his wife but who had committed suicide before his sentence could be carried out. His body was dragged to the place of execution, where the executioner beheaded him with an ordinary shovel. In Upper Lusatia in 1647, a domestic worker strangled her employer’s young child before hanging herself, and afterward her body was similarly dragged to the gallows and beheaded by shovel. Perhaps the most famous example of posthumous execution in premodern Western Europe is the Utrecht statesman Gilles van Ledenberg, who was due to stand trial for treasonous activity against the Prince of Orange but preemptively cut his own throat with a bread knife. Like Barbara Thutin, van Ledenberg was later exhumed and hanged in his coffin. Again and again in premodern Europe, the bodies of criminals who attempted to elude justice by taking their own lives were subjected to postmortem or simulated execution, while “regular” suicides were not punished in the same way.
Of course, the public castigation of suicide corpses and the social spectacle of capital punishment are similar in obvious, meaningful ways. Both are elements of social control intended to terrify and shame; both implicitly intend to condemn and deter; and both are ritual performances concerned with the sanctification of the community. However, the capital punishment of criminals who commit suicide carries a specific additional meaning: namely, that the death of a transgressor will not frustrate the community’s entitlement to justice. If a murderer kills himself in the jail to avoid being bludgeoned to death in front of a crowd—well, there would still have to be a bludgeoning because there would still be an expectant crowd. To borrow a phrase, The show must go on.
Given the uncanny similarities between the Prussian epidemic of the early 1700s and the response to COVID-19 in the United States today, it should not be surprising that the practice of postmortem mortification has also been resurrected. This time, the posthumously flogged are social media users who employed their online platforms to stridently downplay the seriousness of coronavirus and to undermine trust in the mRNA vaccines, only to later die from COVID-19. While this reckoning against the transgressive dead involves rhetoric and ridicule, not literal disinterment and physical obliteration, the abuse remains retributive, grounded in a sense of cosmic justice, and very much intended for public consumption.
By midyear of 2021, after vaccines had become widely available, many in the U.S. were well past feeling alarm and frustration at the sizable number of unvaccinated Americans who disputed the deadliness of COVID-19, questioned the safety of the new vaccines, and casually undermined basic mitigation strategies. By September 2021, consternation at this mixture of impudence and fatalism had found an outlet in a mordantly entertaining genre of videos on TikTok. Content creators began making montages of social media posts by individuals who amplified vaccine disinformation and derided mask-wearing before dying—ironically but predictably—from causes secondary to COVID-19.
These TikTok montages follow a fairly rigid template. Act I consists of several screenshots of a social media user’s posts, often citing contrafactual research or promoting dubious COVID-19 remedies such as hydroxychloroquine and veterinary ivermectin. Act II has begun when the user shares that they’ve become infected. The posts then focus on their worsening condition. Act III is typically a single frame announcing the subject’s death, either a screenshot of an obituary or a social media post written in memoriam by a family member. Sometimes TikTok creators superimpose themselves over the montage to editorialize and pontificate, dryly or maliciously. Some accounts provide no narration. When music is present, a staple soundtrack is Heinz Kiessling’s “Blue Blood,” best known as the theme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Snark such as this can make the viewer uneasy, as it underscores the medium’s maximal impoliteness and how vigorously these videos breach the ancient social proscription against disparaging the recently deceased. It is not just our bodies that find sanctuary in the tomb.
TikTok creator @…secretlytiktoking has created many solid examples of the genre, such as when she focuses on social media posts made by a Colorado man named Scott Hilliard, whom she describes as an “anti-vaxxer.” In a series of Facebook posts, Hilliard makes statements like, “Take the mask off dumbass democrat,” and “If you get this vaccine your [sic] about a fucking idiot.” Hilliard promises that anyone who tries to forcefully vaccinate him “will die by my hands.” In ACT II, the posts detail Hilliard’s extreme illness: “I’m so dizzy… shit,” “I’m going down hill [sic] fast… my freaking lungs,” “My dear God this covid is kicking my ass,” “My heart feels like it’s going to explode, it hurts to move,” and “Not knowing what lies ahead of me for tonight Is giving me anxiety through the roof.” Then a post announces that an ambulance has been called. Then Hilliard asks for prayers. Act III is Hilliard’s profile picture, in which he is proudly displaying a fish he has just caught in open water. @…secretlytiktoking informs us that Halliard died on November 15, 2021, at the age of forty-two. There is no background music and throughout the video the creator’s tone is flat with occasional notes of wistfulness and melancholy, as if she has been numbed by the never-ending supply of similar stories she has tasked herself with recapitulating.
One of the more prolific and recognizable contributors to several varieties of COVID-related TikTok content is @crazymotherrunner, who shares and explicates public health information and contradicts disinformation. @crazymotherrunner has accrued over a half million followers and over 21 million likes because she is sharp but relatable, winsome even as she scolds. Unlike others, @crazymotherrunner tends to reserve her comeuppance content for public figures, such as South Carolina Republican Party chair Pressley Stutts, who used his Facebook account to voice resistance to lockdowns and what he saw as unwarranted panic in response to COVID-19. In Act II of a montage video made by @crazymotherrunner, Stutts shares updates on his month-long battle with the virus, much of it in the ICU, which ends with Stutts preparing to be ventilated. Viewers learn that Stutts died shortly after. This time Act III is followed by an encore, as @crazymotherrunner adds a coda on cognitive dissonance, displaying a memorial Facebook post by conservative activist and celebrity attorney L. Lin Wood, who theorizes that the pandemic is being used to partisan ends, because “Only republicans are dying of covid.” @crazymotherrunner also made a video of posts by conservative radio host Phil Valentine, who used social media to make false equivalencies about vaccine safety before dying from complications related to COVID-19. @crazymotherrunner’s closing line for that video: “Is it just me, or is there like, a theme here?”
In terms of antipathetic commentary, however, @crazymotherrunner is hardly extreme. In September 2021, Minnesota-based TikTokker @mikeypiv contributed several montage videos to the comeuppance genre, including a TikTok made with screencapped Facebook posts by a man named Doug Pothul, beginning with a post in which Pothul disputes media claims that COVID-19 is widespread by arguing, “I don’t know anybody that has it.” @mikeypiv offers a disdainfully sardonic narration for a series of slides in which Pothul chronicles his infection and symptoms, shares an image of an “Unvaccinated Lives Matter” T-shirt, and looks forward to overcoming the virus so he can enjoy his “natural immunity.” The last image in the montage is a screenshot from an online obituary reporting Pothul’s premature death at fifty-eight. @mikeypiv says, “Well, at least now you know someone who’s had it.”
The online ridicule of outspoken antivaxxers and pandemic deniers who subsequently died from COVID-19 is by no means limited to TikTok. The website sorryantivaxxer.com is a compendium of social-media reportage on the deaths of “anti-vaxxer [activists] who helped spread COVID-19 misinformation on social media.” There is a private Facebook group titled “My new kink is watching antivaxxers die of Covid.” Twitter is frequently a forum for freestyle comeuppance content, such as a January 2022 tweet by comedian Laurie Kilmartin, who shared the link to a Daily Beast article titled, “QAnon Star Who Said Only ‘Idiots’ Get Vax Dies of COVID,” commenting, “Would be great if these people could get deprogrammed instead of infected oh well.” And finally there is a popular subreddit dedicated to bestowing “Herman Cain Awards,” a reference to the Darwin Awards—sarcastic accolades posthumously conferred upon those “who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool”—as well as one-time presidential candidate Herman Cain, who became one of the first notable right-wing figures to succumb to COVID-19 shortly after downplaying the severity of the disease. (In a bizarre turn, Cain’s Twitter account continued to operate after his death, including a tweet that read, “It looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.”)
Almost everywhere that COVID comeuppance media appears online, commenters roundly indict the content-makers for their ghoulishness and toxicity, accusing them of reveling in the deaths of those to whom they feel intellectually and morally superior. Often at least one commenter will invoke the ancient mortuary aphorism, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” Inevitably, the same question arises: Is content like this a public service, bolstering faith in a new form of vaccine—or is it just schadenfreude? In other words, is humorously highlighting the death of a vocal anti-vaxxer from coronavirus disease an attempt to demonstrate that anti-vaccine rhetoric and “planedemic” conspiracy theories are harmful to the public good, or is content like this no more meaningful than raking up dead dissidents for a few gratifying kicks?
In 2015, psychology researchers at Emory University postulated “a novel tripartite taxonomy” for schadenfreude, or the experience of pleasure or satisfaction at witnessing the failure and suffering of others, which they found is motivated by aggression, rivalry, and a sense of justice. Psychologist C. W. Leach, who was cited by the Emory researchers, connects schadenfreude with gloating and attributes the emotion to social and political polarization. Leach has said, “[It’s] not just taking a little pleasure in somebody’s misfortune […] In many ways, it’s seeing your enemies suffer because of what they believe. That is the sweetest justice, and that’s partly why it’s so satisfying.” Researchers in child psychology at the University of Haifa have suggested that this reflex arises in us as part of our resistance to unfairness and inequality. Schadenfreude isn’t wicked, it follows “the termination of an unequal situation.” The psychologist Norman Feather, who has studied schadenfreude for three decades, has repeatedly argued that the degree to which we enjoy schadenfreude depends on the “perceived deservingness” of the person or group to whom the central misfortune has befallen. For example: If we watch a Dallas Cowboys linebacker get knocked unconscious, we worry for his well-being. But if he gets knocked out two plays after taking a cheap shot at our team’s quarterback, well, that’s practically a morality play.
As robust as the clinical investigation into schadenfreude has been in recent years, the diagnostic terminology retains semantic problems, specifically when it comes to the putative relationship between satisfaction and suffering. It cannot be true that every TikTok user who clicks the little heart icon over a COVID comeuppance video is in fact savoring the real fear, pain, and distress a stranger endured as they approached an undignified and untimely death. More likely, what is most gratifying about these TikToks is how squarely the bad logic and junk science of the TikTok’s Act I are countermanded by the implacable truth of Acts II and III. A cause has met its anticipated effect.
TikTok comeuppance videos confirm the viewer’s assumptions about the world—in this case, that they did the right thing by trusting the science, by depriving themselves of social contact and small errands, by giving Anthony Fauci the benefit of the doubt. They seem to offer unimpeachable proof that we live in an ordered, knowable world of action and reaction. Such a perception of sense and stability in the face of naysayers can lead to faith in reason beyond reason and a level of self-congratulation almost narcotic in how well it satisfies our desire to be right, even as it suppresses our compassion for strangers and their predicaments. It’s also a kind of enchantment, fogging out the reality that vaccine status cannot fairly be correlated to justice or morality, at least not when one’s vaccine status is also correlated to their wealth, race, level of education, and nationality. These TikToks are proof that what ultimately matters to at least some of us, at least some of the time, is belief in a world where people get what they deserve. To reconsider these TikToks as a product of the same drives that once led to the ritualized erasure of the dead is to wonder if we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe it’s not whether this comeuppance content is public service or just schadenfreude. Maybe the schadenfreude is the public service. Maybe what the public wants is not necessarily the good of the public but moral clarity above all else.
When the anti-vaccine proselytizing and COVID denial of the deceased are recontextualized, certain liberal and progressive spaces on the putatively secular, science-loving Internet are ritualistically sanctified, the way medieval villages were once purified with violence after the sudden interruption of a suicide. Here again, it is not the trespasses of the dead in life that comprise the underlying offense, but their death itself. What good is being vindicated in a moral and ideological schism—a schism that calls into question the very epistemological framework of scientific rationalism—if one is denied the ultimate satisfaction: the biologically impossible situation in which an avid COVID-19 denier or anti-vaxxer gets sick and dies from COVID-19, yet also remains attendant and accountable, able to bear witness to their error? What is the common end of empirical and rationalist modes of thinking if not to change hearts by uncovering that which is indisputable? But the dead do not capitulate, and so justice will always feel elusive. And so some of us may find ourselves wending down the path to the graveyard, carrying shovels and rope.
*Title translated from the German Geschichte der Pest in Ostpreußen.
Ben Reed often writes about politeness, medicine, and dystopia. Find him on Twitter: @BenFromAustin. His essays have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Texas Review, and online at The Millions. His short stories have appeared in Pank, Seattle Review, West Branch, and online at Tin House. Ben teaches literature and creative writing at Texas State University and lives in East Austin. He is currently at work on both an essay collection and a novel.