Semester Wrap-Up of Decomposing Bodies


Semester Wrap-Up of Decomposing Bodies

Hard to believe that this semester is already coming to an end!

My work on Decomposing Bodies this spring focused on two different areas: reading and research about the history of policing and prisons in the United States, and data management of the images and related documents making up the heart of the DB dataset. At first glance, these two endeavors seem wildly different, and they certainly require different ways of thinking and skillsets, but I think that they are both essential part of the work that makes DB an interesting and engaging project, and that you can’t have one without the other.

Decomposing Bodies is a digital humanities project, and the work that I’ve done on it this past spring has been both digital and humanistic. After the Data (after)Lives exhibit in the Fall, we felt it was important to update DB’s presence on the web to reflect our most recent work, and some of the ideas, tools, and visualizations that have come out of it. This involved updating the public Decomposing Bodies website with a timeline of the project’s history, updated bibliography and contributors, and the addition of an interactive visualization of the faces and measurements of some of the people documented by Bertillonage that make up DB.

Along with updating the website, I have also worked to update the documentation of the transcriptions of the Bertillon cards in Omeka. I can now say that over 1,800 cards have been completely transcribed, and 700 more have been at least partially transcribed. This represents approximately 20% of the cards in the Decomposing Bodies collection. This is in large part thanks to the work of the graduate and undergraduate students working in the VMW, including two First Experience in Research students, Joe Jang and Ashley Cipcic, who not only helped immensely with transcription this term, but also conducted their own research about the racial and social demographics of the people in the cards they transcribed.

Engaging with the social and cultural situation that led to the implementation of Bertillonage in the Ohio penal system was another avenue of my work for this semester. This is the ‘human’ part of this project. I have been reading about the history of the prison system in the United States, and the particular circumstances that lead to the implementation of Bertillonage in Ohio at the turn of the last century. Some of my readings have included: “At Hard Labor: Rediscovering the 19th Century Prison”, by Martin Miller, Forgotten Reformer : Robert McClaughry and Criminal Justice Reform in Nineteenth-Century America, by Frank Morn, and the Proceedings of the annual congress of the National Prison Association, held at Cincinnati, September 25-30, 1890. It’s impossible to disconnect the prison reform movement of the late 19th century from the shift in the goals of incarceration that was happening concurrently, or from the rapid expansion of the prison-industrial complex in the United States today. And no part of that process can be separated from the understanding of race in Reconstruction Era America.

I will be continuing to work on Decomposing Bodies over the Summer Term, and I hope to expand my work in both the data management and historical contexts of this project. There are so many directions to go with DB, and I feel lucky to get to explore some of them, especially as they relate to my own research interests. See you in the summer, then!

  • Decomposing Bodies
  • Graduate Work
  • VMW