The Ballad of Edwin Rowlette, Modern Day Orpheus

To celebrate Zombie Day at ScienceBlogs, I'm pleased to reveal a short excerpt from my forthcoming book Zombology: the new science of reanimation and mind control. I hope you enjoy it!

"Go, my dear Ernst," she said very gently; "go, and forget me. You might as well love a buried corpse as love a woman with such a fate as mine."

"My love should have the power to magnetise the corpse into fresh life!"

--Ouida, The Massarenes

i-e01d9cc2d875151b0ee76a10860a7b5d-orpheus.pngDeath has always been seen as a permanent barrier that only the most divine could cross at will. For the rest of us mortals, it was intended to be a one-way trip, and cautionary tales about those who would break this covenant abound throughout history. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Greek tragedy of Orpheus, the peerless lyre player who sang so sadly at the death of his wife Eurydice that even the gods wept, and at their behest he travelled into the underworld to retrieve her. Likewise softened by Orpheus's melancholy music, Hades and Persephone allowed Orpheus to lead Eurydice back to the living realm on the condition that he not look upon her until they were both at the surface. As soon as he set foot in the upper world he looked back, forgetting that they both needed to be on the surface, and Eurydice was swallowed up by underworld forever more. Some retellings of the myth are less sympathetic to Orpheus, underscoring his impetuousness to demand Eurydice be returned to the world of the living; they imply that if his love had been true, Orpheus would have killed himself and followed his wife into the underworld. In this reading, Hades and Persephone present Orpheus with nothing more than an apparition, a cruel trick to rid themselves of an unwelcome houseguest. Similar stories warning of the inviolate nature of death appear across a wide range of cultures, and can be found in Sumerian, Japanese, Native American, Germanic, Roman, and Mayan folklore. Even today, we only have to look to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to find a warning against the hubris of overturning what some see as sacred laws. Of all natural processes, a select few are deemed by sections of society to be sacrosanct, death amongst them, and those people that would seek to bend or break these house rules are disparagingly said to be "playing God". However, several thousand years of forewarning didn't stop one Arizona citizen from following in Orpheus's footsteps, setting out on a path that was fated to lead to a similarly unhappy end.

In the early hours of September 2, 2003, Yavapai County police raided the home of 75-year-old pensioner Edwin Wilmer Rowlette, following a tip-off from his daughter. She had been visiting the elderly man's sprawling property in Prescott, Arizona, when she spotted a large truck delivering dry ice. Suspicious, she waited until he was away from the house one night before recruiting a neighbour to help investigate the cluttered back yard. Entering a small tin shed, the couple heaved open the door of a large chest freezer. Lying inside was the twisted frozen corpse of a woman shrouded in wisps of icy smoke. It was Rowlette's young wife, who has passed away several years previously. On arriving at the scene, the police found the lifeless bodies of ten cats packed into the freezer alongside the woman, as if some modern-day Nefertiti had been entombed with her spirit guides. When questioned, Rowlette explained matter-of-factly to officers that he was planning to bring his dead spouse back to life.

Coroner's records confirmed that Marcia Rowlette had passed away from natural causes in 1997. Struck down with spinal meningitis at age two, Marcia was never able to walk. She was born with numerous congenital anomalies, and suffered musculoskeletal problems, rheumatoid arthritis, and painful psoriasis. Marcia spent her entire adult wheelchair-bound in a nursing home. During this time she met and married Edwin Rowlette. After she died, at just 38 years of age, her body was passed to the McCandless Research and Development Foundation, which, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, was operated solely by her widower, who held the roles of director, treasurer, president and sole employee.

Not much was heard of the McCandless Foundation until police raided Rowlette's property many years later. Tax records show that in the year after Marcia Rowlette's death, the typically inert McCandless Foundation paid $2,200 for "research materials". In the years that followed, "feline research" was listed as one of the major expenditures. When the story broke, Rowlette told reporters that he was preserving his wife cryogenically, stating: "We would like to restore her back to life as soon as we can get the necessary professionals such as a restorative surgeon and the necessary healer cells". However, all the professionals in the world couldn't have helped Marcia. Shortly after she died, her body was autopsied and her organs removed. Although he was arrested for "crimes against the dead", no formal charges were brought against Rowlette. For two months Rowlette wrangled with authorities and Marcia's family over who was responsible for her body, until eventually it was signed over to Rowlette under condition of burial.

Rowlette, though, still hadn't given up hope of resurrecting his dead wife. He made arrangements to have the body flown to 2,000 miles north to Yellowknife, capital of Canada's Northwest Territory. A small mining town just 250 miles south of the Arctic circle, graves are dug in advance during the summer, the only time when the ground is not frozen solid. It seems that Rowlette believed the freezing conditions would preserve his wife until he could complete his research. The McCandless Foundation continues its activities to this day.

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