The Strange Case Of Dr. Winslow’s Heart

The New England regional author Edward Rowe Snow (1902—1982) related a strange and fascinating piece of Nantucket lore in his 1979 book Tales of Terror and Tragedy.  Since the volume is long out of print, I will retell it here.

Snow, like I myself as a student in the 1980s, loved to pick and poke through Boston’s secondhand bookstores.  There used to be many such places; but alas, as in so many other respects, the modern world has severely curtailed that old pleasure.  In 1934, Snow was perusing William’s Bookstore (it apparently no longer exists) and came upon a small book entitled Island of Nantucket.  No author was named.  On page 61, in a section on the island’s cemeteries, he read this sentence:  “At the South lies buried the heart of Dr. Winslow, whose body was cremated.”  His imagination was fired by this strange reference.  What could it possibly mean? 

Snow did no further research on the matter.  He served in the Second World War, and moved on to other interests and projects.  Yet the weird case of Dr. Winslow’s heart resurfaced in 1946, when Snow gave several historical lectures on Nantucket.  He mentioned the topic to a friend who had an extensive library on Nantucket history; and soon Snow had located the same book he had first thumbed through in 1934.  Its full title was Island of Nantucket:  What It Was, And What It Is, and it was written by Edward K. Godfrey.  Snow’s friend brought him to Nantucket’s South Cemetery, and together they sought out the Winslow plot; they were now determined to find out if an amputated heart was indeed buried there.  They eventually identified the headstones of a Benjamin Winslow and his wife Phebe; but there was no sign that a heart had been interred.

Inquiries with the cemetery caretaker revealed nothing.  However, when Snow conveyed the story to the Nantucket Genealogical Society, his efforts bore fruit:  Benjamin Winslow’s son was Dr. Charles F. Winslow, and he had died in Utah in 1877.  Combing through the local newspapers of 1877 at the Nantucket Athenaeum, Snow eventually discovered an obituary stating that Dr. Charles F. Winslow had died on July 8, 1877 in Salt Lake City.  It turned out that Charles Winslow was a fascinating and brilliant man.  Born in 1811, he demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for scholarship; he studied at Harvard and later in Paris, and became not only a medical doctor, but an attorney as well.  Even this was not enough; one of his other interests was cosmology, and in 1853 he published a volume entitled Cosmography or Philosophical Views of the Universe. He was a philosopher as well as a doctor.  

Snow learned that Winslow had also traveled extensively as a State Department official, performing service in California, Peru, China, and the Hawaiian Islands.  He moved to Salt Lake City in 1874 when his wife died, and there devoted himself to the practice of law. In his will, Snow discovered, Winslow had given detailed and precise instructions that, upon his death, his heart should be surgically removed from his body:

[When I am deceased] my heart shall be removed from my body by some competent anatomist and placed immediately in a strong glass vessel having a ground glass stopper accurately fitted to same, and that this vessel be immediately filled for the purpose of embalming my heart, with a saturated solution, in hot water, of muriate of ammonia and sal ammonia, each of these salts being added to the boiling water until it will dissolve no more.  Then alcohol may be added and the vessel filled therewith.  The vessel must be stopped and sealed and the stopper securely covered with wet parchment and tied.  I order this vessel put in a thick oak plank box, made of the size to receive it, and the box saturated with coal tar:  this I wish enclosed in a plain pine case and buried in the grave and over the remains of my dead and venerated mother in the South of Newtown burying ground, in the island of Nantucket, where I was born…

Winslow’s mother and father were buried together on Nantucket, and he wished to have his heart buried beside them.  Winslow ordered his body to be cremated, and that his ashes be buried with his wife in Boston.  It was an eccentric burial, to be sure; and Winslow apparently never confided his intentions to his surviving relatives.  For when the will was read to his survivors, his children were shocked.  Yet the will could not be legally challenged, and Winslow’s directives had to be carried out.  His heart was removed from his body, preserved in a thick glass vessel as instructed, and shipped from Utah to Massachusetts.  As directed, his ashes were interred at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Boston, next to his wife’s remains. 

Yet the question still persisted:  what had happened to the heart? Why was there no marker indicating its presence?  Had it even reached Nantucket, or had some outraged relative thwarted Winslow’s intentions?  Snow, by now determined to resolve the mystery, contacted the cemetery caretaker to see what could be done.  The skeptical caretaker told him that, if he could secure the permission of the Winslow family, the grounds could be probed for the location of the box containing the heart.  This was done; Snow does not described how this was accomplished, but the reader may imagine that the conversation must have been in interesting one, to say the least.  Snow then returned to the caretaker with the required authorization.  After several hours of hunting, in which long steel rods were forced into the ground, the caretaker had located in the Winslow plot a box with dimensions of about 18 inches by 12 inches.  This, they knew, must be what they were looking for. 

Locating the box was one thing, but getting authorization to exhume it was something else.  I suspect that a court order would have been required, but Snow does not provide the details.  The box was dug up and opened; inside was found the glass container with the preserved heart.  Once photographs had been taken, the remains were reburied.  Snow, ever the enterprising folklorist, decided to start a donation drive to erect a marker at the site.  He even tracked down Winslow’s great-granddaughter Helen Oehler, then living in Texas, with information about his plans; Mrs. Oehler responded enthusiastically, even agreeing to visit Nantucket for the dedication of the new marker.  It was finally done on July 14, 1947.  Mrs. Oehler, in her address at the dedication, explained the reason behind her ancestor’s strange burial request:  it was the best way, as he saw it, to reside for all time with both his beloved wife and with his parents in the island where he had spent his youth.             

What a multifarious collection of burial customs we find in this world!  See how the Zoroastrians confined their dead to Towers of Silence, so that vultures would dispose of the remains; see the variety of cremation rituals, and the methods of scattering ashes; and see the incredible creativity found with tombstones and their inscriptions, and among all the mossy sepulchres the world over.  All of these customs represent attempts to know truth:  that is, attempts to reconcile our hopes with our ignorance.  Where does the soul go after death? Or is there even such a thing as a soul? Man grasps and strives in the dark, for the most part; on metaphysical questions like these, he cannot really distinguish truth from non-truth. Winslow must have pondered these questions intensely. It is not possible for a man who authored a book on cosmography to have ignored profounder speculations on the transmigration of souls after death.  

Of the persistence and survival of soul, we can only speculate.  It has always been so—and likely always will be so.  And yet the quest still has value in its own right, for it enables us to clarify our thinking. Self-knowledge, and by extension a truth, is thereby catalyzed. In this regard, we have not much advanced beyond the poetic imaginings of Parmenides of Elea, who flourished in the late 6th or early 5th century B.C.  He is considered one of the founders of metaphysics; and he authored only one relatively short philosophical poem.  It is untitled, and is preserved only in fragments, mainly in long quotations by later writers such as Simplicius and Sextus Empiricus. 

The first part of Parmenides’s poem describes a celestial journey in which a youth is transported on a chariot to a location in the heavens where the gates of night and day are found.  He enters a palace, and is greeted by a mysterious goddess who instructs him on the difference between “truth,” or “what is,” and “what is not,” that is, the opinions of mortal man.  Because we do not have the entire poem, it is difficult to know fully what Parmenides intended, but it seems he was attempting to offer a view of reality:  there is one permanent, unchangeable, inflexible Truth, and then there is the uncertain world of appearances, the opinions of men.  Just like Winslow, we cannot know if our quest is based on Truth or illusion; yet we must proceed nonetheless, using the best information available to us.  So we must seek the whale, find the whale, harpoon the whale, and ponder the philosophical implications later.  It is as Falconer said in Canto III of “The Shipwreck”:

As when enclosing harpooners assail

In Hyperborean seas the slumb’ring whale,

Soon as their javelins pierce his scaly side,

He groans, he darts impetuous down the tide;

And racked all o’er with lacerating pain,

He flies remote beneath the flood in vain—   



Read more on philosophical subjects in Thirty-Seven: