Skip to main content

An art historian is in court to get access to human remains – including a tattoo from murder victim Mildred Brown – at Quebec City’s Museum of Civilization

Open this photo in gallery:

Jamie Jelinski, an art historian and tattoo researcher, in the Hawthorn-Dale Cemetery in Montreal where Millie Brown is buried in an unmarked grave. Jelinski is contributing a chapter on Brown’s tattoo to the forthcoming book Museums and the Working Class.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

One day in July, 1929, a young woman from Cape Breton named Mildred Brown was drinking with friends in a Montreal speakeasy on lower St. Laurent Boulevard. Brown and her best friend, Nancy Morrison, got to arguing over Brown’s boyfriend, and eventually a drunken Morrison bludgeoned Brown with a plank, crying out to their companions: “Go and take a look at Millie now.” Brown died in hospital within hours. Morrison wound up serving time for manslaughter while Brown wound up on the coroner’s table where photographs show the tattoo on her arm, an American flag with her initials, MB.

By the time she was buried, however, the tattoo was missing: That small portion of her skin had been removed, and today it forms part of a grisly collection of tattoos, bones and organs housed at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City. Parts of the collection have been publicly displayed as recently as 2019, but the museum has repeatedly refused access to a Canadian art historian who studies the history of tattooing. In a series of hearings in May and June, a Montreal court will decide whether Jamie Jelinski has the right, under Quebec’s access to information laws, to see the human remains, including the tattoo, and related historical documentation. Both the museum and Quebec’s ministry of public security, which officially owns the collection, declined to comment on it or Jelinski’s case, citing the pending hearings.

“Having tattooed remains is not unusual; a lot of museums have ones obtained under dubious circumstances,” said Jelinski, who is contributing a chapter on the case of Millie Brown’s tattoo to the forthcoming book Museums and the Working Class. “I’m not opposed to them displaying them with appropriate context.”

Internationally, museums are increasingly cautious about displaying human remains, but most cases in Canada involve Indigenous remains that are now routinely returned to the communities where archeologists once dug them up. In the unusual case of this tattoo, the remains are part of a large collection assembled by Wilfrid Derome, the father of forensic pathology in Canada who established the first forensics lab in North America.

Open this photo in gallery:

Wilfrid Derome is considered the father of forensic pathology in Canada.Handout

Derome, once celebrated as “the terror of the criminal class,” was a pioneering expert in ballistics who also developed techniques for identifying corpses and classifying wounds. The Montreal lab he founded in 1914 invented tests for detecting poison in humans and animals, and a rapid test for blood alcohol content as well as launching the use of crime-scene photography in Canada. Quebec’s Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale exists to this day, now located in a Sûreté du Québec building named for the famed pathologist.

Derome’s odd collection includes hundreds of bones, skulls, preserved organs and even a mummified heart as well as firearms, bomb mechanisms and other weapons. Its most famous artifact is probably the skull of Raoul Delorme, a man allegedly shot by his half-brother, the Abbot Joseph-Adélard Delorme, in a dispute over an inheritance in 1922. Derome used the skull as ballistics evidence at Delorme’s third trial for the crime, although in the devout atmosphere of 1920s Quebec the priest was never convicted. Like Delorme’s skull, the remains in the collection were taken from victims of crime, some identified, others anonymous, but Derome’s contemporary biographer says there was nothing prurient in the pathologist’s interest.

“These were not objects of morbid curiosity; it was a reference library,” said Jacques Côté, a crime novelist and the author of the 2003 biography Wilfrid Derome: Expert en homicides. “In today’s context, maybe the human remains shock people but that was not the intention.” Before digital photography and DNA revolutionized the field, Derome used the body parts as examples of pathologies, wounds and methods of identification, and welcomed both lawyers and his own students into his forensics museum.

Still, Jelinski points out that Derome’s access to human remains was a function of his professional power over the bodies of working-class crime victims. As early as the 1970s, as the lab moved into its new building, the material was recognized as potentially controversial and plans to revamp Derome’s museum never got off the ground.

Open this photo in gallery:

The facade of the Wilfrid-Derome Building in Montreal, which now houses the Sureté du Quebec.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

In 1997, this historic but problematic collection was loaned to the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City for 25 years. The museum has exhibited some of the items since then, treating the human remains much as it would any other artifacts in its large collection, publishing images on its website and other databases.

In 2016, Jelinski, who was completing a PhD thesis on the history of commercial tattooing in Canada, first found the image of Brown’s tattoo – it had been mounted on a board alongside several others from unidentified bodies – on a federal website devoted to museum collections. He was intrigued because his historical research argues that it was not just sailors and criminals, but also middle- and working-class women, who had themselves tattooed. When he e-mailed the Museum of Civilization, an archivist explained that what the researcher had interpreted as a tattoo artist’s patterns were actually pieces of skin.

Two years later, he travelled to Quebec City to see the real tattoos when the museum organized an exhibition entitled Secrets Uncovered: 400 Objects, a World of Emotions. It ran from February, 2018, to September, 2019, and featured unusual or remarkable items in the museum’s vaults including, from the Derome collection, Delorme’s skull, the dismembered bones of a 16-year-old murdered in the 1930s named Louis-Philippe Lafontaine, and the tattoos. Wanting to know more, Jelinski sought access to documentation including the two-volume Album des causes célèbres, Derome’s compilation of crime scene photography, which features an image of Brown’s body. Although Côté has had access to both the collection and the albums, Jelinski was denied permission to see them and launched several access-to-information requests in an attempt to force the museum’s hand.

Open this photo in gallery:

A portion of the Secrets Uncovered: 400 Objects, a World of Emotions exhibition at Quebec's Musée de la civilisation on April 6, 2018, including a display of tattooed human skin. The photo below shows the same exhibition on June 5, 2019, with the tattoos taken down.

The museum did not relent, but Jelinski’s access to information requests did turn up emails on the subject which, under Quebec law, the museum must post on its website. These emails suggest that Jelinski’s request to see the actual tattoo and Derome’s albums belatedly warned museum staff they had to be more judicious about showing the material. In an email written by curator Sylvie Toupin, seeking instruction from Bob Dufour, current director of the lab Derome founded a century ago, the museum staffer cites the legal advice received from the Quebec coroner’s office. A lawyer had reminded the museum that under Quebec and Canadian law even the dead have the right to privacy and that tattoos are considered identifying marks. The museum was also told that all crime scene photography is private and should not be circulated. But Toupin began by assuring Dufour that the tattoos would be taken down as soon as possible: By June, 2019, when Jelinski returned to the museum for a second time, the tattoos were no longer on display. Still, the museum had not removed Lafontaine’s bones nor Delorme’s skull, both of which also identified the victims.

Open this photo in gallery:

Jamie Jelinski/Handout

The display of any human remains in museums is much debated, but it is very unusual that the bodies or body parts can be traced back to named individuals who have been dead a mere century. The Canadian Museums Association’s guidelines on the issue date to 1999 and speak mainly in terms of returning archaeological remains to communities for reinterment, in keeping with current international museum codes that tie sensitivity about human remains to respect for particular cultural communities. The Canadian guidelines also remind museums to respect issues of privacy on such sensitive material. Canadian museums no longer display human remains from First Nations and, particularly in British Columbia, institutions are actively working on returning remains for reburial.

On the other hand, many museums still display mummified corpses from ancient Egypt, a practice to which contemporary Egyptian society does not object. In Britain, there has been debate about the display of so-called bog bodies, naturally mummified corpses found in peat bogs, and calls for respect for “the ancient dead,” as museums debate the ethics of attention-grabbing public displays of bodies that date back thousands of years.

Meanwhile, there is strong legal precedent in Canada for denying public access to crime scene photography, including a 1999 case where a journalist was refused permission to view photographs of murder victim Reena Virk. However, coroners still hold powerful rights to retain the body parts of crime victims. Ontario remains the only Canadian jurisdiction with a regulation stating families must be informed if a coroner keeps body parts, although the issue has been controversial since a 2015 murder trial in Edmonton where the preserved vagina of victim Cindy Gladue was entered as evidence because photos were considered insufficient.

“It was an undignified thing to do,” said British Columbia forensic pathologist Sharon Boone, who has done research into the law surrounding human remains. “And it not being returned to her family was another issue. … Not everybody cares [about the treatment of remains] but a majority do and COVID has brought death back into our lives. It’s very personal and it’s coming to the forefront as an issue.”

Boone points out that today 3-D computer imaging precludes the need for Derome’s collection: “Because of technology there is no reason to do it; any finding of educational value can be done digitally. The big question is: What do you do with what you have?” Boone suggested the museum should be looking for family members to whom remains might be returned.

Certainly, the museum is aware the collection poses problems. Explaining in her e-mail that the crime scene photography would be placed in a restricted file in the future, Toupin said: “We have to guard against voyeurism or unhealthy curiosity. Consultation will be accepted for judiciary requests and for serious, historical study.”

But Jelinski, who is now working on his own book about how Canadian institutions such as museums and police forces control visual imagery, argues that his interest is legitimate and scholarly.

“This is an intentional obfuscation of history,” he said of the museum’s denial of his requests, adding, “If they had just let me see the tattoo I would have been happy. By denying my request, they have led me to something way more contentious.”

Open this photo in gallery:

A gravestone sits near where it's believed the body of Mildred Brown is buried in the Hawthorn-Dale Cemetery in Montreal.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Today, all images of Millie Brown’s stars and stripes tattoo have been removed from museum websites but somewhere in the vaults in Quebec City there remain not only her small piece of skin but also the wooden beam that killed her. Meanwhile, the body of the young woman from Cape Breton lies in an unmarked grave in the Hawthorn-Dale cemetery on the eastern tip of the island of Montreal.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe