David Cole/Stein and Roberto Muehlenkamp team up in stupidity

In a recent post concerning burial space which he directed at the present author, Roberto Muehlenkamp of holocaust controversies has alluded to his own comically poor work on this question, and then insinuated that a certain historical site may undermine my own arguments on the issue, writing “I suggest that Mr. Jansson have a conversation with his fellow ‘Revisionist’ David Cole about the former Paris cemetery known as the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents.”

While I am not sure that Mr. Cole/Stein, in his present incarnation, can be classified as a revisionist, although he certainly can be characterized as a book-hawking publicity whore, I do have to thank Muehlenkamp for bringing Cole/Stein’s nonsense to my attention.

The site in question is a Paris cemetery which, over several centuries of operation, is supposed to have buried a total of some 2,000,000 bodies. This is supposed to demonstrate that it is possible to bury a very large number of bodies in a very small space, and thereby refute revisionist arguments concerning burial space at the Reinhardt camps.

Amusingly enough, Muehlenkamp offers a link to a book that helps demonstrate how absurd the argument is. At Muehlenkamp’s link, one can read:

In eight centuries [the Cimetière des Innocents] had buried over 2 million Parisians, most in trenches or fosses communes up to thirty feet deep and twenty feet square. They remained open, covered by crude planks, until filled to capacity and above with bodies in shrouds. Only then did sextons cover the anonymous pit with a thin layer of dirt, but just for a brief time. Soil in parts of the Innocents was mounded eight feet above street level when pits were newly filled. The standard two years’ burial was usually too short to permit complete decomposition of bodies before bones were removed so the pits could be reused.

So, if one follows this book, the decomposed remains were removed every two years. (If one wanted, one could claim that this occurred at slightly longer intervals, by interpreting “two years’ burial” as referring only to the period after the grave was covered over. It seems more natural to assume that the overall process would be repeated at intervals of an integer number of years, to avoid seasonal variation in when the remains were exhumed – one would not want a schedule that forced this to happen in the winter. Thus, most likely this hypothetical interpretation is incorrect, and the overall cycling period for the graves was indeed two years; in any case, the numbers are such that adopting such an interpretation would not disturb the conclusions of this post in any significant way.)

Thus, at any one time, there were not hundreds of years’ worth of bodies in the pits, but only two years’ worth. Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that the figure 2 million is the correct value for the total buried at the Cimetière des Innocents. Assuming a constant rate of burial, how many bodies would have been present in a single cycle of the pits? According to this site, the use of the site for burial dates to Merovingian times, while it is first mentioned as a burial place in 12th century documents, and some time between 1185 and 1190 the cemetery was enclosed by a wall; other sources give the date 1186 for the construction of the encircling wall. For the sake of generosity, we will suppose that 2 million represents only the number buried after that year. The cemetery was in operation until 1780, of 594 years later. At two years per cycle, that makes 297 cycles; dividing 2,000,000 by 297 gives approximately 6,734. Thus, there were – on the basis of the provisional assumptions we have made – an average of less than 7,000 bodies buried in the site at one time. Obviously, this is a far cry from the 2 million which so excited Cole/Stein and Muehlenkamp.

Naturally, one could object that the burial rate was not necessarily constant, and may have grown with time, perhaps contributing to deteriorating sanitary conditions which eventually caused the cemetery’s closure, although one should not exclude the alternate possibility that what occurred was not a worsening of sanitary conditions but rather a growth, associated with the enlightenment, in concern over public hygiene. Naturally, one could rearrange the numbers on the basis of how one supposes the burial rate varied over the years. No matter how this is done, the fact that the remains were periodically removed from the site destroys any attempt to use the Cimetière des Innocents as an argument in favor of the possibility of exorbitant burial capacities.

While the above arguments render this point academic, it is also worth noting that 2 million is simply an estimate, and nothing more. At the pertinent German wikipedia entry, one finds that the number buried at the site was estimated in an 1842 book by Henri Bayard, on the basis of the assumption that on average 2,000 bodies were buried per year. The article adds that subsequent estimates have upgraded this figure to at least 3,000 per year, but offers no source; the figure of “at least 3,000” may simply be an extrapolation from the often-repeated – but generally un- or poorly-sourced – claim that 2 million were buried at the site, on the basis of dividing the number of corpses buried by the number of years during which the cemetery operated, using 1186 as a starting date. Bayard’s book is quite rare, and given the irrelevance of the issue I am not particularly motivated to track down a copy and find out on what basis Bayard arrived at his estimate. The sources claiming a total of two million which I have seen do not offer any foundation for their estimate, and appear to have simply repeated the figure from source to source without bothering to ask what the foundation for the number might be. What is clear, however, is that all of these figures are simply estimates, and are not founded on a firm enough evidentiary basis to use for the purpose of refuting bounds on burial capacity established on the basis of better-documented mass graves. If the estimates of the total number of bodies buried at the Cimetière des Innocents suggested an inordinate density of burial, contradicting the figures obtained by other means – which they do not – this would simply be evidence that the estimates are unreliable.

UPDATE: Thanks to kzkladderadatsch for posting a link to Bayard’s book in the comments.

Having established these facts, let us examine what Cole/Stein has to say about the issue. First, he claims that the bodies in the Cimetière des Innocents did not decompose, but simply piled up over the centuries. We have already seen that the remains were in fact periodically removed from the site. As for the claim concerning a lack of decomposition, see below. Cole/Stein then claims that

In the 1780s, the order was given to exhume and transfer every single body to the catacombs. The generally-accepted number of bodies exhumed from the Cemetery of the Innocents is two million

Here he is doubly wrong. First, the figure 2,000,000 – itself merely an estimate – is supposed to represent the total number of bodies buried at the site, not the number present in the 1780s. Given that the decomposed remains were periodically removed from the site, apparently at intervals of two years, the number of bodies present at any one time was likely only several thousand. Second, the exhumation which took place during the 1780s does not appear to have removed all of the bodies. One source claims that the remains were removed down to a depth of 1.6 meters, while the book which Muehlenkamp kindly linked claims (p. 22) that the exhumations proceeded to a depth of 5 feet. (The two figures are not identical, at least not in modern units. The discrepancy may be the result of conversion and rounding, or alternatively of the various historical definitions of the unit “foot” – the exhumation having taken place before the adoption of the metric system.) The above link makes explicit the fact that, pace Cole/Stein, the exhumation did not remove all remains from the site.

Finally, Cole/Stein refers to a 2011 Scientific American blog post, which in turn refers to a Scientific American article, for the claim that the bodies in the Cimetière des Innocents had turned to fat, and that some of this fat was later extracted and used for soap and candles. (We note in passing that Cole/Stein appears to have derived this source, and indeed all of his knowledge on the subject, from the relevant English language wikipedia article.) Evidently neither Scientific American blogger Mary Karmelek nor David Cole/Stein bothered to examine the literature on decomposition. The phenomenon alluded to – saponification – is well known, and is quite a common feature of burial environments, particularly but not exclusively in damp settings, although naturally to a widely varying extent. The substance formed by this process is known as adipocere, sometimes referred to as “grave wax”. Contra Karmelek and Cole/Stein’s babbling, the bodies do not turn to fat – rather, the fat turns to adipocere. As for the claim, sourced from an 1852 edition of Scientific American, that many tons of fat, or rather adipocere, were extracted from the corpses exhumed from the Cimetière des Innocents and used to make soap and candles, one can only say first, that the matter is entirely irrelevant to the issue of body disposal at Treblinka; second, that a magazine article written over six decades after the fact is a rather weak source; and third, that according to the scientific literature on human decomposition, adipocere burns with a notably weak flame, rendering accounts of its large-scale employment in candles rather unlikely.

This preliminary discussion of saponification allows us to return to the claim that corpses at the Cimetière des Innocents did not decompose. It is certainly true that certain burial environments can retard decomposition, that low levels of oxygen in the burial environment may be associated with saponification, and that advanced saponification can lead to a process roughly analogous to mummification which leaves a corpse quite well preserved. If during the 18th century the authorities at the Cimetière des Innocents began to overuse their available space, it would be no surprise if they found that decomposition began to proceed more poorly than before, and that they could have been troubled by an accumulation of adipocere. Such a phenomenon has been documented elsewhere, and seems to be rather a common phenomenon in cases where cemetery managers attempt to bury corpses too densely and recycle their grave space too often. This does not, however, mean that the corpses do not decompose at all, nor that such a phenomenon was at work for the entirety of the Cimetière des Innocents’ history, and still less that the corpses remained intact in the graves for centuries, rather than being removed each time the burial plots were reused. Given this, the extent to which the bodies in the Cimetière des Innocents decomposed turns out to be an entirely irrelevant question. That said, it is rather clear that the bodies decomposed normally for most of the site’s history, and that while reports of the bodies being well-preserved during the 1786 exhumation, some six years after the cemetery had ceased to receive bodies, may well partly based in the very real phenomenon of adipocere formation in burial environments, claims that none of the bodies decomposed at all are simply wild exaggerations, and are perhaps the result of the attention generated by the (at the time) unfamiliar substance adipocere.

In summary, Cole/Stein’s arguments have no merit whatsoever. In relaying them, Muehlenkamp demonstrates his own lack of ideas concerning his burial space and cremation dilemmas. His claim to have “mathematically demonstrated” that the alleged Reinhardt burials were possible can only inspire laughter, given the many numerical errors and erroneous assumptions that permeate his writings. Carlo Mattogno has already enumerated many of the flaws in Muehlenkamp’s work, and while I have no intention of wasting my time wading too deep into Muehlenkamp’s Slough of Incompetence, I could easily identify some additional defects in the arguments of this controversial blogger; perhaps at some point in the future I will write them up.

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3 Responses to David Cole/Stein and Roberto Muehlenkamp team up in stupidity

  1. As always a great article, HHC.
    Just for your future reference, the BNF site Gallia often will have older French books that don’t show up in Anglo/American archives like Google Books and IA. So it is here with Bayard:

    http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k64723334/f62.image.r=M%C3%A9moires%20sur%20la%20topographie%20m%C3%A9dicale.langEN

    On p. 54 Bayard writes:

    “Au milieu du dix-huitieme siecle, on y enterrait 3,000 personnes par an dans les fosses communes; les sepultures particulieres n’etaient que de 150 a 200. En calculant a 2,000 inhumations par an a partir de l’annee 1186, on y aurait depose plus de de 1,200,000 corps jusqu’en 1780, epoque a laquelle on ferma ce cimetiere.”

    As far as I can see that’s all he says on the subject of numbers. Bayard notes that the annual burial rate in the middle of the 18th c. was ca. 3,000 p.a., but uses 2,000 p.a. for his calculation of the cemetery’s service lifetime. In other words, he’s already taken an average of sorts in making his calculation, on the (undoubtedly sound) assumption that the 18th c. rate was higher than in previous centuries. The Wikipedia editor who referenced Bayard in support of the 2,000,000 number thus has doubly falsified his source, first by ignoring Bayard’s implicit recognition that 3,000 p.a. is not a likely number for all 600 years that the cemetery was used, and second by the rhetorical sleight of hand of turning Bayard’s “3,000” into “mindestens 3000” (“at least 3,000”) since he couldn’t get to the desired 2,000,000 with just 3,000 x 600. A small point, of course, but it confirms what revisionists know only too well from other contexts: when people want to impress with big numbers, they’ll use most any trick to get there.

    On the subject of saponification/arrested decomposition, I note that you (deliberately?) omit the last two sentences of the paragraph you quote from the Linden-Ward book. I suspect that you did so because you find the underlying claims (about lye, for example) scientifically unsound, but even if the claims are exaggerated, it seems worth noting nonetheless that the cemetery had a reputation for rapidly “consuming” corpses:

    “Still, tales persisted that the earth there had the power to consume flesh in one to nine days. Generous use of powdered lye, a caustic chemical, and quicklime, to minimize soil acidity and odors, sped up the process.” (Blanche Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill, p. 19)

    I’m out of my depth in evaluating such claims (except to note that “one to nine days” does sound rather improbable–if only the Germans had known, lol). If you’ve got the time and the inclination, however, I’d be interested to know what you think a more realistic estimate might be. Whatever the case in 1780, it seems clear that for most of its active years the cemetery must have served as an effective way of eliminating the problematic soft tissue of corpses in the short term before removing bones to charnel houses for the long term. After all, the system couldn’t have functioned for all those centuries otherwise.

    • Thanks, Kladderadatsch. Also thanks for the link to Bayard’s book.

      Regarding the German wiki article, I don’t think the editor lied, just that he put the footnote in the wrong place. He didn’t claim that Bayard estimated “at least 3,000” but that “neuere Hochrechnungen” did this. He just didn’t cite any of these newer estimates. There are plenty of sources repeating the two million figure, as a few google books searches can confirm, but I didn’t see that any of them offered any information on how the figure was obtained.

      Concerning the influences of chemicals on decomposition: Quicklime certainly has a preservative effect, while lye will dissolve tissue, although not as readily as some imagine. I don’t think that adding powdered lye to the burial would have too much of an effect in speeding decomposition, although I’m not sure. I think that while the lye itself would contribute to decomposing the carcass, it would to so only very superficially. It would also tend to impede the microbial activity that’s responsible for most of decomposition. If they really did use a lot of chemicals (at some point in time) in the cemetery, it’s possible that this contributed to decomposition starting to work less effectively. That is, if they created soil conditions in which the microbes that do much of the work of decomposing a body couldn’t live, decomposition would definitely proceed more slowly. Thus, their attempts to speed decomposition would have ultimately created an environment in which it couldn’t take place effectively.

      My estimates on time to decomposition: this is really hard to say, as it depends on the circumstances so heavily. Decomposition is immensely variable. As a general figure, a normally buried body can certainly be pretty well skeletonized in 2-3 years, but this isn’t a guarantee. For shallow burials, skeletonization may be even faster. However, bodies in mass graves tend to be better preserved – Katyn is an example – at least if there is enough of a carcass mass to have an interior (the outer carcasses “protect” the inner ones from some of the effects of decomposition – the “feather-edge effect”). I’d say that a plot recycling period of 2 years is possible, as long as they weren’t overly delicate about exactly what they removed from the graves at the end of a term. If decomposition proceeded well in that particular location they may have found fairly well skeletonized bodies at the end of the burial period. A two year recycling period is pretty aggressive, though, and was probably the result of the limited available space. In other examples of cemeteries using plot recycling that I’ve seen, they used longer intervals, say 10 years, for recycling a plot.

  2. Pingback: Muehlenkamp doubles down on stupid | Holocaust History Channel

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