June 2017

Piercings at Peace: Death and the Body in S-Town

S-Town, even as it relies on new forms of technology and media distribution to create a new genre of podcast storytelling, is part of a long and complex anthropological tradition.

This essay is part one of a two-part series. Click here for the introduction, and here for part two.

by Kate Steir

Ty Burr in the Boston Globe began his review of the provocative new podcast S-Town with a question: “Is ‘S-Town’ a freak show for the NPR crowd?” Burr is intentionally being glib here, but his choice of words highlights the ways that S-Town, even as it relies on new forms of technology and media distribution to create a new genre of podcast storytelling, is part of a long and complex anthropological tradition.

S-Town centers not only on John B. McLemore’s story, but also on his body.

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John B. McLemore. “S-Town,” Courtesy of Ross Mackintosh.

John B. McLemore performed restorations throughout his life both on clocks and on his Civil War-era home. As producer and host Brian Reed explored the network of connections that John had made for himself around the world, particularly in his earlier years, I was stuck by the fact that so many of his relationships were built around the embodied practice of clock making. People who knew John repeatedly referred to him not just as a “genius,” but as more than that: he was a genius who was able to translate his ideas into a material reality through clock restorations. Allen Berdin, a fellow antiquarian horologist and friend of John, describes this in a particularly illustrative way. Allen relates driving to John’s house (based solely on his reputation as a horologist) and meeting him for the first time to consult about fixing an eighteenth-century Elliot grandfather clock. In the interview, Allen explains that he could have easily created a machine-made part to fix the clock, but that would not have been a restoration. John was able to hand file a piece to fit the clock over the course of three and half hours from his memory of that kind of piece.

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An Elliott of London grandfather clock. Image courtesy of Pinterest.

In this moment, John’s body and the clock modified one another, and in the process forged connections between John, Allen, the clock, previous horologists, and the past. John’s new piece transformed the clock by making it work again, but over the course of three and half hours the labor of filing the piece to repair the clock also must have modified John’s body, perhaps causing calluses to develop, muscles to strengthen or strain, stiffness from sitting or standing. It is also through these physical, material encounters with clocks over the course of his life that John created and maintained friendships with many of the people on the list he leaves of people to contact after he dies. From meeting Allen because of this Elliot clock, to sending his college professor a custom-made astrolabe forty years after they met, John’s embodied knowledge and physical labor in horological circles created social connections around the world—in ways that are becoming increasingly unusual in the twenty-first century.

This is why it is particularly tragic when Brian posits that some of John’s horology practices might have contributed to his death. John was one of the few horologists left who practiced fire gilding, an ancient and dangerous technique involving the heating (and inhalation) of mercury to create a golden sheen for the exterior of metal clock pieces. It seems that one of the ways in which the clocks acted on John’s body was mercury poison, which Brian posits could have exacerbated John’s mental health issues and break apart some of the connections which he forged through his work. Brian described clients and fellow horologists who fell out of touch with John in his final years, as he refused medical help for his increasing depression.

However, even as his health deteriorated and decreased demand meant that he spent less time on clocks, he continued to build his relationship with Tyler, one of John’s closest friends, in similar ways. Working with Tyler on landscaping his property forged connections between the two lifelong residents of Bibb County around a basis of physical work, similar to how clock restoration was a medium through which John forged emotional connections with fellow horologists and clients. However, at the end of his life, John and Tyler’s relationship was also embodied through body modification.

It was through “physical, material encounters with clocks over the course of his life that John created and maintained friendships.”

The discussion of John’s tattoos and piercings struck me as one of the most uncomfortable and ethically ambiguous elements of S-Town. John repeatedly talks about how he was ashamed of his tattoos. Unlike Tyler, he made sure that his tattoos and piercings were not visible when he was dressed. Towards the end of the first episode, Brian first becomes aware of John’s tattoos and piercings when John lifts his shirt and shows his nipple rings. John does not say anything, so Brian narrates for the audio recording what he sees: that John’s chest is entirely covered in tattoos and has both nipples pierced. We hear John on tape saying “we weren’t going to talk about that…”

Yet the podcast does talk about John’s nipple piercings, in surprising length, and particularly what happens to them after John’s death. Both Tyler and John’s cousin Reta recount that, following John’s death, Reta requested that the undertaker remove his nipple rings. Reta claims she wanted something to remember him by. When the undertaker could not remove the nipple rings, Reta remarks to Brian that the undertaker should have removed John’s nipple, since he was already dead. Historically, people have kept locks of hair or made book bindings made from deceased loved ones’ skin as mementos. However, there is also a history of body parts, particularly parts of bodies with tattoos or piercings, being removed from people, often posthumously without consent, and displayed. (Dr. Gemma Angel’s work on the history of tattoo collecting provides great insight into this difficult topic.) Tyler also suggests that Reta might have expected the nipple rings were worth money. If this is the case, then this moment with the nipple rings become part of a long tradition of salvaging from dead bodies.

“When the production team at S-Town was deciding how to handle the ethics of their narrative, they saw a difference between using John’s story and his body.”

Brian is understandably taken aback by Reta’s assertion that the undertaker should have removed John’s nipples if there was no other way to get the rings off. She argues that since he was dead, it did not matter. This may seem like weak justification, but later in the podcast Brian also cites John’s death, as well as John’s lack of belief in the afterlife, as a reason for why he felt comfortable broadcasting some information that John told him off the record. These two moments hint to me that when the production team at S-Town was deciding how to handle the ethics of their narrative, they saw a difference between using John’s story and his body.

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Image courtesy of Harvard University Press

S-Town is not a freak show for the NPR crowd, but in some ways it functions like a digital bone room. Bone rooms were nineteenth-century displays of human remains, often obtained with dubious consent. By placing John’s life—but also his death, speculations about his medical history, details about his sexual life, and his many body modifications—on display, S-Town has provoked an ethics debate that may be relatively new for radio journalists and the nascent podcasting medium, but which resonates in important ways with conversations surrounding the ways in which museums display human remains. Museums displaying human remains have traditionally been sites of racialized, ablest, and gendered violence, with people of color, people with disabilities, and women disproportionately dismembered and displayed, which are dynamics that are not at work in the same way throughout S-Town’s treatment of John McLemore. However, John has lived a very different life than S-Town’s producers, and trying to understand these differences is the real mystery for Brian. John’s body, his queerness, his illness, his tattoos and piercings, his years of embodied labor, are all pieces of the mystery that Brian was trying expose; all help to frame him as an eccentric—perhaps even a curiosity.

Moreover, much like humans remains on display in anthropological museums, visitors come to Woodstock for information and titillation, mixed together in complex ways. The S-Town producers encourage listeners to join their Instagram page, which is populated with illustrations, including pictures of the clocks that John worked on. There are no photographs of John on S-Town’s Instagram, but while the producers of the podcast seem to have made the decision that John’s image is not something to offer up for public consumption, other media outlets including Time, the Daily Mail, and even the website for the Black Sheep Tattoo Parlor, which Tyler once co-owned, have presented images of John for the masses. The demand for pictures of John is understandable, not only because John B. McLemore has become a celebrity following the release of this podcast, but also because John’s body, and the changes it underwent throughout his life, are integral to the story Brian and the other S-Town producers have chosen to tell.

But that story’s popularity raises questions. What rights to privacy should artists and scholars afford the dead? How long must someone be gone before their life is ripe for investigation? And finally, as new media allows people more options for creating, accessing, and sharing content, are artists and scholars responsible for thinking about the new ways that their subjects could be exposed to public scrutiny?

What rights to privacy should artists and scholars afford the dead?

S-Town is literary. The producers have referred to it as a nonfiction literary novel, and the program explicitly references authors like Faulkner, Poe, and De Maupassant. Brian’s emphasis on clocks and time are rooted in John’s life, but they also feel like metaphors or allusions to Quinton’s breakdown in The Sound and the Fury. The problem, however, is that John, his body, and his world were very real. S-Town is at the vanguard of a new kind of media, but the ways in which it uses the dead to simultaneously inform, titillate, encourage empathy, and cause disquiet is far from new.  

Correction: An earlier version of this essay misspelled the name of John’s cousin, Reta. It also confused the exact timing of when Reta remarked that the undertaker should have removed John’s nipples to retrieve his piercings. We apologize for these errors. 

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Kate Steir is a PhD candidate in Atlantic history at Georgetown University. Her research interests include the connections between food, material culture, health, and slavery in the eighteenth-century Caribbean. She was formerly the education officer at the National Numismatic Collection, Smithsonian Institution. She can be contacted here

2 comments on “Piercings at Peace: Death and the Body in S-Town

  1. Pingback: The Unsettling of Appalachia: Identity, Activism, and Appalachian Consciousness in Conversation with S-Town – The Activist History Review

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