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Death investigator Barbara Butcher knows 'What the Dead Know'

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Dead men do tell tales. You just have to listen. In the early 1990s, a newly sober Barbara Butcher began her career as a death investigator, or medicolegal examiner, in Manhattan. She was the first woman to hold the job for longer than just a few months. She stayed for decades, investigating accidental deaths, gruesome murders, naturals, suicides and identifying bodies after 9/11 - difficult work, which we'll talk about in the context of her new memoir, "What The Dead Know." The book is gritty, at times funny, even beautiful. Barbara Butcher joins me now. Hello.

BARBARA BUTCHER: Hey, Don. Thank you.

GONYEA: So I want to start with your name. You say you have heard them all.

BUTCHER: (Laughter).

GONYEA: What is the best joke about someone with your last name in your line of work?

BUTCHER: Well, there were often times when I brought students or interns or medical residents with me on investigations. And at one time, I had a student named John Slaughter (ph). So we got to pull up to the scene, walk up to the police, and say, Butcher and Slaughter from the ME. What do you got, boys?

GONYEA: (Laughter).

BUTCHER: And they liked it. The cops, they loved that name. Butcher's here. Butcher's here. And they loved to say Dr. Butcher. They knew I'm not a doctor, but it just sounds so good.

GONYEA: Many of us have watched television shows - "Law & Order," "CSI," "Bones," "Quincy" from my youth. So we might think we know what your job is. But what actually is the job of a death investigator?

BUTCHER: When you think about the medical examiner or coroner, people tend to think in terms of autopsy. And an autopsy gives you the cause of death - gunshot wound, stab wound, myocardial infarction. But it doesn't give you the manner of death. Manner of death is homicide, suicide, accident or natural. And you determine that by seeing the context in which the death occurs. Someone has to go to the scene. So medicolegal death investigators, like me, would go to the scene and work with the police to investigate the death in its setting.

If I, for instance, walked into the particular case I'm thinking about - I was told it was a homicide. It was on the Upper West Side. And I walked in, and, sure enough, there was a guy at the bottom of the stairs who stunk like hell of alcohol. And he had a nice, little bullet hole right in the center of his head. And since he was in a tenement-style building - he was at the foot of the stairs. But next to him was the hallway that led out back to the alleyway. And that hallway was full of .22-caliber shell casings. Mmm, what do you know? The cops said, this looks like a pretty easy one, Barbara - right? - .22 caliber, nice, small hole in his head. It's a homicide.

But then, I noticed that there was something unusual about that bullet mark. It didn't have the abrasion ring that a bullet hole normally has. It was kind of stellate. It was almost lacerated, like split. Then, I noticed that right in front of the guy at the foot of the stairs was a wall that came to a sharp point at the corner. And it had that stone molding that you see sometimes in old tenement buildings. And on it was a little bit of blood. It looks more to me as if this very drunk guy has fallen down the stairs headfirst and hit that point on the wall, making that hole in his head.

But wait a minute, Barbara, says the cops. What about all these shell casings? We go out in the backyard, in the alleyway. The door is open, and there's a target out there. Turns out, this tenement was used by kids who shot .22 pistols from the hallway out the back door to the alley and hit targets. It had nothing to do with his death whatsoever. So this supposed homicide turned out to be just another accident.

GONYEA: A number of times in the book you say you had the best job in the world. That might surprise some listeners. Convince us.

BUTCHER: Well, it's not just about seeing the dead, which is interesting enough in and of itself because if you're a curious person, it's so much fun to figure out how a thing happened. But more than that was I got to see how people died, of course, but I also got to see how they lived, which was really interesting. So I would be in places like the tunnels under the Amtrak. There are caves off those abandoned tunnels. And people live in them, and they actually furnish them, which is so interesting to me. And then, from there, I'd go to a Fifth Avenue duplex, a penthouse in the sky, surrounded by true, real impressionist paintings, like old masters paintings. I'd never seen such a thing in my life.

GONYEA: There's a scene early on in the book where you go to the New York City medical examiner's office, and there's a Latin inscription on the wall that is particularly striking. The translation is - I'll read it - (reading) let conversation cease and laughter flee for this is the place where death delights to help the living. Why did you include that detail? And what does that phrase mean to you?

BUTCHER: It's not just about the dead people. We're not there working for the dead. We're working for their families. The job has not just a justice component, but also a preventive program, a public health function. For instance, it was medical examiners who noticed that people or children were falling out of windows at a really bad rate. And someone came up with the idea of window guards, and that became the law. It was the data from medical examiners on car crashes - why so many chest injuries? And that started people thinking about seat belts. So we actually save lives, too.

GONYEA: Near the end of the book, this story takes a turn. And I confess, as I was reading it, I didn't really have, you know, specific dates in my head, like, where we are on the calendar. Literally, I turn the page to the next chapter, and it's September 11, 2001. I want you to talk about that day and what it was like for the people who do the job you do.

BUTCHER: Well, of course, it was awful. It was terrifying. I've heard the expression before - one death is a tragedy; a thousand deaths is a statistic. So, OK, that's horrifying, but how do I investigate this? How do I recover the bodies? How do I gather the evidence? It's one by one.

GONYEA: It's just too much to process, in your mind anyway.

BUTCHER: It's absolutely too much to process. But then, here comes something that pulls you right back down to Earth, and that is that walking through that rubble, looking for body parts - and they were quite small - I would see something like a desk calendar with a note on it - lunch with Jim (ph) - or a golf ball from a hole-in-one - it's in a little stand with a pen - or the picture of a kid's graduation from kindergarten. Suddenly, it's one person. And each, single remain that we found represented a life, a family, a universe, if you will, a story. Then, that becomes overwhelming. And there are no statistics. There's just death.

GONYEA: Your career ended suddenly with a change in administrations in New York City. If not for that, do you think you'd still be doing this job?

BUTCHER: I'd probably be dead.

GONYEA: Really?

BUTCHER: I think the job was destroying me, and I was not completely aware of it. In order to do the job, you have to be very detached. You have to cut off your emotions while you're in the scene so that you can do your work appropriately. But I soon learned that you can't turn off one emotion or two. It's either on or off. Either you feel things, or you don't. And I had reached a spot in my emotional life where I had turned off everything. Couldn't feel it. Couldn't feel love. Couldn't feel joy. All I could feel was a sense of purpose. This is my job. This is who I am. This is what I have to do. Why? Because I can, and most people can't.

And then, 9/11 happened, and now it's like, oh, I couldn't stand one death at a time? It threw me into a new emotional state that I can't really identify for you still because it's too hard to process. And one of the things that I hope this book does is let people know what it's like to be a first responder, what it does to you emotionally, physically. You can't see trauma and death and despair every single day without being adversely affected. It's time to do something about that if we want people to continue to do this work for us. I hope that my colleagues reading this book will say, oh, maybe I should think about talking to somebody.

GONYEA: Barbara Butcher is the author of "What The Dead Know: Learning About Life As A New York City Death Investigator." Barbara, thanks for joining us today.

BUTCHER: Thank you, Don. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.